The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Sign of the Dragon
August 15th 8pm
Greg shoots a glance at Daniel at the mention of the hotel. “The Geishas, no doubt.” He gets quickly to his feet. “Mahmu, call your Master’s people at once, although they’re nearly certain to arrive too late. “Maddy, we aren’t ready for this, are we?”
Maddy shakes her head and scowls. “Oh, big hairy bumholes! Didn’t expect them this early. We can’t even use the Chaospheres – they’re not, like, ripe yet…”
Greg sighs. “Then I suggest we withdraw at once. If we can’t hope to defeat these gangsters, we have to get out of here right now. We do have prospects of being able to fight another day. But if they capture us, we have to expect that the Yakuza won’t be mild enough to deport us. They’ll kill us.”
Daniel agrees, but Maddy, with a bottle of sake half way to her lips gives him a cold stare. “But you, like, made a speech, Greg. We have to help them. ; Listen to the voice of Buddha…” She clambers up and hands her poloroid camera to Mahmu. “I’m gonna go sit in the courtyard and, like, do a spell. Could, umm, someone take this and get, like, images of the bad guys for me? Thanks!” She grins at Joe. “Come with me, Joe? Pleeease?” She dashes outside without waiting for an answer.
Nora watches her go. At least the girl will be out of the way and not interfering with the rest of them, she thinks. “I’m going to visit Stanley again,” she says. “Forget the mumbo-jumbo Maddy was spouting – it’s obvious the Yakuza want the equipment to set off a volcanic explosion and destroy the area. We have to make sure they don’t get their hands on it.”
“We’re staying, then,” Greg says, resigned. “I suggest we split into groups and reconvene somewhere near the hotel. Any suggestions?” He looks at Daniel and Turing.
“There’s an old shop there that was boarded up,” Turning suggests. He grins in excitement. “We’re staying to help then. Good. Isn’t this fun?”
It’ll get us killed, Daniel thinks sourly to himself. But with everyone else committed to staying it seems he has no choice but to join them.
Greg stops Turing on the way out of the building. “I wanted to apologise if I seemed a little off kilter there on the cliffside,” he says quietly. “And I noticed that you stepped forward to cover for me with Dr. Stanley – I appreciate that.”
Rob beams at him. “No problem, old chap. “Any time you need assistance, just ask.” His smile is a little too wide, too manic for comfort. He almost seems to be looking forward to the coming fight.
A few paces behind them, Daniel watches Greg with a worried frown creasing his eyes. The American was never this tense on the last mission. But there is not time to talk to him about it now. Shiho and a dozen other Japanese come through the gates of the temple towards them.
“I have weapons,” Shiho says without preamble. “Take what you need. The enemy has split into two groups, one at the hotel, one heading our way. If you have to kill any of them, do so. We’ll cover for you.” Her face is set hard, dark eyes glowing. Flint notices a streak of blood on her arm and wonders if she’s killed anyone already.
Somewhere close by a chanting starts up.
“Okay,” Maddy tells “we need to find somewhere, like, sheltery but still touching the, uhh, earth. To do some, y’know, magic…” She picks a spot under a wooden overhang within sight of the gates but far enough back that they’ll be safe from attack for a short while at least. Joe hurries towards it and she follows, muttering glassolalia under her breath and rummaging in her rucksack.
“It’s destructive magic,” she pants, kneeling down, “so it needs, like, a sacrifice. A personal one.” She hands Joe a pair of scissors and he takes them uncertainly. Maddy bows her head. “Cut my hair off. Now! Hurry!”
Joe stares at her in amazement.
“Now!” she insists.
He sighs. “All right. If you’re sure.”
The blades make a quiet snick as they come together. The first of the long, black locks falls to the ground.
Accompanied by half a dozen Japanese men, Greg, Daniel and Robert Flint make their way down narrow tracks to the village.
Greg checks his gun for the third time. He wishes he knew exactly what he was facing here, but none of the Japanese with him appears to understand English – at least, the only time he tried to voice a question he was hushed with a sharp look. The fingers of his right hand twitch and close. He has to concentrate to loosen them again.
“Greg,” Daniel whispers. “If you need someone to talk to…”
Greg shakes his head and moves on.
The last glow of orange fades from the sky. The mountain is quiet around them, so quiet it seems hard to believe that a group of thugs are carrying out a war around them. But as they reach the outskirts of the village they hear the first shouts.
“The hotel,” Flint says determinedly. “Let’s go.”
