Saturday, 21 April 2012

The Inner Sanctum

Mansions of Madness (designed by Corey Konieczka, published by Fantasy Flight Games) is a fantastic game. It is extremely flawed, but has the potential to produce exciting games with a strong narrative. After playing a few times, I decided to write a session report in the style of a short story. And here is that story. It first appeared on in April 2011.


We stood in the arched chapel doorway, shaking the rainwater from our hair and clothes. The vaulted ceiling was shrouded in the kind of darkness that seemed like so much more than an absence of light - something far more terrible - and my colleague, Sister Mary, clutched a flask of holy water to her chest in trembling hands. I gripped my .45 automatics. Faith, I have come to understand, will only get you so far.

‘Do you really think she’s here, Jenny?’ Sister Mary asked me. Her voice was as trembling as her hands. She had been with me ever since hearing my confession three years ago. After listening to everything I had to say about my sister’s letter and my mission to uncover the truth, she had said the only thing she could think to do was stay by my side. She had said I was on a path of damnation, and if I insisted on battling demons, then I needed a guardian angel. She had become frailer since those early days; weakened mentally and physically by everything time in my world had revealed to her. But she wouldn’t quit. She said she would be with me until the end.

‘She’s here,’ I said, pulling the chapel door closed behind me.

We had been brought to this brooding monastery at the edge of the woods by a letter from my old friend, Marie LeBlanc. I had worked with her and Sister Mary in the past, and she had saved my life more than once. Now, it seemed like I might get the chance to return the favour.
The letter had said she was attempting to infiltrate some kind of cult that was operating here, but something had gone terribly wrong. No-one had heard from her for over a week, and I was determined to find out why.

‘Where do we even start?’ Sister Mary asked.

As she spoke, the soft murmur of voices approached. We backed into the corner and watched with our breath held as two cloaked figures entered the chapel, paused momentarily to touch their foreheads in front of an unusual symbol etched on one wall, and then exited again.

‘We follow them,’ I said.

We hugged the shadows, moving like ghosts through corridors that seemed to breathe with the expectation of a coming disaster. Down into a basement where only guttering candles gave any light by which we could continue our investigation.

Sister Mary was edgy, even then. She jumped at every sound, bit back screams when she imagined some terrible monstrosity lurking in the gloom, and each step she took seemed to me like one step closer to madness. I told her to go back. Of course I told her to go back. But she was a part of this now, and she wouldn’t listen. My God, if only she had listened.

She scrabbled through some old, rotten boxes, and found a small key.

‘What’s it for?’ I asked.

‘How should I know?’ she said. ‘But I know it’s better to have a key and not know what it’s for, then to have a lock, with no idea where the key is.’

She smiled, but it was an awkward smile, devoid of mirth, and so fragile it could shatter at any moment.

‘Just wait here,’ I said. I could hear chanting coming from the next room, and I wanted to get a closer look at what those black-garbed figures were up to.

With a gun in each hand, I kicked open the door, revealing some kind of disgusting ceremonial room. There was a monstrous altar at one end of the room, festooned with human skin and topped with a wildly grinning skull. Torches flickered on the walls, casting the entire scene in an eerie, shifting light that caused the shadows to swell and distend until it was almost impossible not to believe there were vile creatures lurking in the corners of the room.

The two cultists - women, I could see now they were women - turned as I burst into the room, and they were smiling as if they had always expected me to be there. I raised my guns, ready to get answers the only way I knew how; but before I could even speak, both cultists lifted knives to their throats.


My word echoed around that cavernous room, but I was too late. Both women collapsed, their blood pumping out onto the earthen floor.

What happened next seems so unreal I can barely put it into words, even after all the other things I’ve seen. I could smell the blood - that sick, metallic smell that hits you in the back of the throat and just won’t quit - and those poor women were still making this gurgling, rasping sound. I gagged, putting a hand to my mouth as their blood formed into a widening pool from which a green smoke began to pour.

A moment later and a monstrous creature was in the room. It seemed to come out of the smoke, or perhaps it was the smoke. I swung to meet it, firing wildly. I couldn’t seem to hit it. It was moving like nothing I’d ever seen. It darted and twisted, following an angular path through the air. Its tongue darted, its mouth gaped wide. Clawed limbs hammered into my chest, throwing me back against the wall.

