NOTE: I wrote the first draft of this a while ago, didn’t like how it turned out, and then realized Arnold Kemp did something very similar with his Doppelgangers post before hand, so I dropped it. However, in the interest of clearing out my drafts folder I revised it and decided to get it out there anyway.
Changelings. The fantasy race known for their ability to change their appearance nearly at will. Also, without a doubt, the most boring race ever conceived compared to their potential. I mean, they’re pretty much just humans that can change there face and have some other seemingly unrelated drawbacks to compensate.
Generally humanoid. Bleed as whatever form they currently take. Insides look like it too. The only way to tell is if you try to eat them or touch iron to them. Then the tissue begins to dissolve into an oily brown-black fluid. Changeling mothers or fathers always produce changeling children. They are older than humanity. They can learn to cast spells. Their minds are just as prone to dementia as humans, possibly more so. Maybe innately, maybe from the stress of maintaining lies. They can have super-strength, speed, unnatural beauty, but usually don’t for the purpose of fitting in.
The most immediately noticeable facet of most changelings is that they are not in possession of an actual face, or fixed form. Despite their ability to wear the identities of others, they are still given their own. No. Bad. From now on, the changeling does not have their own face, nor a fixed, “real” form. Any form they take was once someone else’s or otherwise based on someone else, and it an be taken away in an instant. It is NOT a choice for them, and it is not an illusion that can be pierced. That is the price of flexibility.
There are two ways Changelings change. One is your run of the mill look at someone and take their face/body shape. This can be done at will, and only becomes a mental problem if sustained for a long time. If you kill and imitate someone named Ralph the dyer far from anyone who actually knows him, you could have enough to live a life. Settle down somewhere new. You look like Ralph the Dyer and people treat you like Ralph, so you will eventually settle into a comfortable pattern of being Ralph, whether you have his memories or no. You may comfortably forget you are anyone other than Ralph the Dyer. But there are limits. No changing from biped to quadruped, for example.
The other method is far more intimate. They can consume another person entirely, melding their essence into one. Everything comes with. In addition to having that form, they now have memories, personality, and instincts loaded into their brain in a matter of hours, minutes, or even seconds. If the changeling was demented or animal before, this influx of an entire other person is so overpowering that the person may not even realize that he was consumed. It might be more appropriate to say that the changeling became part of the person, as opposed to the other way around. An imitation so perfect that not even the imitator can tell the difference. But the end product is always a changeling, perhaps latent, but capable nonetheless.
If the changeling was lucid, expect some sort of mix both physically and mentally of the two people. This is how changelings are born with faces when no twin exists to consume, after all.
Regardless of type, Changelings faces tend to warp over time, from subconscious movement of their features. Most people don’t even notice. Can you even remember exactly what your own face looked like five years ago?
As the changeling has no face of their own, they have no fixed personality, and instead take on the personality of whoever they’re supposed to be imitating eventually. I mean, if you lived like John the Carpenter for thirty years in which everyone thought of and treated you like said carpenter, you would probably just eventually think of yourself as a carpenter named John. Changeling minds are no different in this way, except perhaps in that they are more adept in the selective deletion of memories not currently aligned with their current identity.
Most changelings are not aware of their status as changelings from the start. For some reason, some human pregnancies lead to changeling births instead. Many are born of a changeling parent who wasn’t aware either. They can be born of two human parents though. The leading scholars have suggested that when twins or triplets are incubating in the womb, an errant wave of magic, a cosmic ray, or some similar happenstance passes through the womb and leads to one of the twins being transformed into a changeling, which then consumes the face and genetic information of the other twin. Sometimes the child is obviously a changeling, when it transforms in the womb and kills the mother. Other times its obvious when the birthing fluid comes of black and brown an oily, or interspersed with the consumed body parts of the consumed siblings. But changelings are (or can be) savants at imitating human life cycles. Pretty much everything about your physical appearance is encoded in your DNA from the word go; in some cases, the changeling can use this information. So it goes that the child can be born, go through puberty, and even reach adulthood without ever realizing he is not human.
Then through some chance event their nature is revealed, and the changeling comes to be aware of his abilities, whereupon he is promptly chased from his home by peasants making an earnest attempt to kill him. Fearing for his life as an outlaw, he imitates or more likely outright consumes another person, and settles into that persons life. Soon, the stress of taking on all the memories of the 30 year old John the Carpenter combined with his daily life as ostensibly normal human combined with the repressive defense mechanism of his undoubtedly traumatizing experience as a fugitive of all mankind causes him to forget he is, in fact, a changeling. John the Carpenter is still alive, as part of the changeling, even the majority share. John the Carpenter did not want to be a changeling and still does not. The changeling probably does not have much in the way of personality or tangible memories anyway, if it was insane beforehand. So Johnny suppresses the memories that aren’t his, and continues on his life. This life as John the Carpenter goes until someone notices he has hardly been aging at all, or that his face has been subtly drifting away from familiar features through the years or he gets old enough for dementia to take over. Again he is run out (or otherwise simply wanders off) and again he consumes, either out of fear for life or as an instinct, resurgent as the memories that hold the current identity fall away. Refreshed by new memories, that sweep away most of the old, the cycle begins anew.
This can keep happening many, many times. Sometimes he will be chased off. Sometimes dementia will take over, he will merge with someone else, and then get chased off. Sometimes he will accidentally merge with an animal. Sometimes, he will be aware, other times latent. Eventually, the changeling might be clapped in silver fetters and destroyed or sold to a wizard. Some may bounce around the wilderness, losing their mind every five years. Or the changeling might reach a state of meta-stability, self-aware of his state as a changeling for hundreds of years. Changelings are unpredictable, even to themselves. Especially to themselves.
Naturally, they are mostly perceived as parasites. They can basically kill a person instantly, and imitate them until they go mad and kill or absorb others. They are hunted, usually for the sake of execution, but sometimes for sale. Wizards love changelings. For research and possibly as servants. Same for the more mercenary states. Most states offer a bounty for their removal. The military or religious orders responsible for hunting them do so with heavy hands and silver bands. They also tend to be very rich, and very dangerous. Some of the most deadly fighters and superb trackers come from this background. If an insane shape-shifter granted super-strength by his own abilities is bearing down on you, you had better know your way around a sword. Likewise for detective work if you want to find a non-insane one. They are hard to surprise; they always expect the unexpected.
Meta-stable changelings, those that are aware of their own nature and maintain sanity for centuries at a time, are inevitably incredibly powerful beings. However, maintaining meta-stability requires careful management of stimuli. No melding. No interacting with too many different people. Constant meditation. The sense of self must be cultivated or it will slip away. They often form pseudo-religious orders, some of which are alive even today. They take in wayward changelings, where they can be found. Train them to use their powers. The ability to change your own body can give you great strength, beauty, and dexterity. All the orders are martial, for their own survival. When the lower members go insane, the order puts them back on track. New memories, created or ‘found’ in kidnapping victims. Even a new face. Many of the cults practice sculpting, to make truly unique faces. Some changelings have been part of the cults for millennia, albeit as different people. They are deadly. Do not piss them off. Do not make a serious attempt to locate them, unless you’re helping a changeling. Even then they will probably wipe your memories, possibly even kill you outright. Human memories are harder to destroy than changeling ones, why take the risk? The most ardent hunters learned their lesson long ago. Destroy as many unaffiliated changelings as you like, but the orders are not even discussed, and if they are it as myths and legends. They have their will to live, several dozen shape-shifters, and a millennium of experience on you. It will not go well.