Those who can slip into the skin of beasts and birds
Be careful where you hunt, for the animals are not always what they seem.Much like the ubiquitous humans, the sapient species known commonly as shapeshifters are spread throughout the world of Etrea, comprised of many different cultures and beliefs. From the isolationist clans of the Frozen North to the individuals who have integrated fully into human society, all shapeshifters have one thing in common: the ability to shift - or transform - into another species. The nature of that other species is believed to be genetic, passed down through the matrilineal line.
Shapeshifters have two distinct sexes, male and female. On average, adult male shapeshifters are taller and heavier than females, with broader shoulders and narrower hips. They are able to grow hair on their face as well on their heads, and tend to have thicker body hair, particularly on their chest. Male reproductive organs are external to the body, consisting of a penis and a pair of testicles. Female reproductive organs are mostly internal, comprising of a uterus and two ovaries. Adult females also have prominent breasts, although both sexes have nipples.
Shifters, Skinchangers, Beastkin, Beastfolk
70 to 80 years
Natal FormIn their natal form, shapeshifters are virtually indistinguishable from humans. They are bipedal, upright-walking primates, their bodies consisting of a head, a neck, a torso, two arms, and two legs. Like most primates, their hands have opposable thumbs, allowing for the grasping of objects and the usage of tools. Like other sapient species, shapeshifters have large complex brains with a well-developed pre-frontal cortex. This allows for greater cognitive function, such as the ability for introspection, imagination, and self-awareness. At the base of their skulls, under their brains, they have an organ known as the altus, which allows for the conversion of energy and magic. Post-mortem comparisons between a variety of human and shapeshifter altus showed that shapershifter altus tend to be slightly larger, with more connections to the brain.
Shapeshifters share many of the same eye colours as their human relatives. Brown remains the most common eye colour, winning out over blue, green, or grey. These colours exist on a spectrum of light to dark. For example, one individual could have eyes that are an icy pale blue, whilst another has eyes of a deep sea blue. However, shapeshifters also have an eye colour unique to their species, which is yellow. Yellow eyes also exist on a spectrum of light to dark, from a bright gold to a rich amber. Notably, eyes are the only feature that change very little when a shapeshifter shifts, always remaining the same colour as in their humanoid form.
Shifted FormEach shapeshifter can shift into one other species, determined before birth by the matrilineal line. For example, if the father could shift into a horse and the mother could shift into a deer, any resulting child would shift into a deer as well. The vast majority of shapeshifters shift into mammals, though a few can shift into birds. Some scholars believe that avian shapeshifters should be categorised as a different species, though that opinion is generally unpopular in academic circles.
Biological VariationShapeshifters can come in a variety of skin tones, from a pale that looks white in the right light to a deep dark brown. Skin tone varies based on geographic distribution, with paler-skinned individuals hailing from much colder areas than their darker-skinned counterparts. Humans in the same area tend to be a similar colour, allowing shapeshifters to easily blend in. Like humans, the hair of shapeshifters can vary in thickness, texture, and colour. Hair texture can vary from wispy to coarse, and from curly to straight. Colours range from white-blonde to pure black, with a spectrum of blonds, browns and dull reds in between. Baldness, particularly age-related baldness, is slightly more prevalent in shapeshifters than in humans, and has no disparity between the sexes. Baldness does not carry over to a shapeshifter's animal form, although not enough research has been done to explain why. With age, the hair of shapeshifters tends to turn white or grey.
Genetic CompatibilityThe four sapient species of Etrea are believed to all have evolved from a single genetic ancestor, known to scholars as the allkin. This theory has been strengthened over the years by the discovery of bone fragments and artefacts, as well as a single frozen allkin mummy referred to by researchers as 'Mother'. Due to this shared ancestor, there is a certain amount of interbreeding that is possible between the four species, though some pairings are much more successful than others.
Much like humans, shapeshifters have five major senses: sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing. Depending on the species a shapeshifter can shift into, these senses can either be enhanced or dulled by the transformation. For example, a shapeshifter who can shift into a dog will gain an enhanced sense of smell, but lose the ability to see certain colours. For clarity, the discussion of senses that follows is an average baseline for a shapeshifter in their natal - or humanoid - form. In general, the sensory capabilities of shapeshifters do not differ that much from their human counterparts. They can see the full spectrum of colours that humans can, and share similar ranges in vision, taste, and touch. However, research undertaken by the Royal University in Kaien has indicated that shapeshifters have a stronger sense of smell than humans, and are also able to hear sounds at a higher frequency.
