The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Sign of the Dragon
8pm August 16th
Nora, Rob, Hakone station.
The others – the temple.
“Geoff Blaize here.”
“Blaize, it’s Nora. Listen, there’s not much time to talk. We’re getting into a critical phase here. Armed backup would be a very good idea, and some means of getting us out of here fast when everything goes wrong.”
She pushes her phone back into her bag and turns to Rob with a thin smile. “Come on, then. Can you manage?”
He nods and starts after her. “What’s going to go wrong?” he asks.
She shrugs. “Everything. It always does.”
“Pfff!” Maddy mutters, “Might’ve known there’d be a cable-car involved somewhere.”
Greg looks over her shoulder at the glowing screen of her laptop computer and the map spread out on the floor. “Cable cars again, Maddy. The Ylids were using cable cars in Germany, and you remember the ones in Norway. What is it about Ylids and cable cars?” Brushing the question aside, he jabs a forefinger at the map. “How long a drop would that be, Shiho? How long a descent would it be into the centre of Boiling Hell Valley?”
“Several hundred metres. I’m not sure.”
Greg glances over at Rob Flint, his face grim. “Ella fell further than that.” He turns back to Maddy. “Think that you can manage a spell to waft us down safely?”
She frowns thoughtfully. “I dunno. I don’t s’pose, like, Nora’s got a helicopter?” She turned her attention back to the computer. “The fifth dragon – ‘spirit’ – that’s, like, the most important one, yeah? I reckon ‘spirit’s’ the same stuff as, uhh, force-flow. Y’know, mana, prana, ch’i – the stuff the Ylids, like, eat. It needs to be pure – focused by all that ‘prayers of the nation’ weird shit. I dunno how he’s gonna, like, cause the earthquake when we’ve got the, y’know, thingy…” She tails off, momentarily lost in her own thoughts. “I’m gonna, like, do some ‘Net stuff, yeah? Call me when we’ve got a plan.”
Nora keeps one hand on her knife all the way back to the temple. Every time the wind stirs she turns sharply, expecting to see an attacker coming at her out of the shadows. The whole area, though, is quiet. Ominously quiet, she thinks to herself. Before them, the temple looms up, looking huge against the darkening sky. And behind it, above the valley, thin coils of smoke hang motionless.
“You should’ve let me meet Saru face to face,” she whispers to Rob. “I might have got him with the apple, and I’d certainly have learned his plan.”
“And you could have been killed,” he rejoins.
She shakes her head in exasperation.
They go into the temple together. The place appears full of people – at least twice as many monks as before. Lights are burning in the courtyard, simple torches on brackets. When Nora and Rob make their way through to where the rest of the SITU group are, the electric lights and air conditioning seem out of place, as if they belong to a completely different world.
Greg gets to his feet quickly. “What happened? How did it go?”
“We met an old friend.” Nora says. She fills them in on the details. “So, whatever they’re planning to do here it will start soon. Unless they realise the carving we sold them was a fake,” she adds with a frown.
Greg regards her thoughtfully. “I think that we have a fairly clear idea of what Yashimoto is trying to do now, and even how to stop him. I also think that he was probably the man in white that you two saw talking to the government minister.” He grins at Turing and lays a hand briefly on Nora’s shoulder. “Not only did Osamu Maboroshi treat him with deference, those burns on his face suggest to me that he was in the Valley during the big fight.” He turns, and positively beams at Maddy. “And you didn’t just hurt his flunkies and henchmen, Maddy. You hurt Yashimoto himself.”
Joe shakes his head. “I don’t know. White suit and origami birds suggest he’s the magician who led the attack here. Miwaku, Anzen said his name was?” He glances up at Greg. “Even so, it seems that at the very least he’s a direct link to Yashimoto,” he adds helpfully.
“And Yashimoto wants to be the one who brings peace among the dragons – so he must be at their centre.” Greg pauses thoughtfully. “That means the centre of the valley, the centre of the star that Maddy circumscribed on our map. He has to release them somehow, which suggests to me that he will attempt to set off the earthquake to do so. He also must be certain of his own power. Presuming for the moment that he hasn’t discovered that there is anything wrong with the carving, Yashimoto is mistaken if he is so sure of his power. It appears to me that we actually have four separate lines of attack against him.”
He pauses a moment, daring anyone to contradict him. “First, it is just possible that Yashimoto’s ritual will go wrong because of the Trojan Horse in the carvings. His attempt to bring peace among the dragons – which could represent the harmony among the dragons that the vision referred to, Maddy, I’m not sure – might fail, because his power would be flawed. While we certainly can’t depend on that, it might undermine him even if it does not completely thwart him.”
