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Daiyu, Atsu, and Crow resume their search for poachers in the forest. Things don't go as planned, and they soon make a grim discovery with unsettling implications.
CAST, CREW, & CREDITS
Ambience: Ice Cavern (Tabletop Audio)
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Upon their return to the Kitsune Mori Mura, Crow and Atsu’s questioning in the village yields few results. Beyond nervous villagers and the occasional Fox samurai wary of travelers, few are eager to answer questioning, and none know the whereabouts of “Sairou.” Eventually, they come upon a single thread: a ronin passing through the village several days prior, and a dismantled camp in the deeper forest.
The samurai wake early the following day, when the moon still hangs high in the sky, and before the sun has begun to bleed through the trees. Sakiko is nowhere to be found, having likely departed into the trees.
Atsu, Crow, and Daiyu depart for the forest, while Akodo Torokai and Shinjo Shoichi remain closer to the village. Torokai has come to regard the Ki-Rin with caution -- and perhaps suspicion.
The trees grow denser the farther they travel from the village of Kitsune Mori Mura. Dense brambles soon overtake thinner, less developed trees, covering the forest floor with ferns and patches of wildflowers. It is not quite the inner ring of the wood, but close enough to it to see more than the occasional animal and scattering bird.
Crow walks carefully, hand on her sword, keeping a sharp eye on their surroundings.
Atsu loosens his tetsubo in its place on his back, his face growing tense. He flexes his arms, grimacing from the effort of pushing around scar tissue and knitting muscle.
Crow quiets her footsteps as the smell of smoke grows acrid. Soon, distant plumes of smoke rise up through the trees. The birds go quiet. The trees part in a small, grassy clearing. At the center of it is a series of tents surrounding a campfire, and the mouth of a wide, craggy cave.
While Atsu and Daiyu pass without a trace, a branch cracks loudly under Atsu's foot. A deafening silence follows. Atsu freezes. He sweats, his mind racing -- then he snatches his tetsubo from his pack and lumbers toward the cave. He stands in the center of the clearing, his eyebrows a shelf over his glare.
Crow shivers, her eyes darting to the side. She watches in horror as he takes in a great breath of air, grows red in the face, and unfurls the full capacity of his lungs into the horagai. Crow creeps among the undergrowth, her stance low, trying to discern the best striking point. She slows, then stops when she sees the camp is empty. Atsu blows the horn again. She holds a hand to her face.
A man in a torn kimono and a loose top knot appears at the mouth of the cave. Atsu's eyes redden a little at the rims as he grips his tetsubo in both hands, and, body shuddering, shouts a deafening kiai in his direction.
The man takes one look at Atsu, hesitates, and rushes back into the cave. Atsu thunders after him, the poacher’s shouted warning echoing off of torch-lit cave walls.
Crow's hand lingers on the hilt of her sword. She bounces in place, her features pulled into a tremendous frown, before she bolts off after Atsu. Daiyu appears a few seconds later, several paces behind Crow.
Several moments of silence pass. No more poachers appear.
[Crow, crying out quietly] "What are you doing!"
Atsu looks over his shoulder at Crow. "WHAT IS IT, CROW-SAN?!"
Crow is so dumbfounded by this response that she can’t even form words.
Atsu stares at Crow for a moment with his mouth slightly parted. He glances to the side, giving one of his ringing ears a pat with his off-hand.
Crow stares at Atsu from the bushes, wide-eyed. Several moments pass. [hissed, urgent] "I SAID WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"
Footsteps echo from the large chamber beyond. A pair of shadows pass through the torchlight. Two figures appear from the darkness, partially veiled in shadow. A man and woman dressed in simple kimonos stand in the torchlight, palms poised over their katanas.
The man is stout, a head shorter than the tan woman beside him, his black hair, bound into a top knot, threaded with white near the temples. A jagged scar disappears beneath a cloth over the woman’s brown left eye. Her gaze darts between Crow and Atsu, then narrows. She is lean with travel worn skin, and stands a head shorter than Crow, her long black hair unbound save for a small top knot.
