Until recently, the largest concentration of Skinwalkers were found in the Pride Lands of Xehacora. A second, much smaller settlement was found in the Yarrow, while much smaller groups were found in other areas around Ga'leah. With the Blight causing so much land to be lost, this has changed significantly and now the Skinwalkers are somewhat splintered with a new group forming in Deepwood with the Druids.
Less than one thousand years after the creation of man, when kingdoms were not yet fully formed and humanity squabbled over land and resources, a group of devout followers of the Huntress sought relief from the exhausting nature of humanity. They looked longingly upon the simplistic way in which the animals lived and lamented the fact that they had not been born as animals instead of men.
Their devotion was at last rewarded when the priests and priestesses of the Huntress began to tell their followers that the Huntress had a special gift in store for those who wished to embrace her creations and turn their backs upon human society. All of these individuals were told to travel to the grasslands in the southeast, in what would one day be called the kingdom of Xehacora before the next new moon. From all over the land of Ga'leah, a wide array of individuals left their homes and sometimes even their families in pursuit of the gift promised to them.
On the night of the new moon, the impressive group of individuals from all walks of life and all areas of Ga'leah were at last given their priceless gift by the Huntress. They were born as men, created by the other members of the Pantheon as human, and the Huntress could not undo what had already been done by the Pantheon without breaking one of the only laws set before the gods. But she could give them something the humans did not have, a blessing that would allow them to use the skins of animals they harvested to change their shapes and become one with the spirit of those they killed.
Skinwalkers appear very much human until they don an animal skin. At that time, they mystically assume the form of the animal whose skin they currently inhabit. The original Skinwalkers came from every corner of Ga'leah. Because of this, they come in a variety of different skin tones and physical characteristics. Their manner of dress would likely be considered primitive to outsiders.
Skinwalkers divide themselves into tribal units. Most Skinwalkers feel as if they have close ties to a specific animal. These individuals often feel kinship to one another and therefore tend to live together in a tribal unit. Such units exist for the lions, hyenas, wild horses, and more. Some indiviudal Skinwalkers, however, find that they are more spiritually connected to a more obscure animal than other Skinwalkers. There are not enough of these particular animals to constitute a tribe, and so these Skinwalkers take on jobs within existing tribes. They may act as advisers, healers, or spiritual counselors.
Skinwalker children are raised by their birth parents, often living with the mother and learning important life skills from the father. However, the entirety of the tribe takes responsibility for the young Skinwalkers in the hopes that when the time comes for the child to take its first skin, that it will choose to take the skin of the animal favored by that tribe. If a child does not choose this skin, they are sent away from their parents to live with the tribe that best coincides with their own taste in animal forms.
All individuals within the Skinwalkers are divided into age sets or generations within the tribe. It is believed that all individuals within an age set are responsible for one another and belong to one another. Although some males and females may cohabitate, unless they have undergone a Skinwalker wedding ceremony, it is considered normal for males and females to trade sexual partners freely and without consequence.
Most Skinwalkers have no concept of personal possessions besides their sacred skins. Everything in the community belongs to everyone else. Houses are shared and interchangeable as well as clothing, weaponry, crockery, etc. It is not uncommon for a Skinwalker to have more than one skin, though they typically have one skin to which they have a special bond and which they favor more than the others.
Not all Skinwalkers adhere to the same strict beliefs. Some have begun to seek a return to human society by adopting more human practices. They have multiple skins, some of which they did not kill during a hunt. They take part in marriage, keep personal possessions, and favor a family unit over the age set of the collective tribes. These individuals are called Nalungu or Outsider behind their backs and are often stigmatized by the strongest and most influential tribes in Skinwalker society. However, these Skinwalkers are also vital to their society because it is these Skinwalkers that humans are most likely to treat with respect and not fear as 'monsters'. Typically, they act as embassadors for the Skinwalker community. Those that venture out into human society and return are especially important becuase of their ability to understand humanity on a more intimate level.
Skinwalker tribes are ranked by the power and strenght of the animal to which members of this tribe favor. Lions are considered the fiercest predators and are typically the considere the strongest and most influential tribe in the Pridelands. The strongest member of the Leonine Tribe is usually referred to as the Lion King. For the last several centuries the Lion King has come from a single family line.
Skinwalkers have few laws to govern their lands. They demand that the Huntress be respected. Any sacrilege against her is punishable by death with the Rite of Chinaki. Aside from this mandate, they believe firmly that 'The Strong Survive'. This survival of the fittest mentality is considered paramount to their existance. The strong lead the packs with the Elders of the tribe providing guidance. Skinwalker predators hunt prey, even Skinwalker prey. The fastest or smartest prey can evade them. Such is the way of life in the Pridelands.
Besides their personal sacred skins, Skinwalkers as a society do not recognize the concept of personal property and therefore do not recognize theft as a crime. If a Skinwalker interferes with the sacred skin of another Skinwalker, however, they are routinely punished by having harm caused to one of their own skins that is somehow comparable.
Murder is also not a concept typically recognize by the Skinwalkers. Death is only considered murder if the method of death is not fair and sporting. Such deaths are considered a sacrilege to the Huntress and are punishable by the Rite of Chinaki.