Another long pause. “Second, if we can intervene in his effort, we might be able to keep him from some crucial step in the enchantment or whatever it is that Yashimoto would be doing to try to bring peace among the dragons – presumably, setting off the earthquake by magical means. I think that that’s what we will have to deploy Miyage’s people to do; perhaps we will even need to go down there ourselves, with the breathing equipment, but I do have an alternative idea, and that is, third, to bomb him from above. From what Nora tells me, Maddy’s Chaospheres were remarkably effective. Perhaps we don’t have to actually go down there and fight Yashimoto – if Maddy can do something to guide them once they’ve been dropped, and make sure that they strike their target, we might be able to just drop them like bombs from the cable cars. I’m inclined to think that we ought to do this first, and then to follow them down, but I’m willing to listen to alternative plans. For one thing, we might be straining Maddy much too far to have her guide the Chaospheres to the target, provide a means of getting us and Miyage’s forces all down to the centre of the star safely, and then place her in a situation where she has to face Yashimoto directly.”
Joe is nodding at this, Maddy is looking uncertain.
Greg sighs deeply and runs a hand over his eyes. “Fourth,” he says, “as a fall-back plan, we may be able to somehow supply one of the dragons with a significant increase in power, to throw the counterpoise of the elements necessary for Yashimoto’s plan to succeed off of balance. ‘Should one of them gain power over the others, it will destroy them utterly,’ the text said, so doing this might be a suicide mission, but if all else fails to stop Yashimoto, I strongly suspect that he would be destroyed along with the rest of us if we could make that happen.”
“I don’t think I can guide the Chaospheres,” Maddy says apologetically. “Not once they’re in the valley and I can’t see them, I mean. Or lower people down by magic.” She cheers up briefly. “But ropes work as well as magic, and I can show you the best place to drop them. And I’m doing something else too…”
Nora rolls her eyes. Maddy glares at her and pulls out a sheet of printed paper. “Look! The newsletter thingummy came through from SITU! An’ I’m, like, the most experienced one – so that means I know what I’m, um, talking about. See?” She waves the paper smugly under Nora’s nose. “Okay, right, if you imagine reality’s sort-of like Tomb Raider III or something, yeah? Or the Net? Well, magic’s a way of knowing, uh, the cheat codes – or, uh, how to hack into the secrety bits of reality you’re not s’posed to, like, see. Some of my friends in, uh, London are helping make the anti-Yashimoto sigil into a, like, virus or a worm. It’s gonna jump out of people’s emails all over the world an’ they’ll, like, see it an’ it’ll all help, y’know, power the sigil – when we actually use it. Like the thing with the temple doors but, like, stronger…”
She takes her Chaosphere out and begins winding Miyage’s beads around the earring spikes that jut out of it. “All the power of the anti-Yashi sigil’s, like, channelled into it,” she explains. “When we get to Yashi’s, like, centre of power, I activate it with some, uh, blood and the magic word, yeah? I reckon it’ll infect Yashi’s whole, like, system – with, uh, Buddhisty energy and well, I dunno…” She shrugs. Her Chaosphere is looking like a mini grenade now. “Who knows what else’ll happen? Plant it an’ we’ll see. Chaos is, like, meant to be unpredictable.” She flashes an uneasy grin around the group. “Oh, and remember to power up your own, like, Chaospheres. They’ll all have, um, some effect…”
“Can you give me a hand preparing a few extra Chaospheres?” Nora asks unexpectedly. “I’ve got plenty of bad energy in me. Especially after that Saru incident.”
Maddy looks at her in surprise and hesitates before nodding, not quite sure that Nora is serious. “I still don’t see how they’ll do the, like, explosion thing if we have the scientisty guy, though,” she mutters.
“A purely magical ritual,” Joe suggests. “I wonder if there are any critical points where the ritual can be diverted or corrupted. Some illusion to make the participants believe they’ve failed – or even succeeded. Anything to throw them off. Maddy, what we need is the magical equivalent of a mirror or maybe a flourish.” He takes off his sunglasses with a flourish, passes them to Rob then produces a silver bracelet out his pocket. “Yours, I believe,” he tells Maddy, dropping it into her hand. He treats her to a brilliant smile. “We distract Yashimoto’s attention for one second – one second will be all we need to get someone in under his nose. Then, perhaps we could substitute your chaos apples for some of the artefacts.”
