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Eaters of Hearts: The Immortal Kolduns

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  • Acrozatarim
    started a topic Eaters of Hearts: The Immortal Kolduns

    Eaters of Hearts: The Immortal Kolduns

    So I mentioned in the Nameless thread I'm planning a set of five potent new immortal types, one for each of the Pillars. Here's the Ab ones - the Heartless! Provisional first drafts for the Sheut ones are up on my Patreon, with Ba and Ka to follow. For now, enjoy your Kosciejs

    Eaters of Hearts

    The tale’s been told for as long as humans have whispered frightened stories to one another in a ring of firelight, the dark barely holding back beyond that glimmering source of warmth and hope. An evil sorcerer works dark magic; a bold hero confronts them; to their horror, the hero finds the sorcerer cannot die. Oh, perhaps the fiend can be killed, but it’s never enough to put them down for good. The trick is, see, that the sorcerer’s hidden their heart away, packed their soul a hidden place beyond reach. Usually, the storyteller finishes with a declaration that the hero finds that hidden place, destroys the heart, and the villain is undone.

    The immortals known as koldun have heard all those stories too, and they’ve been learning.

    From the viewpoint of the Arisen, koldun—also known as heartless, heart-eaters, Kosceijs, liches, and any number of other local sobriquets given to sinister sorcerers—have a great deal in common with eternals. Just as an eternal has stored her lifeforce away into a receptacle, so has a koldun taken her vitality and put it somewhere else. Beyond that, however, the differences are quite considerable. Koldun are true sorcerers, exploiting the raw transgression they commit against the sanctity of their own soul and humanity as a source of power. A koldun has blasphemed against her own Ab, in the eyes of a mummy; she removes her very heart in an occult rite, leaving behind a yawning, hungry gap that craves the fulfilment of passions and desires. An eternal often just wants to be left in peace to enjoy immortality; a koldun is driven and gluttonous, constantly pouring emotional fuel onto the fire of her soul to hold back the cold, ashen darkness.
    But, oh, such power the heartless glean in return for the excision of their very being.

    Becoming Heartless
    Becoming a koldun is hard. No shortcuts exist on the path to this form of immortality. Every heart-eater must master occult arts, undergo gruelling trials of the spirit, and slowly assemble the secrets that will let her tear out her own life-force and hide it away. No-one simply lucks onto the process, and it’s always deeply personal; the precise procedure that each koldun uses is an expression of the harsh lessons she’s learned and the sacrifices she’s made. As a result, heart-eaters tend to be older, faced with the growing rigours of advancing age and driven to do something about it; the typical koldun, inasmuch as there is such a thing, is a rugged occultist of fifty years or more.

    While the ritual itself is unique to each sorcerer, koldun tend to propagate their immortality down lines of tutelage; a koldun is a veteran of the hidden world, and may foster occult talent among chosen students. Koldun are often relatively antisocial, erratic, or frankly murderous in ways that make it hard for would-be pupils to secure their patronage, but that’s not enough to put off the truly driven or deluded; enough persistence or the right gifts can earn a place at the koldun’s feet, if she doesn’t kill them off-hand. Some koldun see the benefits in having apprentices—a student can prove a useful servant and agent, a handy sacrifice or patsy if things go awry, or a potential source of resources the koldun can’t necessarily get; a rich dabbler can give the koldun financial backing in return for promises of immortality, while a less useful petitioner is always a convenient heart if they prove truly lacking in talent. However, the desire to propagate one’s own proud teachings, to prove one’s power by gathering followers, or just to lord over those who desire what the koldun has, are all powerful motivators in their own right. Plenty of koldun teach the path of the heartless to students because otherwise, how will anyone truly appreciate the koldun’s genius? This form of tutelage helps feed the koldun’s hunger for passion and drive.

    Koldun can also draw the secrets of the path forth from supernatural mentors. Occultists who know the tricks of summoning spirits of blood and life and pain, or hungry ghosts who crave vitality, can slowly assemble the scraps of lore needed to survive the extraction of the heart; gutter sorcerers who truck with vampires and experiment with the dark power of such parasites’ blood may learn the hidden words of heresy written from the ruined DNA of such spilled gore. Some even come from among the sorcerer-cultists of the Arisen, learning enough of the true nature of Ab to glean the means by which it can be excised entirely.

    Arisen who study the heartless fear another source of this path to immortality may exist—the shuanksen, the bane mummies in service to Ammut. Certainly, the symbolism of the heart plays strongly into these blasphemous’ entities existence, and some heart-eaters come into the service of shuanksen where their goals align. Whether or not some shuanksen teach the secrets of the koldun, Ammut surely has some connection to this lineage of immortality.

