E12 - Kitsune Mori, Part 7

Kitsune Mori, Part 7 is now up! Want to discuss the episode, L5R, or anything in between? Join us on Discord!

Unable to sleep, Crow goes on a late night walk to clear her head, running into some unlikely company along the way. The samurai then make their final push into the forest, where Crow is forced to confront a past from which she can no longer run.

This episode contains significant violence. Listener discretion is advised.

CAST, CREW, & CREDITS

Narrator: James
Crow: Mal
Atsu: James
Daiyu: Didi
Akodo Torokai: Walt
Kitsune Sakiko: Karen
Hotaka/Moto Batu: Peter

Ambience: The Bog Standard (Tabletop Audio), Ice Cavern (Tabletop Audio), Storm (Roll for Fantasy)

Script writing & editing: ArielleMal
Audio/sound design: Mal

And a HUGE thank you to our patrons and beta listeners!


Half an hour passes. Crow leads Atsu and Daiyu through the forest in a winding, confused path, and with each step the creases in her brow grow deeper. When she is certain that she has found the Grove of Inari at last, she rounds a massive sugi and is faced with nothing but deep, dark forest. Forest they have almost certainly already crossed.

With a huff of frustration, she gives up. The hour is late and she doesn’t care to learn more of the oni that prowl these woods at night. After a tired apology from Crow, the three of them make their way back to the village.


———————————-

For all the physical exertion of the day’s events, Crow struggles to find sleep. When she finally gives up after hours tossing and turning on her bedroll, the moon has long since set, and the rest of the inn is quiet. She dresses herself and makes her way from her room, down the stairs, and away from the village as quietly as she can manage. The night is ink-black, but her eyes adjust soon enough, and with her saya clutched tightly she makes her way past the forest line, towards the spring at which she encountered Umeko some days ago.

When Crow arrives, she finds it empty. She settles on the wide, flat rock and removes her geta. They are old and muddy, the edges frayed and worn from years of travel; she leans to dip them in the water in a half-hearted attempt to clean them off, then sets them aside when only a small portion of the filth comes loose. Instead, she lowers her feet into the cool water and sighs in quiet relief.

It’s still late enough that oni may still be about, but Crow finds the stillness of this place more comforting than the confines of her room at the inn. There is much to think on, whether she ought to or not. Their encounters with the poachers, with the droves of massacred foxes, have left her heart heavy and her stomach twisted into knots. There has been scarce time to parse it all, to put the pieces together into something coherent. Part of her doesn’t want to for fear of what the greater picture might show her.

She lies back, cool stone against her shoulders, through the worn old kimono she wears on the road. It is a modest comfort in the face of the tightening in her throat, the stinging in her eyes as she thinks back to the fox kits, barely past infancy. The corpses. The blood. Beneath it all, a memory stirs; a memory just beyond her grasp. One she can’t quite reach, but one that fills her with such immense dread when she allows her thoughts to drift in that direction. Her breath hitches suddenly before she heaves a tremendous, wavering sigh, like her body aches at the prospect of holding so much in. So much that she can’t bear.

Time passes. Eventually, there is a rustling a distance from her, the sound of undergrowth being carefully, perhaps too easily parted. Too quiet for an animal, or at least something low to the ground. Crow startles a bit at the sound of something approaching, and though she sits up abruptly, she stares otherwise motionless into the dark.

A pair of gleaming gold eyes appear first, and then the rest of Sakiko comes into view. She wears a simple, black kimono, its design dominated by swathes of white. A paper lantern lights her face.

SAKIKO: [surprised, startled] “Crow-san. I didn't...expect to see you in the forest so late.”

Crow’s staring continues, though it shifts abruptly from alert to surprised, then relieved. She laughs quietly, more at herself than anything, and settles back on her palms. Then she remembers herself and sits upright, clearing her throat and nodding her head.

CROW: “Sakiko-san, I--I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you, or--well--[long, awkward pause, collecting herself] I couldn’t sleep. I’m sorry. If I am in the way, I’ll make my way back.”

Sakiko smiles and bows low, as much a gesture of politeness as it is embarrassment.

SAKIKO: “It--it's me that's intruding! Forgive me. You didn't startle me. Why are you not in the village?

CROW: “I...I don’t know. I wasn’t really thinking about it...and my feet brought me here.” [weak laugh]

SAKIKO: “Ah, well. I am obligated to stay, then. As is my duty. Until you've returned to the village safely.”

