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The samurai return to Kitsune Mori Mura to report their findings to Torokai and Toshio. Crow sets out to return the rescued foxes to their homes, and in the process meets someone quite unexpected.
CAST, CREW, & CREDITS
Ambience: The Bog Standard (Tabletop Audio)
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[outside, forest, walking]
During the samurai’s journey back to Kitsune Mori Mura, Crow has lagged behind Atsu and Daiyu. She walks alongside the young foxes, ensuring she's walking at a speed they can keep up with. She stops frequently to help them, lifting ferns or plants their paws become entangled with. The foxes, thankfully, are not particularly unruly, and follow along beside or behind her well enough. Once or twice, one of them branches from the path, but is easily corrected. She still holds the falcon on her gloved arm, sure to keep its hood over its eyes.
Daiyu keeps her eyes on the trees for the entire journey, more unsure of their decision to let the poachers go with every passing moment, while Atsu keeps watch with an occasional glance over his shoulder, lips pressed together.
[pause for walking, slow transition to night & village ambience]
It's early evening as they arrive back to the village, when the sky is deep purple and the first chirps of crickets fill the air. All of the samurai are in some manner touched with blood, whether on their clothing or hands, which Atsu is most aware of. The village is quiet, with only Fox samurai standing guard at its perimeter and few villagers lingering outside. One of the guards bows to the group as they approach, their eyes gleaming in torchlight.
[Daiyu] “Should we find somewhere safe -- or go to Kitsune-san?”
[Atsu] “We should clean ourselves first. Before the villagers see us.”
[Crow] “Yes. But we should go to Kitsune-san as soon as we can. The foxes’ safety is important.”
Atsu bows and grunts, then veers off to clean himself at the springs before anyone sees his blood-smeared hands. The rest of the samurai soon follow.
[night, walking to Toshio’s home]
Once they are relatively clean, they arrive at the headman’s home a time later, the foxes trailing behind them in a cloud of ears and fur. The guards, looking a mix of confused and relieved, permit their entourage entrance despite the late hour. Daiyu stands just outside, gesturing for Atsu to do the same. She does not want to bring the bundled corpse inside.
[Daiyu] "We'll have Kitsune-san come out here to see it.”
Atsu gives a shrug that betrays his intent to just flop the bundle on the table inside.
Crow nods to them, then makes her way inside.
[footsteps on wood, transition to interior]
As the shoji door opens into the common area, Kitsune Toshio looks up from his meal of rice and pickled radishes, then hastily shovels the rest into his mouth. He stands to greet Crow -- then watches wide-eyed as the foxes pour into his home.
Crow laughs in a way one might describe as apologetic as she enters. She sets down the young fox she's been carrying once her tabi pass the threshold and reaffirms her grip on the kits tucked into her kosode.
[Toshio] "I - what is this?" [soft laughter; nervous, slightly confused]
[Crow] "We found another poachers' den, and many of these foxes appeared to be orphaned. Or lost. It seemed most appropriate to bring them with us."
Kitsune Toshio 's eyes go wide. He pushes his meal aside and stands.
[Toshio] "I see. A den. There were more of them, then. Thank you for your help, samurai. Please -- allow me to repay you." He looks at Crow, pointedly, calling back her earlier refusal.
Crow hears him at some delay, absorbed in petting the fox. Eventually, she straightens abruptly. "No, really, it was no trouble… But thank you, Kitsune-san." She bows at the waist, then looks for someone to hand the falcon to. The servant girl from their previous visit is the first to make eye contact. She then looks to Toshio, to the falcon, and for a moment seems to not know how to proceed. Eventually, she sticks her arms out, then the rest of her body, and sees to resting the bird on some surface. At least it has a hood.
Crow beams, bowing and thanking her as profusely--and quietly--as possible. She shirks formality long enough to shake her tired arm out, but then immediately leans down to pick up another fox.
Daiyu bows her head apologetically, her feet planted firmly in the grass as she calls to Toshio from outside, just beyond the open door. "There is also a less pleasant matter. [pause] Hida-san?"
Kitsune Toshio smiles, straightening after petting several of the smaller foxes, and makes his way outside. The others rush and roll over each other, chattering and chirruping, and any order is quickly torn apart as they spill outside after him.