    The final rite of heartlessness is always bloody and painful. Whatever the details of the process, the koldun removes her own heart—which still beats despite being cut away from her veins and arteries—and placing it within a ritually prepared container. Most koldun have extensive scarring over the heart cavity on their chest, though a few particularly demented or morbid sorcerers leave the tear open to reveal the emptiness within. It’s common for a sorcerer to replace the removed heart with something else—a symbolic mimicry in gold or clockwork or obsidian, or the key to the true heart’s container, or a carefully engineered fake that will appear to an X-ray scan to be the real thing, or a bomb.

    Enduring Heartlessness
    A koldun is truly immortal for as long as her heart is safe. She can ‘die’ if stabbed, shot, or burned, but her body always heals and returns to full strength with time. Koldun get used to physical pain; it becomes a mild nuisance at best, an irritant that the sorcerer trivially ignores. Her heart, though… that’s quite another matter. If the heart is destroyed, she dies for good. If the heart is damaged, it’s pain like nothing she’s ever felt—a full-body flood of unimpeded agony that screams at what’s left of the koldun’s soul in an inchoate surge of terror. The heart’s a powerful occult conduit, and while it’s the key to killing the koldun, it can also serve as a useful lever with which someone might extract service or supernatural power from such an immortal.

    Koldun tend towards a strange mixture of fearlessness and paranoia. The security of the heart is paramount; nothing else matters as much as making sure the excised Ab is untouchable. Some sorcerers go to great lengths to hide the heart in as remote a location as possible, but the problem with storing it in a distant mountainous cave or buried beneath the roots of a tree is that it’s also very hard for the koldun to get at should she need to relocate it quickly, especially when facing supernatural predators who can stride impossible distances or pass through unseen spaces to reach their destination. Others accept that a determined foe may be able to locate the heart, and work instead on making the approach to it as difficult as possible; vaults lined with supernaturally resistant substances hidden in the world’s most secure banks, or old military bunkers fenced off with barbed wire, rigged with IEDs, and warded with hateful blood magic. A few keep the heart close to hand, always moving it around but content enough that most foes are going to make the initial mistake of thinking they can kill the sorcerer via mundane means—and intending to exploit that so it’s also the last mistake the enemy makes.

    Conversely, if the koldun is content her heart is safe, she likely feels invincible. Pain and harm mean nothing in the long-term, after all. Koldun will work sorceries that take a terrible toll on their flesh, rig themselves with explosive devices, and happily show off their own deaths when a public persona’s been around too long and mortals are starting to get suspicious of how long they’ve lived. This personal callousness can grow in unhealthy ways, and many koldun turn to mortification of the flesh to help bridge the disconnection they feel between their self-identity and the disposable flesh they live within.

    This powerful immortality is matched with a lack, however. Without the Ab, the koldun’s body burns with a need for something to replace it. Koldun blaze with passion and fiery ambition, because if they don’t, the hollowness threatens to consume them. Heartlessness is a constant high that needs to be maintained, lest the koldun face the metaphysical mother of all comedowns. The hunger for indulgence and decadence are counterbalanced by the need to act, but when the koldun’s own drive isn’t enough to maintain her vitality, she can draw it from others around her to make up the shortfall. This is a cruel violation of the Ab of another; sometimes it’s the cost that a would-be student of a koldun has to accept, being an emotional reservoir for a pitiless master.

    Heartless Power
    Like blood-bathers, koldun can draw power from others. For a koldun, it’s all about the heart—the pulsing lynchpin of existence and vitality—and the sorcerer’s own heartlessness serves as a spiritual container into which stolen energy can be poured. Every koldun possesses a small armoury of occult secrets from her studies and trials, but the eldritch puissance drawn from the Ab of another is something altogether more potent.

    It also, obviously, involves murder.

    Koldun are not obligate killers. Their own hungry ambitions often push them forwards with a certain disregard for others, but these immortals are quite capable of forming attachments, feeling love—indeed, feeling it painfully intensely, and as a bonfire that must be stoked lest it gutter out—and acting out of compassion. However, the allure of power held in the hearts of others is strong; the greatest magics a koldun can enact are locked away in such a fashion. The most moral of heartless might justify murder to themselves via carefully picking their targets from those they judge as unworthy, as evil, or at the end of their lives and thus an act of euthanasia. Repeated killing takes its toll, though, and standards soon slip, especially when the koldun desires a particular spell and a lack of suitably condemnable sacrifices are available. Other koldun never bother with any sort of justification; they want power, power’s in the hearts of others, so others are going to die. Given the paranoia common to heartless, and their lengthy careers as occultists prior to becoming immortal, it’s rare for a koldun to become a bloodthirsty killer who racks up innumerable victims—it draws too much attention. Still, there are some who gather impressionable apprentices or cults specifically so that they have a steady stream of sacrifices on-hand.
    The potential power of a heartless, combined with this need for victims, sometimes brings koldun and Arisen together. While many Arisen see koldun as deeply suspect at best, and outright blasphemous at worst, it’s undeniable that koldun resonate deeply with the pillar of Ab—and that union with the invested soul of the Arisen feels right for both parties. Koldun are also potentially heavy hitters among the supernatural ranks of an Arisen’s allies, as sorcerers capable of coming towards something like parity with a mummy—especially as an ongoing Descent steals the puissance of Sekhem away from the Arisen’s soul. In return for service or alliance, a koldun can garner a flow of fresh hearts, whether from those whom the Arisen condemns as transgressing against her Judge, or from failed or even voluntary members of the Arisen’s own cult.

