The Mith’lani Records – Prologue

“I’m sorry, Thalvic, but if your demeanor was as bitter as this swill in front of me, I’d throw myself from the highest peak of the Mithulan Mountains within an hour of your company.”

Thalvic bellowed with laughter from deep within his rotund belly for what seemed like an eternity. Aelfwine Theodwita withdrew a handkerchief from a pocket in his sleeve and began to remove the spittle that had flown from Thalvic’s gaping maw onto the historian’s plain brown cloak. Both men wore similar weatherproof cloaks of heavy flax, lacquered to keep out the snow and hail, though the traditional Mith’lani feather, hide, and bone fetishes that adorned Thalvic’s cloak were notably absent from Aelfwine’s. Even with an ocean and half a continent between him and Greatvale, the historian retained a distaste for all things ostentatious shared by many in the Folkdeed.

Thalvic wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, obviously fighting back a few remaining laughs.

“So you dislike svanka?” Thalvic asked. “This is the lifeblood of the Mith’lani! You wish to know what it is to be a child of Mother Mithulan? Then drink deep the milk from her teats my brother!”

With a slap on the back that nearly knocked Aelfwine to the floor, Thalvic refilled the historian’s iron tankard. The scent of the svanka, a liquor made from fermented lichen and flax, sent Aelfwine’s head spinning. It was his belief that to learn of a people’s history, one must understand the people as they exist today. Learning of the Mith’lani was proving to be as much a physical challenge as it was an academic one…

“I meant no offense, brother.” Aelfwine spoke the Mith’lani words slowly, but with an impressive level of fluency.

“Nonsense, is already forgotten!” Thalvic meandered back to his bench opposite the historian. As he lowered his significant girth, the wooden boards groaned – it was a testament to Mith’lani craftsmanship that they held at all.

“Brother, continue where you were. You were preparing to ask another question I believe?”

“Yes, I was.” Aelfwine paused momentarily, considering the consequences of his next question. While his host was showing himself to be a paragon of hospitality, he also knew that strapped to Thalvic’s right thigh was a traditional nuthlak hunting knife. In the Mithulan Mountains an insult was met in one of two ways; with a hearty laugh, or with tempered steel sliding across your throat…

Aelfwine withdrew a piece of parchment and dipped his quill slowly into his inkwell.

“Thalvic, why did the Mith’lani invade the Kastan’ose Valley, before the Vazj arrived?”

The large man stopped mid-movement, his tankard frozen just in from of his parted lips. Slowly, he set the drink down on the wide table in front of them, and met Aelfwine with a stony gaze. Aelfwine met the rock grey eyes across from him, knowing that to look away would be tantamount to suicide. Thalvic kept his gaze locked on Aelfwine for what seemed like an eternity.

Finally, the silence was broken.

“Let me refill your mug, historian. And you best fetch another piece of parchment.”

The Shna’mina

To the northeastern coast of The Sunset Lands, in the once fertile Kastan’ose Valley, lie the foothills of the Mithualan Mountains. This area, known now as the limping grounds of the endangered Djunna civilization, was once home to vast numbers of Shna’mina, which roughly translates to “flat-headed dog.”

Based on fossil evidence in conjunction with ancient scrolls and myth, the shna’mina were not anything like dogs, but more like large rodents. Short and stocky in nature with shaggy fur and short, fist-like tails, males grew to no more than 3 feet tall at the shoulder while the larger females reached as tall as 4.5′ at the shoulder. Males and females alike sported hard internal skeletons made of unique calcium and carbon structures found only in this phylum of terrestrial herbivorous rodents. Shna’mina were talented digging creatures and often built elaborate, albeit shallow, tunnel-like sleeping chambers which they only used after dusk.

Based on evidence from fossilized dental records and bone composition, it’s evident that the shna’mina diet consisted of everything from roots to young tree bark. Shna’mina were also blessed with a six-chambered stomach which allowed them to break down even the toughest tree bark in the valley while digesting nearly 90% of the nutritional value therein. Because of the highly efficient nature of their gut, shna’mina meat was extremely nourishing and highly coveted for its sweet and nutty flavor. On a good day, it could sell for five times the price of other meats. The milk and ground bones of the beast were also the main ingredients in many major remedies for the Djunna people and were considered the reasons for the Djunna people’s impressive longevity and low infant mortality rate. Shna’mina fur was also held in high regard not because of its warmth, but because of its elasticity and ability to retain heat. Oftentimes, a skilled Djunna contractor could insulate the roof of an entire home out of the hide of a single adult shna’mina female.