[Haru] "If stealth was your aim, I’m unsure why you chose this. You are the samurai in the forest, I take it."
Atsu slowly hefts his tetsubo off his shoulder and holds it in the center guard position.
[Atsu] "I AM HIDA ATSURYOKUNABE. YOU HAVE TWO CHOICES: YOU CAN SURRENDER AND BE BROUGHT FOR TRIAL OR WE CAN SLAY YOU HERE AND NOW!"
Crow finishes catching up with Atsu and smacks him on the back of the head. [trying to curb her anger]
Atsu jumps, looking over his shoulder as he rubs his head. He ‘hrms’ beneath his breath as he works his jaw, trying to cease the ringing in his ears.
"You are the poachers in the forest, I take it."
Daiyu rests one hand on her fan, beneath her kimono. The other clutches her scroll case.
[Haru] "It’s difficult to refuse koku in these times. You should know that as well as any, ronin."
Daiyu frowns more than usual.
[Crow, frowning] "Not at the cost of innocent lives."
Crow wraps her fingers around the hilt of her katana, widening her stance. "Tell us who sent you."
Haru slides smoothly into a wider stance, hand trained at her sword.
"Tell me your name."
Crow seems perplexed by the question, but quickly schools her face into its former stoniness.
"Crow." [pause] "Yours?"
[Haru, considering] "Hm. A ronin. [little pause here] I am called Haru."
For moment, she considers Crow: her clothing, her appearance, her sword. Crow waits in silence for enough time to pass, until she's confident Haru isn't going to answer her first question. "Who sent you?"
"It doesn’t matter, does it?"
[Crow] "Yes, it does."
Haru exhales. She glances at the floor, then stands up straight, palm flattened against the hilt of her sword. Just beyond where they stand in the cave, several cages suddenly rattle. A fox yelps and is suddenly silenced. Behind Haru, a group of ronin come into the light.
Crow frowns deeply, channeling her rage into a white-knuckled grip on the hilt of her katana.
[Haru] "I make you an offer, Crow. Draw your sword and meet me in a duel. If you win, we will leave this forest. If you do not, we will see to it that you and your companions are brought a swift death."
Atsu rolls a shoulder, grimacing at the pull in his chest. A cascade of “pops” erupt from the joint. He curls his lip. [intoned] "If you think you can.”
Crow’s eyes widen, just slightly. A long silence follows. Eventually, she nods.
Haru’s eyebrows lift with surprise. She nods and brushes past them, into the clearing. Atsu and Daiyu stay behind, watching her go. Atsu kneels just outside the cave with a grim expression, falling uncharacteristically quiet. He closes his eyes, willing his breathing to slow.
Daiyu places herself on an edge of the clearing where she can see the cave entrance, as well as any other spot where someone could interfere with the duel. Not on her watch.
Haru widens her stance, eyeing Crow's form and stability. She is focused, still, unmoving. A few strands of hair touch her face. Crow slowly circles Haru, watching her. They remain like that for some moments, circling one another, unblinking, their stances low, until --
Crow’s hand hand tightens on her sword. The tsuba clicks from her saya. She rushes towards Haru, slicing and unsheathing in the same motion. Haru strikes in a flash. Crow's blade comes up quickly, a second before Haru strikes, turning away the blow. She sidesteps, following the motion through, bringing her katana across her arm at a diagonal slice.
Haru's eyes widen. The blade comes up quickly, too quick to avoid. It draws a line of blood across her kimono, bleeding through the tea-colored cloth. A splash of blood falls into the grass.
Crow holds her sword steady, staring silently at Haru.
Haru reaches for her arm, a flash of pain across her face. Her palm comes back with blood. She sheathes her katana unsteadily, then bows.
[Haru] "You have bested me, Crow-san."
Crow straightens at some delay. She wipes the blood on her sleeve and sheathes her sword. She offers a stilted and brief bow.
Haru clutches her arm and starts toward the cave in silence. Crow follows, slowing long enough to wait for Atsu and Daiyu to accompany her.