    The interplay between heartless and Arisen occasionally grows stranger still. Some Arisen treat heartless cultists as ambulatory canopic jars; the mummy places her own withered heart within the empty cavity of the koldun’s chest. Others surrender their own drive and passion to be entirely replaced with the dead dreams of an Arisen’s power, turning into a channel for the eldritch power of the Judges. Of course, there are always koldun who see an Arisen as the ultimate prize—a source of Ab to be tapped into and drained. The sahu may not contain a real heart, but symbolism and metaphor have a potency of their own.

    Creating a Heartless Character
    Heartless are a kind of Endless, the lesser immortals who the Arisen sometimes encounter, but they don’t follow the usual rules for Endless such as Blood Bathers or Eternals. They don’t have a Sekhem rating, nor do they access the Gift of Years or its derived merits. However, they can still be Invested, and hold the same tier of cultist as other immortals if this occurs.

    Heartless: A koldun has no heart within her chest; the seat of her Ab is outside of her body. Supernatural effects that would stop or influence her physical heart do not affect her at all, and she is also immune to those that would manipulate her emotions or passions. Called shots to the heart, poisons that would cause cardiac arrest, and other entirely physical influences on the heart are equally ineffective.

    Blaze of Ab: A heartless can only regain Willpower through her Vice and Virtue. If she does not gain the full Willpower refresh effect of either Vice or Virtue at least once in a story, or does not complete a medium-term Aspiration, she gains the Broken Condition and enters the first stage of soullessness. She will not advance from that stage due to time or other effects, but remains in it until she would meet the requirements to get a full Willpower refresh from her Vice or Virtue.

    Immortal: A heartless does not age. She heals at twice the natural rate for a human being, and never suffers wound penalties. If killed, she continues to heal regardless; as soon as she has restored a single point of health, she returns to consciousness. If death occurs via heavy bodily damage, or even total bodily destruction, she heals as above but her body reforms at the site of her heart. Death removes all Conditions, Tilts, and other supernatural effects that may be lingering on the heartless other than the Broken and Soulless Conditions if she has not fulfilled the needs of her Blaze of Ab. If the koldun’s heart is destroyed, she immediately and permanently dies.

    Heart Container: A heartless’s heart is a Size 1 object with 3 points of health. The heart’s health track has wound penalties as normal; damage to the heart that would apply these wound penalties applies them to the koldun instead, even though she would not normally suffer wound penalties. The heart heals damage at the natural rate of a human. Supernatural powers can treat the heart as the heartless for the purposes of targeting; a curse on the heart will affect the heartless, for example. Supernatural powers that would locate, remotely view, or predict the actions of the koldun gain the rote quality on their dice pools as long as a character is touching the koldun’s heart.

    Driven Integrity: A koldun possesses Integrity just like a normal human being. [Note to readers: I'm planning some method for a koldun to stabilize Integrity at low levels to avoid it being a rapid descent into Integrity collapse, but I haven't nailed down what the mechanism will be yet - and I do want Heartlessness to be a pretty Integrity-risky path overall]. If a koldun would fall to Integrity 0, she cannot ever fulfil her Blaze of Ab by fulfilling her own Vice or Virtue, as well as the other effects of such a catastrophic collapse of integrity.

    Occult Learning: A koldun always has the Ritual Sorcerer merit and the Sorcerous Knowledge Merit. The koldun can see ephemeral beings in Twilight, can meditate into her own Oneiros—and thence reach the Temenos—and can open any threshold, gateway, or verge she encounters and pass through via a scene-long ritual. Koldun commonly also possess multiple other supernatural Merits, and often several minor relics of eldritch nature—whether Vestiges or otherwise.

    Occult Mastery: A koldun possesses the first tier of a single Utterance, and can use it at no cost once per scene. She is also treated as meeting the bonus pillar requirements for it.

