Geist: The Sin Eaters
What are Thresholds?
As recognized by the Bound, Thresholds are states of deathly resonance. They’re the marks put on someone or something by Death. Death by violence, for instance, carries a supernatural tie to — and affinity for — violence.
The Sin-Eaters are generally aware of Thresholds, and treat the concept fairly seriously. While they don’t tend to elevate a Threshold to the status of a social group or belief system, it is true that most people who die by deprivation seem to have some things in common. As such, the Bound tend to take the marks of death and expand them into heraldry. The Torn self-identify as such because it gets the point across: they understand violence, and they accept that part of their nature. The Forgotten talk more about chance and accidents, because they have something of an investment in the concept. In the end, a Threshold means something to every Sin-Eater — but just how much it means is up to the person in question.
The Thresholds are intentionally broad, and some deaths could come under more than one Threshold. Does the Sin-Eater who died of poison from a snake bite or from an infestation of worms count as one of the Prey or one of the Stricken? If a Sin-Eater was struck by lightning while answering his phone, is he one of the Prey or one of the Forgotten? If someone suffocates because of a carbon monoxide leak, do they come back as Stricken (because he was poisoned), Silent (because he suffocated) or Forgotten (because he was just plain unlucky)? Does someone who slipped on a banana peel and fell into a river and drowned come back as one of the Forgotten or one of the Prey?
How to choose? In the end, while the Threshold gives some idea of how a Sin-Eater died that first time, the player is free to choose just what circumstance had the strongest claim over her character. One Sin-Eater killed herself with a bullet to the head after a bout of clinical depression and came back as Torn — the brutality of her death overshadowed the misery of her depression. Another kills himself in the same circumstances and comes back as Stricken — the act of violence was merely the punctuation mark on the long death of the soul that claimed him. A third jumps off a bridge and drowns, and he could be Torn, Stricken, or Prey. It’s left to the player to choose which Threshold resonates the most, and why.
About The Stricken (Death by Pestilence)
Quote: “I fought the laws of the universe, and the laws lost.”
The Ravaged Ones, Victims of Plague, Marked by Poison, Virus and Bacterium, Chosen of the White Horseman.
Keys: Phantasm or Tear-Stained
She comes back with a scream, convulses, hands fluttering at her sides, drool flying from her mouth, her eyes almost perfectly circular discs of sightless white. It ends, and when she blinks and looks around her, she moves with a grace she never had before she died; she has the stance of someone who has defeated a terrible enemy. The geist that came back with her whispers: You have conquered; you have more to conquer still.
She has been stricken and destroyed by sickness or poison, but is triumphant over its effects. She has survived, and having survived, she will overcome the conditions of this world. The figure of the White Horseman, Pestilence, bears a bow and crown. He conquers. He rules over all he sees. And the Stricken rule over him.
It’s usual to talk about a battle against life-threatening disease, and while a Ravaged One knows that for most people, it’s just an empty cliche — whether it gets you or not isn’t really up to you — for the Sin-Eater, it has some meaning. Pestilence got him, but he now has the capacity to win other battles, not least the battle against the inner foe, the monster that leans on his shoulder, and hides in his veins. But the victory comes — so the Sin-Eater understands — through side-stepping death. The Sin-Eater comes out on top with finesse and grace and maybe a little duplicity. If the Silent Sin-Eater beats Death by enduring it and coming out the other end of it, the Stricken One challenges the Horseman to a game of chess and wins by swapping some of the pieces around when the Adversary is momentarily distracted.
The penchant for finding winning solutions, then, is the one thing that the Stricken can be said to have in common. Certainly, “pestilence” is a vast catch-all term for any number of different ways to die.
Bacterial infections and viruses can claim us in any number of ways, from the exotic to the mundane. The common cold rarely gets bad enough to take someone’s life, but here’s a man — a policeman, maybe, or a soldier — brought low by injuries sustained in the line of duty and run down by fatigue. He gets a little blast of the bug that’s been going around, and he’s dead and cold and back in the land of the living before anyone at the hospital even notices. For that matter, hospitals are the quintessential home of secondary infections. Respiratory infections claim old and young alike (a young woman recovers from an appendectomy just fine, only to have pneumonia get her the night before she comes home). Other, nastier infections have become more and more powerful and immune to treatment — some might even say supernaturally so. A fighting-fit man stops by the clinic for the routine removal of some stitches he got a few weeks before; he catches MRSA and ends up dying in intensive care, despite the IV and the drugs and the oxygen mask. A brutal infection eats a woman’s face from the inside out, and opens her stomach to the open air. She dies, and returns with her flesh knitted together with the most garish scars.
