Jaysehn (prime)/Ranshai's Guide to the Lesser Undead Chapter 3
Chapter 3: Case Study: The GhoulDespite the warnings thus far in this book, it is not the 'home grown' menace that I would first caution simple folk against. Instead, be first on guard for that which is drawn into your community from afar. Like a carrion bird drawn to the remains of a mauled deer, so to must you be on guard for the arrival of a ghoul.
Keeping fast to our theme of pragmatic solutions to unfortunate realities, the clash of armies is a near certainty in the course of any mortal life. As such forces move, be they of civilized or savage origins, the very mechanisms of war will require them to pillage local communities of foodstuffs and basic goods. Warm beds and dry housing are luxuries even for commanders in such campaigns and it is therefore likely that when armies do meet in the field, the battle will often be not far removed from a settlement. Despite the poetry of optimistic bards, very few armies stop to dispose of their dead. The victors pick the corpses clean of all valuables while the losers flee for their very lives. What remains is, as the more honest storytellers will convey, a feast for crows. But when the crows have had their fill, a carrion eater of another sort may find their way to this grim feast. The ghoul, or creatures that Hunters collectively call 'ghoul', refers to a loosely defined classification of undead that shares a few common traits.
The Ghoul: What is Known
Firstly is the unfortunate vitality of their lean frames. All ghouls are desiccated in form, but move with a loping speed and bounding gait that is driven by unnatural hunger for flesh. Despite their forms, they are possessed of an unnatural strength and are prone to great leaping charges as they tackle their foes and drive them to the ground where they can be feasted upon most easily. This is compounded by the tendency of these monstrosities to be pack creatures, charging after a single target from all directions.
Secondly, ghouls are eaters of flesh. Though they will eagerly gorge themselves on rotting and decayed flesh, they universally prefer the warm taste of the still living. Such creatures, unless they have grown very old and cunning, will attack in a ferocity that is boundless. A ghoul will not tire. It will not relent. It's very existence demands that its never ending hunger be sated.
Thirdly, ghouls maintain a strange and unknowable hierarchy. Some among them can command the will of their lesser brethren. Perhaps they have somehow maintained more of their intelligence from their life. Some instances of these so called 'elder' ghouls can even manipulate powerful magics, including dark sorceries. I have heard old and respected Masters of my Order to say that such beings are a byproduct of a lich-ascension gone wrong or, even more terribly, a result of a deliberate process to claim a terrible place somewhere between life and undeath.
Lastly, for all their predatory instincts and savage cunning, ghouls are wary. A singular ghoul is almost certainly unwilling to attack a group of mortals, even commonfolk. They seem to have a certain sense of their own 'mortality' and will pick their targets with some degree of prudence. A ghoul that attacks superior numbers is the most dangerous of all. It is likely hunger-mad and is more than willing to be destroyed if it means it's horrific appetite can be sated for even a fleeting moment.
The Ghoul: What is Unknown
Sadly, I have known of no clearly agreed upon explanation for the origins of ghouls. Many suggested origins are the result of deductive observation. Perhaps it is a curse borne of cannibalistic behaviors. Perhaps it is spread, like a disease, to those who are bit or harmed by the ghoul's filth covered nails. Indeed, so few survive such an attack that it would be difficult to prove one way or the other. Fewer still who eat of the flesh of mortals would ever make such a loathsome practice known for study.
The Ghoul: Victory and Survival
A ghoul will likely be among the first tests of the novice Hunter's mettle. These creatures tend to be found in the places of the newly dead, particularly after a mass fatality event, such as the aforementioned battles or the passing of a plague. They can make burial grounds unusable as they pull up corpse after corpse to pick the bones clean.
For those who actively hunt ghouls, always presume the creatures are at least twice the number you observe. Look for visible tracks that they are unlikely to ever bother concealing. Ghouls will not bother to cover footprints, nor attempt to conceal their numbers by moving single file. They will not conceal the results of their feasting, nor the steps taken by a ghoul to acquire their meal.
In a fight, slay or incapacitate as many as you can at a distance. If you are particularly clever, ghouls can be lured into a well laid trap, even one that is poorly concealed. Do not assume the trap will be sufficiently lethal. Short of losing a limb, such creatures will carry on, despite even grievous wounds. If it comes to close quarters fighting, the counterintuitive approach is best. Match the ghoul with equal aggression. A defensive fight against such a beast is of no purpose. You cannot lure into a mistake a creature that does not care if it makes mistakes. More importantly, you cannot ever know if the creature in front of you is the only one you will face. Move swiftly and dispatch it with lethal efficiency. If you must settle for a lesser wound, the legs are the best target as it will slow the creature down and limit the danger it presents.
For the non-Hunter, flight is certain death. Unless you are ahorse, you cannot outrun such a thing.
One of the most effective, but awful, methods of escape I've heard tell of came not from a learned Master of the Order or even a seasoned Hunter. Instead, I once shared a table at a roadside caravanserai while traveling through the rural regions of the Empire. My companion for that meal was a rotund and jovial Mestanirian trader of textiles. He explained how he had once escaped an entire village that had been overrun by ghouls. As the conversation fell to the details of this unlikely story, I noted his loyal and faithful companion, a friendly aged dog he called 'Gregor'. Gregor had a noticeable limp and kept one its hind legs more off the ground than on. Noticing my interest, the trader explained. Often asked why he kept an old and lame dog as a pet, the trader had always smiled and said, 'He's my friend!' The truth was far darker. As he told me the tale of his escape the man confessed that 'Gregor', his hound, was the fifth of it's name. The trader had taken to purposefully wounding his dogs and leaving them as bait if ever he was attacked by predators. The fat man did this so that he could make his own escape while the poor companion was left to die under the claws of bears, leapers and, in this case, ghouls.
'Man's best friend, eh!?', he declared at the conclusion of his tale before paying for my meal and ambling off to his private room for the evening.