Sakiko smiles as she says this, but it, like most of her expressions, is tinged with sadness. She approaches Crow and invites herself, with a questioning look, to sit.

CROW: [awkward laugh, about to protest, then realizes Sakiko's intent] Ah...of course.

Crow follows her glances, then awkwardly shifts to the side to give Sakiko room to sit.

CROW: [clears throat] So...what is your duty, exactly?

Sakiko’s smile fades, a bit delayed.

SAKIKO: I serve Inari. I see to it that human travelers pass safely through the forest. As well as...other sorts of travelers. Usually I am fortunate enough not to encounter oni. When I am not…

Crow leans forward, eyebrows raised high, her gaze locked on Sakiko.

CROW: When you are not…?

SAKIKO: They are usually small, at least. And much deeper into the forest.

CROW: How do you handle them?

SAKIKO: Banishment. And...fire, if not.

[Brief silence]

CROW: By...yourself?

SAKIKO: My sisters were once poised to assist me, but… [soft sigh through the nose] Yes. By myself.

CROW: Your sisters? What happened to them? Were they...they didn't….did the poachers…?

SAKIKO: [quickly] No. [even-toned, back to normal] No. They left the forest some time ago.

CROW: Really? I thought the Fox didn't leave the forest very often…[fondly, maybe a little self deprecating] My grandmother would tell me stories about the kitsune, and their connection to the woods.

SAKIKO: No, they don’t. Not usually.

Sakiko's lips purse, and for a moment, despite the softness in her expression, she seems torn. Something close to realization enters her eyes as she studies Crow from the corner of her eye, and then head-on.

SAKIKO: Your grandmother. Where are you from?

CROW: Ki-Rin lands. Isn't it obvious? [weak laugh] I was...Shinjo. Once.

Sakiko's face goes a bit white. She's quick to school her expression into neutrality after the flash of shock.

SAKIKO: Ah. Of course.

She smiles.

SAKIKO: And...what sort of things did your grandmother tell you? [softer here, a little sad at talk of grandmothers]

CROW: [small laugh] Oh, all sorts of things. Tales of Shinjo and Lady Kitsune. [getting too enthusiastic] Stories of her fox maidens and the tricks they would play on Utaku when Shinjo was away. Inari and their foxwife, and--

Crow catches herself, then shakes her head.

CROW: [laugh] Sorry. My grandmother told a lot of stories.

Sakiko smiles.

SAKIKO: As did mine. She still does...if you let her.

She brushes a white lock of hair behind her ear and looks away, briefly, before back to her.

CROW: Then I would very much like to meet her some day! I've heard all these tales of the Fox, but from the mouth of a Ki-Rin...surely they’ve strayed from the truth after so much time and distance.

SAKIKO: Ah, I...believe you already have met her. You attended the same wedding as Kitsune Mara-sama, and you returned--[pause, then softer] Kitsune Chizu’s braid to the forest.

CROW: [long, stupid pause] ...oh! Forgive me, I'm such a fool! I suppose it was obvious, I…[laugh, shaking head] Yes. Then I’ve already heard one of her stories at the wedding, too.

A breeze rustles the tree branches above. Slowly but surely, the morning birdsong is picking up, and a dim, hazy purple light begins to creep through the branches.

Sakiko glances briefly to the canopy, then back to Crow.

SAKIKO: Oh? Which story did she tell?

CROW: Ah...it was about a fox and a cat. Or, well, I think it was about Chizu. [pause] ...did you know Chizu?

SAKIKO: I...did, yes. Not well, but we had crossed paths before. She lived among the Fox clan near Kyuden Kitsune, so we were of...two different worlds, you might say.

CROW: What do you mean? [pause] I’m sorry, I know so little of the Fox...the real Fox, I mean. Not my grandmother’s tales of them.

SAKIKO: Of course, I apologize. My family, we are…

She takes in a quiet breath, thinking for a moment.

SAKIKO: We are of the Byako family. We are only vassals of the Fox, and hardly that. We live among the forest, barely as ji-samurai.

CROW: Oh! I had no idea. [laugh, then pause] Is that why your sisters left the forest, then? To marry?

[SAKIKO laugh, a little bitter] There is a long, long pause. Eventually, she lifts her head and smiles.

