The Changelings of Zebrica · 7:49pm
The Changelings of Zebrica
The changelings of Zebrica are made up of two distinct swarms, each ruled by their own queens that have worked in close concert for the majority of their respective histories. Both sprang forth from an older, now non-existent swarm, whose former constituents went on to make up each of these swarms. The split occurred as a result of the Queen being unable to select between two changelings to make her successor and, going against what most considered sound reason, elected to attempt to put both through the process. Counting on one or the other falling short and then focusing upon the more successful changeling, this was undermined as both of the two nascent Queens exceeded expectations. Despite increasingly feeling the strain of this, the Queen maintained the process while leaning more heavily on her subjects to support the metamorphosis. In an unexpected turn of events both managed to achieve the status of Queenhood.
Unfortunately, the extra strain ensured that their predecessor wouldn't live long after having elevated the two of them, leading to a lack of guidance on some issues leaving much to the two Queens to figure out. Guided by the tradition that only one Queen could rule a given swarm, one of the Queens elected to leave, rather than cause tensions. After over a century of wandering and ruling respectively, the two Queens eventually reunited to address a crisis. Having relied upon the experiences of the Wandering Queen and the wisdom of the Ruling Queen they elected to rule as equals, with their respective swarms working together to cover the others shortcomings. Since that time, both Queens have ruled over the dangerous Zebrican Jungles, hidden from the eyes of the other races and even their fellow changelings.
Working together, both of these swarms jealously guard their territory against outsiders, dangerous wildlife, and long lost magical threats. Members of both swarms strive to ensure that those that don't already live in the jungles find the experience frightful and harrowing, using their abilities to frighten away outsiders. On the other hand, they strive to protect and sustain those Zebrican communities that already make their home in the jungles, driving away threats and providing quiet assistance where needed. This is far from altruistic, as these zebra are one of the main sources of energy for these two swarms, and are purposely kept isolated and superstitious.
These zebra communities are usually unfamiliar with the world beyond their jungles, much less the technological and societal advances of other zebras. Through longstanding, secretive agreements with the shamanic leaders of the communities, the changelings cast themselves as spirits hiding in the jungles that must be appeased and their warnings acknowledged. These shamans help conceal the truth and arrange the ritualistic celebrations that allow the changelings to feed without being noticed. And in turn, the changelings provide assistance to the shamans in the forms of special herbs, medicines, and poisons for their use, as well as helping these shamans seem more mystical.
This might seem a one-sided arrangement, if not for the changeling tradition of entrusting these shamans with secretly raising their young. Historically, they would have the shamans look after their relatively helpless young changelings, under the guise of prospective zebra apprentices. In truth, while a shaman might apparently have up to a dozen disciples, it usually is the case that only one or two are actually young zebra and meant to be the shaman's successor. This arrangement usually means that the successor has already formed bonds of trust with changelings and will be inclined to continue the quiet agreement. This also serves as both a helpful reminder to their own, that the changelings rely upon and must protect their zebra neighbors, if only for their own benefit. This has also helped ensure that they're shapeshifting abilities don't completely atrophy away, as with some changeling swarms. That being said, changelings of both jungle swarms are rarely as skillful in their disguises as the changelings of Chrysalis' swarm.
The Wandering Queen's Changelings:
Colloquially referred to by the unwitting locals that encounter them as 'Screechers', for the terrifying sounds they often loose to frighten away trespassers, this branch of changelings is the more numerous of the jungle changelings. These changelings most often serve as the scouts, warriors, spies, and hunters of the two changeling swarms residing in the jungles, often serving as the first-line of defense for all. Possessed of a leaner frame than most changelings, somewhat smaller wings, and more powerful, longer hind legs, they remain among the more recognizably changeling-like of the various changeling swarms. Noted for being more physically capable, both in terms of speed and strength, they've been noted to possess movements reminiscent of both equines and felines, slinking through the brush and trees with surprising ease.
