The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Sign of the Dragon
August 14th 1999, 9.30 am
The hotel, Tokyo
Casting a smile in Maddy’s direction, Greg draws Daniel aside. “For what it’s worth,” he murmurs quietly, “Maddy has been on at least three missions for SITU prior to this one, and ranks as one of the most senior field agents, at my own level or above. I grant you that she can seem flighty, but when push came to shove in Norway she was as steady as a rock. I don’t think that you need to be much worried about her.”
Daniel nods, not altogether convinced yet, and turns to watch her. The girl is pulling things out of her bags, brandishing them eagerly. Hair dye, smog masks, prayer bells, sunglasses, end up in a pile on the floor. “Anything we can do to look less, well, foreigny is a good thing, yeah?” she says. “Weeell…” She indicates her heap of treasures.
“I’m impressed you found black hair dye in Japan,” Rob Flint comments. “You’d think they’d have no use for it here.”
Maddy flashes him a grin and picks up a prayer bell. The others see that she has wound the bells with purple and white wool. She smiles around, her gaze resting slightly longer on Joe than the others. “Okaaay…there’s one for, like, each of you. It’s my new magic, uh, invention – like, a Dream Catcher crossed with an Orgone Trap. And it’s, erm, good feng shui too. Probably. Anyway, I want you all to, y’know, hang it up in your room, in the window, yeah? It’ll catch any, like, chi or orgone or dream vibes or whatever – an’ I can use it later…” She grins again, bouncing in her excitement. “And it might even warn you about ninjas coming into your room in time to not be killed!”
“Good,” Nora says dryly. She takes one and shoves it roughly into her pocket. Greg picks one up next and one by one the others follow suit, Joe holding his up and examining it as if he expects to find a hidden trapdoor in the polished metal.
Robert Turing yawns loudly. “Do excuse me. I seem to be rather tired this morning. I think I’ll go and pack. Meet you all at the station?”
“So what is SITU all about?” Joe asks Daniel.
Daniel pauses a moment before answering, and when he does he is serious. “It started with an investigation into paranormal activity. In a way you’re better off than we were when we got involved because you know about the existence of the Ylid. We didn’t.” He smiles, thinly. “Of course, you’re probably wishing you didn’t know.”
Joe shakes his head. “What I know of it doesn’t make sense. I thought I’d by looking into strange phenomena – in my line of work that always means illusion of some kind, and illusions can be disproved. But now there’s Maddy who says she can do magic; we have origami dragons breathing fire, which has to be a trick; and SITU talking about non-human beings who want to rule the world. Somebody is mad here and until a few days ago I was sure it wasn’t me.”
Daniel grins at him. “You’ll get used to it.” A waiter refills their tea cups unasked and he smiles his thanks then grimaces as he taste the bitter, pale green liquid. “The Ylids,” he says firmly, “are real. SITU was set up to fight them. Often, when there’s evidence of paranormal activity an Ylid is behind it. So we started out investigating cases of the bizarre and gradually worked our way closer to the truth. Now the battle is out in the open and we’re opposing the Ylids directly. You’ll see your fair share of magic before this is over, I guarantee.”
Joe’s eyes glitter briefly at the mention of magic. He drains his cup and turns it upside down to stop it being refilled yet again. “But who are the Ylids? Where do they come from? And what do they want?”
Daniel shrugs. For a moment his expression is troubled. “That,” he says, “is something we still have to find out.”
Strange, thinks Rob Turing, how someone like him who can survive on very little sleep, still needs some. The nightmares have been troubling him more often recently, but last night was the absolute worst.
Returning from his meeting with Kenzo at about 4 a.m., he remembers, he finished the book on origami and sat back, smiling: what a quintessentially Japanese art form paper-folding was. Then he thought of the paper aeroplane that had triggered his interest in the first place. Taking it out of his pocket, he straightened the wings and looked at it hard. Someone must have planted it on him: that was the only answer. There was no way he could have folded this, in his sleep or otherwise.
In the darkness of the room, Robert’s laptop computer whirred to life. He turned slowly, the blood draining from his face. The screen showed nothing but static. A moan burst from him. “Oh no! Please God, no. Not again, please!” In his right fist the origami plane buzzed angrily, like a trapped wasp trying to escape. He jerked his hand open. Light flashed in his face, blinding him.