Some, though, linger by Crow, even as she follows Toshio outside. Their obedience raises a few eyebrows of the people inside, Toshio most of all. She doesn't seem to notice, content to crouch and keep the foxes busy, even if she keeps an ear turned toward the conversation.
Kitsune Toshio approaches Atsu, his expression hesitant.
Atsu brings the bundled fox carcass closer, opening the end of the bundle for inspection.
Toshio leans forward and his face slowly falls. His eyebrows knit, mouth creased into a deep frown. He gently covers the end of the bundle.
[Toshio] [soft, sad] "A byako. I see."
Atsu inclines his head to the side, waiting for Toshio to explain.
Toshio smiles, sadness still clinging to it. His features come together in silent apology. "A white fox. They are the servants of Inari."
Atsu makes an odd face, not quite understanding, but not saying anything about it either.
Toshio clears his throat, folding his hands behind his back. His expression turns serious. "I will see to it that the fox is properly buried and honored."
Daiyu fishes the stack of letters from her kimono and stands silent, her eyes fixed on the grass. She clears her throat and offers an awkward bow. "These letters were found in the cave. More evidence of something darker going on here then simple poaching."
Atsu: "All of the carcasses had been drained of their blood."
[Crow] [quietly] "They were...specific in their desires for byako blood, as well."
"They were also hunting the foxes with poison laced arrows."
Kitsune Toshio 's face turns from impassive to a struggle of emotions. He tightens his grip on his folded hands, then reaches for the letters and reviews them, his face tightening.
[Toshio] "Have you informed Akodo-san?"
Daiyu blinks as if the thought had never occurred to her. "We wanted to make sure the foxes were safe as soon as possible. We came here straight away."
Crow nods in agreement, looking very serious despite rubbing a fox belly.
Kitsune Toshio bows deeply, reviewing the letters and scraps a final time before handing them over to Daiyu, not eager to hold onto them.
[Toshio] [hums] "I see. He will look upon this with... great interest. Especially given that you are to be in court soon."
Daiyu takes the letters back with a solemn expression. "I was unable to decipher much of the code. The most I could gather, other than their desire for blood and live kits, was the mention of Isawa Mori, and the green walled city."
[Daiyu] “Thank you, Kitsune-san. I should go.” Daiyu bows deeply and takes her leave to show Akodo the letters. After offering a stiff and somewhat delayed bow, Atsu follows.
[Crow] "...is there somewhere in particular you'd like me to take the young ones?"
Kitsune Toshio looks unsure for a moment. "To determine whether they’re kitsune or only a common fox is... difficult at times like these." [chuckles] "If it is not a burden, would have you look after them until you are able to make your way to our shrine just outside the village. Kitsune Mara-sama will know what to do."
Crow is notably surprised by the mention of Mara. A moment for thought passes, but then she bows and takes her leave, remaining foxes in tow, and follows after Daiyu and Atsu to find Torokai.
When the samurai find him, Akodo Torokai and Shinjo Shoichi are embroiled in a game of Shogi at the oden house. Hasako greets the samurai warmly as she passes out deep bowls to a crowd of customers.
As Shoichi comes into view, Crow bristles. She lingers a pace or two behind the group, content to let them do the talking. Shoichi notices the bristling, but pretends not to. He smiles and bows his head in greeting. He is losing Shogi, terribly.
Akodo Torokai looks up as Atsu and Daiyu come into view, then Crow - then a crowd of foxes. He freezes, his eyes widening, and erupts into a belly laugh.
[Torokai] [chuckle] "Crow-san. Who are your new companions?"
Crow slowly lifts a hand up to rub the back of her head. [nervous laugh] "Ah...I'm afraid I don't know their names."
Daiyu bows to each of them and takes a seat at their table. Once again she retrieves the stack of letters and clears her throat.
"We've pushed more poachers from the forest. And we found these." She places the letters on the table and slides them toward Torokai. The letters concerning the blood and the young ones are on top.
Torokai glances back to the game board, rubs his beard, and pushes a piece with the tip of his finger. He takes the letters and reads, his face growing more grave as time goes on. Shoichi lingers for some time, chin in his palm. Eventually, he makes a move and wins by default.
"This is..." His eyebrows knit. "Alarming, yes. Troubling. Where did you say you found these?"
"A poachers' den, in a cave."