Rituals and Observances
Each month on the night of the new moon to commemorate the gift given to them by the Huntress, all of the Skinwalkers of the Pridelands gather to pay tribute to her. During this gathering, if there is any member of a tribe who believes that they would like to challenge their place in the tribe, this is where that challenge must be made. Fights for advancement are conducted during the Nehanda with results being honored until the following Nehanda.
Children who are making their first offering to the Huntresss and preparing their first skin, a ritual called the Wagaye, do so during the Nehanda. So, too, do other Skinwalkers conduct a Wagaye if they wish to take an additional skin to allow them to shift into another animal.
If any member of the tribe wishes to take one mate, they must present this wish at the Nehanda. A Skinwalker wedding, or Arusi, is than conducted and the mating is solidified.
All Skinwalkers are expected to observe the Nehanda, but only the celebrations on the Winter and Summer Solstice are considered mandatory for proving one's devotion to the Goddess. Even if as Skinwalker is not in the Pridelands amongst their own people, they are expected to observe these two vital Nehandas. Those who have ventured into other parts of Ga'leah are expected to seek out a temple to the Huntress and offer up thanks for their gift. Failure to properly observe these two vital Nehandas is considered a terrible sacrilege to the Skinwalkers, something that some believe could result in the loss of their shapeshifting abilities or result in the unlucky loss of their sacred skins. Any sacrilege to the Huntress with witnesses or proof is punishable by death.
Nehandas are observed every month on the New Moon to provide opportunities for challenges and skin claiming, but the monthly Nehandas are not mandatory and only those in leadership roles or with business to attend to that month need attend them. It is only the Solstices that are mandatory upon penalty of death.
Wagaye is the ritual by which Skinwalkers claim a skin and the subsequent animal form that comes with it. The Wagaye is performed at the Nehanda on the new moon. Young children claiming their first skin are given first priority while those who are claiming an additional skin follow with their tributes.
Animals used in the Wagaye are always dead before the ritual and are not killed during the ritual. In most cases, these animals are hunted and killed by the one claiming their skin. Occasionally, a Skinwalker will claim the skin of an animal that died of natural causes or was killed in a group hunt. While permitted, this practiced is considered dishonorable and the skin resulting from it is often thought to be unlucky or even cursed. Skinwalker superstition warns that a Skinwalker absorbs the strengths and weaknesses of the animal whose skin they wear, so selecting the skin of an inferior animal who has died outside of the hunt can result in an inferior animal shape for the Skinwalker.
During the Wagaye, the Skinwalker brings the deceased animal to the altar to the Huntress and performs a series of sacred prayers to the Huntress thanking the animal for its sacrifice and promising to not only wear its skin and assume its form but to absorb its spirit and therefore give it life beyond death. They also give a piece of their own essence to the skin, binding themselves to the skin spiritually so that any harm that befalls the skin will also befall the Skinwalker.
The following morning, the animal is skinned and the skin is prepared. Most Skinwalkers keep the skin intact to honor the animal who gave it, but some Skinwalkers have been known to sew multiple skins together to allow them to shift into a multitude of animals and lessen the chance that one of their skins could be stolen. The practice of sewing the skins together is not smiled upon by most traditional Skinwalkers but many of the youngest Skinwalkers have adopted the practice nonetheless.
The Arusi is a Skinwalker wedding. Although marriages are not common amongst the Skinwalkers, they are not unheard of either. Since all Skinwalkers are believed to belong to their own generation, it is believed that taking one man or one woman as a mate is thereby depriving the other Skinwalkers in their age set from enjoying that individuals company, as is their right.
When two Skinwalkers wish to request an Arusi, they must bring this request before the collective tribes at the monthly Nehanda. Members of their age set are then asked if they agree to give up their rights to this male or female. If there are those who contest the union, the petitioner must fight them in human form whilst the complainants fight in animal form. This distinction is made because marriage is considered a remainder of human society and a request for marraige is therefore a human desire. Male petitioners must fight male complainants and female petitioners must fight female complainants. This is done for the sake of fairness and the disproportionate nature of strength between male and female physicality. If the petitioners are triumphant, one of the Elders of their tribe steps forward to conduct the exchange of vows. With hands on the altar to the Huntress, the petitioners swear that they will revoke all rights to other sexual partners for the rest of their days of life in return for exclusive rights to mate and cohabitate with each other. Furthermore, they promise that if one of them is injured, weakened, or proves a detriment to their tribe, that they will take full responsibility for their burden and either tend to them until their death or kill them out of mercy.
Skinwalkers will recognize homosexual marriages as well as heterosexual ones. They do not consider the desire for one any stranger than the desire for another. Both are considered human conventions.
A Skinwalker can only take part in an Arusi one time in their lives and breaking the vows of the Arusi is considered sacrilege to the Huntress. Sacrilege to the Huntress is punishable by death.
