The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Sign of the Dragon
8am, August 16th
Rob Turing has been awake for the past two hours, staring at the Chaosphere apple that Maddy gave him. Put all your bad thoughts into it, she said – easier said than done in his case. In the end, Rob focuses on his nightmare of the plane crash. Just thinking about it causes a prickling of sweat around his collar and he lies back on his futon with a sigh. “This had better be worth it,” he mutters to himself.
The plane twisting out of control. People flung from side to side, all of them silent, asleep or dead. And Rob floating weightless, cushioned by air, unable to wake any of his fellow passengers, unable to do anything as the plane starts to come apart.
The sound of the crash wakes him. He rubs his eyes blearily and looks around. For a moment he thinks he sees the Chaosphere glowing softly but when he looks at it again it is only an apple. Looking at it reminds him he’s hungry and he gets up to go in search of Maddy first and then breakfast.
Maddy is disturbed by a light tap on her door. Thinking it’s Joe or Mahmu she opens it up and is surprised to find Rob standing there instead.
“Can I have a word?” he asks, and continues before she can respond. “Strange and dangerous things appear to be happening and, well I will admit that I am starting to feel a bit out of my depth. Yes, I know you guys have been telling me and Joe this all along but, well: it’s one thing to hear it, believing is a slower process.
“ He runs his fingers through his hair and grins at her. “I don’t seem to have been of much use lately. To tell the truth, I find that hard to take since I usually try to be doing at least two mildly useful things at a time.” A slow shake of his head. “Since I am not a man of physical action, I was hoping perhaps you could put me to some use. I am a quick learner, well, of most things I’ve tried so far anyway…”
Maddy looks doubtful, but only for a moment. “Sure,” she agrees. “The more help I have the better. Come on, I want to find Mahmu.”
They go into the courtyard together to find the others.
“What sleeps so soundly that it takes an earthquake to wake it?” Nora asks. The whole group is gathered together around Anzen, Mahmu and Shiho.
Robert Flint looks startled. “I didn’t realise there was anything actually sleeping in the valley.”
“A dragon,” Joe suggests. He glance to Maddy for confirmation but she is taking no notice, massaging her temples and humming softly to herself.
Nora lets out a bark of laughter. “This isn’t a Godzilla movie you know!” She gazes around at the others. “What takes an earthquake to wake? A revolution or massive social disorder perhaps. Just think of it – massive disruption in this part of the country, everyone has to move out. It’s going to cause problems, isn’t it?”
“More than you think,” Daniel responds, solemn-faced. He spent most of last night awake worrying, unable to get his fiancée and baby daughter out of his mind. What would happen to them if he died here? He pushes the thought away and busies himself passing out the documents he printed out on the effects of a volcano in the area. “I still think they’re trying to free something,” he says. “Maybe SITU would have some ideas. I don’t know whether we should attack now or prepare ourselves to defend. We’ll have to fight sooner or later, but will we win?”
“Of course we will,” Turing says cheerfully. “I say we fight now. We’re bound to win.”
Daniel ignores him. “In any case, we need to think about escape routes. Nora may have destroyed the machine, but if they want to set off an earthquake, I have a feeling they’ll look for other ways.”
“We’re looking at a large scale evacuation,” Greg says seriously. “As many citizens of this area as possible need to be moved out for their own safety, and we need to develop either a means of preventing an avalanche – maybe by diverting it in an unexpected direction – or develop some ways out of the valley that wouldn’t be closed off by an earthquake. We also need to figure out a way to deal with the poisoned air and/or water – which I’m suspecting will have to be by means of Maddy’s magic.”
He looks at her expectantly but she doesn’t respond. She is sitting cross-legged, humming softly to herself.
“Maddy, what are the magical implications of a volcano going off in the middle of an Earth magic place?” Daniel asks her. “I’m guessing it would allow some pretty powerful spell to be cast.”
She looks up. She’s obviously distracted, her eyes focused on something else. “The lava would release all the Earth magic in the area. Or would there be a combination of fire and earth? I think p’raps there would. The two together can be used for all sorts of things. I think.”
Nora says, “I agree with Shiho – we should go on the offensive while there’s still time. Take the fight to the Yakuza.”
