The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Sign of the Dragon
August 15th 9pm
Maddy, Joe – the temple
Greg, Daniel, Rob Flint – the hotel
Nora, Rob Turing – Stanley’s house.
“Move!” Greg roars. Flames shoot out of the hotel roof, turning the night sky orange. The three men dive forward. Somewhere behind them a siren sounds, incongruous in the tiny village roads. Some of the villagers have formed a chain and are passing buckets of water along it. Rob Flint grabs one, soaks his handkerchief in it and wraps the sodden cloth around his face. Greg and Daniel do the same, using any bits of cloth that come to hand. Gasping from the heat, they burst through the doors of the hotel and into the smoke-filled interior.
Several men are already herding people out of there Rob and Daniel join them while Greg carries on past, heading for the stairs. The cut on his face stings in the heat.
Eyes streaming, he nearly trips over the body of a woman at the top of the stair case. For a moment his mind plays tricks on his and he thinks he is looking at someone he once knew. A woman called Ellen Wallace. But then the smoke clears and he sees the painted face of a Geisha girl. Her eyes are open but she doesn’t move when he stoops down to her. He cannot tell whether she is alive or dead. He gathers her up in his arms anyway and stumbles down the stairs.
“Here,” he gasps, passing her to Daniel. “I’m going back up.”
A jet of water arches through the open doors, turning the smoke black.
“J-Joe?” Maddy stammers.
The conjuror waves people away from her and leans over her worriedly. As his face comes into focus she has to fight the urge to lean forward and kiss him. “It.. it worked, then? My… our magic?” she says muzzily. He takes her hand in his and it is only then that she becomes aware of the numbness – and the burning.
Mahmu kneels down beside them. “What happened?”
Joe shakes his head. Maddy will explain when she’s ready.
“Just as well I didn’t have to do, like, Plan B,” the girl says, scrambling to her feet. She stands unsteadily, supported by Joe. “Umm, where is everybody.”
The temple gates are hanging open and the courtyard is littered with the fallen bodies of monks and Yakuza. The stench of decomposing flesh makes Maddy gag. She pushes Joe’s hands away and looks through the gates to the valley below. Seeing a flicker of orange, her eyes widen. “That spell, uhhh, worked a bit too well, yeah? I need to do some, like, elemental counter-magic.”
“You’re not doing anything,” Joe orders sternly. “You need time to recover. Mahmu, I presume your people know all about sticking people back together. Can you do something for her hand?”
Maddy starts to protest and he lays his hands on her shoulders. “I’m sure, whatever is happening, other people can handle it for a while. Give yourself time to rest, let Mahmu see to your hand and then you can start casting spells again.”
She has to smile at his serious expression. “Okay,” she promises. “Mahmu, can you be quick?”
“Get Stanley from the basement!” Nora yells. She makes a grab for her gun and aims a shot at Saru while he is still beating flame from his arm. Somehow he twists to one side. The bullet grazes his shoulder as he leaps. For a moment he hangs from what remains of the ceiling then he swings his whole body up and around and disappears through the flame-ringed gap.
Smoke fills the room.
Coughing, Turing stumbles to her side. The two guards are behind him, carrying Stanley between them. A part of the roof falls down behind them.
“Out,” Nora orders.
Stanley motions weakly with his bound hands. “My computer.”
“I’ll get it,” Turing offers. There is a box of floppy discs on the table next to the keyboard. He grabs them too. Hurrying from the burning building they stop, gasping and blinking in the night air.
Several trees appear to be burning. Some of them are moving and Nora realises after a moment that they are not trees, but men. She watches dispassionately for a moment before she turns back to the house and takes the detonator out of her pocket. “Here goes,” she murmurs. Her thumb jabs down once.
The explosion rocks the whole building. Slowly, gracefully, the walls fold in on themselves. A few last tongues of scarlet flame lick over the shattered wood before a cloud of dust rises in the air and settles like rain.
“No!” Stanley shouts.
Nora spares him a smile. “As you’re now technically homeless, you can come back to the temple with us. I’m sure they’ll find you a bed for the night.”
Smoke rises in a thick, grey cloud from the Geisha hotel. Bodies lie on the ground, some of the still moving, most of them charred and still. Greg looks up from the body of the girl with red lips and meets Daniel’s eyes.
“God, I wish Ella were here,” he says. “But she’s gone. Gone forever.” Gently, he reaches down and closes the girl’s eyes.