The room was full of people. They knelt on the floor around him, sat on the desk, the table, staring at him with accusing, sightless eyes. A teenage girl smiled at him, cold as an open grave. “We are all dead Robert. Maybe you are too, you just don’t know it yet. Maybe, you are falling and you just haven’t hit the ground!” He woke screaming, he remembers, still sitting in his armchair, a crushed paper plane on the floor by his right foot.
Recalling the dream now is almost as bad as living through it. Robert stumbles to the bathroom and splashes handfuls of water over his face. It takes minutes for the feeling of sick dread to leave him. Unsteadily he makes his way back to the main room and opens the wardrobe. Time to pack. He folds his clothes quickly, setting on an ivory suit with a subtle, white embroidered dragon motif. The journalist woman will probably throw a fit, he thinks.
“But,” he announces to the room, “I need a pick-me-up.”
The journalist woman is at the temple. After speaking briefly to Miyage, she collects Mahmu.
“We leave for Hakone today,” she tells him. “Are you ready?”
He nods. “Miyage-sensei has made arrangements. There is a village called Miyanoshita, and above it a temple with red gates. They are expecting us. You will be able to stay there as long as necessary, and Miyage-sensei has told them they must help you as much as they can.” He smiles, apologetic. “They are not renowned for their martial arts, I fear, but you will also need spies, people who can move around freely without being noticed.” His gaze takes in her blonde hair and pale skin. “Forgive me for saying so, but you do not look Japanese.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Nora mutters. She looks up. “All right. You’re to meet the others at the station. Tell them I’ve got an old friend to see first. I’ll catch up later.”
Maddy pins her newly-dyed hair up with a pink butterfly clip. Donning the wraparound shades she grins at her reflection. Totally Japanese, she thinks. Well, maybe a little bit. She passes her home made athame under the running tap, tosses it on top of her other equipment in her bag then, touching Miyage’s beads for luck she sits down at her computer, looking first for American Scientist Online and then for Dr Aidan Stanley.
There are several articles about earthquakes full of details she doesn’t fully understand. The main gist of what he is doing seems to be detecting fault lines and then setting off minor, controlled earthquakes. “The minor frictions this will cause may well relieve greater tension and thus prevent greater earthquakes,” he concludes. “The current tests in Miyanoshita are proving successful. In the volcanic region of Hakone, the improved instruments for detecting earthquake activity are producing very positive results. The next step will be to test the generator. The machine produces a controlled explosion with a distinctive pattern of shockwaves. These will spread down into the ground from source and amplify any existing faults resulting in a minor quake up to a mile below the earth’s surface. Tests in laboratory conditions have proved successful. It should be possible to carry out a field test in the coming months.”
And Joe thinks real magic is unbelievable, Maddy thinks, closing the computer. He ought to try looking at real science once in a while.
Checking through the English language papers, Greg/Anthony soon finds the reports he’s looking for. There are several cases of foreigners being picked up in the Hakone area and escorted under police guard back to Tokyo. In all cases the reason given is disturbance of the peace. But none of the foreigners was charged formally – an example of Japanese tolerance towards foreign visitors, the report says – and those who were on holiday were permitted to complete their stay. The only person to be asked to leave the country was a language student who insisted on returning to Hakone after his release.
It seems very unlikely to Greg that a few isolated students and tourists can cause enough of a disturbance of the peace to warrant arrest. He wonders what exactly they were guilty of, but try as he might, he can find no detail of the actual crime they were supposed to have committed. Sighing, he turns to the next problem. He hesitates a moment before picking up his phone. He can’t risk blowing his cover, but on the other hand they do say forewarned is forearmed.
“Sid,” he says. “This is Greg.” He pauses. “Yes, I’m fine. I can’t tell you where I am. But I need a big favour. The Japanese yakuza. I want names, information. Anything you can get me. Can you ask some questions and phone me back.” He recites the number slowly. “That’s right. Thanks. I owe you for this.”
Although evening rush hour is hours away, the station is still crowded.
“Where’s Nora?” asks Rob Flint, staring around for her. When Mahmu explains, he sighs loudly. “So much for team spirit. I thought we were going to stick together.”
In the interests of team spirit, Robert Turing spontaneously decides not to upgrade his ticket to one of the individual executive compartments. Besides, Maddy seems so pleased with herself for getting the tickets that he doesn’t want to disappoint her. When the train pulls in, dead on time, he follows the others on eagerly. Hakone is a place he’s always wanted to visit, the prospect of finally getting there is almost exciting.
