The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Sign of the Dragon
4pm August 16th
Nora, Rob Turing – Tokyo
The others – The temple, Hakone
“Oh shit!” Rob mouths at Nora, a momentary look of panic crossing his face.
The same thought has passed through her mind. The only option she can see is to let Saru take her prisoner, find out what she can and then escape. But before she can say anything, Rob breaks in.
“Whoa! Mickey! I’m afraid we have a problem.” He waits for their fence to stop and turn around before giving him a shrug and a grin. “By an unhappy coincident both my client and I know Mr. Saru from, ahum, more reputable circumstances. It would be extremely embarrassing for all involved were we to meet in this way. However, Mr. Saru would make an excellent customer for these goods so it would be a pity to let the sale fall through. If you have not given our names to Mr. Saru, I’m sure both I and my client could find people to stand in for use for the purpose of the trade.” He casts a meaningful look at his watch, “Even at such very short notice. I realise this might put you in a tricky situation, but I am sure Mr. Saru would be more than happy to be saved this embarrassment, and my client clearly does not need to see the buyer face-to-face since she already knows him!”
Mickey scowls at him. “If she doesn’t want to see him, fine. I’ll handle the sale, like I should be doing anyway. You were the ones who asked for a face to face meeting, remember.”
Nora is also protesting. Rob pulls her to one side. “Listen,” he hisses, “the key to our activities here is to get the artefacts to the right people, Saru is the right people. However, he will recognise us from Dr. Stanley’s lab and will probably grab us, which might prove interesting, but more to the point, he will become suspicious of the carvings, which would be bad. If you can find someone, preferably female I guess, to substitute for you, we might get the sale to go through, and then follow Saru to find out where our enemies are hiding?”
Nora hesitates. Putting someone else in might not get them the same information – she was rather hoping Saru could be encouraged to tell her the whole evil master plan – but she has to admit it would be safer, and if they follow Saru afterwards they may still find out what is going on.
“You’re wasting time,” Mickey mutters. Nora makes a decision and takes out her phone. “Give me five minutes. Hello, Sarah? How soon can you get over to the Imperial Palace?”
Hakone. Daniel and Greg are poring over the map of the area.
“What are the chances of the lake flooding as well if there’s an earthquake?” Daniel has just asked.
Greg looks at him grimly. “It might flood, which would be bad enough. But what if the lake boiled?”
Daniel is silent. “We really do need to organise an escape plan,” he says at last.
Voices from outside interrupt him. Maddy and Joe, both of them sounding excited. He stands up. “I wonder what’s happened now?”
“You saw it too!” Maddy cries, eyes shining, “Then it must be real! Let’s go tell the others!” Suddenly conscious that she’s standing there half-naked, she blushes and pulls the towel a little tighter around her thin body. “Errr, that’s, like, after I put some, y’know, clothes on…”
Joe drapes his jacket around her shoulders helpfully, making her blush even more. Leaving her to get dressed, he goes in to tell the others what they saw.
“The first thing I’m going to do is check up on magic rituals involving four dragons,” Joe says. “Alternatively, the vision could have been referring to using all four elements, of course, but either way now I know what I’m looking for it should be a lot easier. There’s got to be some reason why Yashimoto wants to release all that energy, and he must have some way of directing or controlling it. If I can find any details on that it will be helpful.”
“Elementally, my dear Watson.” Maddy says stifled giggle. She’s thrown on a white Buddhist robe and sandals and smells of sake. “We, like, visualised four dragons of the elements all coming together – like, y’know, if someone exploded the bit between the lake and the Boiling Hell stuff. Here, let’s see…” she grabs the map out of Greg’s hands and squints at it, chewing her lip. “Earth and water, that’s easy… and lava makes fire, like on their tattoos… and the steam’s, like, an air thing. But isn’t there a fifth element in Japanesey myth? ‘Spirit’, yeah? Hmmm…” Uncapping her fluorescent green magic marker, she highlights the strip of land separating the valley from the lake.
“But do we, like, help explode it or try to stop it?” she wonders. “Water’s always been, like, my element. Water an’ air are, like, the opposites of fire an’ earth – Yashimoto’s dragons – but they weren’t, y’know, fighting in the vision. They were in, uhh, harmony…” She closes her eyes and passes her hand across the map, hoping to pick up some sort of vibe through the sigil burned into her palm. Nothing happens.
