Sunday, 23 October 2016

The Hunter's Guide to Monsters - Chapter Eight

In the corner of your eye, you might see something unnatural, inhuman and monstrous. Then, when you turn your head, you see only familiar faces, regular people. Yet, can we truly trust our own eyes not to deceive us, when there are creatures which can look and sound just like anyone else? We answer this question tonight, as we investigate, the 'Changeling':

Changeling /'chaynjling/ n. 1. A child surreptitiously or unintentionally substituted for another. 2. Folklore. An ugly, stupid, or strange child left by fairies in place of a pretty, charming child. 3. Archaic. A renegade or turncoat; an imbecile.

8. Changeling
  by Hunter Jeremiah

There is a lot of misinformation and mixed mythology when it comes to the changeling. Some believe they flay people's skin, some believe they are witches and some even believe that they are aliens, and I can understand why. These elusive creatures have a particular and effective skill, to blend into the world unseen, and it makes it very hard to document them. However, over the many, many years of hunting all manner of mysterious monsters, the community of monster enthusiasts have managed to compile the best information about these shape-shifting, sneaking changelings.
Personally, I prefer to call them "skinwalker", but for the sake of this guide, I refer to them as changeling, despite most people that consider changelings to be children touched by the fae. They are also commonly known as doppelgängers, metamorphs, skin-walkers, mimics & even therianthropes.
In their natural form, changelings are short (less than one and a half metres tall at most), humanoid beings with mottled, grey skin, which is often slimy and wet. They have very little visible muscle mass, making their limbs look skeletal and spindly, with long, thin fingers. They have unusually large heads in proportion to their bodies, no hair anywhere on their body, including the face, and no noticeable outer ears or noses, but only small openings or orifices for ears and nostrils and have a very small, sphincteric mouth, as well as large, opaque black eyes with no discernible iris, pupil or eyelid (although, I know from personal experience that they do have eyelids, and can blink).
Their appearance looks very much akin to the cultural meme of the "grey alien", and it's not known whether it's an unfortunate coincidence, the original source of this view or something else entirely. However, what is known is that they have mastered the natural ability to shapeshift into any form they could want to. Their grey skin is mottled because it is designed to be permeable and adaptable. They have little body mass with thin, flexible bones so that they can morph without damage to their internal organs or structures, and their eyes are black as they have a complex structure which changes pigment to their chosen form.
Because your friends, your kin, your lover; are perfect as they are, no other; could be like them, 'til you uncover - those soulless, black eyes staring back at you.

The changeling's entire body has adapted to the sole purpose of being a perfect blank, to take any form, but their means of shapeshifting is a complex phenomenon difficult to master. Essentially, their skin is porous and permeable, so as to absorb any genetic material that it touches, then their bodies decode that material and change to recreate that form. This means they are quite fragile and vulnerable in their natural state, and they excrete, or "sweat", a mucus-like substance that becomes a kind of hydrophobic gelatinous film that covers their bodies so as to prevent undesired genetic transfer and protect them from disease. In the wild, they are known to live in large tribes of many families, often around large bodies of water, and they utilize their shapeshifting ability to take animal-like forms and each member of the tribe is given a form which is aligned to their duty. Their shape-shifting ability is far-reaching, but not boundless. They are limited to forms which are no less than two-thirds; and no more than one third greater than their size; and they cannot remove or grow bones, such that they are limited to four-limbed creatures (although they have the impressive ability to grow a tail of up to two feet, but such tails have limited bone structure) and attempts to achieve such sizes and shapes often result in malformed, misshapen or just simply over-/under-sized forms.

However, to our detriment, as we are of a similar size and shape, changelings can recreate the healthy human form perfectly. For this very reason, even wild changelings tend to prefer taking human form to any other. In fact, it's rather rare to see a changeling in its natural form, as their bones tend to be more fragile, their muscles are more flexible and and their porous, permeable skin is very prone to viral infection. The only time changelings prefer their natural form is in water, they are actually amphibious (possessing gill filaments within their ear slits), where they can spend several hours, sometimes up to a day, before surfacing. When they take the form of another creature, however, they take on the shape, colours, textures and characteristics of that form, meaning that their skin becomes tougher, their bones stronger and even their muscles becomes bulkier.
One important thing to remember is that changelings can take only take one form at a time, and only their image. Whilst changelings can steal the look of a person's voice, eyes and skin, they can't recreate our brains and memories and must use their own initiative. Also, changelings can only take on one form at a time, and must revert to their natural form before shapeshifting. If they attempt to shift into another form whilst shapeshifted (even partially), they will become "spliced", wherein their body becomes a painful patchwork of both forms, with intermittent mutations, such as webbed fingers; missing toes; missing eyes; coarse hair; crooked teeth; albinism; hare-lip; atavism; scoliosis & many others. When spliced, it can take at least two hours for a changeling to rid themselves of their spliced form. The more differentiated the spliced forms, the more painful and difficult it is to remove it.