Daiyu crosses quickly to her side. "Well done.” [quieter] "Stay on your guard, I don't know if we can trust them to keep their end of the bargain."
Crow grunts in agreement, watching Haru go.
Atsu grins toothily at Crow, giving her a pat on the back that’s so forceful and so enthusiastic she stumbles a bit beneath it. It’s obviously “good job” in Crab.
The poachers look to Haru as she nears the cave, their expressions a mix of pinched disappointment, anger, and neutrality mingled with fear. Crow, Daiyu, and Atsu join them just past the cave entrance. Behind them, on the floor in a chamber arranged for sleeping, lay two traveling packs. Scattered among them are bits of paper that look to be letters. A hooded falcon sits perched near the rear of the cave. Daiyu makes a mental note to keep track of them through the inevitable conflict.
[Haru] "As was agreed, we will depart this forest. You and your companions will walk freely."
[Crow] "And so will the foxes" She gestures to the room beyond, where the fox yelped. Atsu nods solemnly.
Haru's gaze follows Crow's hand. A murmur blooms among the men behind her.
[Haru] "I’m afraid that was not our agreement."
Crow 's hand finds its way to the hilt of her katana. [louder than necessary] "Then would you care to duel again? On revised terms?"
Atsu sighs, as if this is an inconvenience. He allows his tetsubo to fall from his shoulder and collide with the floor of the cave without resistance.
Haru smiles. It's a thin and slight, humorless curve of her mouth. "And what are they, Crow?"
Crow grits her teeth hard enough to be practically audible in her silence. "If I win, the foxes are released, you harm nothing in these woods, and you return to them never again. If you refuse, we kill as many of you as it takes for one of you to release them."
[Atsu, offering helpfully] "All. of them”
[Crow] "Or, you could release them now and leave unharmed. It is your choice."
Atsu casually, idly rolls the end of his tetsubo over the cave floor. His lips are pursed, as though he’s considering what kind of food he wants for dinner.
As easily as one breathes, Daiyu makes several gestures with her fingers. All of the torches in the cave light one by one. They blaze with light and illuminate the chamber. The foxes in the several cages lining the walls chatter.
Haru's jaw muscles tighten. Murmuring drifts in the group behind her. She presses her fingers into her forearm. "Is it to be first blood again, then? Or death?"
Atsu peeks up at Crow from his tetsubo, as though saying "I know what I would pick."
Crow looks to Haru's arm, then to her face. "It seems to me that first blood has already been drawn."
[Haru, after a long pause, tense] "So it has."
Atsu nods approvingly. He stands at the mouth of the cave, palms on the knob pommel of his tetsubo. He isn’t prepared to slide onto the chopping block if things go bad. Daiyu falls in step beside him, prepared to glare menacingly at anyone who tries to leave.
[Crow] "I advise that you cut your losses and release the foxes unharmed. Now."
Haru wraps a spare scrap of cloth around her arm and pulls it tight. She moves toward the clearing with stubbornness. Crow, her jaw set, follows in silence.
As they return to the clearing, the long grasses wave in the wind, and what little they can see of the sky through the canopy has turned dark gray. A light rain begins to fall, [RAIN SOUND EFFECT HERE] sending birds scattering from the rustling trees. Haru sinks into a center stance. Blood trickles between her fingers, her injured arm pinned stiffly at her side. She breathes heavily, her eye narrowed.
Crow slowly circles Haru, watching how her wound affects her stance, her grip. Then, suddenly, she charges, all of her strength aimed into the strike.
Haru barely has time to react. Her eye widens. Her fingers brush her katana -- too late.
Crow’s strike is quick, the cut meticulously clean. And as the blade whistles through the air, it lops the ronin’s head off in a single slice, sending it rolling into the clearing. Haru’s fingers loosen. Her katana thumps into the grass. A second later, the rest of her slumps to the side. A warbler whistles in the brush.
Atsu erupts suddenly in a cry of triumph. Crow remains still for some time, her face a blank mask. She flings the blood from her sword, wipes it on her sleeve, and sheathes it. This time, her bow is deeper. Daiyu maintains her vigil at the cave entrance, watching in silence before she turns to head inside.
