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After searching the poachers' camp for clues, Daiyu, Atsu, and Crow return to Kitsune Mori Mura to tend to wounds and report their findings to Kitsune Toshio.
CAST, CREW, & CREDITS
Ambience: The Bog Standard (Tabletop Audio)
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Akodo Torokai appears with Shoichi shortly after the battle is done, drawn by the bellowing sound of the horn. He looks around, his eyebrows up, face drawn, taking in the camp, the bodies, the foxes. He lifts his chin, features pulled into a grimace. Shoichi, behind him, is a mix of awe and terror.
Atsu flattens his palms on his thighs and leans down to the poacher on the ground, lips pursed as he inspects him. Daiyu stands very still beside him, arms folded.
“Her name is Sairou, you said?”
The poacher stammers, blinking rapidly in the face of an enormous Crab samurai staring him down. Atsu hmmphs. He glances at Daiyu, lifting his tetsubo from its resting place against the poacher's shoulder. Atsu chuckles humorlessly as he walks away, a slight limp in his step.
"It is fortunate for you that I'm unaccustomed to the laws of this land…” [trailing off ominously] He walks past Daiyu, pointedly not looking behind him to see what happens.
Daiyu kneels down low, close enough to hear the poacher’s heaving breaths. "Now. Where is she?" [even, deathly serious]
The inside of the largest tent is arranged for sleeping. Scattered bedrolls and crumpled blankets lay along the wall. Supplies sit among them: pickled vegetables, rolls of roughspun cloth, pressed herbs.
Between the sleeping quarters and materials for extracting pelts, Crow finds a note. It describes, cryptically, how many foxes to collect and where to find them. Her frown deepens. She swallows and slides the note into her kosode, taking in the sight of the mess, of the corpses of several foxes. How does one even handle such a thing? Bury? Burn? She looks back to the fox and wipes her eye with the back of her wrist.
The fox limps toward the entrance of the tent. Crow follows it out.
The fox emerges and limps through the center of the camp, stopping near the remains of the fire.
"Kuni-san." [rough voiced] Crow’s expression is blank as she exits the tent. Crow holds up the folded note in indication.
Daiyu looks up at Crow, then to the poacher. Her face is impassive, shaded by her wide-brimmed sugegasa. "Thank you. May the spirits carry you swifty to wherever it is you are to go."
She stands and turns to walk away, leaving the poacher lying in the dirt.
Atsu gives the fallen hornblower a sharp nudge in the stomach, rolling him over. It reveals the large conch horn, a horogai, from earlier. He stoops low and loops his fingers through its woven carrying cord, picking it up from the grass.
Daiyu glances at Crow, then at the fox. Her expression falters for a moment before it returns to stillness. "What have you found?"
Crow makes her way over to Daiyu. She unfolds the note and holds it open for her to read. "There are several dead foxes in the tent. They are..." [pause, as if it tastes bad to say it] "...taking their blood."
Daiyu drops her eyes from the note, her lips thinning. She glances at Atsu, who looks like he’s about to blow the horn, then back to Crow. "We could use this to call the rest of them here."
"Yes...we could set a trap. A trap for the trappers. The poacher says he has never met this ‘Sairou.’" Daiyu gestures to the man on the ground. “So we will need to keep looking.”
Torokai grimaces. He crosses to the fallen poacher, who stares up at him wide-eyed. Crow watches emotionlessly. Before he can beg for his life, Torokai quickly drives his katana into his throat, so hard it digs a few inches into the earth below. The man struggles, sputtering out something as the blade is driven in. His eyes go wide, roll, and his cheek touches the grass.
[Pause, forest sounds, maybe like 3 or so seconds] A long silence passes.
[Torokai, stoic, grim, saddened underneath] "We should burn the camp."
Atsu pretends he doesn't hear or see what is happening and instead nods with an amiable grunt.
Crow folds the note and tucks it away. She slows as she sees Shoichi, but looks away quickly, back to the fox.
[Crow] "Would you like me to carry you?" She kneels alongside it and gently reaches out.
For a moment, the fox seems to consider. It moves forward a step.
Crow smiles and gives the fox a scratch behind the ear. She gently lifts it up, tucking it into the arm pulled inside her kosode. At first the fox gives an unsure whine, but settles in easily, poking its head out.
"Perhaps we should just leave the corpses for the forest? I do not feel like chopping wood for a bigger fire." When he pats his injured side, pain and regret bloom immediately into his face.
[Daiyu] "We needn't worry about chopping firewood."