The narrow roads are empty save for the group around them. They hurry on, as quietly as they can manage, none of them talking now. Then they come to the hotel and stop.
Six men lounge on the steps outside. All are dressed in the same uniform of combat trousers and sleeveless vests which reveal muscular arms. All are marked with the same tattoo – a blue dragon coiling the length of their right arm. One of them is carrying a submachine gun slung carelessly over one shoulder. He stands up when he sees the group. He speaks rapidly in Japanese, then he catches sight of Greg and the others and his dark eyes widen.
“The boss told us there were Gaijin mixed up in this,” he says, using the Japanese term for foreigner. “You people don’t understand, do you? Japan is for the Japanese.”
A woman’s scream interrupts him. Daniel starts forward. The gangster levels the gun.
Greg chooses that moment to shoot him in the stomach.
Nora flings back the door to Stanley’s house and marches in without invitation.
The scientist is sitting on the floor reading a book. He starts up with a scream when he sees her. “Nora?” He swallows, stares. “Uh, I like the outfit.”
Turing, waiting behind her, feels a flash of sympathy for him. Dressed in black combat fatigues with a knife strapped to one hip, a gun in one hand and a bottle of sake in the other she’s enough to frighten anyone.
“We got here before the Yakuza, then,” Nora says briskly. “Good. Let’s take another look at your machine.”
Stunned, he gestures to her to precede him down the stairs. A quick glance out of the window tells Turing that the two-man Japanese backup they brought have stationed themselves outside. He sits down at the top of the stairs and watches the door. Voices float up to him.
“So tell me again how it all works,” Nora says. She pours them both a drink and downs hers quickly.
Stanley grins. “Women have a reputation for not understanding these things, sweetie. All very technical. No, don’t touch that!”
“Why, what does it do?” Nora opens her blue eyes wide. “How about another drink?”
Half an hour later she comes back up the stairs, swinging the empty bottle in her hand. “Strange how one little bottle of sake can knock a man out cold,” she comments.
Rob gets up from where he’s sitting. “He didn’t drink the whole bottle?”
“Most of it. Then I hit him with it to make sure.” She smiles quickly. “The good news is I know exactly how the machine works and what to do to set off an earthquake. Give me a hand down the stairs with those explosives, will you? And be careful. They’re dangerous.
Maddy’s hair falls to the ground as Joe cuts it: an uneven, black carpet. She kneels unmoving, murmuring to herself and fingering her beads. Joe can feel her trembling slightly. The last few strands fall away. He puts down the scissors and sits back.
“Done,” he says.
Maddy looks up. Her eyes are bright with tears but she forces a grin. “Okay-dokay!” she says with unnatural brightness, “now gather it up and make a circle around us both, yeah? And splash it with some of this…” She hands him her bottle of sake.
A shout comes from outside and the high temple gates shudder once. People cry out in alarm. Mahmu pauses besides them. “They’re here,” he says needlessly. He calls together a line of men to stand between them and the gates, shielding them. He avoids looking at Maddy’s face or the circle of hair that Joe is forming and stares up into the night sky instead.
The gates shake again – a clatter of stones and other missiles being hurled against them. Joe catches a glimpse of Anzen leaping up onto the wall. He blinks hard. No, the wall is far too high for anyone to leap like that.
Making a decision, he stands up. “Mahmu, can you finish helping Maddy with her ritual? My magic might only be fancy lights and illusions, but they could be useful. I’ll just get my things.” He heads for the buildings at a run.
Maddy glances up once as Mahmu joins her. Leaving him to finish arranging the sticky mix of sake and hair, she takes out the Swiss army knife that doubles up as her mystical anthame. She chooses the biggest blade and begins to score out a sigil in the loose earth – the biggest version yet of the anti-Yashimoto spell she left all over Tokyo. Dust blows across the lines and she slices her thumb on the knife blade and lets a few drops of blood trickle down. Immediately the sigil appears to gain in depth, the blurred lines becoming firm and strong. She digs them out a little deeper still. Then, prising open her Zippo lighter, she dribbles the lighter fluid all along the channels of the sigil.
“Righty-ho!” she mutters shakily. “Now, stay inside the circle…”
The temple gates burst open.
The Yakuza man screams and drops to the ground, clutching himself. Blood wells, thick and crimson between his fingers. The other mobsters lunge for them. Greg turns his gun on another one of them, fighting the urge to clench his fingers tight.
Daniel and Flint go for the machine gun at the same time. A pistol spits twice – not Greg’s, Flint realises, but one of Shiho’s men. A booted foot lashes for his face and he rolls, the gun still in his hands. He comes up holding it upside down.
