"I have run with the dire wolves and soared with the argentavi. I have hunted with the sabretooths and shared the caves of the dire bears. I am of this world." -Storm
The Shifters emulate the savagery of the wild beasts and revere strength and self-sufficiency, adopting the claw as their sign. Their chief carries the honorific 'Dark Walker.' They have proved their toughness by carving out tribal holdings in the inhospitable territory of the Qal Sisma mountains.
A nomadic people, the Shifters spend much of the year following prey beasts and raiding other tribes, particularly the gnolls. They harbor little desire for expansion or conquest, but they fiercely defend their community against intrusion, both physical and cultural.
Druids speak of 'frozen memories,' but every Shifter lives simultaneously in the days of the ancestors and in the present. Tribal roles are eternal, with each new generation assuming the ongoing mantle of a role: hunter, leader, whisperer, nurturer, slayer, and so on. Tribal legends speak of these roles rather than named heroes.
Life is tough in the mountains. People die often. Burial is difficult in the rocky and often frozen lands of the mountains, especially in winter, and fuel for fire is scant, so the Shifters have developed a practical solution. When someone dies, the corpse is rubbed down with snow, then wrapped in a ceremonial cloth. The other family members carry the deceased to a special site consecrated to the ancestors, a crevasse in the great glacier where the frozen corpses lie. Amid prayers and offerings of aromatic smoke, the corpse is lowered into the chasm to sleep with the ancestors in the eternal ice.
Very rarely, a Shifter might commit an offense that is unforgivable, such as cowardice in battle leading to the death of tribe members, or acts of betrayal. Guilt is judged by the Dark Walker, with the advice of the One Who Whispers Twice. The punishment for such heinous crimes is not just death, but utter removal from the tribe's memory. The offender is drowned in a rushing mountain stream, and the corpse is swept away by the rapids to be devoured by wild beasts. That voice will never join those of the sleeping ancestors.
Shifter magic is highly druidistic, with a strong elemental flavor. Druids call their magic 'whispering' and speak of the frozen memories and even the frozen spirits of the ancestors. Many Shifters have an elemental affinity that allows them to shape stone and ice to varying degrees. Those with the strongest talent construct fortified cave shelters and can manipulate the terrain in battle to hinder the enemy and strengthen their own position.
Concealment magic among the Shifters uses this belief in the frozen past. Druids whisper to the cold air and the ice. Glaciers, especially those containing the remains of wild beasts, are considered the most sacred sites. A druid performs a ritual, 'the thaw,' in which the druid strips off his or her heavy clothing, other than the ceremonial headgear, and meditates on the ancestors. As the druid slips deeper into trance, the druid's body begins to glow and throw off heat. The skin is flushed, and the air nearby shimmers. The druid begins to sink into the ice until he or she becomes encapsulated within a bubble of air; the melted ice re-freezes above, and the druid's headgear rests on top like a turtle shell.
After a period of communing with the frozen memories, the druid breaks open the icy capsule. Two beings emerge: the newly awakened druid, and a barely visible double, seemingly made of clear ice, which encases him or her like a skin. The ice twin separates and stands guard, awaiting orders, as the druid, now shivering and nearly dead from hypothermia, quickly dons the cast-off clothing. Although it physically resembles the druid, the ice twin carries within it the awakened memories of a spirit animal. When in battle, it can suddenly shatter to release the spirit within. Once the fight is over, the awakened spirit dissipates to return to sleep in the frozen mountain.
The tribe's chief druid is able to enter a trance communion with all of the other druids, regardless of distance. Through this, the chief druid exchanges information and, when a mighty summoning is needed, can lead a 'wide whisper' that involves the whole group. Such powerful rituals can awaken a very ancient ancestor or raise up a mighty elemental spirit.
Certain Shifter warriors can enter a battle fury called 'awakening the bear.' It is thought they learned this from the dire bears who share their territory. Their companions stay far from the awakened bears, since while in this state, they cannot distinguish friend from foe.
The Shifters have retained their traditional wrestling matches as both a way to blow off steam and to measure one's strength against another. During the harshest winter months, when all the families gather in communal shelters, such ritual battles are common both as entertainment and as a way to stay in fighting form when other sorts of exercise aren't practical.
The Shifters are nomadic. They travel in small family groups, pursuing herd beasts and settling temporarily in areas where food is plentiful in season, such as thickets of berry bushes or streams full of fish. In this, they resemble the beasts they revere. Only in the harshest months of winter do they cease their wandering.
Wandering Shifters carry everything they need with them. Their fur-lined coats, mittens, and heavy hide boots are effectively houses they always inhabit. Lightweight shelters of scraped hide can be quickly set up to block wind and precipitation; mammoth bones are readily available for use as tent poles. In areas of deep snow, they make use of sledges, which they haul themselves. These carry bundles of clothing, extra weapons, traps, dried food, and other supplies. Otherwise, they pack gear on their backs. Trusted dire bears sometimes help them carry their supplies.
Family is central to Shifter thinking, almost as important as it is as among the halflings. The bonds within a family group and to the family leader are much stronger than those to an external leader. Each family group sees the others as siblings within the community and supports them in the same way, although one's own family always comes first. The First Father or Mother of the tribe is considered to be the parent of all the families, and they owe fealty to the chief as they would their own parents. Every adult member of the tribe is a formidable fighter, and children learn weapon-play early in life. Even a nursing mother is a ferocious opponent in battle, perhaps even more so than others since she carries her infant with her and will fight ceaselessly to protect it. Druids are seen as living links to the beasts who are frozen in time.
Shifter whisperers are also sometimes known as the 'weavers of the three destinies,' referring to the past, the now, and the unwritten now. They are far more aware of the continual and overlapping nature of time than ordinary Shifters, seeing the past and the various possible presents all at the same time. They wear enormous headpieces that completely shade their upper faces. From these they hang fetishes and charms made from carved bone, antlers, relics, and the like. The assemblage serves to focus the druid's whispering; the more tokens, the more powerful the ritual. On the oldest druids, such heavily decorated headgear bows the wearer's shoulders.
Their eyes are never visible, symbolically reinforcing the idea that they whisper and listen to the ancestors and the elemental spirits, and see all times. They are by no means helpless; they move about unassisted and apparently are completely aware of their surroundings, although it's unknown to others whether this is magically assisted sight, augmented senses other than sight, or wild shape senses. The druids do not explain themselves.
The gender of a given whisperer is not apparent, given the concealing headgear and heavy clothing they all wear. It's only revealed when he or she enters trance to commune with the beasts and spirit animals, which the druids only do in isolated places high in the mountains, all alone. Whisperers don't have an interest in procreation. They are found, not made. When a child shows the talent, he or she is taken away and raised in secretive crèches among the druids, who bring in caretakers and guardians from the common folk.
From days long ago to now, the Shifters have enjoyed a close partnership with dire bears. The beasts carry them into battle and draw their war wagons. They are seen as family members and welcomed with gifts of food as well as ceremonies giving thanks. The dire bears typically go their own way when not actively working with the tribe but come in response to a call from the Dark Walker via the one Who Whispers Twice.
These great dire bears are enormous, shaggy brown beasts, standing perhaps ten feet at the shoulder, and weighing up to a ton. They inhabit caves and hollows and, while omnivorous, prefer meat when they can get it.