Shapeshifters cannot reproduce with merfolk, although some have been known to enjoy mutually pleasurable sexual relationships. Merfolk branched away from the allkin much earlier in Etrea's timeline and, as such, their reproductive organs are generally not compatible with those of shapeshifters. Whilst some variants of merfolk have much more humanlike genitalia than others, all unions between shapeshifters and merfolk are non-productive. With humans, shapeshifters can produce viable offspring. However, there is quite a high chance of early miscarriage or congenital abnormalities, especially with a human mother and a shapeshifter father. Only one in ten children born to a shapeshifter mother in these relationships will inherit the ability to shift, which has led to interbreeding being frowned upon in many shapeshifter societies. Shapeshifters and dragons have the highest chance of successful interbreeding, with seventy percent of children born to a shapeshifter mother inheriting the ability to shift. In contrast, a child of a dragon mother only has a five percent chance to inherit her draconic nature, which has led to this union becoming taboo or outright forbidden in many dragon cultures. The likelihood of early miscarriage or congenital abnormalities for this pairing are on par with those of a one-species relationship.
Magical AbilitiesAll full-blooded shapeshifters have the ability to shift into another species. While this is considered magical by other sapient species - humans in particular - shapeshifters generally do not categorise it as such. To them, shifting is an innate part of who they are as a species. Whilst some scholars point to a shapeshifter's enlarged altus as evidence that shifting is indeed magic, others disregard shifting when writing about the incidence of magic in the shapeshifter population. If shifting is taken out of the equation, about thirty percent of shapeshifters display some form of magical ability. Shapeshifter magic tends to be elemental in nature, though this depends heavily on cultural or geographical influences. The ability to manipulate fire, for example, is rare amongst shapeshifters who live in dry grasslands or deep forests. Other common magical abilities include curative or analgesic talents, as well as divination. Like any sapient species in Etrea, however, shapeshifters would be able to utilise any form of magic if they were to open their minds to it. Magic, after all, is merely the manipulation of energy. The late Kaienese scholar, Magnus Woolery, hypothesised that all members of all sapient species would be able to use magic if they were correctly trained. He believed the incidence of magic often cited by scholars is actually the percentage of those who have innate talent.
Before BirthThe full term of a shapeshifter pregnancy is nine months, during which time hormones in the body suppress the ability to shift. This is often used as an early indicator of pregnancy, where in other circumstances it might not be known for several months. Shapeshifters generally give birth to one offspring at a time, with only one in a thousand births yielding multiple children. Any pregnancy with more than three fetuses is unlikely to survive to full term, and even twins and triplets carry a much higher risk than a singleton pregnancy. Childbirth itself also carries a high risk to both mother and child, with the death of one or both occuring in one percent of births.
InfancyFor the first year or so of their life, shapeshifters are helpless and completely reliant on their parents. Their eyesight is poor for the first few months, so they rely on both sound and scent to recognise their parents or caregivers. Communication is chiefly achieved via crying, with parents learning to differentiate between cries for needs such as hunger and discomfort. An infant's head is large in proportion to their body, accounting for a quarter of total body length whereas an adult's head accounts for only one seventh. At birth, an infant's skull has not fully converted to bone, leaving several softer spots known as fontanelles. These fontanelles are generally fully ossified by eighteen months of age. Like all mammals, shapeshifter infants survive solely on milk at first. Generally, they are breastfed by their mother or another female caregiver, though some are fed with bottles full of milk from another mammal, such as a goat. At around six months of age, weaning begins, with different foods being slowly introduced to an infant's diet as teeth begin to grow.
ChildhoodChildhood is the stage between infancy and puberty, generally ending around the ages of twelve to thirteen. It is a time of great growth and learning, with shapeshifter children physically growing taller and soaking up the knowledge and life skills they need to get on in the world. At around age three, shapeshifter children will shift for the first time, though they will not gain full control over the transformation until at least age seven. These early transformations are triggered by high emotions or stress, so a child having a tantrum can quickly become an upset ball of fur and claws.
