An Evening on the Town
As he prepared for his evening, Adreyan Giltwright’s aristocratic pallor and carefully manicured hands marked him as a member of the gentry. He adjusted his cravat carefully as he checked his appearance in the mirror. A visit to the theatre, and then, perhaps, a pleasant meal with a few friends would be nice…
All have heard the tales of ghouls and their ilk, grim undead predators that rend the living with their hideous fanged bite and their unnaturally long claws. Haunting the graveyards and charnel houses, these horrors tunnel beneath the cities of men, creeping forth after nightfall to sate their revolting lust for human flesh. What many fail to realize is that some of these creatures look quite different…
An unpleasant grimace touched his face, as Adreyan waited in the roadside café. As often happened, his friends were running late. They were likely to miss the best seats at dinner. He waited impatiently, watching as armies of grimy workmen shambled home from their labors. The black grit of the mills coating the laborers' skin and worn clothing, they trudged past like broken spirits, penitents in some mindless purgatory of backbreaking drudgery.
Easy pickings for those who would prey upon them…
The Ghoul’s Curse: Ghulscorch Ague
This lethal fever, carried by ghouls and their ilk, has the power to transform men into ravening undead abominations. In most victims, the ravaging touch of the disease first strikes at the mind. Its victims often degenerate into vicious and brutal creatures,their intellects degraded by the lethal fever and their sanity warped by inhuman hungers. The pestilence's relentless course drives medical men to despair: Such doctors often stave off the victim’s final degrading transformation by administering a lethal dose of pain-deadening herbs.
Although it is not very contagious, passing only through blood, touch, or intimate contact, the cruel and degrading course of Ghulscorch aroused such dread in ancient days that victims and their effects were burned alive lest they spread the ague. More recently, advances of medicine have made this barbarous practice outmoded. Such precautions are now only seen in isolated areas, where superstition and fear have prevented the people from learning more "enlightened” ways.
Given careful treatment by a knowledgeable healer, many of the dread contagion’s victims now fully recover. A few victims still fall into savagery, but it is no longer the scourge it once was: Carefully tended by doctors and loving relatives, the majority of sufferers can survive the disease’s cruel course. They gradually regain their strength and energy, until they appear to have recovered. Some signs of their ordeal linger, but, for the most part, they seem as vital as they ever were.
”Finally!” thought Adreyan, as he and his friends belatedly arrived at the dark portal of the Eidolon Club. As an attentive servant let them in, the aristocrat admired the ancient Sallvian sculptures adorning the foyer. Relics of the desert land’s Ninth or Tenth Dynasty, the massive jackals flanking the entrance had none of the unrealistic style that characterized later periods. The door to the cloak room was to the right, adorned with mysterious pictoglyphs praising the terrifying Sallvian jackal god Uep-Hawet.
Adreyan wondered about the strange foreign images as he disrobed in preparation for the repast.
The Aftermath of Ghulscorch
With aggressive treatment, the horrifying degeneration that makes Ghulscorch so dreadful can be minimized. Some victims make a full recovery, bearing few signs of their ordeal.
Unfortunately, not every victim who “recovers” is so fortunate: Seeing their loved one regain their strength and appetite, the victim’s family may overlook a continuing unhealthy pallor and strangely thickened fingernails. Even the gradual lengthening of their incisors and canines may pass unnoticed, for the harrowing experience of the Ghulscorch fever leaves the survivors little inclined to smile.
The hopes of the victim’s loved ones deceive them, leading them to overlook these small changes. While the disease’s victim seems marked by his brush with death, the changes to his appearance are only the tip of the iceberg. A host of new and alarming hungers lurk within the victim’s imagination, such as a craving for human flesh, particularly when it has been seasoned by the touch of decay and the hungry kiss of the worm. Such meat seems not only palatable, but preferable to their accustomed diet. The strong-willed among them may yet refrain; their will battling constantly, they may yield only as far as hoarding fragments of raw meat from the kitchen to devour once it has become… ripe.
Dim, flickering light from a pair of antiquated hanging lamps filled the structure’s basement with dancing shadows. Adreyan and his companions, clad now only in simple loincloths, seated themselves and waited for the… show to begin. Despite their meager attire, the room was stiflingly warm.