“And boom,” Nora finishes. “I like it. Count me in. When do we go?”
Daniel answers. “As soon as we’ve got everyone ready for evacuation. That should be our priority – just in case.”
“I don’t believe you,” Nora says flatly.
Dr Aidan Stanley snorts in derision. “That’s your problem, sweetheart. One of many. I’m already planning to lodge a complaint about you people when I get out of here. Breaking and entering, kidnapping, not to mention the destruction of some very valuable equipment.”
“How about adding torture to the list?” she asks coldly. Slowly, deliberately, she slides her knife out and presses it to Stanley’s left ear. “Now, you are going to tell me exactly what you were doing here, and what your involvement with the Yakuza is. Or I’ll start slicing bits off you until you do.”
The blood drains from his face. “You’re mad.”
“And you’re lying. The others may have fallen for the ‘innocent abroad’ act but you’ve not fooled me for one minute. You know more than you’re letting on.”
“The Yakuza wanted to buy my equipment,” he gasps in fright. “They offered me a lot of money. I turned them down because my research wasn’t complete. I swear…”
Nora picks up an apple from the floor and holds it in front of his face. “Do you know what this is?” she asks. “It’s called a Chaosphere. Filled with negative energy, and I’ve got a lot of it.” She slides it down his cheek, feeling its cold skin throb slightly, and brings it to rest against his mouth. “You don’t even want to know what’ll happen if you eat any of it.” He opens his mouth to scream and she grinds the apple against his teeth. “Go on. Try it.”
He moans and squirms but she holds him fast, knife in one hand, Chaosphere in the other. “I don’t know anything else.” A trickle of juice runs down the pulsing skin of the apple. He squeals and jerks his head back from it. “Ow! That hurt! They wanted my equipment and they said they’d pay me to work for them. That’s all.”
Nora allows him space to breathe. There is a welt running down his cheek, she notices. “So you’re working for them.”
“No.” He looks at her with large, frightened eyes. “Please, that stuff burns. I was granted a special permit to come over and do this research. Then these people turned up, wanted to know what I was doing, how the research was going, wanting to see the machinery. I let them look at it, of course, but they kept coming back. In the end they said they wanted to buy the machinery and all my research. I heard reports that the Yakuza had moved in on the area and I put two and two together. They scared the life out of me, but I needed to stay and finish my work. I honestly don’t know any more than that.”
Nora runs the tip of her knife down the welt on his face, just hard enough to draw blood. “You’re still lying. How long have you been working for them?”
“I’m not! I…”
The door opens.
“Nora-san?” Shiho says. “Nora, what are you doing? We need to make plans for tonight.”
Nora gives Stanley another hard glare. The scientist looks half dead with fright. Maybe he is telling the truth after all, she thinks. Or maybe not. In any case, she doesn’t think she’s going to get anything more out of him right now.
She sheathes her knife. “All right. I’m coming.”
Joe sits cross-legged on the tatami matting, his computer before him.
The ritual of dragon summoning consists of a series of rituals, each one specific to the type of dragon being called, he reads. If any of the stages is left incomplete, the dragon will not be summoned. Or, worse, the dragon will break free of the summoner’s control and kill him. With all four elemental dragons being summoned together the power has to be very focused, very pure, as Maddy said. Every item used in the summoning must be ritually charged with the correct magic. If it is not: if there is any unbalance in the power at all, the ritual will fail.
Yashimoto has been buying an awful lot of religious artefacts, Joe thinks. Each one of them correctly charged and laid out in the centre of where the ritual is to take place. And if just one is removed and replaced with something else…
It is easy to create an illusion of a dragon, he thinks. Sheets of cloth, thin rope, smoke flares. Even under the unforgiving glare of stage lights he can make people think they are looking at a creature of myth, rising on living wings. Under the cover of night, with everyone confused, he can make them think they have seen anything at all. But how easy will it be to steal even one of the Ylid’s artefacts and replace it with something of their own?
Daniel and Greg have finished working out escape routes for everyone.
“Should the worst happen at least the village will be safe,” Greg comments with satisfaction. There is a strange look of determination on his face and Daniel glances at him sharply.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes. Why shouldn’t I be?” But his expression doesn’t change. There seems to be a blackness at the heart of his eyes. Daniel shivers and turns away.
“I want to do some more research on magic while there’s time. Are you coming?”
“No.” The ex-senator shakes his head. “I think I’ll find Shiho and see what she thinks about a night time attack.”