Shiho appears from the direction of the temple, dressed all in black and carrying a gun in each hand. “We have beaten them off for now,” she says. “The fire helped, though there’s a lot of damage to be put right now. Some of our people are dead, but we’ve counted at least twenty Yakuza bodies. Anzen said we should burn them all.”
Greg nods wearily. Shiho notices the cut on his cheek and frowns. “We’d better get that tended to. Come on.”
Joe walks through the village roads. The fire seemed to be concentrated around the hotel – at least that is where the worst of the damage is. He rubs his eyes, stinging from the smoke. At least, seeing the charred rubble he can be sure it really happened – it wasn’t the result of some other illusion. Did Maddy really do it, he wonders. If she didn’t it must be the biggest coincidence in the history of the world so far.
Shiho is busy organising clear-up teams and he joins one of them willingly. The physical work helps clear his mind somewhat. He wonders how Nora is getting on over at Dr Stanley’s house. Stopping the Yakuza snatching his equipment has got to be a priority. But then the village must be important too if they want it cleared. He shifts another armful of rubble and stops to stretch aching muscles. He hopes Maddy is okay. Mahmu promised she’d be fine, but he knows Maddy, and so he knows she is likely to overstretch herself in her eagerness to help.
“Mahmu!” Maddy calls, “Can you take me, um, somewhere, y’know, high? Oh! And some jasmine incense’d be way cool if you’ve, like, got some. I need to do a little Moon ritual thingy…”
Her hand is bandaged but she waves it excitedly as she speaks. Mahmu sighs and leads her out of the temple.
They stop on a crag overlooking the temple. The valley is spread out below them and the moon is full in the sky. Maddy stands to admire it for a moment before lighting the incense and planting it in the earth. Facing west, she kneels and takes her deck of cards out of her rucksack. She selects two – Chance (from Monopoly) and Kan, the I-Ching card which represents ‘The Watery Depths.’ Letting a single drop of blood fall on one, she presses them together and opens them to form a symmetrical blot, that could, in bad light, be taken for a butterfly’s wings.
“Water heals fire,” she murmurs. She tears both cards into tiny pieces and faces the moon, holding the pieces in her cupped hands. Her mind gropes for something suitably Japanese to say. “Butterflies gather. “Beating wings carry… umm, dark clouds. The rain… is my friend.” She flings the pieces of card into the air. They flutter down like tiny insects. Maddy frowns. “Hmmm… I need to, like, seal it with a sacrifice. The Moon likes, y’know, silver.” So saying, she unloops the silver ankh she has always worn from around her neck, kisses the inscription one last time and flings it at the moon as hard as she can. Tears blind her eyes so she doesn’t see it fall.
A light, damp mist covers the temple and village. With all the fires out and injuries tended the group reconvene at the temple. There are two additions. Dr Aidan Stanley, and the geisha girl Tami.
“It seems we lucked out and won the first battle,” Joe says. “Do we have a clue how much we’ve inconvenienced our enemy and if we should expect more of the same?” He scratches his head and adds, “It occurs to me that although they were after Dr Stanley’s equipment they were also pretty adamant that the village was cleared. If all they wanted to do was set off a tremor and maybe perform some ritual in the valley then clearing the village wouldn’t be such a high priority. It makes me wonder if the location of the village is important or maybe they are working on a much bigger scale than I expected.”
Dr Stanley scowls blackly. “The village was one of the trigger spots for earthquakes in this area, you fool. And now this… this…” he stammers, trying to think of a word ugly enough to describe Nora. “This woman has destroyed all my work.”
“Not quite all,” Turing points out. “You still have your computer and backup discs.”
The scientist glares at him. “Yes, and what use are they when the machinery is spread half way across the mountain? It’s going to take me years to rebuild it. Even if I manage to get permission to carry on here.”
“Nakumara might be able to arrange something,” Greg suggests. “He’s out of government but I’m willing to bet he’s still got connections. That’s the way things work. Talking of government, Tami, what else do you know about the ministers who visited here?”
She colours as he addresses her. “Jinnouchi, Nakao and Maboroshi. They are popular in the country because they are very Japanese. You know, they say the Japanese are superior to other people.” She flushes a little harder. “It’s not true, of course. They are interested in this area, which is a good thing for the people, I suppose, but they have not done anything to help when the trouble started here. They promised they would, but they didn’t. Maybe it’s true that Nakao has friends in the Yakuza.” She falls silent.
“Is there anything else you can tell us,” Daniel urges. “Anything at all.”
She bites her lip and shakes her head. “I am sorry, Daniel-san. I do not think so. “When they visited they came together in one car and left together. They all wore suits – very western, and didn’t change into the hotel kimonos like most Japanese people do. They did not talk much but we saw the light on in their rooms all that night so maybe they were working. They left early in the morning. That is all I know.”