Ranging in color from snowy white to slate grey with silver or roan dappling on their stifles and hocks, shna’mina shed their fur coats each spring and grew back completely different patterns the following winter. For this reason, shepherds identified the hierarchy of  herd members through eye color. Seven females and seven males – the alphas – would always have white eyes. Second tier members – or betas – would have grey. Lower tier members, often burdened with dangerous tasks such as luring predators away from exposed young – mature with black eyes. Through this, members of the herd would be assigned rank at maturity and had no hope of moving up during their lifetime except temporarily through fatherhood.

Herd behavior of the shna’mina was considered so complex that the occupation of shna’minehu, or “shepherd” was held in extremely high cultural esteem by the Djunna people. Seen as the best and brightest of the village, shna’minehu were often sought out for advice or guidance by all members of Djunna society since it was believed that those who understood the  shna’mina could surely understand the complexities of other parts of life.

Shna’mina herd mentality, though only recorded by word of mouth from shepherd to shepherd, was believed to have worked in a hierarchical system which often changed daily in order to confuse predators. Though the herd operated with an alpha female and alpha male, it is believed that seven females rotated leadership as shna’menila (“herd mother”) while the alpha males (shna’medjazu, “herd fathers”) remained constant for as months at a time. There are no records of special roles held by the shna’medjazu, but it is clear that the shna’menila were the true herd leaders.

When not leading the herd, the remaining six shna’mina alpha females entered a heat cycle in which they would secrete oils from specialized glandular tissue on their neck, knees, and flanks. This oil, meant to alert the males of her availability, also served as a defensive mechanism. Through some unknown process, the oil attracted a specific male – alpha or other – from the herd to approach her for breeding while warning other males to stay away. Able to will her oil to be poisonous or nourishing, any rejected male would be seriously burned by her oils should they attempt to approach her against her will. If they continue to attempt mating in this way, shna’minehu reported males being castrated by the oils and therefore demoted to the lowest rank in the herd. The correct male, however, absorbed the oil and was rewarded with a 95% fertility success rate upon mating as well as essential biological changes to his body in preparation for the birth of the young. The oils were also known to seriously injure or even kill predators who attacked females during their fertility cycle. Often times, shna’minehu would find the shriveled remains of etholeri, or “sky lions” who failed to kill the alpha female in charge of the herd. If the alpha female in charge was ever killed while on duty, herd dynamics immediately collapsed and members laid down and offered themselves to the predator willingly.

Pregnant shna’mina alpha females enjoyed a relatively short gestation period of 47 days. Shna’mina young – born live and called “hui” (pl. huya) – resembled round, flat-headed otters. Huya were considered sexually mature at the age of 4 moons when their eyes permanently changed into the color of their hierarchical status. The young were nursed and raised by the shna’mina sire. During those 4 moons of the hui’s adolescence, the father’s eyes turned white and he was temporarily treated as an alpha male regardless of  previous herd status. Traditionally, the shna’minehu would bring sweet fruit to sires seven times during the rearing of their hui as a gesture of congratulations and good faith to the new member of the herd. The female had virtually no involvement in the upbringing of the hui.

Adult male shna'mina with hui, aged 17 days.

Adult male shna’mina with hui, aged 17 days.

Shna’minehu lore stated that if a shepherd could gain the trust of all seven alpha females in seven nights on their respective days of leadership, then the herd would reward him or her complete trust even in the face of certain death. It was said that shepherds, once accepted by herd leadership, would enter a wal’ogei or “blood pact” with the same herd for their entire lives, risking life and limb to protect and maintain herd dynamics and balance. Oftentimes, the shna’minehu was even entrusted with choosing the shna’minela whenever he or she saw fit.

The bond also granted the shna’minehu the ability to choose which member of the herd would be offered to the Djunna people as food. A secret process known only to the shna’minehu, there are no known records detailing the actual steps taken to choose, kill, and honor the body of the felled creature. However, myth suggests that it was completed in the highest form of respect and dignity offered to any known herd animal in The Sunset Lands.

