What follows is a Writer Battle between S Shane Thomas and Tristram Lowe. Essentially, Thomas has butted into Lowe's story and created a new, connected narrative.
If you have read Headless, you might get a kick out of reading a coinciding narrative and extended ending of the first chapter. If you haven’t read Headless, the entirety of that first chapter is here, but has been divided into two parts: One and Three, for the purposes of Thomas’s story, which is comprised of parts Two and Four. They feature Thokmay and Acacia, members of the Order of Skinchangers from A Paleolithic Fable. They are hunting out a Ghostkin warrior when they encounter a “rotbringer darker than any Ghostkin.”
by Tristram Lowe
A noise came from the bedroom. It sounded like a thud and then something rolling. The closet door had probably fallen open again.
Sayaka lay on the couch entangled in a blanket. She did not want to get up, not in the slightest. Her boyfriend’s golf clubs were in the closet, and the heavy bag would often lean against the door and push it open. A golf ball had likely tumbled out. Katsu hadn’t even liked golf. He had only played because his boss did.
She heard another noise, softer this time, like boxes shifting. It was probably just her boyfriend’s stuff being jostled when the golf bag fell. She extracted herself from the couch to investigate.
Sayaka hadn’t opened the bedroom closet since Katsu’s death a month before. All of his clothes were in there, and his stacks upon stacks of playing cards, which he had collected for years. There wasn’t much room in the closet for anything else. Three suitcases and a dozen shoeboxes were filled and piled against the wall. He had bought them from every tourist spot and game store he had ever visited. He hadn’t been able to leave a souvenir shop without at least three packs. Sayaka had often been frustrated with him spending so much money on cards when he had rarely taken her to dinner. “Cards are cheap!” he would say. “Dinner is much more expensive.”
“Not when you buy ten packs!” she would counter. And sometimes he had spent up to 2000 yen on one pack. But he hadn’t listened. At times she had believed his hobby was more important to him than her.
Sayaka kept her own clothes in a separate wardrobe. After Katsu had moved in, she removed her photo albums and her two boxes of old Doraemon comics and just let him have the whole closet.
Katsu’s death had sent her into a terrible depression. She had found out about it initially from the news on her little black and white television in the kitchen. “Another man’s body was found this morning at the train station here in Kofu,” the reporter said. “And like the others found in recent months, it was only the body. This man also had no head.”
Katsu had not come home the previous night. Often, he had to work late and would catch the last train from Matsumoto, where he was employed at a company that made high precision plastic products for light industrial use. He was in sales. It wasn’t rare for him to not come home. His boss would always work late, and to Katsu, it was not only disrespectful but unthinkable to leave work before the boss. Some nights, when he missed the last train, he would stay with a friend. But he would always call.
She had known that the reporter was talking about Katsu. She felt it in her gut. She didn’t answer her phone for two days. Finally the police came to the door. The body had been identified by fingerprints. The police questioned her extensively while she sat numbly answering. They wanted to know where she had been, what their relationship was like, and why she hadn’t filed a missing persons report. In the end, they accepted that she was simply overwhelmed with loss and couldn’t possibly be the killer.
Sayaka had returned to her job after a week leave of absence and now went through her days like a zombie. She declined all of her co-workers’ offers to go to their local izakaya for drinks after work. Their weak attempts to console her with alcohol and mindless camaraderie made her want to be alone all the more.
Her apartment was empty, dusty, and quiet. The blinds hadn’t been opened in weeks.
Her TV hadn’t been turned on since its dreadful announcement of her boyfriend’s death. It sat on the dumb waiter, dried ramen draped over the edge of the screen from when she had flung her bowl at it days later, recalling the broadcast. She wanted silence but couldn’t find it. Even when it was quiet, the words replayed in her mind.
This man also had no head.
The neighbor’s TV would sound through the wall some days. It didn’t matter what it was playing. In between lines of cooking shows and anime episodes, she would hear it.
This man also had no head.
She would put pillows over her ears to try to block it out. She wanted to put a pillow over her mouth to smother herself.
If only that would work.
Sometimes, she sat in the dark quietly weeping. Three times, she had dropped to her knees to pray, but no words would come. So she would collapse to the floor, her long black straight hair pooling on the hardwood, mingling with the dust. Eventually she would fall asleep.
But she did not dream of Katsu.
She dreamt of samurai.
Her father had told her time and again that they were descendants of samurai from western Honshu. Sayaka’s skin was far paler than normal. He claimed that was proof of their nobility.
When she was a girl, this had meant something to her. Now they were useless words, memories of a man she never saw anymore.
In her dream, her skin was white as chalk.
She stood in a vast garden surrounded by castle walls. She wore the finest kimono of pale purple with peonies adorning the wide sleeves. Bellflowers were intricately patterned across her chest, while irises blooming by a running stream encircled the hem.