Greg shakes his head. “We’ve just dealt the Yakuza quite a blow. I suppose that we could use Miyage’s people for an attack which they might not be expecting, but where would we attack? If we’re actually going to make a strike, it needs to be at something which will do real damage to our opposition. Can we lure the enemy ministers here somehow? If not, how else could we hurt them?”
“It seems that our adversary has a sense of mystery,” Joe says, frowning and sitting back. “Appearing from the night, puts in a dazzling performance and leaves us nothing but a cloud of smoke and ashes. I was hoping that maybe Anzen or Mahmu could explain the significance of the dragon tattoos? Or perhaps Anzen knows of the ring master in white?”
He glances at Anzen as he speaks. Mahmu translates rapidly and the group wait while the two converse in Japanese.
“He says he knows him,” Mahmu says. “His name is Miwaku. His enchantments look impressive but he was never that powerful in the way of magic. He has gained power since the last time Anzen-san confronted him otherwise he would never have broken the protection spell on the temple – or made dead men walk as if they were alive. Also, he is very arrogant and would not be working for the Yakuza, or even with them unless it was necessary. If he is here, he thinks Yashimoto must be also.” He pauses a moment, asking Anzen another question. “The tattoos you saw are the mark of the Yakuza. The dragon is their symbol.”
“Hmm…” Joe sits for a moment, staring at the ground. “Something doesn’t quite fit together. We have happened on a number of references to dragons which seem to be linked to healing and protection of the earth. Yet Dr Stanley’s machine seems to be rather important and it is difficult to see a use for it, uncalibrated, which isn’t catastrophic for the valley. Unless it could have been used to realign the valley in some way like the thing in Whitby that Maddy mentioned. “Shiho, have you noticed anybody clearing or altering a part of the valley recently? I know that the Yakuza have been clearing out the inhabitants, I was wondering what else they’ve done?”
“Nothing grows in the valley,” she responds, “so there is nothing to clear. The cracks in the earth, they are changing all the time. It is hard to see if there is any pattern to them.” She runs a hand through her hair and sighs. “I think what you have said is right. We need to know what we are attacking, and where, before we begin anything. Finding out where the enemy is hiding must be what we do next, and arranging an evacuation of those people who wish to leave.” She stands gracefully. “I just hope the Yakuza do not attack again before then.”
Dr Aidan Stanley hovers nervously behind Nora as she runs her fingers over his computer keyboard.
“What’s this?” she asks.
He shrugs. “Schematics. It doesn’t matter. It’ll take me months to get the equipment together to run another set of tests. That’s assuming I can get permission to stay out here, which I very much doubt after the trouble you’ve caused.”
“Uh huh.” She doesn’t seem to be listening. “So what are you really up to?” She scans quickly through a set of graphs and charts and turns around to face him. Her finger is hovering over the ‘delete’ key.
“Leave that alone,” he snaps. “My work is none of your damn business. You’re just lucky I haven’t made up my mind to sue you yet.”
Stanley starts to his feet and Nora pushes him back down with rather more force than is necessary. “Did no one think to tell you that starting earthquakes all over the place isn’t exactly a nice thing to do?”
The American glares at her sulkily. “Injecting someone with cowpox wasn’t a nice thing to do either, until people realised it immunised them against smallpox. It’s the same principle, lady. Set off a small, controlled earthquake in a high-risk area and it will prevent a serious quake in the future.”
She looks at him, hands on hips. “So why are the Yakuza so interested?”
“Industrial espionage, why the hell else? They need this technology and if they can get it without paying for it they’d save themselves a fortune.” He pauses. “I’m going to have to file a full report on what’s happened, you know.”
Nora tenses ready to hit him again and relaxes as she hears Greg’s voice.
“Sorry to disturb you both,” he says. He takes one look at the expression on Nora’s face and quickly puts himself between her and Stanley. “Dr Stanley, I wished to apologise for what’s happened so far, but, believe me, we have had very good reason for our actions. We suspect that someone is trying to set off a major earthquake in this area and your equipment would have been the means to that end.”
Stanley stares at him in amazement. “Why the hell would they want to do that? I can understand them wanting to prevent an earthquake, but setting one off? It could destroy the whole area. Not to mention the trouble it would cause between Japan and the US if word got out that American technology was involved.”
