The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Sign of the Dragon
August 14th, 9pm
Miyanoshita, Hakone national park.
Smiling slightly at Shiho’s assumption that the group will help, Greg nods. “To the extent that we can, to be sure. Most of us would make poor soldiers, though. If you confine us all to playing by the rules of the Yakuza, on ground of their choosing, you will lose – even if it is your home ground. We need to take the fight to the enemy, and I am dubious that we can do that by waiting meekly here for their attack. Or do you have a better plan in mind?”
Shiho regards him coolly. “We had planned to fight this here. As you say, it is our home ground. We have been keeping track of the Yakuza’s movements. We know where they are now, and what path they must take to come here. For now, we have the advantage of numbers. To attack them in the mountains where there is little room for manoeuvre will take away that advantage.” She smiles, briefly. “Few of us are fighters, yet we are all prepared to fight, and we have some weapons. We don’t expect this to be easy, but we will win.”
“What kind of weapons?” Nora asks.
“Guns, knives, a small amount of explosive. And many things can be turned into weapons. It is possible to fill the roads with traps. Anzen-san knows how.”
“Are you certain it’s a good idea to go against the Yakuza at this stage?” Flint puts forward tentatively. “I’m not convinced…” He sees the looks the others are giving him and trails off into silence. “All right. I suppose if we’re going to have to fight them we’d better come up with a decent strategy, at least. Maximum damage to them, minimum risk to us.”
Shiho turns her gaze on him. “Maximum damage is what we want. What do you suggest?”
It is Greg that answers, staring thoughtfully down at the ground as he speaks. “Our chief advantage in opposing a much more powerful enemy is that he cannot know the extent or the nature of our forces. We must strike at him, rather than allowing him to strike at us.
“We all know that Yashimoto has gone to great trouble to prune foreigners and foreign influences from the Hakone valley, and also that experiments in controlled earthquakes are being conducted here, by a man with a Western name who publishes his work in an American scientific journal. He seeks to conceal something, and we must learn what it is. If we can thwart his plan, he must turn his forces elsewhere to deal with the problems that we make for him. We must take the initiative.” His voice has been gradually rising, gaining in strength as his discourse takes on the cadences of a rallying speech. “Shiho Kawauchi,” he says. “You know this valley, and we do not. You must either deduce where it is that Yashimoto’s secret is concealed, or figure out how to quickly learn its location. And then, as quickly as possible, we must strike.”
Everyone feels a little breathless when he has finished. “I’d vote for him,” Rob Turing mutters. Daniel and Joe exchange grins. Eventually, Joe looks up.
“This is getting dangerous, isn’t it?” he asks. “But we’re committed now, we’ll have to see it through.” He turns his gaze toward the open doorway. “I wonder where Maddy’s got to?” he says.
Shiho cuts him off impatiently. “What you say makes sense, Anthony-san,” she says to Greg. “But I do not understand everything. We know of the American scientist, but Yashimoto – who is he?”
Standing with her toes in warm mud, Maddy shivers. Then, remembering the Chaos Ritual of Banishing With Laughter, she giggles to herself. Kicking off her boots she wriggles her toes through the mud. The stench of sulphur makes her feel light-headed, filling her with a feeling of power.
“I could do anything here…” she mutters again, “…it just needs…retuning.” Miyage’s beads seem to resonate in her hand as she touches them. The force-flow stuff the Ylids feed on seems to work differently in different countries, she thinks, but it’s all related to chthonic – earth – energy. Yashimoto must be wanting to use this energy somehow. What Maddy wants to do right now is to claim a little of it for her own.
She picks her way around the edge of the crater, stopping every so often to collect more of the blackened egg shells. Between two trees a pool has formed, steaming yellowish water. She stops there, pulls a handful of items out of her rucksack and lowers herself to the ground, folding her legs under her in a reasonable approximation of the lotus position.
Lighting a thick, white candle, she plants it in the ground, tears the flyleaf from her battered copy of ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ and draws a sigil on it in green biro. She takes up a blue velvet pouch and shakes out eight Scrabble tiles at random. After several tries she arranges them in front of her.