Cherry blossoms fell all around her and blanketed the ground like pale pink snow. In her hand, she held a slender naginata, its long black handle ending in a short curved blade resting among the blossoms and dripping blood.
In front of her lay a dead crane.
She looked down at it with remorse, scanning its slender body and long neck. There was no wound that she could see. But it was clearly dead.
Had she killed it?
She looked up and saw people lining a balcony. She did not know them. Their faces were grave, dire and judgmental. They looked down at her with anger, with disappointment and disgust.
The flowers slipped from her kimono like leaves drifting from a tree, and the fabric’s purple hue began to darken. It became deeper and deeper until it was nearly black. She fell to her knees, dropping her bloody weapon, and cradled the crane in her arms, but it dissolved into worms and ash. It fell through her fingers, repelling the cherry blossoms, which retreated from it like feathers in a sudden gust of wind.
She looked up and saw streams of light burning through the castle walls like fire through paper, burning through the people, who seemed oblivious to it. Playing cards fell through the gaps in the walls. Queens and aces, kings and jacks, clubs, diamonds, spades and hearts of all numbers fell to the ground where the cherry blossoms had just been. But now they landed in ash and dirt, and were eaten by the worms.
Sayaka hated that she didn’t dream of Katsu, only of his damned cards. She resented her father for filling her head with the nonsense about samurai. It took up the dreamscape that her dead lover should be occupying.
by S Shane Thomas
Bits of ash danced about a breeze. Thokmay blinked away a bit that drifted too near his eyes. The sight of ash covering the ground like snow never got old to him. In the three years since Toba erupted, he had returned to the surface more often than he could tally, but the awesome and terrible majesty of the landscape always overcame him. A warm hand clasped his shoulder.
“Are you alright, Thokmay?” Acacia cocked an eyebrow at him.
Thokmay couldn’t see his mate’s ebony complexion of deep brown eyes glint with concern, instead her features were magnified through the shugarra that protected them from the soot and dust that covered the world. Her silver mask smiled and Thokmay felt his cheeks pushing up and causing his eyes to narrow. “Not even ash winter gives me much despair when I’m with you.”
“Will you try to kiss me in the bleak wastes, or should we resume our hunt?”
Thokmay rubbed the shugarra over his chin and contemplated kissing her through their skinchanger cloaks. Speaking the command to remove the mask and body armor would get a mouth full of ash. Acacia’s giggle broke his contemplation. “You got me again, with that sharp wit of yours, Swapper girl.”
“What sort of mate would I be if I couldn’t lift your spirits? And what sort of leader would I be if we snuck off for romance rather than our mission?”
“I’m glad to smile before I open myself to mana.” Thokmay scanned their surroundings and nodded toward a fallen log. He trudged through ash up to his knees. The experience was like his time spent in Icehunter country, though ash did not make his toes numb and wet. He sat down on the log and closed his eyes, allowing his own mana to blend with All.
Acacia’s mana was nearest. Her joy and innocence pulsed outward with every heartbeat. He basked in its presence before facing the death and despair that had blanketed all the realms of humanity on the surface of this world. Toba’s furious eruption had smothered the living jungle homes of Firebringers, wiped out the island huts of the Ebu Gogo, drowned Swapper Caravans, and even coated over the frozen realm of the Icehunters. All of the plant and animal life smothered under a blanket of molten ash that enveloped the world. Ghosts of that despair still clung to the places where life once thrived.
It was through this ether of pain and loss that Thokmay pursued his quarry. He among the many parts of All was strongest in mana and its arcane uses. His own people, the Firebringers, could all touch mana beyond themselves, and used their gifts to communicate with the mana in animals. Ghostkin could access the mana of those they consumed. His mana bond with All had grown during the fight at the base of Toba. He could follow mana from the desolation and solitude of this world to any realm that a Ghostkin’s kadinger could roam.
Ghostkin were going into other places, where life thrived, where people lived happy lives. Going there and taking people for food. The Order of Skinchangers sent warriors into the blight and beyond to find and stop the cannibal giants, but their force, united under Enkara and Namtar, had scattered like dust in the wind. Each time they found a group of Ghostkin and dealt with them, talk of another tribe surfaced. Despite everything they had saved, their long term survival was still far from certain.
A chill crept up his spine. Dread filled his belly. Then he saw it. An inky smoke grey trail of vapor. He soulwalked along its path, not an hour old. He passed over the remnants of the forest beyond the log his physical body occupied. He traveled overland for what would take days to walk, then he felt the tear. The place where a kadinger had ripped a portal to another realm. Some realms were nearly indistinguishable from his own, others filled him with wonder. All filled him with dread, knowing the horrors Ghostkin left in their wake. He studied the tear until he saw the pattern and committed it to memory.
Thokmay gasped and sat upright in his physical form.