As the samurai arrive, without Haru, it becomes clear the rest of her band knows what has happened. The man with one eye who accompanied Haru looks at Crow, grits his teeth, but says nothing.
Atsu stares at him. [Atsu, plainly, intoned] "Cages.”
Crow stares at the one-eyed man unflinchingly, then rakes her gaze over the rest of the poachers.
"Release everything you have caught and leave the forest."
None are eager to speak. Eventually, the one-eyed man silently hands over a string of simple keys. Then, wordlessly, he starts toward the cave entrance. Atsu extends his tetsubo to block his path, who straightens as he is halted. Daiyu makes no move to stop the one-eyed man -- nor does she move to stop Atsu.
[Atsu, loudly] Atsu glances at Crow. "They did not make any terms for their release.”
Crow pauses. She glances over her shoulder. "They touch nothing else, then leave the forest and never return." She gestures for Atsu to let him go.
Atsu raises his tetsubo out of the man's way, but he keeps a close watch as he passes. The others follow wordlessly, some with their gazes fixed on the cave floor, others staring stubbornly as they pass.
The one-eyed man pauses on their way out, his gnarled face twisted into a snarl. "You will see us again, ronin.”
Crow doesn't dignify that with a response, or even a look.
Atsu follows them out, blowing on the horn once to signal their departure. He laughs uproariously, then stands watch outside the cave, leaving the searching of it to others...others who do not blow horns inside caves or to insult retreating commoners.
Most of the cages are wooden, but others are made of low quality metal. As Crow unlocks them, they creak under the force of the door opening. Some of the foxes bolt past her and scatter outside, into the trees. Others cower at the back of the cages, hesitant, watching. A mujina chitters nervously, starts toward the cave entrance, but in the end lingers nearby.
Crow softens considerably around the animals, especially the foxes. She speaks quiet words of encouragement and comfort, offering the more terrified ones bits of food from her kosode.
Daiyu begins to gather the letters as soon as they're gone, sorting them from based on what looks most and least important. Once she’s collected them into a pile, she moves closer to the falcon, trying to gauge its reaction to her proximity. It flaps its wings and tries to fly upward, but is restrained by a cord of leather. Scraps of paper, half-burned, with sparse handwriting are scattered near its perch, some sized for the tiny message tube on its leg.
Daiyu doesn’t step any closer, deciding to let it be while she scans through the letters. Maybe it'll get used to her. Maybe not. It shifts occasionally on its perch, unsettled by her presence.
Daiyu peers into the darkness. [called] “Do you need any help?"
[Crow] "No. I think we are nearly finished."
Two red foxes, presumably a kit and their mother, pad out of their larger cage toward Crow. Crow smiles and leaves them a small heap of dried meat before she moves on to the remaining cages. She exhausts what little food she has on her feeding them -- all of them. The animals relax with time, though some stare with wide eyes, their ears pressed to their heads. Food draws some out of their cages.
Daiyu scans the notes until, eventually, several bring her pause: their language is more direct, less encrypted. She reads the other note aloud:
Sairou has heard of your deeds. Ten vials. Bring three live. Look for one silver.
The lotus will open to you.”
She murmurs beneath her breath, eyebrows knitted beneath her hat. "Would anyone know what this might mean?"
[Crow] "The lotus...?" She looks down in thought, then around the cave for any other cages. Smaller, wooden cages sit scattered throughout outcroppings in the walls. Some are filled with fox kits, some as young as several days old.
Crow rushes to help them, her eyes glistening with tears. She keeps herself in-check well enough, encouraging the smallest foxes into her kosode with a wide, toothy smile. Some are too young to walk, while others are kitten-sized, their eyes barely open. She helps the older ones safely onto the ground. There is a lot of squeaking, but they are keen enough to follow. Crow doesn’t seem to mind.
"I would think a code. It could be maho-tsukai, perhaps. It would connect with their desire for the vials of blood. The things they're doing seem to specific too be average poaching. They don't even seem to be after pelts."