It sounds kind of Japanese, she thinks, pleased. “Ouranian Barbaric Power Words are Go!” she whispers excitedly. She copies the word out beneath the sigil. Then, wrapping the wooden beads firmly around the hilt of her Swiss army knife, she bares her left wrist. “In the names of Buddha, Ganesh, Cthulhu and, uhh, the formless forces of Chaos,” she intones, “I bind this place and its power to me with blood of my body, and consecrate it with my Power Word. Ow!” She digs the knife briefly into the inside of her wrist and lets five drops of blood fall onto the paper. Then, ripping a scrap of cloth from the hem of her dress, she dips it in the sulphur water and binds it around the wound.
“Boiling Hell Valley, my blood is your blood.”
Her voice is solemn. She folds the bloody paper tightly and fits it between two halves of egg shell, binding the whole package together with white and purple wool and sealing it with candle wax. She scrambles up.
She hefts the egg as far as she can into the bubbling mud. It sinks quickly.
Nothing appears to have happened, but smiling at a job well done, Maddy blows out the candle, gathers up her things and starts back in the direction of the temple.
“Yashimoto is the man behind the Yakuza’s attacks,” Nora explains quickly to Shiho before anyone else can jump in and say too much. “We believe he has a base in this area. The question is where, and as – uh – Anthony says, you are in the best position to find out.”
The Japanese woman nods slowly. “Very well. But I don’t know. If there is someone powerful working from this area, as you say, surely we would have seen sign of it.”
“Maybe not,” Daniel argues. “This man can keep himself well hidden when he wants to. If you know of any places he could be using, it would be a start. And, if you can tell us about the scientist?”
“I know where he is staying,” Shiho says. “I can take you there – it is not far. Maybe he will speak to you, maybe not.”
“While we’re doing all this we still need to prepare for the coming of the Yakuza,” Flint puts in. “It sounds to me like an ambush might be a good idea. They’ll be expecting you to leave, so why don’t we make it look like the place is deserted and then jump them?” He flicks a quick look in Mahmu’s direction. “And your master offered assistance. We should contact him.”
Mahmu nods. “I will do it.”
Voices from outside interrupt them. “That sounds like Maddy,” Daniel says, getting to his feet. “Excuse me a minute.”
He bumps into Maddy in the courtyard outside. Taking her arm, he draws her to one side. “I think I owe you an apology,” he says. In the darkness his smile is strained. “I’m just worried. I don’t trust Turing and I think Joe needs to understand how much danger we’re in. He seems like a really nice guy. I think I included you because of Nora’s, um, frosty attitude towards you – so, if I go on that I should have included the majority of the human race. So – sorry.”
Completely incapable of holding a grudge in the face of his apology, Maddy grins at him. “D’you really think she’s frosty? Are they in there – I’ve got to tell everyone what I’ve done.”
Daniel follows her back in. The group reacts with various degrees of relief to see her safe. Only Nora avoids her gaze.
“Nice dragon!” she beams at Turing, or rather at the embroidery on his jacket. “Uhh, look, I’ve got this, erm, theory…can I talk to you guys about it? Even you, Nora; it might be, like, important.”
“Go ahead,” Greg says.
Maddy flushes slightly under the combined gazes, twisting her wooden beads uncertainly around her index finger as she continues.
“There’s this, like, totally unbelievable sense of, y’know, energy in Boiling Hell Valley. I think Yashimoto’s trying to, um, use it somehow – to get really powerful or, uh, maybe something to do with the space program stuff he’s interested in.” She speaks quickly, stumbling over words in her eagerness to get them out. “Anyway, I’ve been talking to, like, other SITU agents on the Net, yeah? There was this mission in Glastonbury where a Ylid called The Watcher was trying to, like, have this Grail artefact thing put in a place of power, so he could feed off the belief energy it gave off. I reckon all these old religious object thingies can, like, convert earth energy into belief energy an’ that’s why Yashimoto’s stolen all the Buddhist stuff. If he can convert the earth energy from Boiling Hell Valley…well, he’ll be chthonic-mungous!”