Changelings are very intelligent creatures, despite their size their brains are as big as a human's. Also, whilst there are populations of wild changeling that live in the forest, most choose not to. Most changelings take the opportunity to take human form, join human civilization, and live amongst us every day, only returning to the tribe to find a partner or visit family, and that is only if they have living family or even a desire for a partner that is a changeling.
There is a complicated history behind the integration of changelings into human society, which is because of a war between changelings and trolls. Trolls have a history of violent takeovers of forests and jungles, and if they came upon a changeling settlement, they would rampage through killing everyone, then use their strength and magic to kill everyone except the newborn and very young children. Rather than leave them to die, trolls would capture these children, and when they found a human child with a special ability they wished to covet (often innate magic), they would steal the human child at night, use their magic to force the changeling child into that form, then leave the changeling to be raised by humans. This went on for several decades before changelings declared all-out war and took back several forests, where they continued to fight for many years, all hidden from our eyes in a bloody and brutal series of attacks, and also started to enter into human society in the hopes of finding their lost children.
In this modern day and age, the war has gone cold. The rogue troll may occasionally steal a changeling child, but the parents can appeal to their local Hunting authority to track down the kidnapper and save their kid.

Most changelings are good, if unusual and secretive, people; however, this still leaves us with a few rogue citizens. Firstly, there are descendants of those original scout changelings whose mission is to find all changeling children and "kidnap" them back, which is a mess of legal controversy, especially to victim children that have "gone native". Then, there are those stolen children themselves, which often discover their inhumanity (especially if the troll spell wears off), and that can lead to isolation and criminal activity and acting out. In the past, people considered wild children replaced by trolls as "pieces of wood" or "enchanted stumps"; but this is just an excuse for them to kill their children, but this "not human" mindset does lead to a lot of abusive homes, and runaway changeling teens. Even in stable home environments, the fear and confusion of discovering their nature and changing form can lead to acting out, because they don't understand what they are anymore.
But even when the spell doesn't wear off, it can lead to issues; There are also the children of those stolen changelings which never truly discover their changeling nature, and if they have children of their own, since those children do not have their form maintained by a troll's spell, they can become a serious issue when they discover their abilities and have no one to help understand them and use them responsibly. And surgery is a true horrorshow. In one instance when an unknowing changeling got into a workplace accident, they accidentally spliced after receiving a blood transfusion. Or another instance wherein a changeling received plastic surgery, only to die when they suddenly reverted to natural form and their implant burst.
And finally, of course, there's your average, everyday psychopath. Changelings are no more immune to the draw of crime, murder and punishment of any human, and when you're an outsider in society and have trouble relating to others, that lends to a different worldview and morality. No matter the reason, when someone encounters a changeling that misbehaves, it's time for a Hunter to step in.