This bond, though used in conjunction with the Djunna people to bring peace and prosperity to the valley, was eventually their downfall upon the arrival of the Mith’lani, or “men of stone” in the year 806 AC. Upon the fall of the civilization and the overnight enslavement of their people, the Mith’lani ordered the immediate slaughter of all shna’mina in the valley in order to feed their armies. Shepherds that refused were made an example by the gruesome murder of their families, their herds, and finally, themselves. While many other shna’minehu chose to fling themselves off of cliffs instead of betray the trust of their herds, most remaining shna’minehu complied with the unthinkable. In a sorrowful week known as Kadam Va Wal or loosely, “Bleeding earth,” 41 shna’minehu slaughtered their herds from the shna’menila all the way to the last black-eyed male. By the end of the week, only 6 Lower Tier shna’mina from varied herds remained. Within hours, they were claimed by predators.

The Djunna, though endangered, still live in the valley but have no more shna’mina to nourish them, even if they still were literate in the art of the Shna’minehu. An anemic and often sickly people because of the lack of shna’mina nourishment in their diet, the Djunna face high infant mortality rates due to hypocalcemia (usually prevented by shna’mina milk) and an average life span of 34 years (almost a third of what they enjoyed before the arrival of the Mith’lani).

The Kastan’ose Civilizations

A Brief History of the Djunna, the Last Surviving Civilization of the Kastan’ose Valley

Compiled by Aelfwine Theodwita, Senior Historian of the Gaderung of Education, 1213 AC

The Kastan’ose Valley Civilizations represented a unique amalgamation of cultures in their golden era, from roughly 600 PC to 806 AC. Born from the gathering of several distinct nomadic tribes drawn to the Kastan’ose River and the rich vegetation of the surrounding Kastan’ose Valley, these civilizations were born not from the blood of conflict but rather from fires fueled by mercantile and aesthetic competition. For more than a millennium the Kastan’ose Valley contained some of the most materially affluent and culturally rich societies within memory; of more significance, however, they created what may be the most advanced cultural community to have ever claimed the Sunset Lands as home. While the Kastan’ose knew something of the vastness of the world (Lu’Amina as they called it) they held to the concept that to know one’s land was all that was needed to live a fulfilled live. Know the Kastan’ose Valley they did, for even at the height of their population, the densely packed Civilizations knew never to exploit their land beyond its limits to recover. Left undisturbed, the Kastan’ose Valley Civilizations would likely inhabit their homeland today. Instead, their end came from sword and swine…

To understand how they died, one must understand how they lived. The Kastan’ose Valley, which follows the Kastan’ose River due west for roughly 40 leagues after its birth in the snowcapped Mithulan Mountains, lies near the northwest coast of the Sunset Lands. The Valley was a natural breadbasket, with citrus trees lining both slopes and a thin grain called leshhni growing on the banks of the river. Birds and amphibious life was plentiful, and herds of a dog-sized rodent (the now extinct shna’mina) roamed the foothills nearest the Mithulan Mountains. It was here that nomadic tribes, at least thirty that we know of, began to settle in the Kastan’ose.

It is a rare thing to speak of a peaceful encounter when more than one people first meet. But the tribes that settled in the Kastan’ose found no need to engage in competition; both resources and land were plentiful for wandering groups that rarely accounted for more than several hundred. Interactions were fueled by curiosity, not survival. Soon, specialization occurred among the various groups. While all had enough to live comfortably, the resources of the Kastan’ose were not spread equally. The Djunna, settled near the beginning of the river at the foothills of the Mithulan, began to hunt and eventually herd the shna’mina. The meat soon became a delicacy throughout the Valley. Other tribes traded in citrus, or fish, or in the case of the northwestern most tribes the strong wood from the evergreens of coastal plains. These tribes remained separated geographically, and by localized customs, but became deeply intertwined economically.

As the languages of the Kastan’ose tribes began to meld, allowing for more efficient trade, the different ideals and myths of the once nomadic groups began to spread and intermingle. As mentioned earlier, there was a word for the world at large: Lu’Amina. Of much more importance, though, was the Lu’Kastani. The former translates to “our world,” the latter to “our land.” Knowledge of the Kastan’ose Valley was of the utmost importance to these tribes. To know the world beyond the slopes of the Valley was unimportant, and left to a handful of impetuous youths. To know the land surrounding the Kastan’ose River itself, specifically to understand how to draw her resources while focusing on conservation of the intertwined systems within the Valley, became the focus of their varying religions and philosophies. Regardless of the gods or spirits they worshiped, all people of Kastan’ose held this concept as central.