Crow stops near Daiyu, adjusting the arm tucked beneath the foxes in her kosode.
[Crow] "I have… heard of this before. Kitsune blood is desirable for blood magic...for preserving youth. Or immortality. It's clear that something more sinister is at work."
Daiyu continues reading. The rest of the letters are written cryptically and make little sense on the surface. There is the recurring mention of a "lotus," but its context is unclear. Eventually, the words “Isawa Mori” appear.
Daiyu mouths along as she reads. Her face twists.
"If we have no other leads...All I can find is Isawa Mori. We should keep looking."
Daiyu slides the letters into her robes. Hopefully someone will be able to decipher them later. She follows Crow deeper into the cave, where they stand on the left side of a forked path. To the right, where there is nearly no light, a narrow path leads downward.
Crow peers down into the darkness -- then down at the foxes in her robes, the ones behind her.
"The cave goes deeper, but I think it would be best if I stayed out here and kept the little ones safe."
Daiyu nods, retreating to the mouth of the cave to watch the rain for a moment. Atsu "humms" loudly, glancing in the direction Crow indicated. He steps into the cave, grabbing a torch off the wall.
Crow finds a good place to sit just outside the mouth of the cave, shaded from most of the rain by a large sugi that dominates most of the clearing. Squirrels scatter to its highest branches as the raindrops grow larger, drumming against the dirt.
She sits at the base of the tree and pours them a bowl of water from the small jug at her hip. Crow plays with the ones that are willing, trying to evenly distribute her attention, content just to sit with them. Some of the foxes lay warily in the grass or tug at the edge of her kimono. One chases a fly, while others simply watch the other kits tug at her hair and sleeves. Crow laughs when one of them rams head-first into her calf.
The mujina is small, less eager to play, but watches closeby, making soft grunting sounds. At first, it flinches and shies away from her touch, but relaxes given a moment to sniff her hand.
Some of the kits who sit quietly are soon enough riled up by the others, leaving Crow to split her attention between at least five of them. The adult fox looks on, its ears flicking this way and that as it watches the forest.
"I wonder what their names are..." Crow lifts one of the older ones up, burying her face in its belly and pretending to eat it. She settles the fox on her head.
Daiyu eyes Crow as she moves deeper into the cave. "They may tell you if you keep spoiling them.”
Crow looks at Daiyu and laughs. "I've never heard a fox speak! But then, I've only been here twice." She pulls one of the kits onto her lap. “Be careful, Kuni-san. Hida-san.”
[Atsu] "If we find anything worth mentioning, we will come back to find you, Crow-san."
Atsu follows Daiyu, letting the unspoken question of what’s worth mentioning, from a Crab's perspective, hang in the air.
[Crow] "Don't...do anything reckless."
[Atsu] "It is me, after all!" [echoing laughter]
Daiyu waits for Atsu to catch up, her face bathed in torchlight as he draws near. She rests her hand on her warfan inside her robe, in case there's more ronin -- or worse.
The passage is narrow, barely wide enough for them to walk single file, and as they tread deeper the stone presses into Atsu’s shoulders. The air grows warm and damp, warmer as the path widens into a large, central chamber, splitting off into several other, smaller chambers. Droplets continually drip from the ceiling. At the far end of the central chamber is a small pool of water, a smear of dark blood leading to it. Bedrolls and empty, overturned wooden cages lay scattered along the cave floor.
Daiyu lingers close to the walls, checking them for any indents with great suspicion and careful fingers. She doubts the ronin have anything so mysterious or well-thought out as hidden compartments, but better to check.
Atsu sniffs the air heavily, trying to discern anything peculiar... nevermind that this technique won’t work. Atsu follows the blood smear, leaning forward to hold the torch closer for more light. The pool is dark, but not terribly deep, and the smear of blood leads elsewhere, to the eastern part of the cave.