For a second everything was black, and then that twisting, unnaturally jittering thing was over me. Its dribbling maw came close to my face, and I could smell the death of centuries on its breath. Its nostrils flared, and its tongue wiped across my cheek.

It was tasting me. Testing me.

Then suddenly its head jerked up, and moving so swiftly I couldn’t even chart its passage, the thing bounded into the next room. That was when Sister Mary started to scream.

I was on my feet in a moment, and barged into the room.

The boxes there had been overturned, and the far door ripped clean from its hinges. Mary was halfway up the stairs to the basement, and that thing was right behind her. She screamed again, and seemed to trip; and I realised then the monster’s tongue was wrapped around her leg. It was dragging her down into its slavering jaws.

I fired off a shot, hitting the creature in the back. Its head snapped around, the neck and spine realigning in a way no normal creature’s skeletal structure could. At the same moment, with a cry of fury and fear, Sister Mary kicked out with both legs. Terror lent her strength, and the beast was surprised just enough to release its hold.

Still screaming, Sister Mary scrabbled to the top of the stairs, throwing herself into the hallway. The fiend was already after her again, snapping at her heels, its great tongue lashing the air as it let out a keening ululation that seemed to cause the very foundations of the building to shudder.

Sister Mary glanced back, and in her haste and disorientation she crashed into a cabinet. The doors flew open and an axe fell onto the floor, just as the beast reached her and slammed her against the wall. She grabbed the axe and held it in a vain attempt to fend off the monster’s vile attentions. Its jaw clamped around the handle, and green fire burned in the beast’s eyes.

By then I was at the top of the stairs, and I fired again. Frantic now. Not even aiming.

Both barrels exploded, hot light stuttered in the dark hallway, and the top of the creature’s head shattered in a fountain of gore. The remains slumped down; the legs kicked once more and then were still. Something long, that I first thought to be some kind of snake, flickered and twisted, lunging hungrily towards me. I approached cautiously, and applied my foot to the thing when I realised it was the monster’s tongue. With a final squelch, the battle was over. But at what cost to our sanity?

I helped Sister Mary up and looked her in the eyes. She was barely focusing, and she wouldn’t release her grip on the axe.

Suddenly she broke away, heading into the nearby bathroom. Through the door I could hear her retching, and then sobbing hopelessly. When she finally emerged, she looked so pale it was like I was seeing a corpse freshly risen from the grave. She smiled weakly.

‘Okay?’ I asked.

‘I’ve got this ringing in my ears,’ she muttered, glancing back along the corridor. ‘I can’t hear so well. And these voices... I hear so many voices.’

I touched her hand, and she looked back at me. ‘Are you still with me?’ I asked.

She nodded. ‘I found out what that key was for. A cabinet in the bathroom... I found a clue. There’s something on the other side of the building. A place of darkness. Marie is there.’

‘How do you know?’

Sister Mary shook her head sadly. ‘It doesn’t matter. Let’s just keep moving.’

I pushed her aside, meaning to go into the bathroom so that I could see what she had seen, but she held on to me.

‘I said, it doesn’t matter,’ she said.

Always my Guardian Angel. Always looking out for me. That was Sister Mary.

What am I supposed to do without her?

We pushed open the door leading back to the chapel, and we could see a robed figure pacing the aisles. I was struck with the idea that those robes could make it easier to infiltrate the heart of this cult, so when the figure headed out of the chapel we followed at a safe distance.

We tracked our quarry through a darkened study, where I forced Sister Mary to sit in one of the chairs to compose herself. She clung on to her axe, rocking backwards and forwards and whispering the prayers she needed to give her strength; and while she continued to mentally deteriorate, I followed the cultist into the next room.

I was in a narrow corridor, and up ahead I could see the cultist. As the door closed behind me, I levelled my gun.

‘Stop right there,’ I said.

The cultist turned at my voice, and even in the gloom I could see long, silver hair, and a wizened face that looked almost inhuman beneath the hood of the ceremonial robes. Another woman. A hag; like something out of a children’s story.

With a scream, she lunged towards me. I pulled the trigger of my .45s, and somehow both guns had jammed. The cultist forced me aside, moving back into the study where Sister Mary was waiting.