Soon, like an apparition from the smoke-filled shadows, the master of ceremonies appeared, clad in the traditional robes of the priests of the jackal god. His mask examined the seated celebrants, its canine face gleaming with aged gilding. He gestured dramatically with an ancient mace as his voice echoed through the basement chamber, clearly heard despite his obscuring headgear, “Bring forth the bounty of Uep-Hawet for his faithful! The Feast of the Jackal awaits!”
With that, six hideous travesties of humanity loped out of the shadows, their lean forms almost radiating a malign hunger. Seizing iron rings set upon a massive stone slab in the center of the room, the degenerate spawn of the Ghulscorch fever dragged the stone clear of the pit below. A pungent odor of decay filled the chamber as the maggoty remains below the slab were brought to light, causing mouths to water at the anticipated feast.
The Companions of the Jackal
Somehow drawn to each other’s company, those corrupted by Ghulscorch’s strange effect often gather to feed in the shadows of the night. Able to sense the hungers they each hide from all around them, they band together to gratify their twisted desires. Enslaved by their revolting hunger, human laws and limits soon seem meaningless to them: They gradually cast aside all inhibitions as they descend into predatory savagery.
The Cult of the Chosen
Within the Free Cities, as in many other places, the Lords of the Ghouls hide from public scrutiny, secretly gathering for depraved feasts and revels. The priests of the Cult of Uep-Hawet lead these gatherings, carefully recruiting those who have felt the call of the evil pestilence.
The Eidolon Club is exemplary of such places. To the public, they are just another of a hundred foreign groups and sects, secretive as such groups tend to be. Servants and tradesmen, corrupted by Ghulscorch’s embrace, gradually expose isolated members of the aristocracy to their foul disease. After treatment by the cult’s doctors (who better to treat such an illness?), these poor souls are “cured”, transformed into carriers of the horrifying ailment.
As far as these priests are concerned, they are the “Chosen” of the god. He has touched them and made them more than they were before. Where once, they could eat nothing but what was clean and pure, now they revel in decay and corruption. They are convinced that their dark god has made them strong and tireless, fit leaders for the hordes of undead that the disease will someday unleash upon the land. When that day comes, the temples of Uep-Hawet will rise again within the cities of men.
Sated from the feast, Adreyan leaned back, hoping that the Ceremony of Sacrifice would not take much longer. “Priests are all the same,” he reflected, as the masked man expounded on the might of Uep-Hawet. Finally the man’s interminable oration wound to a close, as a pair of awkward, drugged workmen were led into the shallow pit. Two swings from the priest’s mace, and the stone slab was again slid into place. The Ritual of Sacrifice was not as inspiring as the priest’s other ceremonies, but given such unpromising raw material, the man could hardly be blamed.
At last, Adreyan could get back home to his family. He planned to skip the orgiastic celebrations that would follow the sacrifices, for the children’s fevers should be breaking soon, and he wanted to be there for them. If one didn’t take care of his family, one could hardly be considered a gentleman, he reflected.
A Cure for the Chosen?
Unfortunately, no certain cure for the curse of Ghulscorch is known to healers. Once one has fallen beneath the thrall of this evil plague, they may not be saved. The corrupt hungers brought forth by Ghulscorch take a progressively deeper hold on its victim as time passes.
There is hope that a cure may be found: Within the crumbling scrolls of the Sallvian Sorcerer-Priest Ptesh Na-Khet, an incantation is described that allegedly has the potency to reverse the fever’s curse. In the original scrolls, this little-known ceremony is scribbled within the margins of Scroll XIV: Of ye Travailles of ye Bryngris of Famyne, a passage describing supposed prophecies known to the Sorcerer-Priests of Shetam Kham. The ceremony requires several rare herbs and other ingredients normally found only within the lands of the great Sallvian Desert and guarded zealously by the Gohhi tribesmen that wander those lands.
Unfortunately, the most well-known translation of this ancient ceremony, that of Lord Graff d’Aumare, contains several errors, particularly when citing the types and quantities of the strange herbs that must be burned during the ceremony. If taken uncritically, the choking fumes generated by his version of the rite would generate clouds of pungent, slightly toxic smoke certain to disable the unfortunate participants in the ceremony.
Even a perfect translation would not produce a certain cure, however. All the ceremony accomplishes is to “turn back the clock” to the critical point of the Ague’s fever. At this point, the victim may be cured, or may fall again under its fell influence. Some victims may even be slain by the plague, rising soon as undead ghouls.