“Let’s try a spot of, uh, dowsing…” she mutters.
The others watch curiously as she settles down into the lotus position. She hands her pen to Rob Flint and takes the wooden beads from around her neck. “Righty-ho, now just watch where it swings, yeah?” she tells him, motioning that he should mark the path of the makeshift pendulum over the map.
Screwing her eyes tight shut she lets the beads swing free, concentrating on each of the dragons in order. “Earth, air, fire and… water.” And then the Yakuza themselves. She pictures the dragon tattoo. Fire and earth combined, Joe said. She wonders if that could be the representation of the fifth element of spirit. The beads grow heavy in her hands and she lets them fall with a sigh.
“Anything, like, useful?” she asks.
No one answers and her shoulders slump in disappointment. But when she opens her eyes she sees that everyone is staring at the map, and when she sees what they are looking at she grins. A four pointed star, positions exactly over the middle of Boiling Hell Valley.
“I’d say we now have a target for the proposed attack,” Greg says. He looks down at the map and adds in a serious tone, “If you strike at a king, strike to kill.”
“We don’t know that Yashimoto is there yet,” Flint points out.
“No, but the valley is obviously important.” He looks around at the group. “If Yashimoto is here, we’ve probably been in contact with him already in some disguise or other. He could be Aidan Stanley, or Mahmu, or one of the locals.”
“Hardly likely to be Stanley,” Daniel says. Greg shakes his head.
“I’m not so sure. A break in relations between Japan and America would be the next logical step for Yashimoto. American culture pervades much of Japan. And the best way to engineer a break would be to blame an American for an earthquake that Yashimoto probably has the means to set off himself. Someone should talk to Stanley at any rate, see if he’s been set up here, if Yashimoto was behind him being in this area.”
“I’ll do it,” Daniel offers. “I was going to talk to him anyway.”
“So, um, are some us gonna, like, check out the edge of the lakey bit?” Maddy asks, “The Yakuza might be hiding somewhere there if that’s where they were, uhh, gonna make an earthquake…”
“If the Yakuza are going to be there it will be best to go in force,” Rob Flint says, “And to go at night, maybe. In the meantime, we have a mass exodus to plan.”
There is barely enough time for Nora to tell Sarah what to do and then for her and Rob to hide where they can see the gates of the palace without being seen.
Saru’s left arm is bandaged but he moves with an easy grace as if he is unaware of the injury. He is on foot; he strolls along the road slowly, stopping every now and then to look into shop windows or glance back at the traffic behind him. He manages to look completely unremarkable.
In the shelter of the palace walls, Rob and Nora are close enough to hear everything that is said.
“Good afternoon,” Mickey begins. “This is –”
“Let me see the carving.” Saru makes no pretence at politeness. He examines it briefly then turns his attention to Sarah. “How did you get it?”
“I have contacts.” She is under instruction from Nora to say as little as possible. She plays the part well, sounding slightly impatient and looking at Saru as if she doesn’t trust him. “There is a good market for this sort of thing, I believe.”
“There is.” He weighs the carving in his hands. After his initial scrutiny he doesn’t look at it again. “Very well, I can offer you a price.”
They get down to haggling.
Rob leaves Nora to watch and moves away where he can make a phone call without being heard. He gets through to Joe. “Hi, you’ll never guess where we are. We’re selling Anzen-san’s artefact, to Saru, of all people. Nora’s watching him now. Soon as the deal is made we’re going to follow him.” He can’t keep the excitement out of his voice.
“Be careful,” Joe cautions. “Oh and listen, can you pick up some breathing equipment on your way back. Divers’ masks will do. I think we might need them.”
Nora nudges him. “They’ve finished.”
Saru is handing over cash. Mickey takes it all quickly and counts it before nodding. He and Sarah hurry away, not looking back once. Saru’s gaze stays on them until they are out of sight. Only then does he turn. The path he chooses takes him back through the palace gardens, close to the wall where Nora and Rob are hiding.