“They’d say it was Hiroshima all over again,” Greg says quietly. He draws in a breath. “Whatever the reason, someone wants to set off an earthquake. When Nora destroyed your equipment she felt she had no other choice. It was that or let the Yakuza get it.”
“I see.” Stanley hesitates, seeming unsure whether to believe him or not.
Greg takes Nora’s arm and leads her firmly away. “Think about what I’ve said, Dr Stanley.”
“Hey!” the scientist shouts after them. “What about compensation? When can I expect some compensation for al this?”
“Okay,” Maddy mutters to Mahmu, after a thorough inspection of the twin carvings, “this’ll be, like, cool. I’m gonna mark these thingies with a, like, hidden sigil. It’ll be triggered by anyone trying to suck away their, uh, aura, an’ it’ll explode with really cool Buddhisty energy and, like, retune the frequency of everything around it.” I grin, “That’s the idea, anyway. I’ll need as many monk guys as possible to help…”
The carvings are flat, vaguely rectangular. Like miniature doors, Maddy thinks, echoing the shape of the high, temple gates. She sets them down carefully and takes out her copy of ‘Memories of a Geisha.’ Quickly tearing out pages, she scribbles a green sigil on each sheet of paper, hands one each to Joe and Rob Turing who are watching and gives the rest to Mahmu to distribute. When everyone is sat down in a circle as required she beams around at them all.
“Alrighty! Everybody, like, focus on the sigil. Let the Buddha clear you and, like, channel all the uncool stuff into the sigil, yeah?” She waits for Mahmu to translate then, when the concentration of thought around her is so strong she can almost feel it, she pulls out her Swiss Army Athame and extend its sharpest blade..
“Sorry, Buddha,” she whispers. She selects the most unobtrusive bit of wood possible, a spot in the middle of the carving where the curling lines will obscure the faint scratchings of her sigil. Closing her eyes, she lets the blade feel its way.
“Done,” she announces. Rob and Joe breath a simultaneous sigh of relief. Maddy smiles, jabs the knife into her finger and squeezes a single drop of blood into the centre of each sigil, rubbing it in until it’s almost invisible. “Okay-dokay!” she says brightly, “Stick those doors on the black market and, like, BOOOOM!!”
Rob takes them from her. He can barely make out the scratch marks now, and he knows what he’s looking for. If you didn’t know they were there, chances are you’d miss them altogether.
He hopes Yashimoto doesn’t think to look too closely at them.
“Hi, Mickey,” Turing says cheerfully. “Rob Turing here. You’re still in Tokyo then. You’ll never guess where I am? Hakone; and listen, I’ve picked up a pair of carvings. The genuine thing, straight out of a Buddhist temple. No, don’t ask me where I got them from. The question is, can you find a buyer?”
He pauses a moment, listening, then says, “Sure, I can get them to you today. I’ll catch the next train back to Tokyo and be with you in, say, three hours.”
Turning his phone off, he sees Nora watching. He treats her to a brilliant smile. “I don’t suppose I can persuade you into a trip to Tokyo?”
“And for my next trick…” Maddy mutters, pulling the remaining pages from her paperback and tearing them in turn into smaller squares.
She is squatting in the central courtyard, a large sack of rice in front of her. When she has one piece of paper for each of the beads on the necklace Miyage gave her, she inscribes each one with the green sigil. When she turns her hand over, Joe can see the same sigil on the palm of her hand.
He watches with interest as she paces across the courtyard, dragging a stick behind her. It is a few moments before he realises she is drawing yet another sigil, one that stretches right across the space between the buildings. She goes back over it, carefully dribbling handfuls of rice over the lines then she flops down next to Joe in the middle and smears her already bloody finger over each piece of paper.
Vaguely, Maddy wonders if she’s becoming anaemic. Or maybe it’s the magic that’s making her feel light-headed. She forces herself to concentrate, counting five grains of rice, one for each element, onto a square of paper and folding it over. “Mmm. Not exactly origami, but it’ll do…” she mutters. When she has a little pile of packets in front of her she looks up. “Joe, can you call everyone together?”
They catch Nora and Rob on the point of leaving for Tokyo. Maddy gives them a paper package each and Joe hands the rest out.
