In the Alters’ World (and the Agent of Argyre series), creatures of legend reveal themselves to the world. Born through genetic abnormalities, defects and mutations, the Alters have lived for centuries as outcasts of human society, hiding their true nature from the world while colorful stories have been written by many to describe what they’ve seen. How are these creatures different from what was described in the stories? What relationship do they have with humanity? Every entry of the Alterpedia will delve into a new creature from around the world. This week we cover:
Deemed merely a mystical talent used by a variety of creatures in cultures all around the world, the ability to change shape at will is thought often a sign of great mystical power. These talents may come naturally to the creature or be developed over time, and may even come with certain caveats, but can be found in every culture on some level. Even well known figures not traditionally labeled as shapeshifters like Vampires and Witches have had the talent in some version of their lore. But this talent is often reserved only for the most powerful examples in those versions and most commonly the ones who can achieve it easiest are entities which could be classified as demigods.
But there are examples of creatures who aren’t classified as demigods and still retain this ability as a standard. From the Skinwalkers of Native American legend to the various Yokai of Japanese lore, these are creatures who defy classification as simply were-creatures or magic users and who instead take the forms of other people and things at will. They may not always be an exact match to what they try to take on, there may be flaws in the recreation, but they are almost always close enough to fool someone at a distance. Their behavior ranges across the cultures, generally reflecting the fears of the culture that names them. However, in almost all cases there is a potential danger to the fact they’re there and may be using their chosen form against you.
Still, there’s a question that remains, are they really out there? And if they are, would we be able to tell…?
The ability to change form is fairly common throughout the mythology of every culture on the planet. Though many types of creatures are repeated between cultures, no specific ability is repeated as commonly as that of being able to take on shapes of other creatures. Almost every region has at least one God or cryptid, if not several, which are capable of transforming at will through divine power or a natural gift that they were born with. This ability is generally considered a manifestation of primordial powers, a connection to nature which generally allows a humanoid entity to take on the traits of animals at will and even become these creatures entirely if they so wish.
Within the domain of human forms, these shapeshifters can create illusions of either wholly original people, generally created to evoke specific emotional responses, or they can duplicate others to impressive detail. The range of this ability to hide their true form or duplicate another person can at times be limited, a single flaw or an peculiarity to their form often being present. However, with particularly dangerous entities, these flaws may be completely erased away, allowing them to seamlessly blend in or fully replace a person entirely. Generally, when duplicating an unsuspecting victim, the person in question will either be killed by the duplicate itself, devoured by them, or cursed to meet their end shortly thereafter.
Possessing the ability to alter the parameters of their body with incredible precision, the ability of Shapeshifters to manipulate their own form is an extraordinary talent even among Alters. An advancement of the slow adaptation of the First Ones, Shapeshifters can manipulate their biochemistry and their anatomy to achieve a stunning level of control over their appearance. Though appearing to be magic to observers, the ability is a far more involved process than a simple manifestation of will.
Having a unique anatomy even among Alters, Shapeshifters have several adaptations that allow them to control many aspects of their physiology that would normally be beyond someone’s control. Some of these adaptations are found in other Alters such as the use of chromatophores to change their skintone or the acceleration of hormones to grow new hair or increase muscle mass. However, other adaptations are more unique to the Shapeshifters. One of these abilities is a control of how they heal, using a combination of signals to their tissues and stem cells to grow new tissues or shedding the old as necessary. This is an already impressive talent, allowing them to mimic skin textures close enough to fool the uninitiated and even mimic scar tissue if necessary for their disguise, but it is when used in conjunction of another ability that gives them their reputation.
Using an extraordinary control over their muscles and their incredible healing abilities, modern Shapeshifters can break their own bones, rearrange them, and then heal their skeletal structure into a new form. This process is relatively long and painful compared to the acts in legend, taking hours to even days depending on the amount of change that needs to be made. Changing height, in particular, is often avoided due to the length of time and extraordinary pain involved in maintaining the new height while growing new bone or dissolving the old. As a consequence, while possible, it is rarely attempted and many Shapeshifters try their best to use accessories to make up the difference.
Though able to mimic a variety of traits, there are some things Shapeshifters can’t do quickly enough to be immediately perfect. Given sufficient time, they can almost perfectly match superficial traits, even able to convert much of their gendered traits over time through hormonal shifts. However, in order to disguise themselves rapidly, some shortcuts have to be made and experienced Shifters are skilled in faking things they can’t immediately duplicate. Height, weight, gendered traits and the length of someone’s hair may require them to initially wear prosthetics and many are proficient in techniques used by film crews to disguise actors. As a result, many Shapeshifters are known to keep secondary locations which they use as a staging ground where they will keep many supplies.
Though their methods and motivations change wildly depending on their culture, creatures which can take on other shapes are almost always hostile towards humanity. This makes sense, as many shapeshifters are creatures who have obtained their powers through dark pacts or sinister origins. These darker creatures generally prey on mortals, either as a requirement of needing to feed on humans or due to a blood lust that has overtaken them in the process of gaining their powers. Others in this same category even do so just because they were simply created evil, demons who prey on the living to carry out the wishes of a dark master or satisfy a need to see people suffer.
However, another class of Shapeshifters who regularly interact with humans are tricksters, creatures with no ill intent but a tendency to toy with humans to satisfy their boredom. Tricksters may at times cause harm, but this is rarely the point of their activities, rather being a result of a trick that went too far. These entities may even at times become heroic in the eyes of the people who share their stories, talking about how the trickster would somehow bestow great things on the rest of the world (almost purely by accident). And, in other instances, this may sometimes even result in antagonism not just of humans, but of the rest of their respective pantheons.
Though not explicitly antagonistic towards humanity, Shapeshifters have a difficult path ahead of them in most scenarios. Chemical imbalances caused by the nature of their abilities leave Shapeshifters prone to depression, anxiety, and body issues. The body issues, while ostensibly the easiest for them to resolve, are also the most damaging for them and can lead them down a self-destructive path. Constantly attempting to fine tune themselves to fit an image they believe they need to have, Shapeshifters often find that no form that they take ever quite feels right. The result is that their default form, often refined to the point of incredible attractiveness, will still fall well short of the Shifter’s self-imposed standards.
This can become quite destructive for these individuals as they find themselves in physical distress over time. Though capable of numbing their own pain and manipulating their own biochemistry, Shifters who have become distressed over their self-image can cause themselves tremendous chronic pain that they cannot shut off. Worse, as they continue to make adjustments they may very well make the chemical imbalances worse, causing their mental and physical state to degrade rapidly. Often, to deal with these issues, Shifters turn to drugs, often becoming hopelessly addicted to either pain killers and a variety of psychoactive drugs to try to “even” themselves.
This, unfortunately, leads to their depictions in lore. Shapeshifters are often forced to do anything necessary to maintain their drug habits. For some this can be accomplished through somewhat benign work – particularly in show business or as a public figure’s body double. However, for many this means becoming entangled in criminal activity. Though not intentionally hostile and doing their best to avoid any detection in the process, this does lead them to having unpleasant interactions with humans when caught. Shifters are known to steal, commit fraud, perform elaborate cons, and even take on more aggressive work for organized crime if in dire enough straights. However, the one crime they are most inclined to take to accommodate their needs…
Is the one the victim has the hardest time proving.
(I write novels and dabble in screenplays. I assure you that I’m not a Shapeshifter, and it’s totally safe to follow me on twitter. Though that’s probably what a Shapeshifter would say…)