Having lived so long in the jungles and using their energies to adapt to them better, these particular changelings have seen their abilities of flight steadily diminish through the years, to the point it more serves to assist in slowing falls or enhancing their jumps. And they are known for their powerful leaping abilities. Even without the assistance of their wings, they can typically jump several times their body lengths in a single jump. And with their wings they are easily capable of traversing the canopies and the floors of jungles with alacrity, using bony spurs on their forehooves to cling to and climb through the trees. This has long proven useful in letting them keep an eye on their targets, whoever they may be, without themselves facing much risk from exposure.
Like most changelings, they still possess the ability to alter their physical forms magically, though when compared to Chrysalis' changelings, their transformations tend to lack precision and they struggle with extreme physical changes. Most can passably appear as a zebra or a pony without drawing attention, but they tend to lack the control needed to imitate specific individuals and they aren't as capable when it comes to altering their size or apparent gender. As such, most tend to settle for utilizing their shapeshifting abilities for the purposes of helping them camouflage themselves in their jungle homes, altering their coloration and the texture of their skin to better hide. Although, while not as skilled at altering their appearances, they remain very capable sound mimics, with most being able to replicate different animal calls and specific voices. Most often, they use this talent to subtly communicate with one another when tracking outsiders or to mislead said outsiders. This also manifests in what could be considered their battlecry, the terrifying screeching noises they loose to frighten away trespassers or dangerous wildlife. While the local zebra tend to know well-enough to recognize this as a warning more than anything, the chorus of piercing, bestial cries breaking out all around has been known to frighten some folks into shock.
They have also been known to elicit a certain amount of fear and caution from other changelings, though for different reasons. Among changelings, they represent one of the only swarms to regularly utilize 'forced-feeding' in the modern era. That is, forcibly pulling energies out of their targets, rather than coaxing it out of them as other changelings do to sustain themselves. Most changelings shun this method, due to both it's tendency to cause lasting harm to the subject, psychological and physical, and because recurring use of it by a changeling is usually seen as a sign of sociopathy or worse. That being said, this particular branch of changelings doesn't so much use it as a legitimate means of collecting life-sustaining energy. No, they explicitly consider it a weapon and a means of attack, taking advantage of the ability to sap strength and elicit primal fear from the most dangerous beasts and monsters that dwell deeper within the jungles they call home. Like other changelings, they still very much consider it taboo to use against their own kind and usually only use it against other sapient creatures as a last resort.
All-in-all the Screechers have finely tuned themselves into being the stealthy predators of the jungles of Zebrica, traversing and concealing themselves with ease. When forced into action, they are capable of sowing confusion and fear, even as they strike with hoof, fang, and horn. And when their strength, speed, or cunning fail them, they are more willing than most to rely upon a weapon that few have any sort of defense against.
That being said, they aren't without their own relative shortcomings...
Most observably, the Wandering Queen's descendants are not as strongly gifted in using their magic in the non-physical ways. While they can achieve some skill with focused practice, it is rarely a true specialty among their ranks. As previously mentioned, their shapeshifting is less refined than that of some of their cousins and they rarely develop an affinity for any sort of mind-magic. And while they are quite used to using their stored energy to enhance their physical abilities, more specialized control of their own bodies tends to elude them. While other changelings are capable of manufacturing specialized slime or carefully control their breathing and vitals, the applications for their stored energy tends to be very direct.
A less immediately noticeable shortcoming is a result of their long-term usage of forced-feeding as a tool. The ease with which a changeling is able to feed is usually connected to the emotional state of the target, with more relaxed and open individuals being easy to feed upon and more closed-off or resistant individuals making it a struggle. This has given most changelings a sort of limited empathic ability, that let's them easily read the emotional state of others; it can be compared to a sense of smell, but keyed to their ability to feed upon life-energies, rather than food. However, forced-feeding usually results in feelings of extreme distress and fear from it's targets on the outset, something that is usually quite off-putting for most changelings, given their ability to sense such feelings. This gives rise to the belief among changelings that those that regularly indulge in such feeding techniques are disturbed, as they would have to be able to repeatedly disregard their ability to sense the harm they're causing when doing so. After years of using such feeding methods, even as a carefully applied form of attack, this has resulted in the empathic abilities of these changelings being blunted.