"I... see." Anything beyond this is not suited for good company. He carefully plucks a radish from his bowl, chews, and swallows. "Thank you, samurai."
Daiyu is somewhat confused as to why she's being thanked, but bows her head in response regardless.
"If you have more questions, I'll answer as I can." Assuming the conversation must be over with, she looks back toward Crow with a "what now" face.
Crow, by now, has draped a kit over her head so that she can hold more of the unruly foxes, a sad attempt to keep them from their eager exploration of the immediate area--and her ankles--with their mouths and small teeth. Eventually she meets Daiyu's look, then looks past her to Torokai. "I think I should...feed them and let them rest. They've had a long day. I am sure Hida-san and Kuni-san can provide whatever information you need."
Atsu idly scratches his cheek.
“Thank you, Crow-san.” Torokai bows his head as Crow bows and excuses herself, then turns to Atsu and Daiyu. “What else have you learned?”
Daiyu pauses then, a bit more slowly, continues. "From what I could learn in their hideout, the methods they were using to hunt and harvest their prey were very well-funded. Whoever is supplying them is of no meager means. [clears throat] If we wish to discuss further, perhaps it is best to go… somewhere more private?"
Torokai stands, prepared to follow. [clears throat] “Yes, Kuni-san. We will meet later, Shinjo-san. Do not eat too much oden!"
Daiyu offers a curt bow to Shoichi, then silently leads Torokai and Atsu behind the oden restaurant. She allows Torokai to settle himself on the prime sitting rock. He grunts as he takes his seat, placing his palms on his knees.
[deep breath] "Where to begin..."
Daiyu goes on to explain the full length of the events of the day, with as much detail as she can manage to insert. She leaves out certain...aspects of Atsu's heroics, adding enraptured commentary about Crow’s duels while trying not to sound too excited. Eventually, she circles back to the description of the corpses and the letters.
Torokai nods slowly as Daiyu explains, absorbing, his face pensive. He’s quiet for a time when Daiyu finishes.
"I see. Harvesting their blood...young foxes, byako..." He strokes his beard. "Troubling."
"The emphasis on byako is particularly concerning. And, if it's not too presumptuous, I wouldn't doubt the request for live kits means they have the intention to sacrifice them elsewhere. Which would be...very dangerous."
Torokai rubs his beard. For a while, he doesn't speak, only sits with his ankle crossed over his knee, staring into the grass. A cricket hops over his foot.
"Yes. I find myself in agreement. I’m afraid it could be… something like what Ryoko-san has talked about. [lower, quieter] Something like blood magic."
"I've gone over the letters. But I'm sure there's more to them. Some kind of code, or something hidden in the text. Do you think you can make anything of that?"
"I am afraid ciper is not my specialty, Kuni-san. We will need to have another someone more skilled look on them. I doubt we'll find anyone here with that kind of expertise, either."
"We've no time to run off chasing them with court approaching. But we've slowed them down at least." She doesn't sound quite as 100% positive about the last bit.
"It’s good that we have stopped them at all. With this knowledge, the village can hopefully begin to further push them from the forests if we cannot. Though, the Fox are few in number..." [soft sigh]
Torokai folds his arms and nods, looking pensive. [soft sigh] "It is a start. We have some days before we travel if we wish to pursue it."
[trying to contain enthusiasm] "Of course. With consequences as dire as they could be, it would be a failure of mine to not investigate as far as time allows. Although I'm not entirely sure how to continue, aside from rooting through the woods for more poachers."
“Perhaps some others we meet be more willing to tell us what they mean in these letters."
"Ah. Yes. I am sure there are others. There always are. Thank you for telling me what you’ve found. May we do all we can while we are here.”
"With no other leads, I have no objection to searching for the other poachers if you will permit it, Akodo-san. We shouldn't allow any to remain as long as there's time. With luck, we can see them all escorted from the forest before we're gone."
Torokai nods, standing up from the sitting rock with a grunt.
“Indeed, Kuni-san. We will see it through as we can. Eat and rest before returning to the forest if you plan to go tonight. For now -- oden?”
