The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Sign of the Dragon
12.15am August 17th
Boiling Hell Valley
Greg stares up at the dragon and grins. The sorcerer has just been taken in by prestidigitation. He’ll have to tell Joe about it later. If he ever gets the chance. Dragging a Chaosphere from his rucksack, he dives for Miwaku’s hands.
The apple is turning soft, rotten, and it splits easily. Brown juice spills out, burning Greg’s fingers. Miwaku screams: a sudden cry of agony and surprise. Ignoring the pain in his own hands, Greg twists the apple savagely. The stench of it blots out the smell of the sulphur for a moment.
Miwaku claws at him and for a moment the whole world spins away. It feels like claws have gone into his mind, tearing his thoughts apart like paper. Greg tries to fight back but his mind is caught. He feels himself spinning, beginning to falls. Pain floods him, and then a slow peace. Grunting with the effort, he pulls himself away from it and with the last of his strength he rips himself free. One arm swings up and his fist catches Miwaku under the jaw.
The world snaps back into focus. The magician staggers back, lashing out wildly, his hands covered with a thick layer of brownish pulp and blood. Greg dodges the blow and clenches his fists until he feels the blood throbbing under his nails. At Project Demeter he almost tore a man apart with his bare hands, but it is not rage that fills him now. Rather, a cold determination that lends strength to his blows as he hits the magician again and again.
He doesn’t stop until Miwaku is lying crumpled on the ground. Breathing heavily, Greg wipes his hands on his trousers. The smashed remains of the Chaosphere are at his feet. He uses a fold of his jacket to pick up the largest piece and shove it into Miwaku’s mouth. The unconscious man groans, shudders once and is still. Dead, probably, Greg reckons, but there’s no time to check for sure. Leaving him where he lies, he scrabbles the statue of the Buddha out of the earth and stuffs it into his rucksack. A quick glance up shows the cable car swinging high overhead, the shape of the dragon circling. No time to worry about the others: he has to get the artefact away from this place.
Pausing to drop one of the remaining Chaospheres into the space where the statue was, he sets off at a smooth jog, towards the heart of the valley. Any imbalance will cause the ritual to fail, according to Joe’s research, but none of them know what other plans Yashimoto might have for this night.
Never close enough, eh, Mr Wizard, Greg thinks. He grins to himself, coldly, as gunfire and then an explosion echo across the valley. We’ll see about that.
“This is the bit I love the best!” Maddy beams, oblivious to the fraying cables. “When it all starts to, like, unravel…”
While the others look for a way out of the car, she produces a bottle of sake and takes a long drink.
“I think we should get out onto the cables,” Daniel says, peering out of the car worriedly. The dragon is circling, its gigantic wings beating silently.
“Dragons may only be summoned or banished using pure magic,” Joe says, quoting something he read during his research. “To control one, you must control the element that spawned it.” There is a look of awe on his face as he stares up into the sky. The dragon turns its head, a dark shadow with a gaping mouth. Another sentence takes shape. “Fire dragons are the only ones that like bright light. The others shun it. Let’s hope it’s not a fire dragon.”
He casts a handful of powder out of the swaying car. It ignites almost at once, forming a lightning-bright sheet. The dragon roars, shaking the whole valley, and wheels to one side.
Maddy squats down, pricks both thumbs and begins scrawling bloody words on the sake bottle. “I, like, knew I shouldn’t have let Greg go off with the Chaospheres.” she mutters, “Now, I need a wick.” She looks up at Nora. “Nora, you’re the most, uhh, psychically flammable. Give me your hanky or something. Quick!”
Nora is busy rigging up ropes to the car. She pauses just long enough to thrust a handkerchief in Maddy’s direction. The girl takes it, spreads it out, then picks up her athame and begins slicing along the lines of the sigil burned into her right palm. Joe and Daniel start forward together. “It’s all right,” she says. She slaps her hand firmly down on the handkerchief then stuffs the cloth roughly into the neck of the sake bottle. “I know what I’m doing. Fighting fi-re with fi-re…” She makes it to the edge of the cable car and stares out, swaying slightly. Another thread of the steel cable snaps. Further back ropes jiggle and sway, almost invisible in the darkness. “Okaay, Yashimoto.” Maddy murmurs. “By the pricking of my thumbs, something Maddy your way comes…”
She closes her eyes, fighting to forget the cable car, the ropes, the dragon screaming overhead, and Nora screaming orders somewhat closer. Let your centre go calm, Anzen told her. She concentrates on his words, drawing in breath after deep breath. The heart of the web, that’s what she is looking for: the exact spot where her occult dynamite will trigger the power of the Chaospheres, the anti-Yashimoto sigil and her own early magical attempt to attune the earth-force to herself rather than the Ylid.