She looks around the room. Shiho is translating for Anzen, the young monk nodding from time to time. Maddy pauses a moment for her to finish then continues. “I tried to, umm, bind the place to me, so I can use some of its energy myself, y’know, to help the Buddha? I bet all the Yashimoto guys are, like, planning some big Shinto ritual thingy with all the stolen temple stuff an’ earthquakes an’ everything – to make Yashimoto more powerful. If we could, like, infect the ritual like they did in Whitby…”
She leaves the question hanging.
“Whitby?” Joe asks. “What happened there?” He checks himself. “No, don’t tell me. Let’s just concentrate on this mission for now. You said you formed some sort of ritual, Maddy. What did you do exactly?”
She describes it for him. Nora is frowning all the time, but when Maddy mentions the Scrabble word, she starts in surprise. “Ryutochi? Are you sure it was that?”
Maddy frowns back at her. “Yes. Why?”
“If I remember rightly,” Nora says, glancing to Mahmu for confirmation, “Ryu means dragon. And tochi is Japanese for land or soil.”
Maddy’s eyes light up.
“Good work, Maddy,” Greg congratulates her softly. “I believe you magic may be the key thing here. At the least you may be able to disrupt any magical attack against us – no more origami dragons, I hope. And, who knows, if you can control the earthforce with any accuracy, you may be able to turn Yashimoto’s strength against him, turn the power of the earthquake generator back against itself. That alone should cause Yashimoto tremendous harm.”
Maddy blushes at the praise. “I’ll try, um… I’m gonna spend some time here, in the temple, seeing if I can, like, focus the Buddhist belief a bit. I need all your, uh, belief energy or orgone or ch’i or, like, whatever you wanna call it. Just remember to hang up your Dream Catchers, yeah?” She smiles round at everybody, aiming an extra-wide grin at Turing, “‘Specially you, Robert, yours’ll be extra powerful, I think…”
Shiho says something to Anzen in Japanese and stands up. “It is late.” She bows stiffly to everyone. “I must go. Tomorrow I will discuss your ideas with the others in the village. The scientist is working in a lodge not far from here. If you wish, I can take you to speak to him. He may agree to see you. And we will begin looking for this Yashimoto. I believe we will have some days before the Yakuza arrive.” She bows again. “Oyasuminasai. Good night.”
“Thanks for what you said about Maddy,” Daniel tells Greg outside. “I think you’re right.” He glances up at the sky. The night is clear, the half moon pure white against the smaller lights of the stars. “I was thinking of taking another trip to a Geisha house,” he says. “Don’t worry, I won’t mention the Yakuza. What I want to know is what I should be asking.”
Greg thinks for a moment. “Politics is a good starting point. Ask for their opinions of the current government, then start naming people. They’re trained to talk about any subject so they’ll have an opinion at least, and they should know what the current feeling is.” His hands tap nervously against the sides of his legs. “We have good reason to believe that at least Takao Jinnouchi is one of Yashimoto’s most highly placed operatives. If we can compromise his standing, perhaps by proving that there was something much more sinister behind the rousting of foreigners from the Hakone Valley, we can very likely force Jinnouchi’s resignation.”
In the small room that Maddy has been shown to, she positions her dream catcher and sits down cross-legged on the futon. Eyes closed, hands moving over her beads, she concentrates on an image of her sigil superimposed over Boiling Hell Valley. “Abanfemticalolaginbo…” The stream of sound comes out of her effortlessly. Breathing deeply she lays back and closes her eyes in sleep.
The hotel is huge, looking even more like an ancient castle as they approach.
“They say it is very quiet,” Mahmu explains. “Few visitors, so they are pleased you wish to sample the entertainment.”