AdolescenceAdolescence begins with the onset of puberty, where an increase in the production of hormones leads to changes in a shapeshifter's growing body. Body hair begins to sprout on the legs, underarms, groin, and, for males, on the face. Bones grow and shift, and body fat and muscles are redistributed, changing the androgynous body of the child into the sexually dimorphic body of an adult. In females, breasts develop, hips widen, and menstruation begins. In males, the voice deepens, shoulders broaden, and the genitals grow. The adolescent years are often considered to be the most dangerous of a shapeshifter's life. At this point in life, the part of the brain responsible for reasoning is not fully developed, leading to young shapeshifters taking risks without fully thinking through the consequences. Adolescent shapeshifters, testing boundaries and pushing for independence, generally spend much more time in their animal form than they will do at any other point in their life. This leads them to have a greater risk of becoming wild, a condition that eventually can prevent them from returning to their natal form entirely.
AdulthoodAdulthood is the longest life stage for shapeshifters, beginning when one is sexually mature and ending when the body or mind begins to deteriorate with age. The exact moments this stage starts and ends varies from shapeshifter to shapeshifter and, more notably, culture to culture. In many societies, sexual maturity is not the only mark of adulthood, and a shapeshifter must reach a certain age or hit a certain cultural milestone to be fully considered an adult. In general, adult shapeshifters are the ones to give birth to and raise children, and it is at this stage of life that they are most suited to doing so. Elderly shapeshifter males are still fertile; though this diminishes with age, there does not seem to be an age at which fertility comes to a complete stop. The oldest male shapeshifter on record to father a child was over one hundred years old. Adolescent shapeshifters are also known to procreate, though the younger the mother the greater the risk of complications. Older female shapeshifters experience the menopause, which is the ceasing of menstruation and the end of fertility. As this usually occurs between the ages of forty and fifty, most cultures see this as a sign of late adulthood rather than as an indicator of old age. This process generally takes about three years.
ElderhoodElderhood is often seen as an extension of adulthood, with no defined age as to where it begins. Often, one of the first signs of aging is the hair beginning to turn grey, or to start to thin or fall out. As they age, shapeshifters are more likely to need help from their community, as their mobility often deteriorates. Senses such as eyesight and hearing begin to weaken, and the skin becomes more fragile and looser, causing visible wrinkles. This decline continues until something in the body, often the heart, can no longer work as intended, leading to a natural death.
HabitatShapeshifters live all over the world of Etrea, from its Frozen North to the edges of its dryest desert. For permanent settlements, it is necessary for there to be a source of fresh water nearby, as well as a sustainable source of food. This can be achieved through agriculture, hunting, or fishing, for example. Only a small amount of shapeshifters live in any of the large cities of Etrea, with most preferring smaller, more rural communities. For nomadic peoples, both food and water become a constant driving force, dictating when and where they travel. Although shapeshifters are a highly adaptable species, they are not able to survive unaided in more extreme conditions; they are, however, better equipped to handle the extremes of temperature than humans or merfolk. Like with other sapient species, specialised tools, equipment, and protective clothing enable shapeshifters to explore, research, and even live in some of the more hostile areas of Etrea. In terms of global population, shapeshifters rank third of the sapient species, with humans outnumbering them at least fifty to one. It has been difficult to come up with an accurate estimation of numbers, however, as many shapeshifter communities are secretive and prefer isolation.
DietShapeshifters are omnivorous, eating a variety of foods including meat, fish, fungi, fruit, and nuts. Although there is archaeological evidence of shapeshifters cooking their meals with fire for thousands of years, many shapeshifters have a much greater tolerance to raw meat than humans do. This is much more common amongst shapeshifters who shift into species that are categorised as carnivores. In particular, studies have shown that the stomach of a shapeshifter more effectively kills parasites commonly present in raw meat.