The results of this dulling of their empathic sense are manifold, as these empathic abilities often serve as a bedrock for changeling communities, even among those for whom it is mostly a subconscious ability. Compared to other changelings, this branch is often less capable of reading the emotions of both their fellow changelings and outsiders. While capable of recognizing other changelings, even disguised ones, on sight, they tend not have as easy a time getting along. Many of them tend towards being more individualistic and where other changelings can live even in tightly packed communities amicably, the Wandering Queen's descendants can struggle to get along. While they are usually more capable than other changelings at taking individual initiative, the almost intuitive ability of most changelings to work together is not nearly as common among this branch. And while most changelings aren't particularly concerned with social station in relation to one another, these changelings tend to slip into pecking orders. As such, efforts are usually taken to teach them to work together, with most being grouped together into small, relatively-independent packs under the umbrella of authority and direction provided by Queen Vespi.
Even so, it remains a bit of a stereotype among even themselves that they can be stand-offish, confrontational, and a bit grim. Psychologically, while not given over to many pathological fears, they tend to have a greater tendency towards anti-social behavior, anger issues, inferiority or superiority complexes, and an inability to manage stress. At least, when compared to other changelings. That's not to say that those are exceptionally common problems among their ranks, as most are quite well-adjusted. But when there are psychological issues, these tend to crop up more often.
As mentioned, within the arrangement between these two swarms, the so-called Screechers usually take on the task of defense. To this end they regularly patrol the jungles, keeping both their changeling brothers and sisters and the zebra communities that they feed upon safe from outsiders or dangerous wildlife. Beyond this, they also tend to serve in the role of messengers through their territory, quickly passing important information between their hidden enclaves and their zebra allies. This allows these two changeling swarms some level of coordination, spread out as they are through the vast jungles of Zebrica, though not nearly to the degree exhibited by Chrysalis' swarm. As information cannot always be sure to reach the two Queens in time, it's typically expected that individual packs of these changelings respond if needed.
While typically taking on more militant roles, they do find their abilities help in other ways. While their shapeshifting skills are not quite exceptional, they are sufficient for moving about among zebra communities to collect energy. Usually this is done during the semi-regular festivals that their sister-swarm and their shaman allies arrange for just that purpose. And they often take an active role in ensuring that the isolated zebra communities are provided for when needed, delivering needed resources or food when there are shortages or subtly leading the residents from danger. Indeed, they serve quite well in leading expeditions deeper with the jungles to gather things like medicinal plants. And while not skilled in magical healing, their needs have lead to many becoming capable at mundane forms of treating injuries and sicknesses.
More than any other they know what lies within the depths of the Zebrican jungles, having explored the ruins of lost civilizations, faced dangerous monsters, and made contact with mysterious entities that still call those regions home. While they sometimes struggle to get along with others, there are few among their ranks that don't enjoy sharing the stories of what they've seen or done. That is one thing they very much share with Chrysalis' swarm, an ongoing love and affinity for story-telling, that often serves to bring them together, even as it lets them elevate themselves.
The Ruling Queen's Changelings:
The counterparts to the high-leaping, stealthy warriors of the Zebrican jungles, these changelings are noted for their extreme affinity for plant life and plant-based magic. Sometimes referred to as “Seedlings”, these changelings largely appear similar to Chrysalis' own changelings, with the most apparent distinguishing traits being their smaller wings and the climbing spurs on their legs that they share with their sister-swarm. At least, until they begin to mature, at which point most start delving into a particular brand of changeling magic that they have perfected. By coating parts of their bodies in a special, energy-rich slime and then attaching plants, seeds, and mosses to it they can form a sort of symbiotic relationship with flora. By the time they are considered adults, most are covered from nose-to-tailtip in a verdant coat of plant life, feeding their own energy into it in order to reap unique benefits.
Compared to their sister-swarm, these Seedlings are much more specialized in the realm of providing magical benefits to their collective, with a general proclivity towards magic and their exceptional talent for manipulating plants. They tend to possess magical talent a bit above that of the average unicorn and are capable of expanding upon this by studying the magics of other races. But, as mentioned, their true focus lies with cultivating their personal gardens, with each of these changelings sporting nearly unique collections and appearances. The core aspect of this magic that they take advantage of is actually quite mundane though, as they exploit the connection between themselves and the plant-life to store more energy than they would normally be able to. Their bodily gardens are inherently suffused with the energies that the Seedlings feed into them, a trait which they purposely compound in order to create things like intensely energy-rich fruits and the like. In this way, they have a surprising capacity to stretch the amount of sustenance a given amount of energy provides their swarm.