What was going on? Why weren’t these things attacking me? Was I being saved for something?

Checking my guns for the cause of the jam, I hurried back into the study. The cultist was looming over Sister Mary, who removed the stopper from her holy water with trembling fingers and dashed some of the water in the old hag’s face.

The witch smiled, licking the water from her face with a purple tongue. ‘Your God has failed you,’ she hissed.

Sister Mary screamed, dropping the holy water on the rug. The bottle smashed, and I was galvanised into action by the sound, firing two shots that both found their mark. The cultist staggered beneath the barrage of bullets, and yet did not even turn to face me. She was intent on Sister Mary, focusing on her even through the pain of hot lead.

Sister Mary took one more step back, and then suddenly she was swinging up the axe that she had insisted on bringing. The blade smashed into the cultist’s face, and the hag dropped like a stone, gurgling and pawing fitfully at the axe embedded in her skull.

I stared at Sister Mary, and she stared back, as the floor turned crimson beneath our feet.

She had never killed a human before. Just how far into madness had she been pushed in the last few years?

With numb fingers, I removed the robes from the corpse and threw them on; and then, holding Sister Mary’s hand, we returned to the narrow chamber where I had first confronted the hag. Beyond that we found a maze of caverns, deep below the ground, where screams echoed, and bats fluttered their leathery wings in the darkness. And it was there, in that darkness, among those screams, that I lost Sister Mary forever.

We reached a crypt, and sitting on one of the old sarcophagi was Marie LeBlanc; but not the Marie I knew. Not the Marie who had saved my life. She hardly even looked the same; and there was something in her eyes - a type of evil - that I did not even think it was possible for a human being to possess.

‘How sweet of you to come for me,’ she hissed. ‘I was so scared here, all alone. But now I must reveal that my little letter was not entirely truthful. We need more souls for our rituals. We need more women for our sisterhood. Naturally, I thought of you.’

She was talking directly to me, but as she said "you" her eyes swivelled, and her vile gaze settled on Sister Mary.

Suddenly, it all became clear. This whole thing had been a trap. Marie didn’t want us to help her; she wanted us to join her!

We backed out of the crypt, desperate to escape. We needed to get out. We needed to find some way to escape. But Sister Mary was already a trembling wreck, and she barely had the strength to stand any more.
‘Leave me,’ she muttered. ‘It’s me they want. Marie knew I was weak. She knew she could break me.’

‘No. Come on.’ I grabbed Sister Mary’s hand, but she pulled away.

‘I’ve seen the darkness,’ she said. ‘I killed that woman with an axe. I’m already corrupted by this place. But you can get out.’

The shadows around us were coming to life as more robed figures appeared, chanting horribly, their faces concealed beneath their hoods.

‘I won’t go without you,’ I said, and I seized Sister Mary’s arm, dragging her to the closest door. Beyond was a rickety wooden bridge spanning an endless chasm that looked like the doorway into Hell itself.

Using all my bodily strength, I dragged Sister Mary onto the bridge; but when she saw that endless gulf of darkness beneath us, she tore free, screaming, with her hands clasped to her head. She stumbled back into the caves, where it seemed that every shadow had taken on the form of a hooded demon and the chanting was so loud it was as if it was the only sound in the whole world.

I saw Sister Mary drop to her knees, and she looked at me with utter hopelessness and despair. The shadows closed in on her, and the door between us slammed shut.

What could I do? What was left to do?

With the chanting still ringing in my ears, I crossed the bridge, ascended a ladder on the other side, and escaped into the cool night air.


It has been a week since I went inside the chapel in search of Marie LeBlanc, but I have returned numerous times since then to spy from the nearby woods. I had intended to sneak back inside, to try to find out what had happened to Sister Mary, my one true friend. But after what happened last night I realise there would be no point.

Just before midnight, a line of robed cultists appeared from the darkness, and filed through the chapel doors. I had ventured closer for a better look, and when there was only one cultist left to go inside, I stepped on a twig. The noise was faint, but enough to attract the cultist’s attention.

My God.

I will never forget that cultist’s face.

I will never forget the face of Sister Mary, as she saw me in my hiding place, smiled wickedly, and then closed the chapel door behind her.

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