Atsu shrugs as he rifles through the belongings of the deceased, piling them together to be easily burned. "They will not need these anymore anyway."
Crow walks over to the corpse near Torokai, her jaw set. Still holding the fox with one arm, she grabs the man's wrist and drags him closer to the camp. Atsu distracts himself with kicking the undergrowth out in a big ring around the spreading fire, an earthy stop sign.
Daiyu stops halfway towards leaving the clearing, giving a little sigh of relief -- or something like it. She paces around the fire in a circle as the others add fuel, encouraging the kami within the fire to grow, hoping they would be happy to assist them in purifying the forest.
At first the fire is dormant, steady. Then, with a sudden snap, it grows. It roars to life, easily devouring the corpses, spreading to the piled tents and futons. The group stands a distance from the blaze, their expressions stoic.
[Small pause, fire crackling]
[Crow] "Why would they want their blood?"
[Daiyu, bitter, scratchy] "There is a popular belief that kitsune blood grants youth.”
And that spirit blood, let alone kitsune blood, is especially potent in service of maho. Her face remains still beneath her hat.
[Atsu] "It’s rumored to be good for health as well."
Crow scowls at the dirt. She can't quite think of anything to say to that.
[Daiyu] "Or worse. Vile things have haunted us since we first began traveling together. I wouldn't doubt the intended use for these vials goes far deeper than a simple folk tale."
[Crow] "Are there other poachers? Or should we head back to the village?"
Daiyu turns back to the flames. She shuts her eyes, falling into a trance somewhat unlike her other rituals. She concentrates, her fingers outstretched. Sparks flicker in the fire. It pops. Slowly, the flames melt, solidifying into mud. A moment later, they turn to dry dirt.
[Daiyu] "There are more. Shinjo-san and Hida-san are badly injured. We should return, lest we overtax them."
[Crow, frowning] Hopefully, at the least, they will be crippled without their camp."
Atsu waves the horagai. "I don't mind."
Crow pointedly ignores Atsu waving the conch around. She looks towards the smoldering camp and frowns. "Let’s head back, then."
Atsu shrugs, tying the conch’s rope through his obi. Perhaps he'd give it a blow every once in a while and see who was foolish enough to show up.
Crow spends the walk back to the village mindful of the fox in her kosode, occasionally offering bits of meat and giving it little scratches behind the ear. Atsu, Daiyu, and Torokai walk in silence. Shinjo Shoichi trails behind quietly, an air of nervousness to him.
It is afternoon by the time they arrive back to Kitsune Mori Mura, when villagers and travelers gather around small food carts and fill the crowded noodle houses that dot the market district. Once in a while, villagers stare and murmur at the sight of a silver fox poking out of Crow’s kosode. Torokai and Shoichi immediately depart for Kitsune Toshio’s dwelling while the others disperse into the town.
Atsu staggers his way over to the blacksmith's forge as he clutches his side. The sight of an enormous, bloodied Hida disturbs the villagers’ calm. Some attempt to cover him with kimonos they are washing in large bins. As Atsu wordlessly reaches for a piece of heated iron, the small, gray-haired man serving as the blacksmith stares at him, mouth agape.
Atsu's eyes bulge as he slowly unclenches his bloody fingers from his side. He grips a glowing piece of iron with both hands on the unheated side.
There is the smell of burning flesh and a hissing singe as he drags the hot metal over his wound. He strains and swallows a kiai, teeth gritted, sweat pouring pouring down his face. It stings, and the pain threatens to overtake him, knock him from consciousness, but it stops the bleeding, and will likely prevent infection. It will almost certainly leave a scar - an uneven scrawl that spreads across the width of his body.
Atsu drops the hot iron onto the ground with bloodshot eyes and a murmured, “thank you.” More than a few horrified stares follow his retreating back. He claims an unoccupied spot in the hot springs, cleaning and dressing his wounds with painstaking care and quaking hands. Then he staggers toward the inn with leaden footsteps.
Word of Atsu's condition spreads quickly enough. When he does not answer a soft announcement at his door, several servants sent by Kitsune Toshio enter with water, wet cloths, and a very large kimono. They clean his wounds, confident he will not wake.
Crow brings the fox with her to a small, private stream at the edge of the treeline. She sets out a few pieces of meat alongside the water, then strips to the waist to scrub the blood from her skin and clothing. The fox stays close, eating in silence.