Daniel dodges a blow, takes another one across the backs of his knees and staggers. One of Shiho’s people hauls him to his feet. He grunts his thanks and twists free just in time to dodge again.
The night dissolves into chaos. In the dimly lit street people are moving so fast it is hard to tell friend from enemy.
“Get into the hotel,” Greg shouts. The trigger gives way beneath his finger. Someone screams but he can’t tell whether he shot them or not. He pushes forward then recoils as a knife slices for him. A hot line opens up on his cheek and when he puts his hand to his face his fingers come away covered in blood.
Flint swings the machine gun round, sputtering fire in all directions. Another of the Yakuza goes down. A surge of excitement makes him grin. “I do believe we’re actually winning,” he comments.
A woman’s scream makes him stop. He looks up as the hotel doors open and two people come out. One of them is a Japanese girl in geisha costume. Holding her by the throat, with a gun pressed to her side is a man. Tall, his black hair greying, he is wearing black gloves but his arms are bear and both arms bear the dragon tattoo.
“Stop,” he says, very quietly, in English.
The remaining Yakuza back off at once. Shiho’s people stand warily, not taking their eyes from him. He rakes them all with a single glance and turns his attention to Flint, standing at the foot of the steps.
“I will kill her, gaijin,” he says. His English is heavily accented, every word clipped. “This is not your fight. You will leave. Now.”
Nora finishes rigging up the last piece of explosive and stands back to survey her handiwork. She slips a small, black box into her pocket. “Anyone messes with it, it blows up. Anyone messes with us, I press the switch and it blows up.”
Stanley stirs and moans. “You wouldn’t.”
“Try me.” She climbs the stairs.
“Nora-san,” a voice calls urgently. “The Yakuza are coming.”
They run to the window. Outside, they can see dark shapes moving. A scream begins, cut off short, then another one. The door opens and the two Japanese guards slip in.
“Nora-san, there are twenty of them, maybe thirty. We have dealt with two, but we think they are too many.”
Nora gestures them to take up positions by the windows. Turing checks that Stanley is still securely tied up in the basement and joins her by the door. Whole minutes of tense silence crawl past and, at last, when the gentle tapping comes, it makes them both jump.
“Dr Stanley, may I come in?” a man’s voice asks. The door gives slightly under his weight and holds. Footsteps sound outside. “Dr Stanley, I am coming in now.”
Then the window explodes into a mass of glass and bits of paper from the blind. A small Japanese man rolls into the room, springs lithely to his feet and stops. His smile freezes when he sees Nora and Turing.
“Might I ask who you are?” he enquires.
Nora raises her gun, aiming directly between his eyes. “Dr Stanley’s still not interested in selling.”
“So he calls in the Mafia,” the little man observes. He leaps.
Nora doesn’t even have time to tighten her finger on the trigger. He twists mid air, his feet hitting the ceiling first, then the wall, and landing softly behind one of the two Japanese guards. He pulls him round as a shield.
“We have offered Dr Stanley a very good price,” he says as if nothing has happened. “He would be well advised to reconsider.” He gestures for Nora to lower her gun. She does, slightly, though she doesn’t let go of it.
“So,” the Yakuza agent says. “You may call me Saru. And you may call Dr Stanley and we will talk. You might as well do as I say. You have no way out of here.”
Joe stares in amazement. The Yakuza ‘gang’ consists of five men. Four of them are in combat gear with dragon tattoos on their bare arms. The other, probably the leader, he guesses, is dressed all in white and carries himself with a sense of dignity and power that any stage performer would be glad of.
“Anzen,” he calls. “In the wrong place at the wrong time as always. All we wanted was to keep you busy while we got what we wanted. But while we’re here we might as well take the place apart.” Joe doesn’t stop to wonder how he’s hearing the words in English. He raises his arms into a dramatic gesture born of years of training. All eyes turn to look in the direction he is pointing. When they look back, he is gone, only an expensive pair of sunglasses rocking gently on the ground where he was standing seconds ago.
The man in white takes a step forward. A dozen monks block his path. Joe takes a deep breath and steps out into the centre of the courtyard again. Keep him from noticing Maddy: the thought pounds in his head. Keep his attention away from her long enough to finish her ritual. He gestures again. The sunglasses fly into his hand and he slips them on.
The man in white smiles. “A fellow magician. But what is your magic? Illusion or reality?” He glances at the men on either side of him. “Attack.”
