This is based on Fault Lines, the modern horror-fantasy novel by Tim Powers, combining his two other novels, Expiration Date and Earthquake Weather.
When you die, you're supposed to be met by one or two angels of death, those famous Beings of Light spotted in Near-Death Experiences, who escort you to the afterlife. But Azrael, the Angel of Death, has a chronic staffing problem and a lot of souls get missed. Others run away. The result is a disembodied soul wandering the world, punch-drunk and scatter-witted. Lots of people wind up in this transient state, more than you might realize – though there is an excellent chance that someday you will...
Ghosts have a smidgen of corporeality. The psychically sensitive, or the "lucky," can see them as little wisps of vapor, usually about hand-sized. These wisps are solid enough to trap in any water-tight container. They can also be destroyed by, say, fire, which causes the soul to ascend immediately.
Ghosts also manifest as images, drawn from the ghost's life. Like the wisps, these are always visible to the sensitive and sometimes visible to mundanes. Different observers may see the same ghost at the same time as different images – say, a young girl and an old woman.
Finally, ghosts have an electromagnetic aspect that is perfectly detectable by mundane equipment. They cause wild magnetic fluctuations that can be detected with ordinary compasses. They cause little cold spots that any skin or thermometer can detect. They cause power fluctuations and radio static, with characteristics that the cognoscenti can recognize as ghostly.
beggars and wreck line junkyard lanes
tiffany slippers click-clack through the rain
rickety bones and sheer chiffon
dancin' on the mayor's lawn
— "Phantom Doll," Dave Carter
If a ghost hangs around for months or years, it may become even more material, instinctively cobbling together a make-shift body. This is an animated heap of dirt, dead leaves, litter, what-have-you, pushed into the shape of a human body with more or less skill, clothed in castoff clothing, and somewhat disguised with ghostly glamour. To casual inspection (and most of the inspection they get is very casual), they look just like living street-people. They mumble and rant like them, too.
These creatures have their distinctive appetites. Liquor and candy are favorites, though they can't digest anything, so the stuff passes through inertly or leaks out of orifices. They also eat the stuff they use to cobble their bodies together, i.e. dirt, etc. Some kind souls in the know go so far as to put out plates of smooth pebbles and clean sand for them, the way other folk put out milk and kibble for stray cats.
Sometimes, sorcerors will get hold of a ghost and force it to animate some object, so they can drag it around and use it as a servant. (Fault Lines includes an animated burlap sack wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, used by a witch-gang as a supernatural bloodhound.)
Sometimes, a ghost retains a lot of lucidity when it dies (though it may not realize it is dead), and sometimes such a ghost decides to stick around and animate its corpse. The result is a sort of natural undead, probably the origin of vampires and zombies. The result looks a lot like a zombie from GURPS Discworld – someone who walks and talks, but is, nevertheless, dead and decaying.
The whole effect lasts until the first time the Walking Dead falls asleep and has a nightmare. (The chances of its having a nightmare are excellent, considering its probable history.) Then the body flares up in a case of Spontaneous Human Combustion and the soul is released, to become a "normal" ghost or to ascend.
There is a market for ghosts. It has spawned its own sub-culture, like the drug culture, only even more secretive. All ghost-drinkers are psychically sensitive.
Coax a ghostly wisp into a jar, test-tube, or similar container. Make sure it is at least partly transparent; in a light-tight container, the ghost quickly "rots" into a psychically "poisonous" muddle of ectoplasm.
Mix in a dash of laughing gas, ether, or your favorite incense for flavor, if desired.
Snort it up your nose. (Solid ghosts, animations, and walking dead are useless for this.)
The ghost-drinker then gets a drug-like rush lasting about twenty or thirty minutes. The ghost-drinker also has someone else's life pass before their eyes, which some find entertaining or useful (though only high points and general impressions are retained after the rush is over). If the ghost carried any prana at all, the ghost-drinker acquires it.
Finally, the ghost-drinker does not need to eat or drink for 1 to 3 days (roll a d6 and divide by 2; round up) after a "meal." As a result of this last feature, frequent ghost-drinkers may become reluctant to eat normally and develop eating disorders.