When she (and the fox) are done, she heads back into town, seeking a more substantial meal for them both, then heads to the hot springs. It accompanies Crow to the springs, trailing behind with its tail brushing the grass. The fox doesn't complain.
Daiyu heads directly for the spring, eager to shed her bloody clothing. Her only other set of clothes is the expensive kimono she purchased for the Lion wedding. She sighs, stares at it for a while, then starts off.
The hot springs are relatively unoccupied, likely due to Atsu's earlier arrival. What few bathers remain murmur amongst each other as they take in sight of a silver fox.
Crow submerges to the nose, eyes shut. She stays like that for some time before swimming over to Daiyu, who floats nearby.
Daiyu greets Crow with a raise of her hand.
Crow smiles and dunks her head, running her hands through her hair. "So." [pause] "What did you learn from the one you left alive?"
"Few poachers remain. Five, if the information is to be trusted. They act under an outsider's command, a mysterious 'her.’ They mentioned the name Sairou."
[hum, frowning] "Do we have any idea where they are?"
[Daiyu, regretfully] "No. Their master concerns me most of all."
[Sigh through the nose, then thoughtfully] "Yes… Hopefully we can use one of the remaining ones to trace back to...her."
Daiyu nods. "Enjoy your evening." She leaves, settling at the base of a large sugi. She draws a collection of scrolls from her case, preparing for several demanding hours of study, practice, and recitation.Through concentration or the sheer assistance (and presence) of the kami and spirits, Daiyu memorizes the scroll faster than is her usual.
The fox's ears flick as Daiyu leaves. It seems unsure whether to stay or go, and inches forward into the range of the spring, dips its paw, and sits.
Crow looks somewhat self conscious. She floats around for a few more minutes before wading over to the fox. [quietly] "Are you hungry?"
The fox blinks. It turns its head, ears back. It looks what could be called thoughtful. It whines, which seems as good a "no" as any.
Crow nods. She gets out of the spring, dries off, and heads upstairs to change into her nicer kimono for the evening. She heads to Kitsune Oden for dinner, where she is quiet, and keeps to herself. Afterwards, Crow collects the fox and starts toward the headman’s home.
Torokai and Shoichi are still at the Kitsune Toshio’s dwelling when she arrives. Torokai bows at Crow’s approach, his pained look disappearing in favor of a warm smile. Shoichi lingers in the doorway.
Crow seems caught off guard by Shoichi’s presence. Her step falters for half a second and she tries to smooth over the bristling. She bows in greeting -- at a slight delay.
Shoichi pretends not to notice. Tries. He smiles and offers a similarly delayed bow.
[Torokai] "We have just finished speaking with Toshio, if you wish to see him."
[clearing throat] "I hope you will find your time here restful, Shinjo-san."
“Thank you, Crow-san. I… hope you find rest as well.” Shoichi bows, perhaps more deeply than is necessary, and looks at the silver fox sitting a few paces from Crow. He squints, bows again, and starts off toward the springs.
[Torokai, clears his throat] "I take it you will discuss the...poachers, yes?"
[Crow, awkwardly] "That was my intent, yes. Did you have concerns?"
There is a small delay. Torokai looks at the fox, back to Crow, clears his throat, and smiles. "I do, Crow-san. I apologize. I’m still... reeling from the day's events.”
Crow bows deeply as she enters Kitsune Toshio’s chambers. Lines of stress mark his face, but he conceals it well.
"Crow-san. It is good to see you.”
"Toshio-san, I apologize for bearing ill tidings." [frowning] "We encountered a camp of poachers nearby. Unfortunately, it...sounds as though there are still a few left."
Toshio's face falls, but it is not due to surprise. His hands tighten behind his back. For a moment, his chin touches his chest, then he straightens and takes in a deep breath.
[Toshio] "Akodo-san has informed me. I am grateful to you and your companions for assistance in this."
[Torokai] “It is no trouble, Kitsune-san.”
Toshio calls over a servant while eyeing the silver, black-footed fox at Crow's heel. Once the woman at his side produces a small bag, he draws out a string of zeni in indication, tucks it back inside the small, brown bag, and hands it over.
[Toshio] "I offer a koku for your troubles, Crow-san. I offer my deepest thanks as well. To all of your companions. Shoichi-san told me of Hida-san's injury."
Crow stares at the koku. A long moment of silence passes before she holds up her hands, shaking her head. "I thank you for the offer, but no payment is necessary."
Toshio presses the koku into her palm insistently, shaking his head. "I insist."
Crow shakes her head, then bows. She doesn't accept the money.