The smear of blood leads to the eastern part of the cave, where the path opens a bit wider. Beyond is a sudden, rank smell of rotting flesh. Atsu clutches his sleeve to his nose, pressing onward towards the stink. Daiyu does the same and follows.
At the end of a large, wide chamber, and the smell, is a small pile of foxes, with a dim shaft of light from a hole in the ceiling.
They are drained and cleaned, but reek of dead flesh-- and something else, a lingering scent of something medicinal. Atsu sniffs, trying to recall as he leans close. Atsu slings his tetsubo onto his back and reaches, hesitantly, into the pile, attempting to find a carcass that isn't quite as desiccated as the others. Eventually, he finds one. Its fur is white. He looks to Daiyu.
Daiyu uses a good portion of her willpower to not recoil instantly. "We may want to burn them. Kitsune Mori is a different place at night."
Atsu nods in agreement. "But we take this one back with us. As proof.”
Daiyu recites the same ritual from earlier, willing the fire from Atsu’s torch to envelop the bodies, a bit more sadly than before. She offers a bow to them before they leave, for whatever it helps.
"Take a blanket or two from the chamber before this, we should wrap the body before the other foxes see."
Atsu casts a lingering look at the pile as it burns. It was not the worst way to die -- but it still bothered him. He would reflect on this. He looks to the white fox in his hands and frowns.
Daiyu helps to wrap the fox, her face a mask. “Return to Crow-san. I will do something about the falcon.”
Atsu nods stoically, leaving the chamber without another glance over his shoulder.
Atsu emerges first from the cave with the fox bundle, frowning with concern. He holds it out for Crow’s inspection, careful that the foxes do not see, even if they may smell it.
Crow immediately frowns at the bundle, but snaps her attention back to the small foxes. She’s still listening, but trying to distract and keep them occupied so they don't see it. She stands and meets him at the mouth of the cave, accompanying him inside. The fox kits follow.
"We found...many of them like this. Daiyu-san and I figured out that they've been poisoned." Atsu twists his mouth in distaste.
The falcon at the rear of the chamber doesn't draw away as Daiyu approaches, more cautiously this time. It flaps its wings once. Daiyu says very generic soothing animal things, at least what she assumes is soothing, while plucking the letter from the message tube on its leg. Then she unties its cord, unsure what to do with it.
Daiyu eventually dons the thick glove that sits near the falcon, putting two and two together. The falcon inches forward, its talons digging into the leather. It doesn't move. Daiyu isn't quite sure what's happening, what to do, or how to move. Or if she should.
Crow boggles at her.
[Daiyu] "It was Night Milk. Scorpion poison seems excessive."
Atsu looks between the Crow and Daiyu, grim-faced and quiet.
[obviously uncomfortable] "It seems ill-advised to leave it. It may return to its master."
Crow regards Daiyu and the falcon with equal parts confusion and concern. "I have...I have very little experience with birds."
Atsu slowly shuts his eyes and makes an "X" with his arms at Daiyu.
Crow looks around the group. Eventually she concludes that, despite all things, she is probably the best candidate. She sighs and stands, reaching silently for the glove.
Daiyu slowly...very slowly...transfers the glove to Crow. She whispers a “thank you,” and narrows her eyes as a crumpled, singed scrap of paper catches her eye. She bends down, retrieving it from where it was shoved hastily into the traveling pack.
"What does it say?"
Crow stands near Daiyu, a cloud of foxes and a single mujina huddled around them.
Daiyu stares. She reads the note aloud: Sairou has heard of your deeds. Speak the words in the green-walled city and the lotus will open to you.
"So nowhere close to Isawa Mori..." She might be relieved about this, maybe.
Crow looks puzzled and frustrated.
"Perhaps we should head back to Kitsune Mori Mura. Someone there might be able to help. And we can find their parents...or a home, at least." She gestures to the foxes.
"Best we not carry our evidence for too long either. Let's hurry."
Daiyu shoots one last look at what remains of the poachers, her eyes soft, as the trail of foxes follow behind Crow and Atsu. She sighs deeply and falls in with them as they depart into the forest, a gentle rain trickling through the canopy.