“Let’s go,” Rob hisses. Nora holds him back until Saru is well past before venturing out. A quick glance around tells her there is little cover: the best thing to do is to play the part of tourists and stay far enough behind Saru that he doesn’t recognise them. She slides her camera out of her bag, glad that she’s packed her full escape kit of knife, hair grips and Chaosphere. She may still need them. Two men are loitering behind her, apparently engrossed in a patch of yellow flowers. She gestures to them to stay within sight and starts off after Saru.
Maddy finishes her tour of the ring of rice grains around the temple and stares down across the valley.
“The Ylids feed off belief, yeah?” she says to Rob Flint. “They use symbols, and the dragon’s, like, really powerful. 2000’s gonna be the Chinese Year of the Golden Dragon, y’know – an’ that only happens every, like, sixty years or something. Yashi’s really clever to choose dragons… d’you think he wants to, like, unite them so he can, uhh, have power over all the elements or something? Is it just about, like, power or is there something else?” She gnaws on a fingernail “Wonder what the Maddy Divination Deck says…” She wanders back inside the courtyard, shakes a few Scrabble tiles onto the ground and takes out a card.
‘You have won second prize in a beauty contest’ it says. She shrugs. Oh well, can’t expect it to work every time. “Let’s get a Power Word for the sigil, eh?” she says brightly. She kneels to rearrange the Scrabble letters and grins in delight when she comes up with the word ‘aqua’. Nodding to herself happily, she goes in search of Anzen.
The monk is in conversation with several other men, all dressed identically in black. “Some of the people Miyage sent from Tokyo,” Mahmu explains. “They are helping Greg and Daniel set up escape routes until they are needed for fighting.”
Maddy looks at them all, a little overawed. “Anzen-san?” she says shyly, “does the Buddha prefer, like, four or five elements? Only, I’ve been, like, thinking about the Spirit Dragon, y’know? Should I try an’ summon it to help against the other ones? The beads got, like, hot when I went to Boiling Hell Valley – what’s that mean? What would, uhh, the Buddha do?” She fingers the wooden beads uncertainly.
“The Buddha believes the four elements are nothing without spirit,” Anzen says slowly, waiting for Mahmu to translate. “The spirit rules all. The beads… they are a warning.” He reaches out and touches them. “The power of the elements is very strong in the valley. This has always been so, but also they are unstable, all fighting. I do not know what the Buddha would do.” He surprises her with a sudden smile. “What I would do is attack the dragon in its lair. But it is my task to protect the people here, not to fight.”
Rituals involving four dragons. Daniel and Joe are both searching the Web for them, cross-referencing to the four elements.
Finally, Joe lets out a cry of triumph. “I think I’ve found it. Come and look at this.”
The ritual is couched in pages of symbolic language. Clearly, though, each of the four dragons represents one of the elements.
‘The four dragons are naturally opposed,’ it says. ‘They have fought from the beginning. Some say this is how the world is, but the truth is that if the four set aside their constant war with one another the power they would have together would put the very world into their hands. Yet the place where they stood surely would be utterly destroyed for the world itself only exists by the separation of the dragons. Let them come together as one and it will be as it was before the Creation.’
“It sounds very much like what would happen to this place if there was a major earthquake,” Joe comments. He continues reading.
‘We must give thanks to whatever gods we look to that the dragons war on. It is said that only the prayers of a nation will be enough to stop the war, and then only for a moment. The one who holds the power at that time will be powerful indeed, for if he brings peace between the dragons they will ever after regard him with peace. Neither fire nor air, nor earth nor water shall raise a hand against him, but the world will cry out in suffering because of it.
‘He who seeks to control the dragons must be at their centre when he releases them, and must be certain of his own power. If any part is lacking he will fail. Also, the dragons must be present in equal measure. Should one of them gain power over the others, it will destroy them utterly. Neither let the fifth dragon be forgotten for though some do not regard him, he is truly master of all four and directs their movements.’
“So there we go,” says Daniel. He turns his own computer off. “We’d better go and talk to Maddy about this. She knows more about it than the rest of us.”
The procession through the palace gardens continues. Saru first, Nora and Rob strolling along arm in arm behind, taking care to photograph every interesting feature they pass. Then, behind Nora, her hired bodyguards, not following their exact path, but always keeping them in sight.