Toshio’s eyebrows lift in surprise. He does not press again. He smiles and retracts the bag.
Crow straightens once she's positive he’s not going to offer it again.
[Crow] "Hida-san is strong. I am sure he will be alright, but I’ll check on him again before I retire for the evening."
[Toshio, smiling] "Hida-san seems strong indeed. When word of poachers reached his clansmen, I fear one of them may have gone searching. Kasumi, I think her name was."
[Crow] "Kasumi-san? Hmm. Do you...know when she set out?"
[Toshio] "Earlier in the afternoon. Two others went with her, but she was... ha. Determined."
[Crow] "She seemed more than capable. But this close to dark..."
[Toshio] "For many of the Hida, passion sometimes overcomes logic."
[Crow, sounding tired] "Do you think we should...er...do you think we should try to find them?"
[Toshio] "Do not concern yourself. They wouldn’t have gone far so late." [pause, softer] "Or perhaps they don’t know what comes out at nightfall…”
[Crow] "I would rather not assume they know, but Hida-san is in no shape to leave the village tonight." [sigh through nose] "I... would not wish them to get hurt. I know the forest fairly well--I could go in search of them?"
Daiyu eventually wanders in as if she were invited, bowing awkwardly to the servants as she does.
Toshio bows to Daiyu as she enters. Crow nods at her.
"Kuni-san." [pause] "I will send samurai to search for them if you wish, Crow-san. You should not trouble yourself."
[Crow] "It would be no trouble. But that would set my mind at ease, Toshio-san."
Toshio smiles, though it's a bit thin. Or worried. He bows. "If that is your wish."
Crow smiles at him. [long pause] "In regards to what the poachers were doing..."
Crow reaches into her kimono, pulling out the note they found at the camp. She hands it to him. "It wasn't just the pelts. They were...draining the foxes of their blood."
Daiyu does her best to fill herself in using context clues. Someone is missing, but the who’s and why’s are lost to her. She prepares to ask a question, but her mouth slams shut when Crow speaks of the blood.
Toshio's features wrinkle in concern. He snatches the note from her hands. His fingers press into the paper as he reads.
[Toshio, clears throat] "Was there..." He looks to the fox, back to Crow. "Was there anything else?"
"No..." [long pause] "Not that I can think of. Only that the poachers were hired by a woman. We don’t know who she is."
Toshio nods, his eyes scanning the note for some time longer before he hands it back to Crow.
[Toshio] "Were you able to learn her name?"
[Torokai] “Sairou. Do you know her, Kitsune-san?”
Toshio folds his arms, cupping his chin in thought. "Sairou. Sairou." [realization] "I... hm. There was a samurai of the Fox Clan made ronin some time ago. Perhaps that is her new name."
[Crow, frowning] "Why was she made ronin? For poaching?"
Daiyu bows her head. "I intend no disrespect Kitsune-san, but do you have reason to suspect this ronin of such an act? It's quite an accusation."
Toshio looks to Daiyu, his face impassive. A tremor passes across it. "She was made ronin for poaching, yes. And for...desecration of Fox lands. I did not know her true motive, but was present for her trial."
[Crow, trying to conceal her anger] "It’s...a starting point, at least."
Torokai folds his hands into his sleeves, his grave expression unchanged. "Indeed.”
[Daiyu, frowning] "A repeat offender then. More evidence to a worst case scenario...There are more poachers out there. Hopefully one of them can provide a trail back to Sairou."
Crow nods in agreement with Daiyu, perhaps for the first time ever.
[Toshio] "It is difficult to say if she is indeed that Fox samurai, but it may well be her."
[Daiyu] "It makes more sense than any unknown. They have prior knowledge of the area. Perhaps a grudge."
Crow nods. After a moment, she perks up, remembering something. She takes a step back and gestures to the fox. "There was one fox left alive. I am happy to take care of them until they are better, but I thought you should know. Do you recognize them?"
Toshio looks to the fox, his eyebrows coming together in inspection, then sudden recognition. He kneels, looks to its paw, and, following a questioning look, inspects it without touching.
[Toshio] "Yes, I do. This is... Sakiko, Crow-san." He stands, then looks to Crow and bows deeply, both to Crow and the fox. "Thank you for returning her to safety."
Crow smiles at the fox. She bends down to scratch behind her ear. "Sakiko."
The fox leans into her hand and whines, faltering a bit on her injured paw.
"I am glad we were able to, but I wish we could have helped the others."