“It will do for now,” Greg says, patting her hand. “Thank you. I agree with Joe – we’ve given our foe a setback by defeating the first force he sent against us, but the battle is far from over. Surely he will send a greater force soon and we need to be ready. Maddy, you need to prepare your magical arsenal. Joe, you have to defend Maddy. Nora and Turing, I was going to say you should defend Dr Stanley’s earthquake generator but it’s too late for that now. At least it didn’t fall into the enemy’s hands. Now, what was there in the hotel that could have caused such a conflagration when Maddy’s spell struck?”
“I think it was just my spell,” Maddy says in a small voice.
Tami nods agreement. “There was not anything unusual there. We didn’t even have any guests because of the threat of trouble from the Yakuza. Also, there is much wood and paper in the hotel, for all the screens and walls. They burn very easily.”
“Dragons…” Maddy muses, rubbing her shorn head. “They’re always, like, connected to the Earth. Spilling their blood is s’posed to make the land, uhh, fertile again – y’know, like with Saint George? An’ I was reading up on, like, Shinto temples on the Net: they like sacrifices of, um, fruit an’ flowers, yeah?” She pauses.
“So, I want to make some Chaospheres to, like, plant in Yashimoto’s ‘dragon-earth’ – y’know, like that magical Trojan Horse stuff Greg said? Or, uhh, like poison-apples. Booby-trapped sacrifices. Whatever.” She peers at the group, her gaze linger on Greg and Nora.
“She’s completely flipped this time,” Nora mutters.
Maddy smiles. “I really need your bad vibes, though, yeah? ‘Specially you, Nora. And, um, Greg. You should do the cleaning of evil ritual Anzen-san taught us and direct all your bad ch’i into the apples. Oh, and, like, customise ‘em, yeah? Try to make it, y’know, your Chaosphere…” She fiddles for a strand of hair to chew and ends up chewing Miyage’s wooden beads instead. “I dunno why, but Yashimoto’s, like, really scared of Buddha. He tried to kill that baby Lama guy in thingummy…Kampuchea. An’ now he’s trying to get all the Buddhisty stuff out of Japan. D’you think it’s ‘cause Buddhism’s, like, a human-centred thing? I mean, didn’t Prince Siddartha Gautama go on about how he was human and, like, not a God? That’s, uh, not exactly a Yliddy thing to do, is it?”
“Whatever the reason, if he’s afraid of Buddha we can use it against him,” Flint says decisively. “What do we do with the apples when we’ve got them ready?”
Maddy hasn’t quite decided yet. She shrugs. “We’ll worry about that when they’re done.” She gets up and wanders outside. Joe raises his eyebrows at the others and levers himself to his feet to follow her.
A few minutes later, Mahmu comes in. “The temple is secure,” he says. He is carrying a pair of wooden carvings, one in each hand. He sets them down. “These have belonged to the temple for a long time. Anzen-san says you are welcome to have them if they can be used to stop Yashimoto’s plans. Mr Turing, I believe you said you could put them onto the black market where Yashimoto could find them?”
It is almost midnight. Daniel is barely aware of the time passing as he scans through list after list on his computer. Volcanoes. Possible effects. He finds some articles written by Aidan Stanley himself.
‘The effect of a volcano in the Hakone area would be disastrous. It is likely that the lava would rush into the lowest point, which is Boiling Hell Valley, turning it into a literal hell. Earth tremors would trigger avalanches in the mountains and the sulphur fumes which are always present would increase tenfold, poisoning the air and water to such an extent that nothing could survive there any length of time.
‘The area is sparsely populated, but the lack of any decent roads would make escape almost impossible, and equally impossible would be any serious rescue attempt. In short, the impact, in terms of environmental damage and loss of life would be nothing short of a catastrophe.’
‘Dragons,’ Joe reads. He starts with his private collection, much of which is downloaded onto his lap top PC, and scours the internet for further information where he needs it.
‘In Chinese and Japanese mythology, dragons often take on the form of fish. The ‘red cloud herb’ or ‘dragon cloud herb’ is the gift of a dragon and cures diseases. Other curative herbs are the ‘dragon’s whisker herb’ and ‘dragon liver’.’ Dragon spittle is thought to heal all disease, the essence of life being contained in the water of a deity. It is common to find a dragon taking on human form and it is said that only the purest man can look into the face of a dragon and live.