Her eyes open wide. Still staring straight ahead, she flips open her lighter, sets fire to the handkerchief and draws her arm back.
“BUDDAH BUDDAH BUDDAH!!!”
She flings the bottle as hard as she can. It arches in flight, spins and wavers.
And then is drawn upwards. Shards of light explode like fireworks: streaks of red and green bursting into brilliance and fading, leaving after-images that crawl across the sky like spiders.
The dragon screams and twists in mid air. White light surrounds it and turns red.
“Wow,” Rob murmurs.
It is bleeding fire, great drops that splash down into the heart of the darkness below. Its wings flex and twist, somehow sliding out of shape, flaking to ash at the edges. A scattering of earth falls over the car. The air rings with… not a scream, exactly, but the echo of a scream, uttered in some far away place. Then all is still.
Maddy looks down at her hand. The bleeding has stopped already.
“Right,” Nora snaps, “now you’ve finished messing about, maybe we can get out of here.” She grabs Turing and thrusts him at one of the ropes.
Nora is the last to make the climb, insisting on waiting until everyone else is safe first. Her mind is buzzing with plans. Find Greg first – or rather, find the bag of Chaospheres he’s carrying – that has to be the priority. The sudden change in his behaviour can only mean one thing: that he has gone over to the other side, or hopes to, so the only thing to do is to stop whatever he’s doing as quickly as possible. The others know that Yashimoto’s ritual must be stopped, but it seems unlikely they have the guts, or the commonsense, to do anything about it. She’ll just have to take care of it herself.
She grins to herself, hanging from the rope. She’s almost looking forward to it.
She lands softly, next to the others. The ground is churned and trampled, parts of it look like they have been dug up recently.
“Look at this,” Flint says. He stands aside so Nora can see the body on the ground. Her first thought is that it’s Greg’s, but then she recognises the white-clad magician who attacked her and Turing in Tokyo. From what she can see, his hands and the lower part of his face have been burned away.
“Dead?” she asks. Flint nods.
Then Greg must have killed him, Nora thinks. She examines the ground, finds a copper disc half buried and replaces it with one of her own chaos apples. Loosening her knife in its scabbard, she looks around determinedly. “Right,” she says, “now we go after Greg.”
Maddy slips off her sandals and wriggles her toes into the mud. She hitches her robes up around her hips and follows Nora absently, often walking with her eyes closed. All the time she is using the sharp edge of the athame to trace around the sigil on her right hand. Fresh blood wells. Joe follows close behind her, and Daniel watches them both. Flint and Turing, both armed with handguns, flank Nora. Clouds of yellow-white smoke billow up as they walk.
Stay together, Daniel thinks, that’s what matters now. It crosses his mind that now Greg has gone, Nora is the only one of the group with any real fighting ability, and the thought worries him.
Joe veers to one side, dropping a few handfuls of power here and there. It is several minutes before they start to ignite and when they do, random flares light the sky. “I’m hoping it’ll distract attention from where we really are,” he explains. He has to shout to make himself heard. A trembling runs through the ground. Looking back, he sees thick, black smoke billow into the air.
Somewhere further back a fire has started, Greg reckons. He can see smoke, thick and black. He stumbles over a body and grimaces. Hard to tell in the haze who is friend and who is enemy any more.
Something is happening just ahead. He can hear a voice shouting harsh orders. Gunfire comes in loud bursts and screams, the occasional word of Japanese and English. White steam blocks his vision. He waves it away and stops dead.
The steam is taking on shape, taking on wings. A mouth opens in a wide yawn showing a double row of teeth, hanging like icicles from the jaw. In the centre of it stands a figure that could be human. Greg knows instinctively that it is not.
Yashimoto has both hands raised. He is chanting something in a language Greg has never heard before. With every word the outline around him becomes clearer, the steam seems to solidify. Then, on the other side of the Ylid, a crack opens up in the ground and a red line shows through, heaving and flapping with growing strength. Fire, struggling to escape from the grasp of earth.
The sounds of the fight fade. Greg takes another Chaosphere out of the rucksack. Its surface is wrapped with beads – Maddy’s own, Greg recognises. He edges forward. You don’t like foreign influences, eh, he thinks. I’ll be the biggest foreign influence on you since Truman bombed Nagasaki.
Once again, he grins. The scene before him could have come out of Fantasia, and Walt Disney has to be one of the most pervasive examples of American cultural imperialism on the planet. Does the Tokyo Disneyland have a Snow White ride, he wonders?
“Have an apple, dearie!” he calls. He takes aim, ready to pitch the Chaosphere.
Two voices make him hesitate. Nora’s, shouting, “There he is. Stop him!”
And Maddy. “Greg? Greg, wait!”
“He’s going to join Yashimoto,” Nora snaps.