Two men are sitting on a bench overlooking the palace moat. Saru happens to be walking in that direction and sits down next to them. All of them appear to be strangers, politely avoiding eye-contact, but Nora, studying them through the telephoto lens on her camera, recognises one of them at once. He is Osamu Maboroshi, one of the new government ministers. The other man is dressed all in white and his face carries the marks of what look like recent burns.
She turns to Rob to tell him only to find that he has crept closer to listen.
He needn’t have bothered, of course, the exchange is entirely in Japanese. Saru takes out the carving and hands it across. The other two men look at it then the one in white takes it, saying something in a tone that leaves Rob in no doubt that he is in charge here. Rob hears the word ‘Hakone’ and edges forward another step.
Saru turns around.
The two men freeze in position a moment, staring at each other, then Saru snaps something to his companions and springs to his feet. Nora grabs Rob’s arm. “Run!”
“Dr. Stanley,” Greg says, “I believe that you were asking about compensation for your losses when we were interrupted not long ago. For the moment, I think that we all ought to be more concerned with getting everyone out of this valley alive than matters of money, but if we do all survive the coming crisis, I’m pretty sure that something can be arrived at. We will probably see either a much more favourable or much more unfavourable government in Japan after all this is over, and if it’s friendly, you can probably get your restitution there. If not, you are not apt to be able to carry on in Japan in any event, and we’ll have to look at other possible locations for your work to continue. Failing all else, I’m a lawyer. You can always sue.”
Stanley looks at him with hostility in his gaze. “If I’m not mistaken it was your friends who destroyed my equipment. I should be suing you. You’ve set this whole project back years.”
“If the Yakuza had got their hands on your equipment the results would have been disastrous,” Greg responds calmly.
Daniel, coming in in time to hear the last part of the exchange nods agreement. “I’ve been doing some research into the effects of an earthquake in this area. What exactly would happen?”
“Disaster. Complete and utter.” Stanley looks slightly mollified at being asked his opinion. “The whole area is so unstable there’d be a massive landslide. The old volcano could well start leaking lava and that would run down into the valley. You’d get sulphur clouds forming – so hot there’d be an even chance whether you’d die from burns or poisoning first. The bed of the lake itself is unstable and could well crack which would mean more lava forcing its way up and solidifying, but not before it causes the water at the bottom of the lake to boil. You’ve got the possibility of geysers shooting several hundred metres high. The water would become contaminated with the sulphur, of course, but that goes without saying.”
Greg and Daniel look at each other grimly. “They don’t call it Boiling Hell Valley for nothing,” Daniel comments. “Dr Stanley, I presume you must have made a detailed study of the area when you were setting up here. Did you get any unusual readings?”
“Unusual?” He frowns. “Define unusual. There’s a lot of seismic activity here; that was why I chose this place. The stress lines keep shifting – not unusual in itself, there’s always activity beneath the surface of the earth – but I was having a job keeping up with the changes. Currently, I’d say, the danger point is somewhere in the middle of the valley, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it moved again before long.”
“One more question,” Greg says. “Who set you up to come over here in the first place? The Japanese government?”
Stanley scratches his head. “I had to get their permission, of course. They granted it readily enough. The new justice minister signed the papers personally, I believe.” He looks thoughtful. “I wonder if they would offer compensation.”
A small paper dart flies past Nora’s ear as she runs, and slams into a tree. She doesn’t pause. She can hear Saru behind her, gaining ground fast. Rob is beside her, gasping for breath as he runs. She doesn’t think he’ll be able to keep up much longer. Her two bodyguards are behind as well, shielding them both from attack.
The gates of the park are ahead and outside the streets are crowded.
“Nearly there,” Nora gasps. One of the bodyguards goes down with a shout of pain. Out of the corner of her eye Nora sees Saru leap over him and come after her. She can’t see Maboroshi or the third man in white.
A sheet of paper tangles itself over Rob’s face. He stumbles, clawing at it. Nora hears laughter. She grabs Rob with one hand and pushes him on. Her other hand plunges awkwardly into her bag and closes over the chaosphere apple she’d spent the past nights preparing.
Ironic, she thinks, she’d been relying on Rob to rescue her if she’d been captured.
The last bodyguard flings himself at Saru and misses. He leaps for them again and at the same moment a low buzzing fills the air – a score or more of tiny white things flying at them. Too big to be insects, far too small for birds, their miniature wings beat stiffly. Rob backs away from them.