Other diseases hide in the trappings of our everyday lives, and catch us when we don’t expect it. Eat a bad egg or a bit of uncooked chicken, get salmonella. Eat the wrong burger — watch the CJD reduce your brain to a useless spongiform mess, before the creature comes and wraps its tendrils around the useless lump of offal in your head and turns it into something that works once more, in its way. Things like bird flu don’t cross over to humans as much as people seem to think they do, but sometimes it’s these bizarre, tragic ways to die that seem to attract geists to the Stricken: the one-in-a-million farm worker who gets the plague from the dying chicken that pecks him in the hand is a prime subject for a geist’s attentions.
Sometimes it’s the injustice of it all that brings the geist calling. Or the justice of it all. Or both at the same time.
A married man at a business conference, far away from home, picks up a girl one night, and he finds her gone in the morning. He goes to wash and finds “Welcome to the HIV club” scrawled on the hotel room mirror in bloody red lipstick. He develops full-blown AIDS and died of it within a year, except he can’t have had it at all — the doctors must have been mistaken — because he recovers more quickly and more completely than any case ever documented.
The first-response aid worker seems to have had Ebola — but it can’t have been, because after the vomiting of the blood and the voiding of the bowels, she just gets better. The four months in quarantine she has to sit through convince the medical workers that she’s perfectly healthy and that they never, ever want to meet her again. She goes home, without a job, or at least without a paying one.
Sometimes the pestilence comes from within. The D-list celebrity makes sure the cameras are following her every step of the way as she dies of stomach cancer, all the way through the chemo and the hair loss and the failure of her body, because having them watch her dying is better than not having them watch her at all. They lose interest after she has the miracle against-all-odds recovery, and the paparazzi and the TV cameras start shunning her. Cancer comes in any number of forms: Lung cancer, throat cancer, melanomas, testicular cancer, brain tumors, cervical cancer, breast cancer. The way they talk about it in the hospitals and in the medical journals, it’s almost as if each kind is its own creature, with its own sentience and its own desires.
Psychological illnesses can kill you indirectly, but sometimes the relationship a Sin-Eater and a Sin-Eater’s geist has with the depression or schizophrenia that made her stop eating or take an overdose or jump in front of a train makes all the difference. Mental illness is a common companion, and if a geist replaces the tragic, delusional voices the Sin-Eater had before, who’s to notice?
Poison is a brother to pestilence. A worker in a nuclear power station gets a freak blast from a damaged reactor that the authorities covered up rather than spend the money to fix. He’s all right for a day, then his body ceases to workâ€¦ and then he gets up and he’s fighting fit again. Management breathe a sigh of relief and say, look, there’s nothing wrong with our reactor. He’s fine.
An entire town gets dangerous levels of aluminum in its water supply. People’s hair turns green; sickness and cancers follow. Only one person dies of it in the short term, and she comes right back, still stuck with the sickly greenish tint in hair that once was golden.
Coming out through the other side of death, the Stricken Sin-Eater understands that survival is an active thing. She looks upon the existence of the unquiet dead as a challenge, a puzzle to solve, or an adversary against whom to pit herself. The geist drives her to see the dead as a challenge, and in return, the Sin-Eater engages in a battle of will and wits for ultimate control of her soul.
In her dreams, she imagines that she stands on the edge of a precipice, and that everyone she has ever loved rushes towards her and past her into the bottomless black. She can only catch a few. Whom does she catch? How to find a solution?
Marks And Signs
In the West, the symbols of the crown and the arrow have a common parlance: a girl with impossibly bright eyes has a knotwork crown tattooed on her shaved head; a brutal-looking, heavy-set man with the scars from necrotizing fasciitis on both cheeks has arrows tattooed on the backs of his hands; a small, bespectacled man in a bespoke suit has a small crown design woven into the collar of his shirt; a man in his early 20s who lost his hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows to chemo and never got them back wears an old tunic under his coat — once got worn by a rock-breaker on a chain gang — covered with genuine prison arrows.
Sin-Eaters all over the world sometimes adopt medical imagery, made somewhat off-kilter, somehow wrong. Conquest and medicine go hand in hand here: a woman in her thirties trades off the “kinky nurse” stereotype, with precipitous heels and an old-fashioned white dress; a man dresses in clothes that vaguely suggest a paramedic or an on-call doctor, wearing that slightly square, slightly buttoned-up style.