Greg turns in surprise. “What?”
“You heard me.” Her eyes narrow with anger. “I knew it when you insisted on coming down here by yourself.” She stops staring at him in shock. “What happened to your hair? It’s white.”
“White? I –”
A hiss of steam behind them reminds them of the danger. Maddy snatches her Chaosphere out of Greg’s hand. “I think we need to, like, plant it. In the, y’know, Earth?” she says.
Robert Flint shakes his head. “It needs to get right to him. And, besides, the ritual needs a focus. Give me the apple, Maddy.”
She hangs on to it. He holds his hand out. “Give it to me. I know what I’m doing. If you kill Yashimoto with no one to take his place, the dragons will be freed. There’s no telling what damage they’ll do.” He takes the Chaosphere out of her hands. “I won’t be long.”
“Robert –” Greg calls. Flint doesn’t look back. He walks into the smoke and is gone.
They hear his voice calling Yashimoto’s name. The smoke clears for a moment and they see them, the Ylid standing furious, his half-formed dragons struggling against the elements that hold them still. Robert is calm. He says something the others cannot hear. The water dragon hisses out a great bellow of steam and in the middle of it they catch the glint of the Chaosphere spinning through the air.
Maddy digs her toes into the earth and wills up power through her. Earth to air to water. She focuses her thought on protecting Robert – and harming Yashimoto. “You’re not a dragon,” she mutters scornfully. “You’re a crumbly old dinosaur who’s s’posed to be dead.”
On her last word, a flood of water and lava erupts from the ground in front of her.
A blast of wind screams across the valley, smelling of sulphur. Chunks of burning rock blast into the sky, rising on a trail of steam. Joe yells a warning and pulls Maddy back. Bare-footed, she yells in pain as her feet touch hot rock and he swings her up into his arms.
The valley boils around them as they run.
“The ropes!” Nora gasps. Other figures are fleeing; she runs towards them, hoping that they are Miyage’s men and not the enemy. A final dying roar comes from behind as they reach the first rope and begin to climb.
JAPAN MISSION DEBRIEFING
First of all, let me express my deep sorrow at the loss of Robert Montague Flint, a trusted and capable agent. His final act of making himself the focus for the dragon ritual was, we believe, crucial in dissipating the elemental forces and thus containing what could have been a widespread catastrophe.
It is not known whether Yashimoto survived the cataclysm or not. Certainly we have heard nothing of him since, and if he does still live it must be in a severely weakened state, with his power base in Japan all but destroyed.
Several government ministers have resigned in the light of an announcement that the economic collapse was engineered solely to contribute to a feeling of xenophobia in the country. The new foreign minister is known as a staunch Buddhist and there are strong hopes that the tourist industry will soon recover under his guidance. There are also investigations going on into the links between certain members of government and the yakuza. More resignations are expected.
The scientist, Aidan Stanley, is now recovering in one of our hospitals after suffering an unfortunate accident at the Hakone temple. Full marks to Nora for suggesting she disguise herself as a nurse and accompany him out. For some reason he became hysterical when he regained consciousness back in London and saw her, but we are sure that in time he will express his thanks to you all. We are now looking into his earthquake research – the technology is something we may be able to use ourselves.
My congratulations to you all, especially to the new members of the team. This was a difficult assignment and you did well. I must warn you, however, that this is only the start of the war. There will be many difficult battles ahead.
From Andre Swahn
Joe and Maddy are the last to leave the temple, having accepted Anzen’s hospitality for a further week. They shake hands with the monk at the gate.
“Keep in touch,” Mahmu tells them. “We might not have seen the end of this yet.”
Maddy traces the sigil on her hand and grins. “I think we’ll be able to handle it.”
Greg runs a hand through his white hair. He feels different, and it’s not just a result of his altered appearance. Overlooking Boiling Hell Valley, he lets out a sign. “Goodbye, my friend,” he murmurs. If he’d have known that Flint would be the one who didn’t make it back, would he have done anything differently?
He turns to Daniel with a smile. “I’ve been thinking... Once we leave Japan, I’m dropping the Anthony Marwood identity. Our enemies have the resources to see through our shams anyway, and I’m no longer willing to pretend to be somebody else. Besides, if we’re prosecuting the fight in the most important war in human history, I want to be remembered as Greg Wentworth.”
“Where will you go now?” Daniel asks.
“Tokyo first, to give the Buddha statue I saved to Miyage. He lost a lot of men; he deserves something in return. Then to Paris, I think. I want Marie-Claude with me when I make my return from the dead.” And then, he thinks, the estate of Celine Coombes. But he’ll worry about that another day.
He claps Daniel on the shoulder. “Come on,” he says, and there is an odd cheerfulness in his voice. “Let’s get out of here.”