For a moment he wishes Nora was there so he could talk about the lost artifacts. Probably just as well, though. His bruised optimism could do with a break from the condensed stream of realism that seems to be flowing permanently from the woman’s mouth. Instead, he chooses to sit by Maddy, right in the glass nose of the train. At least the girl’s got a sense of humour, he thinks.
Maddy soon becomes bored with staring out of the windows and busies herself with plaiting strands of white, purple and silver wool. “This is Moon Magic – it’s good for, like, concealment.” She fastens one of the bracelets around Turing’s left wrist and moves on to the others in the party. “I bet Nora won’t want one of these,” she mutters. She flings herself back into her seat, grins once at Turing. “What are we gonna say to the scientisty guy then? I’ve tried to check out his stuff on the Net but, like, Biochemistry was always more my thing. When I was, y’know, Marilyn.” Without waiting for an answer, she closes her eyes. A stream of murmured nonsense syllables make their way between her parted lips.
Greg, sitting with Flint, Daniel and Joe, glances around to make sure no one else can hear before addressing the two of them in a low voice. “Listen, we need to be exceptionally cautious in Hakone and keep our eyes and ears open. I can’t see much further than that as present.”
Flint looks at him cheerfully. “Exciting, isn’t it? Off into the unknown again.” Joe just shoots him a weary look and turns to stare out of the window. Gradually, Tokyo is left behind.
After a while, Greg’s phone rings. He takes it out, listens for several minutes, making short comments.
“Information,” he says at length, looking at his companions. “Remind me to cancel that phone number later. I can’t risk anyone tracing me here.” His expression darkens. “I got a friend to ask some questions about the yakuza for me. They’re the equivalent of the mafia, a large organisation with government links, very well funded. My – ah – contact came up with the name Seigo Nakao, one of the new government ministers. He’s a devout follower of shinto and was suspected to have yakuza connections in his youth.”
He realises his voice is carrying to far and stops. “The organisation itself,” he continues in a deliberate whisper, “is formed of triads. Groups of three men apiece, who act more or less independently but are loosely linked with other groups in their immediate area. There’s a strict chain of command, with the top triads ordering the lower ones. At the bottom they’re little more than paid thugs. Further up you get academics, government people, God knows who.”
“Then let’s hope we meet someone higher up the ranks,” Flint comments. “Academics I can handle. Thugs will be more of a problem.”
Efforts at conversation with Maddy failing, Robert Turing gets down to work. Japanese thugs and magic are not his speciality, but tracing stolen art work certainly is. Making several phone calls as the train glides noiselessly on, he puts together a list of several dozen stolen objects from around the country. He suspects there are many more. But it is the larger objects, the ones that carry the greatest historical significance, that will resurface. And the fact that there are so many of them stolen at the same time should make the job a hell of a lot easier.
An hour later he is smiling maniacally, nightmares forgotten. “If you hear anything let me know,” he says to his last contact. He sits back, satisfied, then grabs his pen and scribbles a few notes. An old Buddhist artefact recently sold to a private, anonymous buyer. But his contact was sure the man funding the purchase was none other than the new justice minister, Takao Jinnouchi.
The village of Miyanoshita is three-quarters of the way up a mountain, accessible only by a tiny mountain train. Mahmu quickly leads the group away from the nearest buildings up a little track that winds steeply. Most of the group are gasping for breath by the time they reach the temple. Only Mahmu and, surprisingly, Greg seem to make the climb with any ease.
Turning to look back, they see trees stretching away in a dizzying slope of dark green, broken up by sharp edges of reddish rock. In the distance is the blue glint of Lake Ashi and a haze of yellow-tinged smoke merging into the early evening light. The village is almost invisible from here, only the crenellated roofs of what Mahmu says is the largest hotel in the area, rising above the treetops like some ancient samurai castle.
The group stands and stares for several minutes before Nora’s voice startles them into turning.
“What kept you?” she asks. She is smiling as she strides through the red-painted temple gates. “They’re expecting you. Come on.” She turns away, glaring at Maddy’s attempt to fasten the last wool bracelet to her wrist.