Protection
If you are concerned that you may be dealing with a changeling, here are some important notes to remember which can keep you safe:
  • Wild Child − Changeling children may have a voracious appetite, messy hair, a bad temper, wet hands, pointed ears or even sharp teeth. Be wary of such children.
  • Ask, Don't Tell − If you can identify someone else as a changeling, don't confront them. They may not know themselves. If you're curious, approach with caution.
  • Hands Off − If you don't want your identity stolen, don't touch a changeling's skin, especially if it looks wet, they may be priming their skin to steal your form.
  • Not a Mind-reader − Changelings copy your body, not your mind. Smart changelings do their homework, but may still lack the subtler information. Pay close attention.
  • Battle Scars − The way they shapeshift, changelings can't mimic scars, amputation or other such blemishes. If a friend's freckles or scars change, be very careful.
  • No Swimming − Changelings are born in water, they are amphibian, so afloat they're in their element and have the advantage. Never enter water with a changeling.
  • When it's Grey, Enter the Fray − In their natural form, changelings are weak, bruise easily and are much lighter; if you want to cause hurt, do it when they're grey.
  • Iron it Out − When changeling skin touches iron or iron alloys, it reacts painfully even when shapeshifted. If you absolutely must know the truth, it's a reliable test.
Hunting
Changelings are regular people, like you or I. We are only allowed to Hunt for them if they commit a crime using their shapeshifting abilities, or one which is inhumanly motivated (such as murdering a troll or kidnapping); also, we may be called in if a changeling's actions threaten to break the Silence.
However, if a changeling assaults another person, kills someone, rapes someone or commits some other personally-motivated or hot-blooded crime, that's not our problem. Police deal with those issues, and the relevant Hunting authorities have Wards that consult with local police departments and keeps the Silence while interfering as little as possible. In extreme situations, such as the instance of changeling serial killers or race riots beyond police control, Hunters do take the lead in meeting out justice; but, changelings integrate into society with the understanding that they follow human laws. Hunters are not police; we're peacekeepers, not law enforcers, and we let the boys in blue do their job.
For this reason, we may also be responsible for determining if an innocent citizen is of changeling origin, and reporting it to the local Hunting authorities so that they can inform the changeling community in order to deal with it before there is a Broken Silence incident.
Otherwise, this is akin to a hunt for a human being, it requires cunning and detective work, but the methodology is determined by the nature of the crime. Also, we are not here to play executioner, that's for the authorities to decide, we just have to catch them. In the instance of a changeling evading police after committing a crime; committing a hate crime against a troll or other changeling or committing identity theft, we step in to Hunt them down.

Find
Often, changelings are fugitives, and whether this is a case of murder, hate crime, rape, theft or vandalism, you need to find their trail. Because they can shapeshift, you can't reply on their looks to find them, so you should rely on something more solid: their motives, their emotions, their mind, their goals & their nature. And always remember that your missing person might not actually be your "missing person".
In either case of a fugitive or an identity thief, you need to find the witnesses, their social ties; this begins by speaking with everyone that has seen anything suspicious around the missing person and finding the evidence of their latest whereabouts. If we're searching for them, they are probably in some way a part of human culture, so interrogate their social circle, friends, "family" and fellow workers. These help to get an understanding of your prey and the way they act. Since they may be shifting their form even in their personal life, you need to look for evidence of their nature.
If they have no such ties, they may be a wild changeling, or a fugitive changeling that has fled from another town (this could be for a crime, but often it's because their identity is at risk of being exposed). In this instance, you need to rely on witnesses which have seen anything unusual in the area; especially look for local cafes and restaurants if they noticed any patrons acting unusual, or ordering an unexpectedly large amount of food.
Remember that changelings, when shapeshifted, have a large appetite because maintaining a form takes more energy; they have a preference for water (as in rain, lakes, rivers, beaches or pools) & in order to keep their form a secret, they tend to have a safespace in which to return to their natural form. Some do share their nature with friends, lovers or adoptive family, but they often still have somewhere in which they can freely change their appearance without being noticed. They will visit this place rather often, and it will be somewhere they have easy access to. In Hunting circles, this is sometimes known as a Changing Room, and this is our starting location.
Remember, the Changing Room is not necessarily their home and in certain situations may not even be private, this is just the space in which changelings can freely shapeshift. It will have some kind of genetic information for them to use as the template for their form to shapeshift, which I tend to call their turncoat; it could be hair, skin, bodily fluids or in some rare cases, living people; these may be kidnap victims, but I have known changelings that use places such as crowded subway trains or even mosh pits to steal a form and disappear into the crowd, but since those require a quick change it holds a high risk of splicing, so it is somewhat rare. Changing Rooms also often have a food source nearby, to deal with the initial hunger pangs of change - and remember, changelings aren't wild animals, they can eat pizza, salad, sandwiches and fruit like everyone else. An alley beside a pizza joint is all they need, so long as they have access to a turncoat. When on the run, changelings often abandon their Changing Room, but it is a font of information about their abilities, image and mindset. Changing rooms often have traces of the changeling's gel which they excrete in their natural form (which is what lead to stories of them "rending their skin" to change form).
Whilst changelings may be forced to pick a changing room out of necessity or lack of options, this space tells a lot about who they are. I've found that larger their changing room is, the less "integrated" they feel in human society (as though a need to "claim" a space for themselves), and if it's outside, they may feel isolated. If it's incredibly small, such as a closet or bathroom stall, it can be a sign of shame, low self-esteem, or even introversion. If they shift in a public place, it could show a sense of narcissism or superiority, contempt for authority or humanity; or even just youth, especially in school-aged changelings. Their source of turncoat also tells a lot, although the most important is, if they are using local targets they may be more aggressive and secretive, but if their target lives much further away from them, it tends to be a sign that they are trying to integrate. This helps narrow down your suspects.
Every single person that you have encountered so far, unless they are overweight or have some physical deformity unlike your changeling, is a suspect (note: changelings may have scars or lost limbs which affects their shapeshifting. They can recreate digits and minor facial features they may be missing, but if your changeling has lost a hand or leg, it can make your search much easier). Changelings can shift gender, skin colour, height, muscle mass and voice. everyone is a suspect. I remember one case where a Hunter captured a young woman he suspected of being a changeling; only for that woman to be found alive, raped and beaten, and revealing that the "Hunter" was a changeling that had used the story as a ploy to find a turncoat victim. Every single person is a suspect.
However, you can whittle this down. To begin with, changelings can only use a shapeshifted form if they have a turncoat for it. Even if they've occupied that form before, they need to refresh their form in order to maintain it, they could be anybody but they can't be everybody, this is why they tend to have their own Changing Room. So, if someone goes "missing", look out for doubles, or people acting strangely or "new arrivals" into town, especially those that look "oddly familiar". When on the run, they are often forced to change on the fly, but this makes them easier to find. Anything out of place is another clue. If it turns out that your suspect has left town, you need to get travelling, and start again from the top in a new place. However, the more they travel the easier it is for them to be exposed, so changelings prefer to hide not run; stick to the area around the Changing Room location until you've exhausted all other options. Your goal now is to investigate every suspect, and test them for their changeling nature. Although, if you have a suspect cornered they may run off and shapeshift again, so it's advisable that you prepare what you need to capture a changeling before you confront them.