A flurry of movement. Blows are struck and dodged faster than Joe can follow. In the middle of it, the Japanese magician takes a sheet of paper from nowhere and folds it up into a tiny pinwheel star. Joe ducks instinctively when he flings it, even though it is only paper. He drops a handful of powder, causing smoke to rise, and leaps back.
Another star grazes the side of his face and embeds itself into the wall behind him. Joe yells in surprise.
“What is magic if it is not illusion?” the white robed conjuror murmurs. He flings another star. This time, Anzen is there to face him, raising his hand. The paper star flashes to ash and is gone.
“Prince Siddartha Gautama – the Buddha – sat beneath a tree,” Maddy mutters. Her right hand is resting flat on the ground, in her left she is still clutching the lighter. “Mara tried to tempt him away from the secret of enlightenment but he just did this. It’s called bhumisparsamudra – ‘Subduing Mara’. Or…’Calling the Earth to Witness’…” She raises her head. Mahmu pushes a photograph into her hand and she switches the lighter to her right hand to take it. Power builds up around her.
Joe wonders how four men can carry on fighting against so many for so long. Every time the Yakuza are knocked down they get back up again. All of them are covered in blood now, the long knives in their hands sticky with it. The dragons on their arms appear to be glowing, writhing.
Anzen wards off another attack, staggering. The Yakuza magician raises his hands. Joe sees he is holding a miniature temple, made out of paper.
“Now I break it,” he says. He pauses, his gaze turning in Maddy’s direction for the first time.
“Earth to fire to air…” Maddy announces. She flicks the lighter on. The sigil bursts into flame in front of her and then the photograph.
Fire lances out, searing through her mind and leaving her blind for a moment. It catches the paper model the magician is holding, and then his robes. He shouts out a few words in panic and is gone. At once, the dragon tattoos on the four Yakuza catch fire. They collapse screaming, tearing at their own flesh. The smell of burning makes Joe gag.
Lightning cracks the sky in half. Something that looks like a shooting star, only in reverse, rises from where Maddy is sitting and streaks across the night, bursting into twin shards overhead.
The four men stop screaming. Gingerly, Joe walks over to one of them. A stink of rot hits him as he approaches.
“They are dead,” Mahmu says. “They were dead a long time ago.”
It is only then that Joe remembers Maddy. The girl is lying on the ground, curled into a ball, the remains of her hair sticking up in weird spikes on her scalp. Joe rolls her over gently. Straightening her unresisting limbs.
“Dear God,” he whispers.
Burnt into the palm of her right hand is a perfect replica of the sigil on the ground.
Flint backs away slowly from the hotel door.
“Let her go,” Daniel says.
The Yakuza grins slowly. “Or you’ll do what, gaijin? Try anything and I will kill her. Throw down your guns and walk away now.” He digs his gun deeper into the girl’s side, making her scream again.
Greg flings down his pistol in disgust. “Only a coward hides behind women.” He stares at the Yakuza angrily, trapped, not wanting to leave, but not wanting to see the girl hurt either.
A streak of flame lights the sky overhead. The Yakuza glances up. Then something like lightning sears down his side and he yells in pain.
A moment later the whole hotel is engulfed in flame. Men stumble, screaming. Somehow, Flint finds his arms around the Japanese girl. He pulls her clear of the fire and shouts to Greg and Daniel. “We’ve got to get people out of there!” His voice is almost drowned in the roar of flame.
Nora and Saru glare at each other, neither of them giving way. Turing sighs.
“Why don’t you tell him about the explosives?” he says. He grins at the little Japanese man. “She’s a bomb expert, you know. The whole machine is rigged. Touch it in the wrong place and it will take you sky high with it.”
Saru’s face betrays no expression. “You’re lying.”
“Am I? Why don’t you try it out and see?”
“No, I think not.” Saru pushes Shiho’s man aside. “Much as I’d love to talk all night, ma’am, I really don’t have the time for it. You will tell me where Stanley is. Now.”
He is no longer where he was standing. Nora swings round and the gun is wrested out of her hand.
“Now we will see the machine,” Saru says. “You first.”
Then lightning splits the last remaining window in two. Saru yells and falls back, beating at his arm. Answering screams come from outside. A flare of white light sets the roof on fire. Through the haze of smoke, Nora remembers that Stanley is still tied up in the basement.
August 15th, 9pm
Maddy, Joe – the temple
Greg, Daniel, Rob Flint – the hotel
Nora, Rob Turing – Stanley’s house.