Daniel, Joe and Rob Turing are with him. All three pause as they come into the wooden-floor entrance hall. Three kimono-clad women come through the doorway and bow in greeting. They smile and bow in return. Daniel has the eerie impression that he’s acting out a part in a spy film. If they don’t come up with any information here, he thinks with a grin, he’ll be writing a letter of complaint to Ian Flemming’s estate.
“This way please…” They follow the women through the door.
The first half an hour is strictly relaxation only. Then the questions begin.
Sipping green tea, Joe pats the hand of the girl closest to him. “Japan is a strange country,” he says. “All mountains and beautiful women and complicated politics. I’ve been reading the papers and it seems your government changes every day.”
The painted lips curve in a smile. “Not every day, Joe-san. But we have had many changes lately. Too many, some people say. We need a stable government, not one where we’re never quite sure who will be in office tomorrow.”
“Really? So what are the latest changes?”
“The three newest are Takao Jinnouchi, Seigo Nakao and Osamu Maboroshi,” she says. Her fan flutters close to her eyes. “They are all good men, so the papers say.”
Remembering Greg’s words, Daniel sits forward a little. “But what do you think? If I understand rightly, it is since Jinnouchi became a minister that the trouble over foreign visitors has started.”
Rob Turing nods agreement. “You must be losing a lot of business.”
“We cannot blame the government,” she says with a delicate toss of her head. Then she giggles. “We are not allowed to blame the government. Foreigners must have a good impression of Japan or we will be in trouble.” One of the other girls gasps, and her eyes narrow. “Well, it’s true. Sometimes we hear stories,” she says to Rob. “Nakao-san has Yakuza connections, but no one has ever proved it. Jinnouchi has ambitions to be prime minister and plots against the rest of the government. No one has ever proved that either. Maboroshi-san – no one had even heard of him before he became minister. He has no experience and yet he is in government as we must do as he says.”
Daniel reaches for his sake cup. “If you’re supposed to give foreigners a good impression of Japan, why are you telling us this?”
She shrugs. “People are chased from their homes, tourists do not come here. Very soon there will be no money and no jobs for anyone here. We are supposed to think this is a good thing. It is not. Besides,” she adds off-handedly, “these three visited here a year ago and we did not like them.”
Daniel chokes on his sake.
“Here?” Rob asks.
Her head dips in a nod. “Here. This hotel. They said it was an inspection of the area. They stayed only one night, and spoke to no one. When we served them, they were rude and ordered us away. Then in the morning a car came and they were gone. They might be good ministers, but I think they are not nice people.”
Morning unfolds slowly over the mountains. Daniel, Rob Turing and Joe are the last to surface. In the courtyard, monks are chanting, a soft, repetitive set of syllables that blends into the breeze, laying a sense of calm over everything.
A false sense of calm, Nora thinks. She wishes Maddy hadn’t chosen to sit in on this as well. The girl already know far too much magic than is good for her. Doing her best to ignore her, she concentrates hard, watching as one of the monks unfolds a sheet of cloth and twists it into intricate patterns.
“This is to clear the area of evil,” Anzen says through Mahmu. “The ritual for cleansing evil from one person is simpler. He moves his hands slowly, waiting while Nora copies him. After several repetitions, he nods. “You are a good student. Yet you must allow the power of the earth to move you. Otherwise you might as well try waving your hands to ward off the wind.” He looks at Maddy. “I think your problem will be controlling how much of the earth power comes through you. It is not enough to have access to it; you must be in control of it.”
Nora traces out the sequence of moves again to make sure she can remember it. She shoots Maddy a triumphant smile when she finishes it correctly. “Now,” she says, “I need to study origami. Can any of your people help?”
Mahmu translates and Anzen laughs.
“He says you’re too impatient,” Mahmu tells her. “He says you’re like a child who can’t walk yet wants to run a race.”
Nora stares back stubbornly. “I need to know.”