The Kastan’ose were among the few people to be unaffected by the Catastrophe, so isolated were they. The first contact the Kastan’ose had with an outside group was with the Mith’lani, or “men of stone,” in 806 AC. The Mith’lani, natives of the Mithulan Mountains, had developed a mighty war machine fighting off incursions from the barbarians to the east of the mountain range (located near what is now called the Bay of Fingers). While they were in truth men of flesh and bone their iron swords and simple plate armor fooled the Kastan’ose, who knew nothing in the way of metallurgy, into believing they were of the Mountain itself. The Mith’lani descended into the foothills near the beginning of the Kastan’ose River. The Djunna were overwhelmed; armed with nothing but the long throwing spears used to hunt shna’mina and with no armor of any kind, they surrendered within a few days of the invasion. The Mith’lani used their captives’ habitations as a forward barracks, and forced the Djunna to gather as many shna’mina as possible to be slaughtered for the army. Many Djunna resisted, as this order was tantamount to an assault on Lu’Kastani itself. It is estimated that for every five Djunna who lived before the invasion, three were killed in this first week. The rest submitted.

With a foothold in the Kastan’ose Valley the Mith’lani planned to march west and seize as much land as possible, possibly continuing past the valley to the coastal plain. This plan was halted by an unexpected unification of the Kastan’ose people. It seems the Mith’lani underestimated the importance the Valley itself held to the Kastan’ose people as a whole, regardless of their cultural differences. Despite their technological advantage, for three cycles of the Moon the Mith’lani were cheated their easy conquest by a people who knew their land as intimately as they knew themselves. This continued until the night of the third full moon, when the Vazj arrived from the Sunset Sea.

The coastal city states that existed en masse at the time were razed to the ground by these mysterious peoples. They quickly marched through the plains and into the Valley. Within a week from their arrival they had marched to the Mithulan Mountains themselves. The Kastan’ose and Mith’lani were killed in equal measure, a slaughter so immense that few details of these vile men (if they were men at all) exist today. It is believed that the Vazj marched east over the Mountains all the way to the coast of the Middling Sea. Whether they changed their direction to the north or south, or somehow departed into the Middling Sea, no one knows. They vanished as quickly as they arrived, leaving behind nary a single Vazj body or artifact, only death and destruction.

While the slaughter was immense, it was not complete. Of all those killed, it was the defenseless Djunna who survived. The exact reason is a matter of speculation; the most popular theories hold that the Djunna were able to hide in the thick forests where they were forced to hunt, or perhaps the Vazj showed uncharacteristic mercy and spared the defenseless slaves. For whatever reason, the Djunna were the only living women and men left in the Kastan’ose Valley. Lu’Kastani had not been spared such mercy, though, and what the Djunna inherited resembled in no way the fertile land settled by their ancestors.

The only detail of the Vazj army that we know of today is their use of some sort pig or boar as a war beast. They stood as high as a man’s breast and likely weighed as much as a warhorse. It is believed that the Vazj released them before their army moved forward; this stampeding juggernaut of gnashing teeth and goring tusks would cause massive damage to an enemy before the army itself ever arrived. Their existence is known primarily from the many skeletons buried in layers of rock and snow near the zenith of the Mithulan Mountains. It would seem they were not prepared for the bone-aching chill of the peaks.

Within the Kastan’ose Valley, however, they carried out their mission with horrifying efficiency. A land once composed of lush vegetation and thick groves set among rolling hills became a cesspool. The swine, and the army that followed, devoured or otherwise destroyed most of the intertwining systems of life that defined the Kastan’ose. The river was dammed by the felled forests, and today the Kastan’ose Valley is little more than a lifeless swamp interrupted by intermittent hills. The only plant still found in the area is the leshni grain. It is on this alone that the Djunna survive.

At the end of the invasion, over 400 years ago, nearly three thousand Djunna survived. Today, there are barely four hundred. They are a ghost, a vestigial reminder of a once great civilization. They are phantoms passing through a 40 league long graveyard.

Rumors spread through the northwest of the Sunset Lands, though, that could bring the Kastan’ose Valley back into the forefront of the land’s events. Civil war is brewing throughout the Duchy of Gurefren, the region’s main power, its political stability worn thin from expansion beyond the northern highlands into the plains and coasts surrounding the Kastan’ose River… To the west, in The Sunset Sea, strange ships are said to have docked on the Isles of Empty. It is said that these vessels carry not just men, but herds of beasts standing high as a man but with the girth of cattle. It is said they carry these tusked beasts by the score… and to the east, something stirs in the Mithulan Mountains, and on the tongues of all Djunna is repeated one phrase, Mishallan Shin’Amina: The World’s Bane.