“These are, like, little occulty bombs,” Maddy explains. “Each one’s charged with the anti-Yashimoto sigil and they should, like, do him and his followers harm, yeah? Sort of like the Chaospheres but less, uhh…personal. You have all been making the, um, Chaospheres, haven’t you?”
Several of the party nod. Maddy grins at them all. “Good. A Chaosphere is, like, a really powerful weapon if it’s done right. It’s a little seed of chance, of chaos, of bad luck – like a sort of, um, ‘bad vibe grenade’? I was planning to, like, plant my one wherever we reckon Yashimoto’s hiding – maybe in Boiling Hell Valley – but we can, like, throw them too. That’s if we bother to make one…” she shoots a meaningful glare at Nora.
Leaving them there, she takes the sack of rice and drags it outside.
It takes almost an hour to complete a rice circle around the whole temple and when she’s finished she’s exhausted and desperate for a warm bath.
“Blaize? It’s Daniel here,” Daniel says. “We think Yashimoto is planning something big here, possibly involving activating an earthquake or volcano. But from what I’ve read, doing that would destroy the whole area. Do you know what he could gain from that?”
“Destroying parts of his own country? No I can’t. Unless… it would release a great flood of energy all at once. Have you considered that?”
“We have,” Daniel confirms. “Nora also thinks he might be doing it to cause political unrest.”
“Or it could be both of those together,” Blaize says thoughtfully. “Or, maybe, rather than releasing magical energy, he’s trying to seal something in. Burying it under several thousand tons of lava would do the trick, I’d say.”
Daniel considers this. “It’s a possibility,” he concedes, though he can’t think of anything Yashimoto might want to bury.
Joe sits down in front of his computer and flexes his fingers. The dragon summoning ritual was exciting, he thinks, but way too big, and with far too many warnings attached. Best let the idea drop for now. he turns his attention to Maddy’s sigils instead, searching through his sizeable database to look for similar ones.
He doesn’t find anything quite the same as the symbols she has been drawing. Hers seem to combine elements from a number of others. The first part of the Chinese character for dragon, an inverted letter Y, a few lines that might represent mountains or might mean nothing at all.
The drawing of sigils of this sort is a way of transferring magical energy, he knows. Also a great way of getting the audience to concentrate on something other than what your hands are doing at a particular moment. The idea is that if you concentrate on a single symbol for long enough you’ll put some of your own energy into it, and that combined with the intricate design is enough to keep that energy trapped until you release it by tearing the paper or throwing it down.
The main difference between Maddy’s sigils and the hundreds that he has on file is that her ones seemed to work. But maybe that’s because she believes in them. Joe never expected magic to really work and therefore he never tried it before coming on this mission.
Looking through his list, he sees a sigil that is supposed to protect against dragons. He copies it down, just in case. Whistling softly to himself, he goes on line and begins searching for any mention of the dragon tattoo.
What he finds makes his eyes widen. The tattoo he saw on the Yakuza agents is not the one that is listed as the standard Yakuza marking. Theirs is a stylised dragon, wingless, breathing a gout of orange flame. The one he saw had wings and was a mixture of brown and red. As with Maddy’s sigil, it seems to combine elements from different dragon designs. Fire and earth dragons to be precise.
Sitting cross-legged in the middle of the tatami mat, Greg closes his eyes and draws in a deep breath. Whether the cleansing ritual Shiho mentioned will help him or not he doesn’t know. But he knows he has to try something. Images flash through his mind: the Yakuza men falling, bleeding. The whole street on fire and people screaming as they burn. He tries to concentrate on the temple surroundings instead, imagining the wind through his hair, lifting away all taint of evil. Only, the evil runs so deep that it is going to take more than a mountain breeze to carry it away.
He is almost relieved when he hears footsteps and opens his eyes to see Daniel standing there.
“How’re you feeling?” Daniel asks him.
Greg shrugs and stretches. “All right, I guess.” His eyes say otherwise and Daniel feels a twinge of real concern for him.
“Listen,” he says, “that man you stopped last night… it was necessary. He would have quite happily killed anyone who got in his way, you know that. You are leading people and protecting them, and sometimes you have to hurt someone to stop others getting hurt.”
“That’s what you think?” Greg sounds as if he doesn’t care much one way or the other.
“It’s what I think,” Daniel says. “Are you busy right now? Mahmu’s got a load of maps of the area so we can work out escape routes for people. You coming?”