Social StructureShapeshifters are highly social creatures; intense and prolonged isolation has been proven by research to be incredibly detrimental to a shapeshifter's mental health. Whilst some shapeshifters are perfectly happy to get their socialisation from other sapient species, most prefer to solely seek the companionship of other shapeshifters. After merfolk, shapeshifter societies tend to be the most homogenous; however, with merfolk their isolationist tendencies are often due to mere logistics. Shapeshifter social groups can range in size from a single family, where every member is related by blood, to a large settlement. There are currently no shapeshifter nations on Etrea, though this was not always the case throughout its history. The largest group of shapeshifters in one place is in the Aenican city of Teht Krekawh, where avian shapeshifters have built a home unreachable by anyone without wings.
CommunicationLike other sapient species, shapeshifters communicate through language, both spoken and written. Language is unique to the sapient species of Etrea, particularly in its ability to get across abstracts concepts such as time and imagination. Whilst other species communicate, they do so about concrete things happening in the present. Whilst in their second form, some shapeshifters also communicate in ways mimicking the species they have transformed into. Some make use of scent marking, whilst others confer information via ear or tail movement. There are many different languages used by shapeshifters across Etrea, differing across place and culture. Each language is made up of a number of phonemes, or sounds, which are put together in different ways to convey a near infinite amount of ideas. Most of these languages also have a written component, where each sound or concept is illustrated by a symbol or set of symbols. Written language allows communication across great distances, such as a letter sent across the sea, and even across time, such as a book written a century ago being able to be read by contemporary readers. Body language, including hand gestures and facial expressions, are also an important part of shapeshifter communication. These help convey emotional information; a smile or a frown could drastically change the meaning of a spoken word. Different body language can mean different things from one culture to another. For example, in one culture, eye contact could be seen as aggressive, whereas in another it would be taken as a sign of deep respect.
Shapeshifters feature prominently in human mythology, especially in areas where the two species live in geographical proximity but do not intersect. Mythology about shapeshifters is full of misconceptions and half-truths, some of which shapeshifters themselves quietly encourage. It is a commonly held belief amongst humans that avian shapeshifters lay eggs, with many claiming to have seen these eggs or to own a piece of shell. The Royal University in Kaien claims to hold an intact shapeshifter egg in its archival collection, though even some of their scholars believe this to be an egg from some other large species of bird. Avian shapeshifters, in fact, do not lay eggs; as stated, pregnancy hormones suppress the ability to shift. On the continent of Sarsand, there are many tales of men transforming into vicious beasts. These stories often cite a trigger for the transformation, such as the scent of blood or the sight of the full moon. The shapeshifters in these myths are violent and bloodthirsty, killing people and livestock and carrying off children. These tales are so pervasive that in some remote villages no one goes outside after dark, lest they run across a beast. Adolescent shapeshifters often make use of these myths to scare humans, particularly on dark nights when they are bored. Another common myth, told in different ways across Etrea, is that by stealing a shapeshifter's skin one can gain control over them. In these stories, shapeshifters leave behind their animal skin when changing, and if it is stolen they will not be able to change back. A slightly divergent version of this myth holds that a shapeshifter's skin holds the power of transformation, and by stealing it one can gain that power for themselves. This has, unfortunately, led to the murder of shapeshifters in the past. The ability to change form is often believed to be some kind of dark magic, which has often led to the persecution of shapeshifters in many countries. Some of the different ways shapeshifters are said to gain this ability include blood sacrifice, the summoning of dark entities, or cannibalism.
M H Biscup
This is a well-written and beautifully detailed article. I love shapeshifters already, and I hope to meet them at some point in your books. I am so proud of you!
Necromancy is a Wholesome Science.
Dr Emily Vair-Turnbull
Thank you so much. Just three more species to go. :') I'm looking forward to being able to deep dive after all the basics are laid out.
WOW this is very well written. I like how you take the time to really explain everything. You don't cheat by saying "oh it's just like a human", you write as if the reader could be of any species. It's very interesting and informative. I loved the section on the different myths about shapeshifters. I also love how logically consistent the shapeshifters are. You just made a really good article, friend!
Dr Emily Vair-Turnbull
Aww, thank you so much! Your comment really means a lot. :) <3 One of my goals for this world is to be as comprehensive as possible but in a way that's hopefully interesting to read. :)
E. Christopher Clark
I'm saving this for a full read a little later (when I don't have a child that needs to get to the school bus) but I'm so happy to see your first WorldEmber article! Woooooo! And this looks so good.