“Cranes,” he says. “They’re cranes. I saw them in an origami book.” The first one pecks at his eyes. He bats it aside and it leaves a streak of blood on his hand.
Saru slows to a walk. The paper creatures ignore him, diving again for Nora and Rob. Nora raises the chasophere and Saru grins.
“An apple? You’re going to kill me with an apple?”
“Something like that,” Nora mutters. Finally, she catches a glimpse of something white in the trees to her right. She turns and flings the sphere. Then she runs.
An explosion without sound: that is the best way she can think of describing it. A wave of pressure expanding outwards. The trees all bend, Saru yells something, a black shadow seems to hang over them for an instant then all is quiet.
They reach the gates and turn back. Of Saru and the others there is no sign. The path behind them is littered with bits of torn paper.
“Wow…” Rob whispers.
Nora ignores him. “We haven’t got much time. Come on.” She starts out of the park. “I heard part of what they said,” she explains. “Just before they saw you. I didn’t understand it all, but the man in white said the carving was the last one they needed. Whatever they’re planning in Hakone, they’re going to do it soon.”
“I’ve made a chaosphere,” Daniel tells Maddy. She beams at him in delight. He sits down beside her and tells her what they found about the dragon ritual. “With fire, earth and water all being represented here, it looks like only air is missing.”
She looks troubled. “No – air is the sulphur clouds,” she says. “So all four elements are there. And it’s only the fifth that can stop them.”
The escape plan is well under way, with many of the villagers moving out already. Shiho is supervising the operation, snapping out orders to groups of men who are moving silently, obeying without question.
Joe and Rob Flint watch it all from their vantage point above the road. “At least we know what to do if we need to evacuate,” Joe comments. He fidgets restlessly. He doesn’t like sitting about like this waiting for the enemy to make their next move, but until they can organise an attack on the valley itself as Maddy suggested there is little else to do but wait.
In a quiet moment he slips down to join Shiho. “I have a question.” He unfolds the map of the valley and shows her the part with the star marked on. “Suppose someone was hiding here…” he points to the middle of it. “How would we get there to find out?”
She looks hard at the map. “There is no way,” she says at last. “Only the cable car crosses the valley at that point. There is no path in. Unless you think you can jump from the cables.”
Elsewhere, people are queuing up to phone SITU.
“Are there any records of creatures such as dragons being linked to the Ylids in the past?” Daniel asks.
Blaize is brief and to the point. “Literal dragons? Not that we have on record. One of our investigations turned up a prehistoric creature in Lake Bala, north Wales, but we don’t believe there was any Ylid involvement. The dragon is a powerful symbol, however, especially in the oriental countries. It’s no surprise that Yashimoto would make use of it.”
Greg wants to know about USA-Japanese relations. Is there any possibility of some internecine struggle among the Ylid as manifested in the power and influence of those two nations, the USA and Japan? “What might Yashimoto be aiming at if he did want to blame Stanley for an earthquake in Japan?”
“All we can say for sure is that there is an Ylid presence in the USA,” Blaize says. “We have no more details than that. It could well be that there is antagonism between the USA Ylid – or Ylids – and Yashimoto. The histories of the two countries certainly point to it. Another thing is that Japanese culture has become diluted by Western ideas this century. If Yashimoto succeeds in severing links between Japan and other parts of the world, the Japanese cultural identity will become stronger once more, and so will his power base. He’ll be drawing his power from the collective faith of the people around, remember.”
The prayers of a nation, Greg thinks.
The train journey back to Hakone seems to take forever. Rob passes the time attempting to fold origami dragons. Nora, sitting with bags full of breathing apparatus around her feet, watches sourly. Her only consolation is that the squashed pieces of paper that Rob discards could never take on a life of their own.
The sun is setting by the time they get back. Rob gives up on his last creation and collects up his share of the bags.
“Back to the temple, then,” Nora says decisively. “It’s quiet here, isn’t it? I hope that’s a good sign.”
Rob is looking at the setting sun. Hanging low over the mountains it appears for a moment to be a huge dragon’s head breathing out a mist of fire and smoke.
8pm August 16th
Nora, Rob, Hakone station.
The others – the temple.