Crow heads back to the inn and promptly shuffles her way back toward her room, all her new fox companions in tow. When the door slides open, it is to an empty room; Sakiko is still absent, undoubtedly returns to the woods. After allowing herself only a moment of self pity, she opens her pack and lays a cloth across it, transferring the youngest foxes inside it so they stay warm without being able to roll away. She heads downstairs, purchases several bowls of various kinds of food, and manages to bring them all upstairs in one go without scattering too much rice and meat down the stairs. After laying the food and a bowl of water out on the floor for them, she carefully closes the door and then heads to the spring.
Crow doesn't linger in the bath. Once she's clean, she puts on her nice kimono and washes her blood-stained kosode in a stream. After hanging her clothes near the inn to dry, she returns to the room and tends to the gaggle of foxes.
Once they've eaten their fill and are tired out, she tucks the babies back into her kosode, and then collects the slightly-older ones in her arms. She leaves the inn room and, after asking for directions, heads for the shrine that Toshio mentioned.
[outside, deep forest]
A large, stone statue of a fox sits at the center of a small, green clearing, a red, votive bib around its neck. The statue is worn, possibly ancient, covered in mossy overgrowth and ferns. Despite its age, it is well-kept, and the moss covering its paws is carefully encouraged and trimmed.
The clearing is empty, save a woman with straight, black hair that falls to her waist. She is tending to the shrine, her back turned to Crow as she approaches with quiet reverence. The woman’s white kimono and hair are warmly illuminated by a paper lantern at her feet.
Crow approach slows, and she makes her presence known with a soft clearing of her throat before she gently sets the small foxes down. Some of them quickly part from her and run to play, but the others linger nearby and chew sticks, grass, or whatever they can fit in their mouths.
Slowly, the woman at the shrine turns to face her. There is a stark streak of white at her hairline tucked neatly behind her left ear. Her features are pleasant, though a narrow face and tired eyes lend to an air of melancholy about her that lingers even after her smile has faded. As she inclines her head in greeting, her eyes gleam gold-yellow in the dim light, and there is recognition in her gaze that stalls Crow’s second bow and turns her smile to something more tentative, and then confused.
Something about her face is...familiar. A few awkward seconds pass before Crow remembers herself and resumes her bow.
[Crow] "Forgive me...I don't mean to interrupt. Kitsune Toshio requested that I bring these little ones here." She gestures to the foxes, who tumble over themselves and rush the shrine. One of them is more hesitant than the others, and lingers by Crow’s calf. The woman crouches, smiles, and scratches one of them behind the ear.
[Sakiko] "You are not interrupting, Crow-san. Forgive me for...disappearing from your quarters. Thank you for assisting me."
Crow's look of polite confusion awkwardly morphs into realization -- and then shock. She tries not to stare--and fails--so she bows her head low to remove the temptation all together.
"Sakiko-san, I didn't realize, I th-..." [trailing off before she babbles] It was nothing." She raises her eyes.
Sakiko smiles, bending to place a stick of incense inside a small incensory.
[Sakiko] "I assure you it was not "nothing," Crow-san. And it seems you’ve saved them, as well." She gestures to the swarm of foxes, tempering a warm expression.
[strained, quiet laugh] "I only mean that I am glad to help. I wish we could have saved more." She bows again, following the motion through to bend down and pat the nearest fox. "Do you know where I might find Kitsune Mara? I was told she would know where to take them."
Sakiko pauses for a beat, then another, her smile soft, sad, a little delayed. She scratches the fox behind the ear and stands, holding one in the crook of her arm, the lantern in the other.
"Ah, I'm...afraid she is in the Grove of Inari." [long pause] "Humans cannot go there, but I may bring you to its edge."
[Crow] "If it isn't too much trouble..." Crow picks up the remaining three foxes and grins from ear to ear.
Sakiko smiles. The fox in her arms gives a soft grunt of protest as she begins to walk deeper into the forest, glancing over her shoulder in an invitation for Crow to follow. Sakiko’s yukata would be just shorter than appropriate anywhere else in the Empire, and most certainly far too short for court. Crow struggles not to stare as she follows closely.
[outside, deeper forest]
Sakiko leads Crow north, where the small clearings swell into knolls and hills, and the trees grow dense and tall. Between a quiet-natured Sakiko and a flustered Crow, their journey is largely silent save for a few scattered pockets of awkward conversation. Eventually they come to what seems an arbitrary stop at the end of a path overgrown with ferns and vines.