Dr Emily Vair-Turnbull
Thank you <3 Good luck with gtting the child to school! :D
E. Christopher Clark
Finally had a chance to read it tonight and loved all the little details, including stuff like the theory that avian shifters might be a different species. Everything here feels well-thought-out. Great work!
Dr Emily Vair-Turnbull
Thank you so much, Chris! :) Really appreciate the read.
This is such an amazing article! It is so detailed and well-written!
Love to code, but this one is driving me crazy!
My world Shattered won as the "Most ground-breaking premise new world"!
Dr Emily Vair-Turnbull
Thank you, Cato! <3
Nice work, though limited to the hominid aspect of a shapeshifter. The article is a good start. It skips the shifted aspect leave me asking questions. How long do they remain in shift? Minutes? Hours? Sunrise or sunset? Days? Is it continued as emotionally triggered or does it develop into an at will control? And the habitat aspects as well - would a deer or canid shifter be able to shake off and survive in the wilds as the associated animal species even in the depths of a winter that would kill a human? Would they risk forgetting the hominid side if shifted too long? And how are they reacted to in their animal forms by conspecific types? I'm also not sure what the author view point is- external to the world or internal with the associated knowledge base? It does seem to bounce back and forth in some points of narrative - like the altus as a center of shifting ability and magic and the anatomic, developmental vs genetics and inheritance. The article doesn't appear to be drawn much from Shifters themselves as narrators or interviews.
Dr Emily Vair-Turnbull
Thank you for the comment - and double thank you for reminding me of the word hominid! I'll definitely be sure to answer some of those when I redraft this article in the new year. :) Some of the stuff I think is more suited to specific ethnicity articles, but I think the general questions about shifting definitely need to be answered here. The articles are written from an outside point of view in a wikipedia style, because I want to keep things consistent and not be limited only to what my characters know. I do think this article needs more quotes and personality though. Something to fix after WE for sure! :)
This article is so well polished that it's almost hard to believe it's all made during worldember. It's such a thorough and comprehensive article, without ever becoming dense or hard to read. It's just such a smooth and pleasant read, I don't know how else to describe it. The mythology section is definitely my favourite, as terrible as it has been for the shapeshifters. There's something about worldbuilding that is directly responding to our own folklore that just really works for me. Really great work, Emy!
Dr Emily Vair-Turnbull
Thank you, nnie! :) I'm looking forward to delving more into the mythology in the future, because that's one of my favourite parts. <3
Your chonky articles make me so happy--all the info laid out nice and neat and thoughtful and full of clarity to answer all the questions ever; my brain just greedily eats it all up. Nice work!! :D
You are doing a great job! Keep creating; I believe in you!
Luridity: Where love is love and life is lived. Contains NSFW content.
Dr Emily Vair-Turnbull
Aww, thank you, Dani! <3
The detail on this is absolutely stunning. I don't know if I've mentioned before how I find your CSS so refreshingly beautiful - it reads so well. Genuinely, this is fantastic and I struggle to find questions to ask that others have not already asked-- this is a very comprehensive overview.
welcome to my signature! check out istralar!
Dr Emily Vair-Turnbull
Thank you so much, Han! :) <3
This has been informative and engaging.
Dr Emily Vair-Turnbull
Thank you! :)
There is plenty of shapeshifter detail to inform me. Your mythology explanation encouraged me to read the information again.
Dr Emily Vair-Turnbull
Aw, thank you so much! :)
I love the complexity and the gigantic amount of information you included here!
In the beginning, I thought you will be showing more and more differences between shapeshifters and humans and that soon the line between the both will be thick and the distinction straightforward. Instead, I was given more information on how they are similar, yet somehow different and I now have a picture of a species that is SO, SOOO, SOOO similar to humans, but still different, sometimes to the point of being dehumanized. What is the official stance on the origin of Shapeshifters? The genetic reference points to genetic similarities between them and other humanoids, but it's not conclusive.
Thank you for a wonderful read! I'll be waiting for future updates with shrimps retiring to the ocean.
Dr Emily Vair-Turnbull
Shapeshifters and humans share an ancestor, kind of like us an neanderthals, I guess. I will do my best to make some things more clear, thank you. :D <3