Ghost-drinkers must also beware of "rotted" ghosts, caused by light deprivation. These give convulsions instead of a rush, and make it impossible to drink any more ghosts until they have been dislodged from the spiritual esophagus. Also, all the ghosts they have already drunk start to become restless and rebellious, resulting in mental confusion.
When ghost-drinkers die, all their ghosts explode out of them, unless they are drunk very quickly by someone else. Then it is their turn to be the prey, of other ghost-drinkers and, eventually, of Angels of Death.
Ghost-hunters are generally versed in the lore of ghosts and the undead. They may be ghost-trappers, psychic investigators, or roving exorcists bent on freeing good ghosts or banishing evil ones. See Pallia, Mantles, and Marks, "Hunters' Marks," for possible supernatural gifts beyond ghost-sensitivity and ghost-binding.
These are the folk who supply ghost-drinkers. They are usually ghost-drinkers themselves, and they are always psychically sensitive. See Lures and Traps.
Most roving ghosts are so muddled, they are easily attracted by various simple lures. Examples:
The ghost-trapper can then make the rounds of their trap lines and bottle up the day's catch.
Anyone can become ghost-bound, usually by strong social contact with the ghost, especially at the time of its death. Bring a ghost-bound near a ghost – especially their ghost – and the ghost starts to become "excited," manifesting as phantoms, electro-magnetic effects, and sometimes as poltergeistery.
The ghost-bound is also affected. They see the ghost, or hear it. If they are in a place that was significant to the ghost, that place may briefly appear as it did in the significant period. During an excitation, ghost-bound often become somewhat dislocated in time, and may react to sudden events just before they happen. This can let them dodge blows and bullets, but it also makes them slightly clumsy.
Excitations always happen between a ghost-bound and their own ghost. If other ghosts are around, the ghost-bound makes an involuntary perception roll; if they succeed, an excitation ensues.
Ghost-bound need not be psychically sensitive, but usually become so after several closely-spaced excitations. If they are aware, they can see ghosts as wisps or as phantoms even without an excitation going on. In the absence of an excitation, there are no temporal effects.
Even when they are sensitive, ghost-bound, along with ghost-drinkers, -trappers, and -hunters, may not be aware of other supernatural events. They are focused on ghosts. If they spot a djinni or eldil in native form, they often dismiss it as a bizarre ghost.
Lucid ghosts can think just as clearly as when they were alive. Most psychically sensitive mortals become lucid ghosts, if they become ghosts when they die. Lucid ghosts are not subject to lures and traps unless they are very tired or inattentive.
To avoid the effects of being ghost-bound, or to hide a ghost from ghost-hunters, use a "mask." This is some object or setting, designed on the principles of sympathic magic, that hides things from ghosts or hides ghosts from the psychically aware. Examples from Fault Lines:
Ghosts mean mortal characters are not necessarily out of the game when they die. If they are lucid ghosts, they'll have much the same mental characteristics as before. Even if they are not lucid, they could still be interesting.
A ghost in its fullest state is a human soul in an astral (ectoplasmic) body but with no physical body. But sometimes a ghost is an orphaned ka, perhaps cast in the moment of death. It has no soul, no consciousness or will. Ka ghosts are rarely lucid, nor do they heal from any damage they take. They cannot ascend; there is nothing in them to ascend.
Djinn sometimes drink ghosts and ghost-ka'u, just as a human ghost-drinker would. Sometimes they keep ghosts as slaves. Such djinn are not always evil, but first appearances are certainly against them. Sometimes, ghosts serve djinn as free servants, in return for the protection the djinni can offer. (Ghosts among the djinn cannot join their ranks, unlike ghosts among the fays.)
Djinn themselves are mortal, but their native state is already that of a ghost – a nonhuman and very high-powered ghost, but a ghost. So there is no distinct ghostly state for a djinni. A djinni can, however, leave orphaned ka'u, ka-ghosts, behind, just as a human or other mortal may, and much more often, since they cast ka'u normally in life.
Ghosts are a natural way to bring eldila into your game, if you wish to do so. Death angels are always on the lookout for ghosts, and other angels are usually ready to help them. Dark eldila, demons, sometimes hunt ghosts as prey or use them as slaves. Rescuing ghosts who do not deserve to be slaves or demon-chow is another responsibility of death angels.
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2010