Capture
Catching a changeling isn't much more difficult than capturing a human, so long as you don't let them start shapeshifting on you. However, capturing a human isn't always that simple either. And they can still use their shapeshifting to their advantage. More than anything,
So, for the most effective method of capturing a changeling, You Will Need:
"Choker" - Handcuffs aren't good enough. Changelings in their natural forms have thin wrists, but their brains can't get much smaller. So, you need something to wrap around their throat. I prefer a rope with a hangman's knot with five coils, so it's hard to loosen, but won't be so hard that it can suffocate the target. I know of some Hunters that resort to an animal control pole, but I find that demeaning and dangerous, since they have rather thin coils. But there have even been some that utilize a single yoke (a neck restraint designed for oxen), but I prefer something lightweight so you can hold the rest of your equipment, and also a rope can be slung over your shoulder, keeping your other hands free.
"Poker" - A motivator of some description. When you're facing off against a changeling, you may need some way to keep them in line. I think it's always advisable to keep one of these handy, even if you don't think the changeling will resist. Changelings spend a great deal of their lives lying about who they are, don't let them fool you too. I prefer my sword, but I honestly think a gun is very useful, since most find the threat of a gun enough to co-operate. If in doubt, getting something made of iron - especially if it's unprocessed iron - is your best bet.
"Joker" - Changelings are clever, as much as you or me, and when they get into a fight, it is common practice for them to steal their opponent's form, so as to guarantee a fair fight. This cannot be allowed, as it is your job to overpower, control and capture the changeling. So, it's a good idea to have a card up your sleeve, as an extra helping hand in case things go South. Personally, I favour a taser, I can slip it into my inner jacket pocket, and draw it at a moment's notice to zap any changeling in close quarters. Tranquilizers can work too, but they tend to take a while to work, can be expensive and tranquilizer needles are dangerous. But this is just a tool that can trick your target. Smoke bombs, drop-nets and trained animals can all serve this purpose well. One Hunter told me she used a "chemical face peel" to cover her exposed skin, so that when the changeling tried to steal her form, it failed and reverted to its weaker, natural form, making it easier to bind.



Final Notes
Changelings are all around us. Not everywhere, but in wet climates their numbers can be as high as 12% of the local population (according to the Archives). It may be tempting to think that we are surrounded by creatures of the dark and monsters, that danger unnatural danger lurks in every corner. But remember, not only are they quite rare, but most changelings are good, kind, caring and hardworking people. And if you spend day and night worrying about monsters creeping up behind you, a human might just as easily sneak up and slit your threat.

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