“Did you find one?” Acacia reached a hand down and helped Thokmay to his feet.
“Yes. One so recent that I’m hopeful for the people on the other side. Hand me the kadinger, I’ll dial in the pattern and create a portal.”
by Tristram Lowe
It was Sunday, the day they used to walk together in Maizuru Castle Park, the day they would get crepes with ice cream and lay on the grass, the only day of the week they had time to be intimate. They would lie in bed afterward, dreaming of a house together on an island somewhere. They would have a farm, and maybe children.
She knew that just picking up his golf clubs would make her cry, but she had to do it eventually. She had been sleeping on the couch since it happened. She had avoided the bedroom altogether, but she knew she had to deal with it now. He was gone.
She had to accept that.
Opening the bedroom door, she discovered she was right. The closet door was wide open and Katsu’s olive green golf bag was prostrate on the floor, its clubs splayed out and pointing accusations at her. A battered golf ball had rolled most of the way across the hardwood and stopped just where she now stood.
Steeling herself to the task in front of her, she picked up the golf ball and took one stiff step toward the closet.
She stopped abruptly. Someone was in there.
A large figure was hunched over in the closet. The shock of it made her breath catch. Someone had broken in. But worse than that, this intruder appeared to be in full samurai armor. It was like a figure from her dream had come to life. He barely fit inside the closet; hanging clothes were draped against the complex pieces of the yoroi carapace. A sheathed katana protruded from his left hip like a huge black tongue. His menacing kabuto helmet—a leering many-toothed dragon face adorned its front with ears like reptilian wings and twisting horns spiking upward—had been removed and placed next to the golf bag. His focus was intent on the contents of a shoebox. He sifted through the playing cards within, admiring each pack.
Fear froze Sayaka for a moment, but she quickly felt violated and angry. Her boyfriend was dead, and now someone was looting through his cards! She no longer cared that this intruder was in armor. The freak must have climbed through the window. She noticed it was wide open.
Without thinking, she shouted at the armored stranger and hurled the golf ball at him. “Stop it! Leave those alone! They’re not yours!”
The samurai in the closet lurched upward, banging his head on the shelf above him, and turned to face Sayaka, a gruesome scowl of hatred embossed on his face. It was otherworldly, too pronounced to be real. It was a face of pure fury glaring at her. A pack of cards fell from his large, gauntleted hands.
The face was gray and bloodless. The teeth that showed through its scowl were an awful yellow with thick grime in the gaps. The eyes were wet, almost teary, but the pupils were a dead and lifeless black; no human soul resided there.
The black hair was matted and unkempt. So often had she told Katsu to brush his hair. It had always looked a wreck, but he had never cared.
The cheeks were hanging; the skin looked like burlap; the eyes were empty, but it was Katsu's face. It was unmistakably his face twisted into that angry, unfamiliar grimace. But it was most definitely not his body. The body that wore her lover’s head was much larger than Katsu's. He had always been on the scrawny side. And besides, his body had been cremated three weeks ago.
Sayaka stood, unable to move. Her love had come back to her. But this reincarnation of him was unforgivably wrong. Her guts begged to cry out, but nothing came. Her lips did not even move, save a tiny, almost imperceptible quiver.
Then, in one swift and graceful movement, the katana’s blade flashed from its scabbard and severed the air on either side of Sayaka’s neck. In the same movement, the samurai with Katsu's face shook the drops of blood from the blade and re-sheathed it silently.
At first, it felt only like a cool breeze had passed just beneath her ears, then a tickle in her throat like the start of a cold. Then she was dizzy and the room spun around her until she was staring up at what looked like her own clothes still on her body, jeans and a lime green t-shirt. A fountain of red pulsed from her empty neck. Then her body collapsed. And her eyes went dark.
by S Shane Thomas
Thokmay held Acacia’s hand and his breath as they passed together into the portal. He knew he didn’t have to do either, but the portals disrupted mana in a way that chilled his bones. Acacia however, continued talking and passed through as if it were another bowl of Silaluk’s root porridge.
“Assuming every Ghostkin was able to disperse from his battle group and reconnect with his village, Hazi and I think there could be a thousand groups to confront. Some he might persuade, but the longer into ash winter they go without being discovered, the likelier they will be set in their ways. Especially those who remain unnamed.” Acacia crouched on the strange pebbled surface that was unnaturally flat and ended abruptly on four straight sides.
“These dwellings are like those from Bobby’s time,” Thokmay said. He carefully walked to the edge of the roof and peered down at a black surface. “I see streetlights and we are on a high rise building. It’s like we are in one of the films we watch on the slate.”
“In a world like this, there are markets full of food. That rotbringer is going to crash into such a place, terrifying all the locals, kidnap one, and ignore all their abundance. If we could have just named them all right then and there on the beach, their consciousness would have begun to form. Then you and I could go places like this to simply see what wonders they hold.”
