***Author's Note: This episode is a bit of "world building", intended to familiarize the reader with the race of Shapeshifters and their society. If you are the type who despises world-building and would rather find out about the shifters the same way Daecon, the main character, does, feel free to skip right on ahead to Episode 5 and jump right into the story. If you'd prefer to know some of the lore and customs before diving in, please continue reading.***
Shapehifters, or "Shifters", are a race of hominid beings that have the ability to change their forms between Human-appearing, Bird, and, for most, an animal (usually a mammal). There are approximately one million of them living all over the world, mostly in the temperate regions of the Americas, Australia, Asia, Africa, and South America.
Shape shifting is accomplished by magically rearranging the body’s cells, and the alternate form will loosely follow the anatomical layout of a mammal (one head, four limbs, a tail). This is true whether the alternate form is a bird, a mammal, a reptile, or an amphibian. Reptile and amphibian alternates are considered rare, especially in cooler climates. No Shifter has ever been known to have an invertebrate as an alternate, nor have there been any recorded fish, but cetaceans (whales, porpoises) and pinnipeds (seals, walruses) are well documented, especially in polar regions.
The magic that allows a Shifter to change shape provides for the expansion or contraction (referred to as inflating or deflating) of individual cells, allowing for alternate sizes that can be vastly different from human form. For example, if a shifter converts into bear form he is much larger than a human, and some Shifters change into small animals such as house cats or rodents as their alternates. Cellular texture can also be altered, allowing for feathers, fur, hooves, and even things such as antlers and armoured skin.
The alternate bird or animal form of a Shifter will usually, but not always, be larger than the wild animal counterpart, though this can vary by individual - for example, a Shifter whose alternate form is an elephant would usually be about the size of a normal elephant, but one who takes the form of a coyote would be about 25% larger than a typical coyote. An exception is for Shifters that take the form of raptors and other birds of prey - these forms will usually have a body length only slightly shorter than their height is in human form. Other bird forms such as corvids and sea birds will usually be significantly larger than the wild version but smaller than the human form.
While in animal form the Shifter will have use of that animal’s abilities and strength, such as the acute vision of an eagle, increased hearing range and sense of smell of a dog or wolf, and the strength of a large animal such as a bear.
It is said that Shifters also have slightly better senses while in human form than humans do, but science generally proves this to be more of a placebo effect: Shifters are naturally more cautious than humans and are therefore simply more aware of their surroundings.
Animal forms are not freely chosen. When a Shifter first takes on an avian form (usually at around the age of five years) that will be the bird form he takes for the rest of his life. For example, if a young Shifter’s first bird transformation is into a Blue Jay, that Shifter will always take the form of a Blue Jay whenever he transforms into a bird. Similarly, at around age seven, when he discovers his alternate animal form (usually a mammal) that will be his alternate for life.
When a Shifter is in his bird or animal form his colours may or may not match that of the wild animal that he is mimicking – for example, a Shifter may change into a Raven, which are usually black in nature, but he may have white, brown, silver, or even blue or green feathers. The colours a shifter displays while in animal form are often a variation of the colours they display as a human (for example a black haired human will often have black feathers in bird form or black fur in animal form, or their coat will be predominantly black with highlights of other colours). Shifters may exhibit colours in their hair and skin that do not occur in natural humans, such as blue or green.
Heterochromia Iridium, a condition in which the eyes are two different colours, is common in Shapeshifters. It is believed that this is due to offspring getting both pairs of genes from male parents (see below), and usually the Shapeshifter will inherit his eye colours from his parents (a child with one blue eye and one green eye will usually have a blue-eyed parent and a green-eyed parent). This is not 100% reliable, though - a child may have one or two brown eyes with neither parent having brown eyes, for example - but at least one of the parents will have the genes for brown eyes present even if they don't have brown eyes. Central heterochromia, or having different colours within one eye in concentric rings, is rare in Shifters. Daecon, the main character in this story, has both Heterochromia Iridium (his left eye is ice blue, his right one is dark blue) and Central heterochromia (both of his irises feature a red outer ring). The red outer rings are a trait that has only been documented in those with royal lineage.
All Shifters have short, pointed elf-like ears and sharp, pronounced canine teeth regardless of their alternate animal forms. The ears are semi-prehensile, meaning that Shifters can tilt and twist their ears as needed. This can be done consciously but is often done by reflex, ie turning toward the source of a sudden sound for better hearing, or to flatten them back when angry, much in the same way that a cat does.
All Shapeshifters are male. Shifters possess two Y chromosomes instead of the XX (female) or XY (male) chromosomes that humans have. Because of the presence of two Y chromosomes, a female is not biologically possible. Although Shifters rely on human females as surrogate mothers, a Shifter cannot mate with and reproduce with a human or vice-versa.
Reproduction is by sexual means. Shifters mate and pair up as homosexual human males would, with some key differences. Chief among them is that Shifters do not have a colon and anus in the sense that a human (or almost any mammal) would; instead they have a cloaca that combines the anus, colon, and 'female' reproductive tracts into one system. Cloacae are common in nature, being used in most animals that are not mammals, but the bird is the most common example of this organ – chickens, for example, fertilize and excrete their eggs through the cloaca, which also functions as the anus (one difference with birds, though, is that their urinary tract is a part of the cloaca as well, whereas Shifters have it in their penis as a human male does).