‘Dragons have the power of gods. They are divided into the five elements: earth, air, fire, water. They do not serve men, but they may appear to do so for a while as long as it pleases them. Those who win their favour may depend on their protection but those who claim to have summoned dragons are either lying or misled. Even so, for those who wish to try, this is the way a dragon may be called…’
This is what Joe has been looking for. He skims over the part of the text that details the magic tricks and apparatus that are used to create the illusion of a full-sized dragon appearing out of thin air. He’s done all that before. What he’s interested in now are the exact details of the supposed ritual. He reads carefully, stopping to take notes every so often. The ritual is genuine, he knows, it’s elaborate gestures and words adding to the sense of mystique.
The question is, can the ritual be made to work without the help of lights and mirrors? Is it possible to call on the earth-magic, as Maddy calls it, and summon a real dragon out of nothing?
“Erm, Anzen-san?” Maddy says shyly, Mahmu interpreting for her, “that, like, jumping thing you did, that was sooo cool! Like in films!” She grins widely, then remembering herself, adds, “Could you, like, show the others that ‘cleansing evil’ stuff again? Please?”
Gravely, he nods agreement.
Maddy trots off to her room, thinks about emailing SITU and decides against it. Instead she crouches in the lotus asana on her futon, staring hard at the apple in front of her. She unwraps the bandage from her hand, spends a long moment staring at the sigil burnt into her flesh then presses it against the apple while she chants the mantra of cleansing.
She unwinds three different colours of wool from her dreamcatcher and draws each thread in turn over the sigil. “Cthulhu, Ganesh, Buddha,” she whispers to the night. “Chaos-King, Breaker-of-Obstacles, Enlightened One. These threads hold my dreams and my nightmares: I consecrate them in your Names and ask that you bless my Chaos-seed.” She winds each one around the apple, covering it completely. Then, tugging out her dangling earrings one by one, she sticks them into the fruit. The end result looks like a weird hand-grenade.
Maddy smiles. “‘We must not look at goblin men, We must not buy their fruits: Who knows upon what soil they fed Their hungry thirsty roots…’”
Hugging the apple, she falls into a sleep in which she sees dreams of masked magicians bearing gifts of strange fruit.
“I’ve gotten lost somewhere along the way” Greg says to Daniel. “It was before Ella died, probably even before I ever so much as heard of SITU. Twice now, I’ve killed without hesitation. And now, I’m marked.” He gestures toward the new scar on his cheek, and then turns to look at Daniel directly. “What I wanted to do with my life was to help people, to lead them. I’m still trying to do that, discredited though I am, and now with a secret identity.” He laughs, more like a bark than like any kind of pleasure. “You’d think that we were super heroes – we are, after all, saving the world. But I don’t like what it’s turning me into to do that. I’ll be all right for this mission – I’m certain of that, Daniel. You don’t need to worry in the short term. So, we’d best get on about it, don’t you think?”
Daniel thinks of Belle-Marie, and Rhiannon, safely asleep at home. “The world certainly needs to be saved,” he agrees. If only the costs involved weren’t so high.
That night, unable to sleep, Greg concentrates on Maddy’s dreamcatcher. From Commodore Perry, through President Truman and General MacArthur to the present day, he reflect, the greatest threat to the interests of the Japanese nation has usually come from the United States. Today, he himself has become the embodiment of that threat, at least insofar as Yashimoto is identical with the interests of Japan. Particularly in regard to the dropping of the atomic bomb, the actual and potential threat represented by the USA has taken on a mythic aspect in the Japanese gestalt. If the world remembers what Japan did during the second world war, Japan remembers only too well what America did.
Greg’s thoughts drifts. American movies, spring to mind, television shows, comic books, novels. McDonalds – now there’s an example of America culture conquering the world. For the moment he feels he can almost direct the flow of Western influence throughout the world just by setting his mind to it.
The dream catcher spins lazily although there is no wind. Forgotten, on a table in the corner, an apple shimmers, turning black for an instant and then red again.
The tolling of the temple bell wakes them all the next morning. They make their way out of their rooms to find Shiho, Anzen and Mahmu sitting together, deep into some discussion. Mahmu looks up as the others appear.
“Miyage’s people will arrive today,” he says. “Shiho is suggesting we should go on the offensive: hit the Yakuza before they attack the village again. Anzen believes it is better to wait. What do you think?”
8am, August 16th
GREG: Maddy fixes you with a long stare. “Uh, Greg?” she says hesitantly, “y’know I said about, like, ‘bad vibes’ an’ stuff? Well, uhh, you’ve got more bad stuff than most of us, haven’t you? You’ve, erm, done things…”