    Power of Ab: A koldun possesses an Ab Pillar rating at 5, which refills at the beginning of every story. She can spend points of Ab for the following effects:
    • To reflexively heal one point of damage of any kind.
    • To reflexively add 1 to a single Physical or Social Attribute for the remainder of the scene, which can take them above 5; she can use this multiple times on the same Attribute, the bonus stacking to a maximum of +3.
    • To unleash the Utterance within a prepared heart. If she spends an additional point of Ab, this does not consume the heart in the process and it can be used again.
    • To copy the appearance of the previous owner of a prepared heart.
    • To activate her Occult Mastery Utterance after she has already used it once in a scene.
    • To touch a mortal and drain them of their Vice or Virtue for the remainder of the story. The mortal gains the Broken Condition. The koldun temporarily gains the drained Vice or Virtue, losing it after the first time she regains any Willpower from it.
    • If killed, she can spend a point of Ab to reform at her heart upon healing even if she would not normally do so.

    Heart Sacrifice: A koldun can use a fresh human heart as a source of occult power after preparing it in a ritual. By placing the heart within her own chest, she can take on the appearance of the victim; this lasts until she uses another heart, dies, or chooses to shed it. She can also use such a heart to restore a single point of Ab to herself. Finally, and most importantly, she can use it to unleash an Utterance.

    The Utterance in a heart reflects the person from who it was taken; if the heartless wants a particular power, she must look for an appropriate victim first. For example, she might find the Gift of the Golden Ankh in the heart of a doctor, or Blessed is the God-King in the heart of a CEO, or Dust Beneath Feet in the heart of an experienced construction worker. An Arisen’s cultists are always suited as heart-fuel for any Utterance that the Arisen possesses. Identifying which Utterance a victim may be suitable to fuel is a matter of observation and analysis with the Occult skill, and any given person may not be a suitable victim for any Utterances at all.

    Activating the Utterance from a prepared heart unleashes either or both of its first and second tiers; the koldun never meets any bonus Pillar ratings except for those of Ab.

    Preparing a heart for use requires the fresh removal from a victim; the koldun must remove the heart within the scene the victim dies, although the koldun does not need to be the killer—and, indeed, could even harvest hearts from those who die of accidents or natural causes if quick about it. Once harvested, the koldun can identify the heart’s resonance with Utterances, and can store or preserve the heart for use at a later date; the koldun can preserve up to her Resolve in hearts in this way. Further hearts quickly lose their potency if not used within a scene of their acquisition.

    If hurriedly removing hearts for immediate use, such as during an ongoing battle, heart preparation takes at least two Instant actions; one to crack open the ribcage of an already dead victim, and another to cut away and extract the heart. A koldun can draw on fresh hearts in this way on the fly, but it’s messy and troublesome and leaves the sorcerer vulnerable in the meantime.

    Normally, when a koldun uses a heart’s stored power for any reason, the heart is destroyed; it burns to ash, crumbles to dust, or withers away.

    Investment: If a heartless is Invested by an Arisen, she can spend the invested points to fuel the unleashing of Utterances just as she can with Ab and, furthermore, treats the number of points she has invested of any Pillar other than Ab as her rating in that Pillar for the purposes of accessing bonus effects on Utterance tiers. If Invested with Ab, the heartless can spend that Ab to fuel any of her Power of Ab abilities, and furthermore can spend a single point of Invested Ab whenever she would normally suffer the Broken Condition and gain soullessness due to failing to fulfil her Blaze of Ab to avoid this consequence; however, doing this immediately inflicts a point of Aggravated damage on the koldun’s heart. Furthermore, as long as the koldun has points of Ab invested in her, the Arisen knows the exact location of her heart.

    Sekhem Drain: A heartless can extract the Ab from an Arisen’s sahu in much the same way as she extracts a mortal’s heart; by carving them open and tearing the metaphysical representation of the Ab out. The act can only be performed as the killing blow on an Arisen; if performed after an Arisen has died, the corpse gives up no benefits. The heartless immediately refills her Ab pool, and furthermore refills it at the beginning of every chapter for the remainder of the current story and for the duration of the following story. The heartless also gains the damage resistance of an Arisen for this time. Finally, she can access the third tier of an Utterance she unleashes from a prepared heart, costing an additional point of Ab to do so; she can access this power once only, and must use it before the end of the following story or it fades.

    Suffering this kind of sekhem drain inflicts a minor Memory breaking point on a mummy, increasing to a Gap breaking point if the heartless is one of the mummy’s own cultists.

  • Demigod Beast
    replied
    This is effing awesome. Kolduns and Nameless are both really packed with storytelling potential. I can easily, as GM, make really neat antagonists out of both character types.

    Leave a comment:


  • LostLight
    replied
    One day, I'll manage to say "kosceij" without my russian friends laughing at me :P

    Cool stuff. Really cool stuff.

    Leave a comment:

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