Having otherwise been occupied with glancing back and forth between the backs of Sakiko’s legs and the forest floor, Crow stops short and looks ahead to find a striking change in scenery. A large, stone shrine dominates the center of an impossibly green clearing overtaken by hanging sugi branches, a faded red torii arch just ahead. A white fox with an ethereal aura and seven tails sits at the base of the mossy fox statue.
Sakiko leads Crow on for some distance more, through the red torii arch, stopping some paces from the fox. Moments pass as it simply watches, its green eyes gleaming, until there is a sudden, brief flash of light and the fox's many tails slowly coalesce into a kimono. It straightens into a humanoid shape. A familiar one.
Kitsune Mara smiles, bowing at the waist. She looks as she did before, but somehow brighter. The glint in her eye has not left.
"It is good to see you again, Crow-san."
Sakiko kneels and bows deeply, prostrating herself.
Crow bows deeply as well, eyes to the ground, and doesn't straighten.
"Kitsune-sama," She begins after a moment, "I was asked to bring these young ones to you. We found them in a poachers' camp." She lowers the foxes onto the grass, some tumbling unceremoniously from her kimono as she bends down.
Mara squints a bit. She moves forward to inspect them, her face turning to one of relief, her smile wide and brimming with happiness.
[laugh] "It seems you’ve found my grandchildren!" [more serious, sad] "The poachers. Yes. It’s unfortunate that more have seemed to appear. We have searched for the children and done what we can, but it is...difficult."
[Crow] "We have slain several and driven the rest from the forest. Hopefully they will no longer trouble you...we intend to seek out the woman who sent them when we leave Kitsune Mori."
[Mara] [smiling] “Thank you, Crow-san. You have proven yourself a friend to us.” She pauses. Her eyebrows come together as she inspects her, as several foxes yet cling to Crow’s side. “And I see that Chikushudo has left its mark upon you as well."
Crow straightens only enough to give her a puzzled look. "It was no trouble at all, Kitsune-sama...I only wish we could have done more."
A distant, bellowing horn blows and echoes through the forest, scattering birds through the trees. Distant shouting rumbles far from the clearing.
Mara looks up and squints at the sound, her face going white. Sakiko straightens from her prostration and raises her eyes.
Crow's head whips around, her hair spilling behind her. Atsu’s horogai. Crow's hand goes to the grip of her sword. "Hida-san...procured the poachers' horn. Perhaps he is just being a fool. ...but I would rather not take the chance."
[Mara] “Perhaps they are seeking out the rest of the poachers sooner rather than later. Thank you, Crow-san.” Kitsune Mara bows deeply in turn. Sakiko looks concerned, but says nothing.
"It was my honor to return your grandchildren to you, Kitsune-sama...we will be in the forest for several more days. Please call upon me if there is anything that you need."
Crow glances to Sakiko, extending the invitation to her as well, before turns and bolts into the forest without giving either of them much chance to protest. Sakiko slowly stands and watches her go.
Crow rushes through the trees, hand on her katana, following the sound of shouting and a bellowing horn.
“I am Hida Atsuryokunabe! Face me and try your luck!” [distant]
[sounds of distant fighting]
The sound of distant combat, preceded by Atsu’s war cry, draw creases of worry in Crow’s brow. She stops in her tracks and frantically looks about in the dark, thankful for the low light the waxing moon provides. To the far south she spots torch light; she bolts into a sprint, cutting through the thick undergrowth as she runs, uncaring of the tears the thorns and branches leave in her flesh.
As Crow draws closer to the skirmish, seconds begin to feel like hours. Her mouth is dry, her heart racing when she finally bursts into the clearing where Atsu and Daiyu strafe around a small band of poachers. Two of them carry cages, while the third hefts a tetsubo over his bulky shoulder. He shouts at the others as Crow comes into view, but she is too fast for them to react. Her sword sings as it comes from the saya and whistles through the air, cutting through the nearest poacher as if through silk. He barely has time to react before his head is severed from the rest of him. The cage he is holding drops into the grass.
Atsu seizes the opening and rushes forward, fixing a wild look on the remaining poachers and ignoring the lingering pain in his chest. He shouts a kiai and assumes a high-guard, tetsubo raised high above his head.
Daiyu hastily pulls a scroll from its case and murmurs a spell, her hand outstretched. Pebbles and rocks lift up from the earth around her feet, quickly forming into stones, which then become boulders.