All Shifters carry both the traditional ‘male’ reproductive organs (penis, testes) and select ‘female’ organs (ovary, fallopian tube). Shifters do not have the ability to gestate their own young, and although they are technically hermaphrodites an individual Shifter cannot fertilize his own eggs; a partner is required. They have no uterus or cervix, they only have an ovary that forms the eggs and an oviduct that carries it into the cloaca. When an egg is fertilized it is excreted into the cloaca and attaches itself to the wall, where it starts to grow. The hormonal changes this triggers will inform the parent that a fertilized egg has been produced. If a pregnancy is desired the parent will then present himself for extraction at the birth facility, and the egg is stored until a suitable human surrogate can be found. If the fertilized egg is not extracted within a few days then it detaches from the cloaca wall and exits the body with regular waste via the anus.
Extraction and storage of the egg is accomplished by using a special type of magic performed by Royalty or, more commonly now since Royalty has become so rare, the Council takes care of it. They will then implant the fertilized egg into the uterus of a fertile mother. The chosen human is almost always a woman living on the streets, usually a prostitute or drug addict, though any fertile woman with illnesses (physical or mental) may be used as long as she is capable of carrying a child to term and has no close family that may miss or need her during the pregnancy.
The female is not aware of the pregnancy and is kept under a spell in a special hospital (colloquially called ‘Rehab’ owing to its similarities to human drug rehabilitation facilities) run by the Shifters during its duration. Gestation of a Shifter inside a human womb takes around 30 days and the newborn baby typically weighs less than 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) at birth. While the fetus is growing the human is cured by Shifter healers of any diseases or addictions, and after the birth she will be provided with care and oversight for the rest of her life, though she will not be consciously aware that she is receiving this guidance. This curing of diseases and addictions, as well as the after-care, are considered as sufficient payment by the Shifters for the services rendered (carrying the child) by the female.
Daecon is quite appalled when he learns that humans are used as surrogates without their consent. No harm is done to the females, and they are rewarded with good health, but as they are never made aware of the pregnancy and are kept under a spell for the duration of it, the arrangement cannot be conisdered consensual. The use of a human female surrogate was not always required, and the reasons for their use (and the fact that they are used without their consent) are going to become plot points much later on in the story.
At the time of birth the child is taken to an “orphanage”, which is really an institution set up by the Shifters to facilitate returning the infant to its biological parents (the couple that originally conceived the fertilized egg).
Because of the involvement of humans, the birth and after care of Shifters is highly regulated. Only royalty or select members of the Council of Elders possess the required magical capabilities to implant a fertilized egg into a human.
At the time of implantation both Shifter parents will be prescribed a potion that invokes certain hormones. These hormones will cause small breasts with active mammary glands to grow so that at the time of birth both parents may feed and nurture the young.
Owing to the difficulties in reproduction and resultant low reproductive rate, Shifters live extraordinarily long lives. They are highly resistant to disease or injury. The average lifetime of a Shifter depends largely on the class of Shifter that he is.
Shifters tend to live in small to medium sized communities referred to as Colonies, ranging in size from a few hundred to several tens of thousands. The colony featured in this story is the largest in North America at approximately 40,000 residents and is located in the mountains on Canada’s west coast, just outside of a medium-sized fictitious Canadian city. Because this colony is home to the Royal dynasty it could be considered the Capital City, if Shifters used such titles.
Colonies are tightly knit and autonomous but are connected by common rule by the Royals and the Councils of Elders. Because Shifters require the same basics for life that Humans do, their colonies will usually be found near Human cities and were built there for the same reasons the Human cities were (access to water, food, energy, etc).
Shifter colonies very closely resemble human towns and cities, except for a few differences. Shifters have access to and enjoy all of the modern technologies that humans do such as internet, mobile phones, and television (indeed, shifters have helped to develop many of these technologies, unbeknownst to humans), but since they can fly they have no use for aircraft or automobiles. Because automobiles are not used there are no roads in a Shifter colony, only wide paths, and instead of a driveway, a Shifter's home would have a large yard with a safe landing area. Electricity is fed to homes via underground cables for safety reasons - having a colony full of folks who can fly criscrossed with high voltage wires would be dangerous!
Shifter colonies are hidden from human views by magic maintained by the various Councils. No roads lead into or near colonies. Disguises are chosen to make the area as unappealing as possible to humans in order to discourage human encroachment. A human in an aircraft flying over a Shifter colony will see nothing but swamp land, arid badlands, forbidding mountain peaks, and the like. Shifter colonies are also protected by a magic that, if a human wanders into Shifter territory, he will invariably wander in a tight arc that will lead him back outside of the borders, regardless of what his compass or GPS may be showing him.
Some Shifters choose to live away from the colonies, just as some humans choose to live away from cities, but all Shifters fall under the jurisdiction of the regional Royalty or Council.
Shapeshifters have their own economies separate from those of humans, but they use common currencies such as Dollars, Yen, and Euros and others, depending on the location.