The Rite of Chinaki
The Rite of Chinaki is the execution of those found guilty of sacrilege to the Huntress. The Skinwalkers are governed by few laws and have even fewer punishment for the breaking of such laws. Aside from their mandate that the 'Strong Survive', they also revere the Huntress above all others. To be guilty of sacrilege against her is the worst sin that can be committed by a Skinwalker.
Sacrilege against the Huntress is considered to be any breaking of vows made on her sacred altar or failure to observe the Nehanda on the summer and winter solstice. If one is found guilty of either of these crimes, their skins are branded with the symbol of the Chinaki on each paw, above each hoof, or on each hand and foot. Because of the magic which binds a Skinwalker to their skins, this also brands the Skinwalker's human form on each hand, foot, arm or leg. The newly dubbed Chinaki is then forced to flee. They are given a short but significant head start before the other Skinwalkers shift into their most dangerous forms and pursue him or her.
The Skinwalkers will then hunt the Chinaki. The one who catches and subsequently kills the Chinaki in the Rite is considered to receive extra blessings from the Huntress. If the Chinaki makes it out of the Pridelands, he or she is allowed to remain alive. Though, most would likely rather be killed because their skins remain in the hands of the tribal elders.
If any Skinwalker sees one marked a Chinaki, it is considered their sacred duty to kill him or her immediately. Failure to do so could result in said Skinwalker also being dubbed Chinaki for failing to perform their duty to the Huntress.
The Circle of Life
Skinwalker funeral rites are simple. The body is washed and prepared by their tribe. Their skins are offered up to the Huntress in a funeral pyre. And, finally, the body is taken out into the Pridelands away from the Skinwalker settlements and returned to Ga'leah to provide food for the animals and insects, to nurture the soil, and to be consumed by the elements thereby paying homage to the Circle of Life which connects all things.
The Skinwalkers settled in the land on which they were gifted with their new abilities because this land was rich with wildlife and as yet unsettled by men. First they banded together to build a great open air temple to the Huntress with a sacred altar made of stone harvested from many miles away and carved to bear the visages of many an animal.
For some time the Skinwalkers tried to live only within their newly acquired skins, but they soon learned that despite the gift given to them, that the human body they were born with soon fell to pain and discomfort when magically confined within the skin for too long. Begrudgingly, they determined to divide their time between human and animal forms. Rudimentary villages were constructed of mud and woven grass in which the Skinwalkers lived within human form and slowly they formed their own society.
The Pride Lands were a much contested piece of land over which many battles were fought. Very early in the history of the Skinwalkers, they were forced to fight a five year war with the early settlers of Xehacora to maintain ownership of the lands. Though they won that war, minor skirmishes over borders continued for a long time to come.
Skinwalkers had been able live in peace for centuries, until the Kingdom of Xehacora began to form under the military might of the Marillacs. They laid claim to much of the southeastern portion of Ga'leah, including the Pridelands the Skinwalkers claimed for themselves. The Skinwalkers were loathe to share their land with humans, but were also not great enough in number to combat the human forces of Xehacora. Treaties were signed whittling away at the Skinwalkers' lands and ensuring that they would not venture from their territory uninvited. In return, the human residents of Xehacora were forbidden to enter the Pride Lands and the Skinwalkers themselves were given amnesty against the laws of Xehacora while on their own land.
Recently the efficacy of these treaties has been called into question by the Xehacoran monarchy and royal advisors. Many of the Skinwalkers believe they will not have exclusive rights to the Pride Lands much longer.
Skinwalkers breed like any other mammals through human reproduction. Their fertility and infant mortality rates are the same as those of average human beings. However, in order for a child to be born a Skinwalker, it must be born to two Skinwalker parents. The offspring of a Skinwalker and a human will be born human. The offspring of a Skinwalker and a Fae or Half-Fae is more likely to have a magic with some basis in animals or animal life, but they would not able to assume the skin of an animal like a Skinwalker.
Skinwalkers are gifted the ability to assume an animal form simply by donning the skin of said animal. While in that animal's form, they have all of the natural abilities of that creature. Some believe Skinwalkers have the ability to speak in human form, but few have ever lived to hear such speech and such beliefs have never been confrimed. When a Skinwalker sheds the skin, they have no added abilities and are seemingly nothing more than average human beings. Skinwalkers are unable to don the skin of another supernatural creature. It will have no effect on them whatsoever. They are also not allowed to assume the form of an oceanic creature since these creatures are the property of the Coming Tide.
Skinwalkers are still human at least part of the time. As such, they are susceptible to the same injuries and fatalities and often have the same life span. Furthermore, Skinwalkers accept an added risk inherent to their goddess-given ability. Because each skin they use to shapeshift with must be prepared on a special altar to the Huntress to ensure that they do not abuse the power and slay too many of her precious animals, the Huntress made the ritual so that the altar would forever bind the Skinwalker to the skin they prepared. What harm occurs to the skin, it occurs to the Skinwalker in kind. If it is cut, the Skinwalker's human body manifests a cut. If it is burned, they are burned. If it is destroyed, they are destroyed. This connection is only severed upon the death of the Skinwalker.
Furthermore, a Skinwalker can only possess one skin for each animal. So, if a Skinwalker were to lose his lion skin, he would never be able to assume that form again.