The poacher carrying one of the cages grunts and leaps forward, is soon left gaping at the stones as they rise from the earth. “Run, there’s -- “ He shouts something about a shugenja to his remaining companion before Daiyu sends the rocks crashing towards him. The first few are small, but dense and jagged enough to leave bruises, and the others are larger. Enough so that they cause him to tumble forward, sending him onto his palms.
Veins sprout across the expanse of Atsu’s neck and arms as he brings the tetsubo down in two sharp arcs, not checking to see if it's necessary. The first strike winds Atsu, striking the armed poacher in the chest. Atsu’s grip falters as the second strike finishes him off with a meaty thump, leaving him to collapse instantly in the mud.
Enough mud and blood sprays the remaining poacher to unnerve him, splintering his resolve even more so than the rain of stones he has just endured. He drops the cage and draws his sword, slides into a high stance and charges Atsu recklessly. Atsu turns a wild, blood-covered visage on him, swinging his tetsubo.
The blow is half-deflected by the man's katana blade, sending it shattering onto the grass. He's left with nothing but a hilt and a grimace, born between facing him down and running. He picks up the cage, hesitates, and bolts.
Atsu lets out a deafening yell, thundering after him. Daiyu lifts her war fan and shouts a prayer. The only thing that can be heard clearly in the din is Osano-Wo. An arc of lightning streaks down from the canopy with a deafening crash of thunder, down from the cloudless sky, into the mud in front of the poacher. He drops the wooden cage, stumbles, and falls, caught mid-run.
Atsu grasps him by the neck and forehead, placing his knee against his back. He gives a good yank towards his chest and barely reacts to the sickening crack. Atsu wipes the man's filth off his hands using the corpse's clothes before climbing off of him, breathing heavily and looking grim. Lifting the corpse by the collar of its kimono, he drags it back to the clearing and tosses it atop the remains of the other two.
Daiyu flicks her fan shut and watches with relative indifference. She carefully rolls up her scroll and slides it back into her case, looking around the clearing. Her eyes finally rest on the nearest corpse with what can only be described as a disappointed frown.
"It will be difficult to interrogate these ones. We will have to find others. These were the only ones here."
[Crow, angry, indignant, confused, winded] “Why are you out here in the first place?! Do you not know that oni prowl these woods at night?!”
Given half a moment to think, Crow finally allows her frustration to surface. Daiyu stares blankly at Crow despite her tone. Atsu, half-hunched over the neatly piled stack of corpses, wipes his nose with the back of his wrist and slowly looks up at her with what might be described as mild irritation.
“You are out here too, are you not, Crow-san?”
[Crow angrily huffing but not actually putting an intelligible sentence together]
[Daiyu, deadpan] “I noticed smoke from a campfire not far from the village when Hida-san and I were finishing our dinner. We thought it best to seize the moment.”
Through all her frustration, Crow can’t exactly deny that she wouldn’t have done the exact same thing. That she has done the exact same thing.
[Crow angrily huffing and grunting again before finally giving a grunt of concession]
Too tired to argue, Crow turns her attention to the rest of the clearing--and the mess they have made. She makes her way to the nearest cage and prods at the lock with her foot, frowning. Before she can make her way to the corpses, Atsu tosses her a set of old, worn keys, freshly plucked from inside the topmost trapper’s kosode. Crow catches them with a nod of thanks, then bends down to unlock the first cage.
Even once the door is opened, the foxes inside are hesitant to leave. They chatter nervously, but are not aggressive. The mujina seems more afraid.
[soft] "It's alright. You're safe now. The Grove of Inari is just north of here." She gestures in indication, then makes her way to the next cage.
Inside this cage is a young fox, red and white, with another mujina huddling alongside it and chittering. After a few moments of comforting sounds and gentle beckoning from Crow, their hearing adjusts and they slowly creep out. They are, fortunately, unharmed except for a few small cuts and missing bits of fur. The lightning and accompanying thunderclap have left them shaken.
Once the animals have left the cages, Crow slowly stands and looks northward, her expression softening. She glances toward Atsu and Daiyu. "There is...something I think you should see."
“Lead the way, Crow-san."
Crow nods. Once they have corralled the foxes, she leads them north, deeper into the forest. Back to Sakiko and Kitsune Mara.