He waits until Daniel has gone. But, instead of going in search of Shiho, he seeks out Rob Flint.
“I’ve got a theory that someone might have to displace Yashimoto to represent the fifth element,” he says. “It seems to me that you could do that.”
“Me?” Flint looks surprised. “I’m not even sure I understand how this ritual thing is going to work. Yashimoto is setting himself up as the fifth dragon, yes, the one who directs and controls the other four. And if it works he’ll be even more powerful than he is already.”
Again, Greg is brooding, his eyes unfocusing as his mind drifts on to darker thoughts. Flint reaches out and grasps his hand in an impulsive gesture of friendship. “Let’s just agree that neither of us will do anything rash,” he says.
Greg returns the pressure on his hand but doesn’t answer. After a moment he excuses himself and walks off into the rapidly darkening night.
Skirting the valley’s edge, Joe move silently despite the pack full of equipment he is carrying. Years of controlling his every movement on stage are paying off. He smiles as he recalls Nora’s instructions.
“See who’s out there, get your stuff in place and get back. We don’t want to lose anyone before the big fight.”
Not much chance of that, he thinks. He might not be able to cast real magic like Maddy, but one thing he prides himself on is being able to disappear when he wants to.
A noise to one side makes him turn his head. Voices, he realises, coming from the direction of the valley. He edges closer. Flickers of movement catch his attention. People moving. A few pinpricks of light show from the direction of the valley. The air has a heavy feel to it. The Yakuza are moving. He’s too far away to tell how many there are of them, or to see what they are doing, but somehow he knows the valley is full of people. The skin prickles across the back of his neck. Quickly, he finds the place he’s looking for and begins setting up his equipment. He works quickly but without any sense of urgency – hurrying an illusion can ruin the final effect completely.
Smoke continues to gather over the centre of the valley. He’s glad of the thick haze: it will make this illusion all the more effective. Finally done, he stands up carefully and backs off. He can still hear people in the distance. Voices coming from the valley floor itself, echoing around in circles. He wonders vaguely how they got there. Didn’t Shiho say there was no way down to the valley?
No time to wonder about it now. He has to get back to the temple before he’s seen. A few drops of rain hit his hands as he goes.
“Maddy, you’re going to have to help me out with the magic,” Daniel says. “I for one have no idea of how to use elemental magic.”
She giggles. “You’re not supposed to. Not many people can use it.”
The thought was vaguely comforting.
“Lets hope that not many on their side can, then,” Daniel says with a grin.
“We have a plan,” Nora announces. “We launch a direct assault against the valley. Shiho’s people will station themselves on the land bar between the valley and the lake. They’ve got enough explosives to open it up wide if necessary. Miyage’s men will use the cable car lines as a means of getting to the valley floor. Meanwhile, the rest of us will use the cable car to reach the exact centre of the valley and then do whatever it takes to get the Chaospheres in place.”
Greg raises his head slowly at this, then nods. “Agreed. Does anyone else have anything to say, or shall we begin.”
“I’ve activated all the defence sigils here,” Maddy says in a whisper. “Everyone knows what they have to do. So, I guess we can go.”
The Chaospheres are packed together in Maddy’s rucksack. Rob is carrying a coil of rope in each hand. All the others have weapons of various sorts. The night is clouded, moonless, the occasional patter of rain disturbing the leaves. On either side, columns of black clad figures flit by, quiet as ghosts – Miyage’s men. They will probably be in the worst danger of all, descending into the valley itself.
Everyone is silent, tense, not knowing what to expect. Maddy walks with a frown of concentration furrowing her brow. Everyone seems to be trusting her to cope with the magical side of the attack. Will she be able to do it? Yashimoto must be weakening by now, surely, but will it be enough.
Ahead of her, Nora leads the way, a gun slung over her shoulder, knife sheathed at her side. She is acutely conscious of the others behind her. She hopes that, for once, this will all go according to plan, that they’ll all get out of it alive. Daniel, Robert Turing and Flint, walk along, lost in their own thoughts. Once more into the abyss, Turing thinks grimly. He wonders if, once again, he will survive when all others die.
Joe is concentrating on the coming illusions. He hopes the remote controls will work properly – couldn’t risk setting the whole thing on a timer, he doesn’t know when the appearance of the dragon will be necessary. He looks around nervously. Beside him, Greg is grim, looking as if he is walking into hell itself. Joe wishes he could say something to break the tension, but the right words refuse to come.
The valley is ahead. The taste of smoke is on the air. Here and there, lights gleam and the cable car lines stretch out like a silvery bridge. A bridge made of mist and moonlight, that may disappear at any moment.