“But, Nora, it’ll make us what you said, inconspicuous,” Maddy argues. “Like throwing knives at people, uh, doesn’t. Or selling stuff to other magazines…”
Nora mutters something under her breath and walks away. The others exchange glances and follow. Unseen eyes watch them as they make their way across the courtyard.
They don’t see anyone else until they go into the first of the buildings, a single, huge room divided with paper screens. There, finally, a man and, surprisingly, a woman, stand up to greet them. The man is young, his head shaven, dressed in the traditional white robes of the temple. The woman is taller than him, and her bare arms are muscular. Her dark hair is cropped short and her eyes, when she looks at everyone in turn, are cold.
“My name is Shiho Kawauchi,” she says at last, nodding slightly to Greg. “My husband leads the village of Miyanoshita. This man is Anzen-sensei, leader of the temple. He speaks only Japanese, but you have an interpreter with you, do you not?”
She pauses just long enough for Greg to answer in the affirmative. “You have come at a bad time,” she says. “Or maybe the right time. We shall see.” She speaks to Anzen in rapid Japanese then turns back. “The Yakuza have been working their way through the area. Yesterday they reached here. Not in person, but through a messenger who was gone this morning. He told us the village should be cleared. ‘For our own safely’ he said. It is clear what will happen if we choose to stay.” She fixes them all with a glare, more determined than even Nora could manage. “And that is exactly what we choose to do. We shall fight them and, as your fight is also with them, you will help us.” It is not a request. It is an order.
Staring out across the expanse of cracked and steaming mud, Maddy picks up a piece of blackened egg shell and studies it. The famous ‘kuro-tamago’ – the black eggs, boiled in the mineral pools hereabouts. She wishes the shop was open so she can buy one. Eating one, so the legend went, would extend your life by thirty years. Maddy pockets some of the shell and picks up a stick to scratch a sigil on the edge of the mud.
This late in the evening the crowds have gone and the area is peacefully deserted. The smell of sulphur hangs heavy on the air, making the Japanese notices pinned all around blur dizzyingly. Maddy is glad she left the rest of the group talking to the bossy woman and came out here alone. She looks up to the silent cable car lines stretching across the volcanic crater that is boiling hell valley. The wooden beads at her neck warm her skin.
An odd shiver passes through her. A sense of the raw power of the place, earth energy pulsing just below the surface of the mud, bursting through in every new gout of yellow steam. “I can do anything here,” she thinks suddenly. “All I have to do is use the energy at my feet.”
A crack appears across the sigil she has drawn. Grey water oozes through. Maddy watches the markings turn slowly to brown mud and shudders.
August 14th 1999, 9pm
Miyanoshita, Hakone national park.
Maddy: Secret actions all done.
Rob Turing: Maddy catches you alone. “Are you learning origami? Wow! You could, like, help me with rituals an’ stuff!”
You’re not entirely sure you like the sound of it, but you mumble something about doing all you can to help.
Joe: Maddy finds you in a quiet moment. “It’s okay to not believe, y’know. I didn’t believe in science at first but, like, I turned out to be one! It’s all the same stuff, though, yeah? You just set stuff up the right way and, um, well, the Universe does the rest! You’ll see…”
She skips away while you are still thinking about it.
Nora: Miyage tells you he has no personal knowledge of the assassin Shimaya, or the origami magic he practised. He knows that this type of magic is possible, and it is more than likely that someone of Shimaya’s power would have taken on at least one student. However, he adds that very few people would be able to wield the power necessary to bring a paper dragon to life. As for ways to counter the spell, interrupting the magician before he has finished the ritual will work or, once the spell is complete, altering the shape of the artefact by adding a fold or pulling one loose.
You ask what else he expected from your previous meeting. He says there are clearly non-human forces at work here and you should be aware of them. The rituals of Buddhism can work to protect you to some degree. The necklace he gave Maddy will help her magic, and the monks at the Hakone temple will do all they can. “I can sense your dislike for the girl, Maddy,” he says. “But trust her magic. It will protect you.”
Your trip to Hakone is successfully uneventful, if hideously expensive. Later, Maddy has a question for you. ““Umm, Nora? What d’you think about Mahmoud? I mean, there’s, y’know, another one here. He’s, y’know, got a slightly different name an’ all but he’s everywhere we go. It’s, like, cool because he’s always on our side, but it’s a bit weird, yeah? He’s like some spirit guide or something…”