Toshio smiles sadly. "That you were able to help any is a blessing. Especially a byako."
Crow looks to Toshio with a confused expression, but smiles and nods all the same.
Daiyu butts in with all the grace of a falling boulder. "We should prepare. Leaving in the night is unwise -- we should make the most of our time before morning."
Crow nods. She glances down to Sakiko. "You’re welcome to come with us if you'd like, Sakiko-san. Whatever your preference. I am glad you are well."
[Toshio] "Thank you, samurai. If you will not accept payment, at least make use of the springs at your leisure."
[Crow, laughing] "I suppose that is an offer I can accept." She bows and takes her leave with the others, back to their inn rooms. Sakiko is hesitant, but follows. She sleeps near the doorway, her eyes fixed on the cracked window and sliver of moonlight for some time before they shut.
The next morning is cloudy, with the dewy remains of a light, overnight rain clinging to the grass. Crow wakes before sunrise. Sakiko is nowhere to be found. Opting not to search for her right away, she heads down to the inn’s common area.
Daiyu rises early, an air of urgency clinging to her. She eats what little she manages at a hurried pace, nodding her head in greeting, her eyes mostly covered by her hat. She offers a curt bow to anyone that does so first.
Atsu emerges from his room, knuckling his eyes. He looks down at himself confusedly, smoothing his hands over the clean clothes and fresh bandages. He peeks left and right down the hallway for clues, finding none. Eventually, he stiffly makes his way to the dining room for breakfast, moving like an aging elephant.
[Crow, calling] "Hida-san! Are you alright?"
[Atsu] "OOH, CROW-SAN! I am much better than our foes at least, wouldn't you agree?!"
Crow laughs, happy -- but surprised -- that Atsu is well. She nods in agreement before finishing off her rice and tea. She quickly orders another bowl.
[Atsu, agreeing] "Aa." Atsu lowers himself very slowly onto an empty pillow, greeting a villager with a wide grin. He eats a little less than he normally does, likely on account of lingering pain.
"Thanks to the rest of you, I am not ashamed to say!"
Crow shakes her head and tips her chopsticks towards Daiyu. "Thanks to Kuni-san.”
[Atsu, firmly] "Thanks to all of you, but no less to Kuni-san either."
Daiyu can't tell if she's being praised or accused of murder. It shows.
Crow takes her second bowl of rice with her when they leave, looking around the area for Sakiko. The fox lingers behind the inn, finishing off the remnants of a recent hunt, a small field mouse. She perks up at Crow's approach, eagerly, neatly finishing off the remnants of her rice.
"We are going out into the forest to take care of the poachers today. Perhaps it's best if you stay here for that. You are welcome to sleep in my room if you'd like."
She gives her a scritch behind the ear, then departs with Atsu, intent on gathering what information she can about Sairou or the poachers.
Daiyu finds a clearing a short distance from the village and settles into the soft grass, willing her mind to blank. She focuses, every hair on her arms standing on end. After a long, silent eventually, the wind picks up, touseling her hair and knocking her hat aside. It hangs from the string around her chin.
An air kami presents themselves to her with a flourish of leaves and petals, their vaguely human-like face as changing as the wind. A pair of bluish white eyes stare back at her.
Daiyu smiles and bows her head low. “Thank you, kami-sama. Please, tell me. The forest has seen much conflict. Where are the poachers based? Where are they are entering the forest from?” [clear, deliberate]
The kami has a light, high voice, faraway and waving with the winds. "Poachers? The land has seen many these last few moons. They come from the north. The west. The east."
There is a pause, a gust of wind. The trees rustle. "They enter the forest from the west, near the river."
Daiyu offers the kami a few of her shiniest bu, so that they might toss them around and play with them.
The kami tosses the coins up, around, over in a flourish of wind. "Why do you seek them, painted one?"
Daiyu bows low. “I understand they disrupt the balance of this forest, and seek to harm the kitsune that live here. I seek to stop them, and to discover why they have done such unspeakable things."
A gust whistles through the trees, fading to a small breeze that rustles Daiyu’s short hair. The coins clink together, then swirl in a figure-eight in front of her. "You seek balance, painted one? You will find them in the western forest, near a shrine. Follow their fires and smoke."
A chill runs up Daiyu’s spine at the mention of their proximity to a shrine. "You have been most helpful, kami-sama. I am in your debt."
There is another pause, long enough that Daiyu assumes the kami has disappeared. A gust rustles her hair. The coins clink-clink-clink [sound effect for this] back into her palm.