Greg climbs wearily to his feet. Better to keep busy. That way he won’t have so much time to think.
Rob Turing puts the twin carvings down on the table and steps back to join Nora.
“What do you think?” he asks.
Mickey – antiques thief and dealer in stolen property – takes his time checking the artifacts over. “They’re genuine,” he concedes at last. “You’re in luck, I have a buyer lined up for this sort of thing. You won’t get full market value, of course, but then I suspect you didn’t exactly pay full market value, did you?” He pauses to laugh and stops when he sees neither of them are joining in.
“Who is the buyer?” Nora asks.
Mickey looks at her suspiciously. “Who are you?”
“I’m the supplier,” she replies smoothly. “I contacted Mr Turing, he contacted you, and now you’ll put me in touch with the end buyer.” She reaches for the carvings. “That’s the deal. Call it personal insurance on my part. If I don’t get to meet the buyer, these things don’t leave my hands.”
Mickey hesitates, chewing his bottom lip. “This isn’t the way things are done…”
“It’s the way I do them.” She looks at him levely. “Take it or leave it.”
Rob resists the urge to intervene as the two of them stare each other down. Mickey is the first to look away. “All right,” he agrees reluctantly. “I’ll contact the buyer’s agent and set up a meeting.”
Greg and Daniel pore over the maps together. Mahmu has helpfully marked in the positions of all the local villages in red. They are set randomly around Hell Valley, linked by tiny roads and the mountain railway. Greg jabs at it with a pen.
“The rail tracks are the obvious means of escape, but how likely is it that an avalanche would block them? They seem to be vulnerable in several places and once they’re blocked there’ll be no way round. The roads might be better. This one here has only got one weak point. It might be possible to protect it.”
“This area’s the lake, isn’t it?” Daniel asks, outlining a curve of blue. He hadn’t realised it was so close to the valley. He looks at the area thoughtfully. “What are the chances of the lake flooding as well if there’s an earthquake?”
Maddy lies back in the lukewarm water with a sigh. Piled around the small tub are the monks’ robes she’s been wearing and a heap of beads, bracelets and pieces of silver jewellery. Water has always been one of the best ways of re-energising herself after a ritual and this water is fifteen percent proof, a good quantity of sake having been added.
Maddy closes her eyes. She can almost feel the water restoring her as she breathes in the fragrance of dilute sake. The steam makes her cough. The curling, white strands remind her of Boiling Hell Valley with its sulphur clouds and pools of boiling water.
Boiling Hell Valley… A dragon lies beneath the ground, safely hidden, content. Waiting. And then…
In his room Joe jumps to his feet as a pain slices through his head. In a flash of white light he sees four dragons, blue, white, brown and red, stretching and waking. As one they lift their scaled heads and roar and the noise shakes the entire mountainside. The ground splits open, water pours in and boils. Rocks fall and gouts of flame and yellow, poisonous steam burst up into the air.
Then, as quickly as it came, the vision is gone. Joe stumbles outside in time to bump into Maddy, dripping wet and excited. “I saw something,” she exclaims. “Dragons. Four of them – earth, air, fire and water.”
“You have your meeting,” Mickey says, coming back into the room where Nora and Rob are waiting. “The gates of the Imperial Palace, thirty minutes time. There’s just enough time to get there.” He pulls on a jacket. “You’re to bring the carving with you.”
They follow him out of the building. The crowded, polluted streets seem suffocatingly hot after the peace of the Hakone mountains.
“Who is the buyer?” Rob asks curiously. “Do you have a name?”
Mickey nods without turning. “A gentleman called Saru. I don’t know who he’s working for, but between you and me, the word is he’s got government backing.”
4pm August 16th
Nora, Rob Turing – Tokyo
The others – The temple, Hakone
JOE: Maddy corners you. “If you’re, uhh, gonna try and summon a dragon, make it the Air one, yeah? That’s, like, the opposite of Earth, so it might, y’know, work against Yashimoto…”
She looks disappointed when you say you’re not planning to summon a dragon just yet.
GREG: A word from Maddy: “Thanks for, like, doing the stuff with the apple. Yours’ll be, like a great big KA-BOOM! when it goes off so, y’know, don’t throw it ‘til you see the whites of their eggs. Or something.”