In addition to providing extra storage and a means to share the life-sustaining energies they collect, these Seedlings have found a myriad of uses for their plant-based magic. Apart from storing energy, the most common use for it lies in camouflage, with their bodies easily blending into their surroundings without much need for shapeshifting. They are also quite capable of producing specific useful plants or, with time, even cultivating entirely new kinds of plant-life for their use. Among such plants one can find instances of highly medicinal herbs, controlled bio-luminescent chemicals, potent poisons, mind-altering substances, and powerful musks. Indeed, many of the special resources the jungle changelings provide to local zebra shamans are cultivated in this way, letting them serve and mystify their communities. More combative uses include cultivating pliable, but strong, bark armors of their bodies, thorny protections over their bodies, the use of vines and roots as extra appendages, or even the ability to launch poisonous quills.
Beyond these personal uses, the older, more powerful individuals are capable of integrating themselves with external plant-life extending their control on surrounding plants. This usually takes more skill and effort and always requires some physical contact, but they can then control and direct brush and vines and glean certain bits of information. Working in small groups they can even coordinate themselves well-enough to take command of and animate full-grown trees, moving them to alter local geography or even as a means of attack. Combined with their own specially cultivated plant-life, they use their abilities to weave together small sections of the jungle into the living sanctuaries that both changeling swarms call home.
Groves of tightly interwoven and specially grown plants and trees have been brought together over decades or even centuries to form protective groves that can prove larger than a hundred feet or more across in all directions. Every part of these groves is connected through vines, slimes, and root systems turning each one into a sort of singular super-organism. And at the heart of each of these groves there will be a Seedling, connected physically and magically so deeply to these collectives as to be nigh inseparable. These Seedlings serve as the core of these groves, controlling and directing its growth, monitoring everything within its perimeter, and potentially even compelling these groves to pick themselves up and move to another location. Being so suffused with the stored up energies within the plant-life of these groves, these changelings give up their autonomy and freedom of movement, but often gain extended lifespans. Often living two to three times longer than other changelings, they usually become sources of wisdom and leadership that are second only to that provided by the two Changeling Queens of the jungles and matched by only the most capable of pack-leaders from their sister-swarm.
Beyond their plant-magic, these Seedling aren't especially gifted physically, with most being slowed down by their personal gardens. That being said, they have a nigh unparalleled ability to survive long periods without feeding, thanks to their large reserves. And while not as quick as their brothers and sisters, they remain quite capable of slinking stealthily through the jungles, using a combination of climbing spurs and sticky slimes to move through the canopies.
Compared to other changelings, the Seedling are just not particularly mobile. Like the changelings of their sister-swarm, the claustrophobic confines of the Zebrican jungles make flight not especially viable for them. Combined with the potentially burdensome addition of their bodily collections of plants, it's hardly any surprise that the only way they get off the ground is by climbing, even before they start cultivating their gardens. And with so much of their energy dedicated to the growth and maintenance of their plants, that leaves less of their precious energy to dedicate to enhancing their strength and speed. Plus there is the simple fact that they have to consider their floral passengers when moving, with some of the plants being too frail to withstand rough movement. As such, this particular branch of changeling is very much of the slow-and-steady mindset when it comes to getting around. There are exceptions, but typically they aren't going to be winning any races.
Additionally, upon reaching the age where they start cultivating their gardens, their shapeshifting powers are quickly taken off the table for all but the most serious emergencies for the majority. While the plant-life growing on them is steadily integrated with their bodies, it still represents a separate organism. As such, attempts to shapeshift will, at best, fizzle out because of the additional non-changeling parts of themselves. At worst, it could cause the abrupt severing of a changeling from their floral passengers, killing the plants and putting however much work they've put into them to waste. Such an abrupt severance could potentially even cause a physical shock in the changeling, due to their abrupt removal. While they don't precisely feel pain or anything like it through their bond with these plants, they are physically aware of them and feel a tangible connection with them.