Those Stricken who go armed prefer quiet, subtle weapons: a slim pistol with a silencer, a needle-thin stiletto, or an ivory-handled switchblade.
Wherever they are, whoever they are, their clothes and style can tend to be expensive, the better to fit the a conqueror. The elegant femme fatale and the besuited professional come up quite a lot, but urban style, with its ostentatious chains and rings, can be just as attractive.
Anyone can get sick, so the Stricken can come from any background at all: rich or poor, educated or uneducated. The kind of illness that killed the character is another question; most people who die of intestinal worms are not from an affluent background. People who died of the worst sexually transmitted diseases may have been part of a highly sexual scene, or sex was what they did for (what passed for) a living, or they simply got unlucky. People who died of hospital-contracted infections were people who had access to hospital care (which in the US at least presupposes a certain degree of affluence).
Stricken characters often concentrate on Finesse Attributes (Dexterity, Wits, and Manipulation), and many have Social Attributes as their primary category. Social Skills come out well, too, although Physical Skills can come in handy. Social Merits are common: the influence of a Stricken Sin-Eater passes through society like a plague. An uncommonly high proportion of the Stricken have a dot in the Fame Merit (because sometimes miraculous recoveries make the news: “Oh, aren’t you that guy who recovered from AIDS?”)
The most common Virtues among the Stricken are Prudence and Fortitude — caution learned too late, and the desire to endure. The most common Vices are Envy, Greed, and Lust.
A man who died alone of a virulent strain of malaria while backpacking in India comes back with a figure made of a swarm of insects. The apparition buzzes around him, forming and reforming, staring out at him through eyes made of iridescent wings, and speaking to him with a mouth made of insect bodies, through teeth made of thoraxes and compound-eyed heads.
A huge tumor possessed of small round black eyes and tiny sucking mouths travels across a woman’s body, sometimes stretching out razor-sharp tendrils to grasp and lacerate.
A flamboyant drag queen is shadowed by a creature that looks just like her, but for the huge black compound eyes and the proboscis that sometimes flicks out from her mouth.
A woman who died of a plague thought long-eradicated wishes she could be rid of the man with the look of a massive, frothing, matted rat.
A hospital doctor who killed himself from schizophrenia-induced despair has his own nurse: A charred, eyeless corpse-woman in a bloodied and filthy uniform, grasping scalpels in both of her hands.
The aid worker who died of Ebola always seems to be slightly damp. His geist is a creature of tentacles and watery points, apparently composed of fetid, murky water and parts of dead animals; its claws are so diseased and vile they seem to shed visible motes of pestilence when they pass through the air.
A middle-aged dockworker who died after the slow, slow onset of asbestosis attracts a geist that appears as a thin man coated in choking dust. The geist talks in wheezes and coughs, and strangles its victims without ever touching them.
It appears in stages over the space of a few seconds, but not so you’d notice until it’s too late. One minute, it’s just a guy you’re looking at, and the next, you can see the progress of the disease that took him, the way the bacteria or virus or poison or whatever it was spreads as if it has a weird sort of non-color all of its own. And the ghosts have a miasma around them, that same colorless hue of pestilence that breaks off in tiny wet motes of sickness all around. And the corpses have tiny little traces of the pestilence-color, buzzing around among the flies, and leaving tracks in the air.
Pimp who sampled the merchandise and got everything he deserved, angel of mercy who knew exactly what she was exposing herself to, ordinary Joe who never got told that he was working with toxic chemicals, crusading doctor who ironically caught HIV during some dental work, tragic celebrity cancer victim, suicide, thirty-a-day lung cancer sufferer, student who ate just the one bad burger, kinky nurse drag queen, chemo zombie, euthanasia advocate.
The Forgotten: If you ever figure out how you do that, let me know, will you?
The Prey: Yeah, I understand exactly what happened. But I don’t see why I have to bow down to it.
The Silent: Don’t just sit there and take it. Do something about it.
The Torn: You can’t hit tuberculosis. I’m just saying.
Vampires: I’ve dealt with worse diseases than you.
Werewolves: I saw what happened after you got bitten. You can explain it away, but it seems obvious to me.
Mages: If you’re so hot, cure them. Cure them all. Show me what you have.
Mortals: Don’t get too involved with me. You can’t. I’m poison.