After a moment’s pause, Anzen stands up and gestures to her to follow. They go through the main hall of the temple, into a corridor lined with paintings on either side, and finally into a smaller room. It is unfurnished, dark except for a candle burning in the centre. Movement catches Nora’s eye and she looks up. Swaying in the candle’s breeze, a mobile turns slowly. Hundreds of tiny cranes, more than she can count, wings outstretched.
“It is one piece of paper,” Mahmu says softly. “One piece, five hundred cranes.”
Anzen presses a sheet of paper into her hands. Nora looks at it. It is about twenty centimetres square, white, rough on one side. “Take it,” he says. “Study it. When you know every part of it, when you can tell it from a hundred others like it, then you will be ready to learn.”
“I have a question,” Flint says, finally getting through to his contacts at the Tokyo university who can speak English. “There was a report in the paper a while back about a language student who was thrown out of the country after some trouble in the Hakone area. I wondered if you knew anything about it. Why were they in Hakone in the first place?”
“A holiday trip,” comes the reply. “We know about the case. Several people were angry at the time, but there was nothing to be done. The student was a British boy, here to study Japanese. He was asked to leave Hakone for no reason, so his teachers say. He insisted it wasn’t fair and went straight back there. He was stopped again and deported a week later.”
Flint wonders whether the boy saw anything he shouldn’t have while he was in Hakone. “Can you give me his name?” he asks.
“It’s no secret. Matthew Davis of Southampton university.”
Flint makes a note of it. “The other thing I wanted to ask about was Dr Aidan Stanley. Do you know anything about the research he is conducting in the area?”
There is a slight pause. “Very little.” The voice is apologetic. “We have had little feedback here. I understand the results are to be published in America first.”
Jinnouchi, Greg thinks. Maybe the best way to learn more about him will be through his predecessor, Nakamura. He thinks of asking Nora to follow this up, but she is nowhere to be found and so he gets his phone out.
“Swahn here.” The familiar voice sounds rough, tired, which is a surprise to Greg as by his reckoning it is early evening in London. He explains quickly what he needs.
“Why was Nakamura willing to break the law for an actor? Can you find out if Schwarzenegger studied in Heidelberg, or if he has any other ties to the Master? I’d do it myself, but I’m risking my cover enough as it is.”
“Will do,” Swahn agrees. I’ll fax any information to you.”
“Thanks. The other possibility link is geological conditions, is there anywhere in Japan that has similar conditions to Transylvania or Sweden, that may allow for ytterbium?” He pauses for breath. “And I also want to know what you were able to get from the star charts in the Master’s observatory.” Joe asked where Ylids came from, he thinks. Maybe with the help of the charts they will be able to start working it out.”
Swahn is silent. “I can’t give you anything on the star charts,” he says. “It’s classified. Besides, we’re still working on them. I’ll get someone looking at geology for you. How are the new operatives getting along, by the way?”
“Reasonably well,” Greg says, thinking of Joe’s scepticism and Turing’s manic behaviour. He hears Swahn sigh.
“Good. Blaize’s ideas about freedom of information are all very well, but it does mean our newest people often find themselves out of their depth.” He starts to say something else, then changes his mind. “Be careful,” he finishes.
Greg puts the phone down and sits back, ideas turning in his mind. The only remaining lead is Seigo Nakao’s purchase of the Buddhist artifact. Does that make him an enemy or an ally. He could be either and as things stand there’s no way of telling. Putting the problem from his mind, he picks up the phone again. If there’s going to be a shake-up of the Japanese government, not to mention a possible major earthquake, he’s sure Sid can use the information back in the States. How he’ll use it, he doesn’t know, but it’ll be a favour returned.
Writing an email to Belle-Marie reminds Daniel how much distance separates them. He hopes that she will agree to bring Rhiannon over once all this is over. The three of them could do with a holiday together, and no doubt she’d appreciate some training at Miyage’s temple as well.
The second email he sends, to his job agency about getting a contract in Japan is answered almost immediately.
Japan. You’re joking. They’re sacking foreigners at the moment, not employing them. Not even on short contracts. We can get you into one of the other Asian countries, if that’s what you want. But there’s nothing in Japan. Mail us again when you’ve decided what to do.