“I think our mental shifts began thanks to our interactions with Bobby, who was already conscious, not because we have names.” Thokmay used his shugarra’s heat vision to scan the area, looking for sign of their Ghostkin while he spoke.
“Alright, you are right, Thokmay, no time for a little romance and daydreaming, we’ve got a monster to capture,” Acacia replied. She joined him on the ledge.
Thokmay sighed at the lost opportunity and gave her a sidelong look. She was the first person who accepted him after his people had branded him outcast. He would love her beyond this life and into their next. He put his hand over hers on the ledge and gave her his warmest smile, his eyes nearly shutting. “Let’s deal with our quarry and visit here again on our rest day.”
Acacia gave him a brief smile and nod, then began scanning the street below for sign of mayhem.
Thokmay gave up on searching with his eyes alone and settled into a seated position. His mana eased from his body and then jolted at the proximity of something dark. Darker than the soul of a Ghostkin. Theirs was a pure spirit, their predatory nature as innocent as that of a jungle cat, but tainted by the mana of the people they consumed. This darkness may once have been human, but twisted into pure rotbringer. Whatever this being was, it could never hope to be human or pure of heart once more. “Something else is here. Some rotbringer darker than any Ghostkin.”
Acacia gasped. “There.”
Thokmay roused his body while still controlling his mana. During the battle on Toba, his near death experience had awakened this ability and through long hours of meditation and practice he had learned to harness it at will. The act would exhaust him beyond the ability to rise from bed for a whole day, but he sensed they would need every advantage to confront this monster.
“Thokmay, you are glowing! Everyone in the city will see you, we will not get the jump on that rotbringer, either.” Acacia spoke the command and the skinchanger armor rustled and retwined itself into a pair of wings and tail feathers. She leaped into flight.
Thokmay leaped off the roof, his shugarra remained in its hulking muscular form. The added strength allowed his jump to thrust him past Acacia and plummet from the rooftop on a collision course with the rotbringer.
The hide of the creature dazzled Thokmay in the instant before the impact. His mana, now bright as day and visible to any who could see the light of the sun, glinted a vibrant blue white light off the rotbringer’s smooth surface. This was an armor of sorts. It shone like glass and felt like stone as he collided, checking his shoulder into its back and slamming it into the ground.
Thokmay rolled into a kneeling position, and saw the rotbringer laid out flat on his belly. Instinct drilled into him from Bobby’s countless hours of instruction sprang him onto the rotbringer’s back. Thokmay laced his arm around its neck. A distant thought suggested the armor might be weak there. Thokmay locked his arms into a choke hold and press the palm of his hand into the back of the rotbringer’s helmet.
Instead of his opponent struggling against the choke, or gurgling as its windpipe closed, the head simply popped off and rolled a pace away from the pair. A young woman’s face with pale skin and long black hair stared out with a dead gaze. Then spots burst in his vision and Thokmay was on his back, clambering to his feet.
Acacia was a silver blur, pounding down on the headless armored rotbringer from above. A knife, as long as an arm and more slender than a spear shaft lashed out and bit into Acacia’s forearm. Thokmay winced, and then grinned. It was her new arm. The arm that was purely skinchanger. She twisted her arm and torso first wrenching the blade free from the monster’s grip, then flinging it free from her own arm. It clattered to the ground near its head.
The rotbringer tensed, looking to Thokmay like it was ready to fight on, beheaded and disarmed as it was. Then it, Acacia, and Thokmay turned to the side at the sound of a woman’s shrill scream.
A giant, clad in animal bones and skulls for armor, and painted in orange-red ochre underneath, burst from a doorway and pulled a woman in floral robes into the street by her hair. The Ghostkin snarled at the sight of the skinchangers. Acacia’s palm splayed and energy burst from her shugarra and smashed into the giant’s chest, spraying bits of his bone armor about. His grip on the woman’s hair loosened as the Ghostkin stumbled back two paces.
Thokmay bolted toward the giant and jumped into a sidekick that knocked him flat. Thokmay hammered the Ghostkin with punches and saw Acacia tending to the rattled woman in his peripheral vision. The giant slumped, unconscious.
“Where did that rotbringer go?” Acacia barked.
Thokmay looked about. The woman was running back in the direction she had come. There was no sign of the monster, its weapon, or its head. “Maybe it’s best if we take this rotbringer home, and leave the other to the heroes of this realm.”
Acacia nodded her agreement and dialed the kadinger. A portal opened and the skinchangers carried their quarry through.
“Maybe this isn’t the best realm for down time after all,” Thokmay grunted.
Catch up on Thokmay and Acacia’s first adventure in A Paleolithic Fable. Join S Shane Thomas’s newsletter here to read other Writer Battles, his ongoing monthly serial- Shugarra Corps, book reviews, and news about freebies.