Somewhere behind, an order is given. Miyage’s men run past them, throw ropes, climb up onto the twin cables crossing the valley. One by one they slide up, land on the cables, run along them. Then they are dropping, unfurling rope as they go, falling like spiders into the smoky blackness below them. A shouts comes up. Gunfire, a short burst. A scream of pain and then nothing.
The smoke appears to be thickening.
“Come on,” Nora says. “The cable car.”
It takes an age to get out to the middle of the valley. Looking down they can see lights, catch the occasional glimpse of something moving far below. Gunfire sputters. Somewhere, a small explosion rocks the cable car on its track. Behind them, all along the line of the cable tracks, ropes sway, almost invisible in this blackness.
“Are we in the right place?” Nora asks.
Maddy peers over the edge. “I – I think so.” She suddenly sounds uncertain. “It’s not easy when you can’t see either side. I think we’re right.”
“But you’re not sure.” Nora shakes her head in disgust. “We need to get those Chaospheres to exactly the right place, you said.”
“Even that’s not good enough. We need to swap them for one of the Buddhist artefacts.” It is Greg who has spoken. His face is grim, gaunt in the shadows as he takes a rope and fastens it securely to the car. He holds out his hand for the rucksack. “I’m going down,” he announces. “Joe, your diversion might be a help now. Daniel, if I don’t make it back, tell Marie-Claude what happened.”
Daniel stares back at him, stricken. “You’ve been planning this all along. I knew there was something wrong, I just couldn’t work out what.”
“You can’t go over,” Nora states flatly. “You’re not trained for it. You’ll have no idea what to do at the bottom.”
“I’ll have as much idea as anyone else.” Greg meets her gaze and holds it. “There’s only one way to make sure the Chaospheres get to the right place, and that is for someone to take them down.” He slides the pack off Maddy’s shoulder. “I can do this now. I’d like to accomplish something worthwhile.” His voice is matter-of-fact.
“You think you haven’t done anything worthwhile with your life so far?” asks Flint in amazement.
Greg doesn’t answer. He just takes hold of the rope. Then he is gone.
He lands heavily and looks around. He is standing on flat, soft ground. The smell of sulphur is all around him. The jaws of hell, he thinks to himself. He walks forward carefully. He can no longer see the rope leading back to the cable car and safety. Lights are burning in odd places, far too steady to be natural, and in their glow billows of yellowish smoke are gusting. He smiles to himself. So this is what Hell looks like. He’d always wondered. And at the centre of Hell you will find the devil sitting on his throne.
Funny, now that he’s here he realises he doesn’t actually want to die. He’s not sure what he wants. Redemption, forgiveness, the words sound foreign to his mind. Maybe his first instinct was right, that he knew, out of everyone, his life mattered the least. The most expendable, and the most deserving of death.
The shrill of gunfire cuts through his thoughts. He trips over something in the mud and stoops to see what it is.
The Buddha’s face smiles back at him, benign, uncaring.
With trembling hands, Greg pulls the statue free of the earth and sets his pack on the ground. A minute, no more, to make the switch. Around him, a war is going on, but he feels completely alone as he kneels in the darkness.
And then a pair of white shoes shift the dirt beside him and a voice says softly, “So this is what they were doing. Drawing us away while you attack at the heart.”
Greg looks up slowly. The magician appears like a ghost – or an angel. Not a speck of dirt clings to him despite the dust and the smoke that still rises.
“Yashimoto,” Greg says.
The magician laughs softly and shakes his head. “No. Close. But never close enough.” His hands are moving, folding something as he speaks. “The master wishes to question you before we kill you. It’ll be easier for you if you just do what he wants. He –”
He breaks off, turning in surprise.
On the south side of the valley a dragon is rising.
“Nice illusion,” Flint mutters.
Joe shakes his head. “It’s not.” There is panic in his voice. “Not an illusion, not mine, anyhow. What’s happening down there? Where’s Greg?”
Nora hangs over the side of the car. “No sign of him. Shit, I’m going to have to go down.”
A scream splits the air. It is exactly what a dragon roar should sound like. If dragons really existed and if it was possible for them to roar in rage.
The cable car shudders violently. Then comes a sharp, high pitched ping, like a violin string breaking.
Nora shouts a warning. “Look!”
One of the thick, steel cables securing the car over the valley is beginning to fray, its threads snapping one by one.
12.15am August 17th
Boiling Hell Valley