Monster of the Week: The Consult Skin Spy


The Last Children of the Inchoroi. art by Jason Deem

The unnatural world undulates with monstrous deception. Every familiar face may well prove a clever mask for some unspeakable horror. The world of Eärwa, detailed in R. Scott Bakker's excellent "Second Apocalypse" saga, is no exception to the rule.*

The Unholy Consult

An ancient enemy still threatens the medieval civilizations of Eärwa: a dreaded cabal of alien Inchoroi and fallen sorcerers who employ a host of devious tactics to cripple the world and secure it as their own safe harbor against damnation. While they readily employ sorcery, they also make use of the Tekne, an ancient and largely forgotten science that enables the manufacture of flesh.

While hordes of Sranc and lumbering Bashrags serve as the foot soldiers in their war, the Consult developed an ever more subtle weapons race for their covert operations: the skin spy.

Anatomy of a Skin Spy

Engineered as the perfect undercover agent, skin spies boast the perfect anatomy for espionage and assassination.

(Art by Jason Deem)

For starters, their bodies are cartilaginous, meaning their skeletons are composed entirely of cartilage much like a shark or ray. This enables the skin spy to alter height and body shape as needed to mimic most human forms. Also like a shark, they boast inhuman speed and strength -- a factor that makes most skin spy discoveries a deadly affair.

Yet cephalopods provide the best natural-world counterpart to the skin spy. Not only do they alter the size and shape of their cartilaginous bodies, they also utilize millions of specialized pigment cells called chromatophores to adjust skin color. We can only assume the so-called "last children of the Inchori" feature the same cells to mimic a victim's pigmentation.

(Photo by Jeff Rotman/Getty)

Furthermore, as the illustrations reveal, the face of a skin spy is actually a complex array of webbed tentacles overlaying a cartilaginous skull. This system allows the reproduction of any human face -- and not as a mere lifeless mask but a fully expressive countenance. Even the micro expressions of human communication are present.

It's a deceptive feat reminiscent of the mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus), which can contort its body color, size and texture to mimic such diverse species as lion fish, sea snakes, sting rays, sea anemones and jellyfish. Like the skin spy, the mimic octopus also assumes the behavior and movement of its target, in addition to mere appearance.

Luckily, the mimic octopus only wants to appear venomous to would-be predators and has little interesting in furthering the return of the No-God Mog-Pharau. Let's watch it in action:

* These are fantastic books if you're looking for thought-provoking dark fantasy. Buy the first book in the saga right here, and if you've read without paying for them, consider earning a little e-karma.

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.