Joe Maranello is sitting in the courtyard of the temple. With the low voices of the monks and the sunlight glancing off the red gates he feels he almost can believe in real magic. Everyone else seems to, after all. Strange, he muses, he spent all his life studying magic, made a stage career out of, and yet he never believed it was anything but illusion. A thrill of excitement runs through him. What if it is true? Never mind that they are fighting people who are supposed to be masters of the art, or that a gang of Japanese mobsters will be here any day. If he can just see an origami dragon breathe real flame this whole mission – whatever the danger – will have been worth while.
Maddy comes down the steps to join him and he stands up. “I thought I’d stay with you today,” he offers. “I know I’m not a real magician like you, but I know the mechanics of it, and…” he’s horrified to find he’s starting to stammer. “What I mean,” he says firmly, “is I’d like to see how this works. I’ll give you any help I can.”
Shiho arrives ten minutes later. Her cheeks are flushed with the exertion of climbing the track, but her eyes hold the same look of determined coldness that he saw in her last night.
“I can take you to where the scientist is staying,” she says, without preamble. “Gather together any of your people who wish to come.”
Maddy declines the offer, bowing nervously to the stern-faced Japanese woman as she explains how she needs to stay at the temple. “I, like, sensed stuff in Boiling Hell Valley. If there were, like, little ‘quakes an’ stuff, could the volcano erupt again? Is that why they’re clearing the area or d’you think there’s something they don’t want us all to see?”
“The volcano has not erupted in a hundred years,” Shiho says. “There is no reason to believe it ever will again.” Her voice hardens. “Why they want us to leave is not important. What is important is that we fight them.”
Maddy shrugs. “Oh, okay. Well…could I have an apple? It’s to make a Chaosphere…”
Fax: from S. to all in Japan.
Trust you’re having a wonderful time. No geological finds here, I’m afraid, so keep on with the sightseeing. Your friend Arnold is quite jealous – he’s only ever had one holiday in Germany, and that was many years ago. Certainly no reason to give him special treatment that I can see. N. is still in the country, so maybe you’ll have a chance to talk.
“Gives you a certain sense of déjà vu, doesn’t it?” Greg murmurs, glancing up at the cable car ropes strung between mountains. He blinks, and looks straight at Nora. “They all gravitate toward mountains, don’t they? Maybe they’re more comfortable, or feel more at home, at higher altitudes?”
She shrugs, staring across the valley thoughtfully. Shiho gestures them on and they follow single file. Joe has stayed behind at the temple with Maddy so there are five of them plus Shiho. It should be enough to deal with a single scientist, Turing thinks to himself. He’s wondering whether they will find any of the stolen artifacts where they are going. If they really are a source of power, it could be that the scientist is using them for his earthquake detector or generator, whatever it is.
It takes them the best part of an hour to reach the place: a tiny, wooden lodge, built under an overhang of rock. All is quiet save for a soft murmur coming from the building it could be the humming of a machine.
Shiho bangs on the door. No answer. She tries again.
“Go away!” shouts a voice. The accent is most definitely American.
Turing steps forward. “Dr Stanley, I presume?”
A short pause, then a floorboard creaks by the door.
“An Englishman? Praise the gods, someone sensible to talk to.” The door comes open.
Dr Aidan Stanley is a short man, fair-haired, unshaven. Tired, green eyes gaze at the group in surprise. “What the hell are you all doing here?” he asks. “Bloody hell, you gave me a fright. I thought you were the Yakuza come back.”
“They’ve been here?” Nora asks sharply.
“I’ll say they have, doll. They’ve been trying to buy my bloody equipment. Only backed off when I threatened to cause an international incident if they didn’t leave me alone.” He pushes the door wide open behind him. “I’d offer you some green tea but I can’t stand the muck. You’re welcome to come in and tell me who you are.”
August 15th, 11am
Maddy, Joe – the Buddhist temple, Miyanoshita
The others – Aidan Stanley’s house.