Another unusual drawback of their plant-based magic, is that cultivating the plants on their bodies does mean supplying them with all of the resources you would expect a plant to need. This means getting sunlight, water, and nutrients to them. Water and sunlight aren't too difficult to see to, but the issue of nutrients makes them one of the few kinds of changeling that relies significantly upon actual food. Most branches of changeling rarely need to take in physical food upon reaching full maturity, provided they otherwise are well-supplied with the collected energy of others. But Seedlings often do need to maintain a source of such physical sustenance, as without it they're plants will die and their own health will suffer. As the plants become more integrated with their bodies they will start drawing resources from the Seedling's body, necessitating either ingesting food themselves or finding other ways to provide what's needed. Failing to do so could lead to the plants becoming a dangerous drain on the changeling's own health.
Overall, this tends to make them the classic Squishy Wizards to their sister-swarm's Tough Warriors, with their varied and potent magics providing a wealth of options but also coming with a number of hindrances. As mentioned with the Screechers, there are exceptions to this tendency with some of the Seedlings focusing their efforts into mitigating these weaknesses to fill-in for other roles.
Just as their counterparts take on certain roles, so to do the so-called Seedlings, usually applying their skills to forming the infrastructure and resources that both swarms need to take root within their jungle home. By-and-large, this means the Seedlings tend to stick closer to home than their counterparts, maintaining and expanding the sanctuaries they all depend on and helping maintain the ties to the zebra communities they feed upon. For them the tasks of construction and farming are interconnected, as they build their groves, camouflage them, and see to the task of creating defenses for them. They are in many ways the caretakers of the swarms, picking up where there zebra allies leave off, as their young nymphs grow older.
Alongside their counterparts, Seedlings often lurk about the vicinity of the isolated jungle-dwelling zebra communities, contributing resources where appropriate and discouraging certain actions when needed. While not as far ranging as the Screechers, they do stay active in these core areas of their territory, using their plant manipulating abilities in opening up paths for unwitting zebras to water or food or closing off others to discourage travel to dangerous areas. In these regions they also assist in the task of driving away unwelcome outsiders, changing paths to disorient travelers, leading vines and brambles to cling to their legs, or by showering them with noxious pollen. These combined efforts have ensured that these zebra communities see few incursions from the outside world friendly or otherwise, keeping them both safe but stagnant.
Their efforts are also the principle foundation for the changelings of the jungles main method of collecting energy from zebra. While they will collect some amounts here and there from zebras or when their hunters utilize forced-feeding against dangerous beasts, the main portion of it is gathered from the semi-regular celebrations held in the communities. These longstanding ritualized festivals are usually orchestrated by the local shamans as a means to 'placate the spirits' or bring about good omens and such. Usually set up with copious amounts of food and drink and taking place at night, groups of Seedlings will organize methods of intoxicating the locals, by either spiking the banquets or by releasing clouds of mind-altering spores and pollen. Amidst the revelry and the haziness they bring about, they then send in groups of changeling to collect energy on mass throughout the night, who largely go unnoticed. The end result is most of the locals believing themselves to have partied themselves out into exhaustion or having offered up themselves to the spirits in some way.
Having seen to the collection of this energy, it then falls to the changelings to utilize it, bringing it back to their hidden groves to infuse it into their shelters. Much of it is used in the process of creating energy-rich fruits and vegetables for the changelings to partake in, while others invest it into the process of making more changelings. Following these resource-gathering celebrations, tradition typically dictates that the changelings see to delivering a large amount of useful medicines and foods to the tribe in question. This helps fuel the beliefs and superstitions they rely upon and lets them ensure that the overall health of the local zebras isn't too adversely affected.
To put it simply the Seedlings are the anchor that helps sustain their communities, as the foil to their counterparts that ensure their protection. While fewer in number than their sister-swarm, they play the equally vital role of helping bring them together, providing a safe haven both for their own, their fellow changelings, and, to a degree, the local zebra.
As always, questions and criticisms are welcomed. Feel free to share any thoughts you might have.