SAKIKO: No...I’m afraid not. They did not wish to take on their duties to the forest -- to Inari -- and so they left.

CROW: So they’re...ronin?

Sakiko smiles. It’s quick to fade, however practiced. She clears her throat.

SAKIKO: They could be ronin. It is more likely they have integrated themselves into the clans. Many who leave Kitsune Mori do.

Crow raises her eyebrows.

CROW: [excited?] I’ve heard tales of kitsune impersonating humans, but I--[pause, remembers herself]...I’m sorry. It’s probably a sore subject for you, isn’t it?

Sakiko watches the play of emotions across her face with a small, maintained smile.

SAKIKO: Don’t apologize. It's been a number of years since then. Did you -- do you have any siblings?

CROW: [mood taking a nosedive into shitsville] Ah...yes. I have an older sister. We were twins, but she is technically the oldest…

SAKIKO: Ah. [searching] I take it you are...not on good terms?

CROW: [weak laugh] What gave it away?

SAKIKO: Just a feeling. Ties with siblings--with sisters--they can...become complex with age.

CROW: [after a small delay] Speaking from experience?

Sakiko smiles.

SAKIKO: Perhaps.

CROW: [sympathetic] Sorry… [pause] Were you close with your sisters? Before they left.

SAKIKO: [a laugh halfway between surprise and “where do I start”] We had...very different perspectives. I would not have called us close.

CROW: [audible wince] Ah...yes. I’m familiar with that arrangement. [strained laugh, sigh] [forced optimism] Maybe it’s better that they’re gone, then. I’m sure my sister is delighted by my absence…

Sakiko eyes her, visibly tempering the appearance of interest. Some of it bubbles through the surface.

SAKIKO: Delighted? Why do you say that?

CROW: [dry laugh] You might say we had, ah, very different perspectives. We...did not get along. [long sigh] Not that I was a good sister.

Sakiko nods, slowly.

SAKIKO: [soft laugh, hum] Ah. I see. Not a good sister…[while laughing] how, exactly?

CROW: [sounds of discomfort, laughing] Ahhh...I wasn’t very...responsible. Tomei was very, um, strict. Maybe traditional is a better word...she was very duty-minded. And I was--well--I was not. [stumbling over her words] I guess I can’t blame her for hating me. [pause, then laughs] I guess to her I’m the sister that left the forest?

As Crow speaks, her expression grows a bit tighter. Distant. She returns to herself after a time, her smile tinged with something… new. Sakiko sits quietly as she listens, dipping her feet in the water.

SAKIKO: I suppose you would be.

Silence passes. Sakiko watches ripples cascade across the water. Eventually, she lifts her gaze to Crow and smiles. It’s soft and a little sad.

SAKIKO: Though, I imagine your way of leaving was… much different from my sister’s.

Crow looks toward the now-violet sky with a strained sigh. She runs a hand through her hair.

CROW: Yes...probably. [pause] I suppose I didn’t leave for the same reasons, either. The Ki-Rin still mean a great deal to me...but I’m not fit to lead much of anything. [humorless laugh] Though I worry for them still. I think Tomei means well, but she…[frustrated exhale]

Sakiko lifts her eyes from the spring.

SAKIKO: But she what?

CROW: [sigh after long pause] She is…cold. Cruel, even. She has…[pause, collecting herself] When last I saw her, she had resorted to...unspeakable things.

Crow looks down at her hands in her lap, thumbs fretting at one another. A long, heavy silence follows, and then she sighs.

CROW: I'm sorry. It's not polite conversation.

Sakiko listens quietly for some time, a play of emotions across her face that is otherwise only slightly repressed.

SAKIKO: [soft, sarcastic laugh] I have little interest in politeness, Crow-san. After all, we’re hardly in court.

A small silence passes. A warbler chirps in the brush. Sakiko lifts her eyes.

SAKIKO: [a tiny bit flirtatious] Are we?

CROW: [awkward pause, then awkward laugh] Hahaha, I--I guess we aren’t, Sakiko-san! [clears throat, sounds flustered] She, ah…[long pause, sigh, sounds defeating]...she had turned to blood magic, last I saw her. It was years ago now. I worry where it has gone from there…

Even with her reassurance, Sakiko's face pales at the mention of blood magic. Her eyes go to her hands, folded in her lap.

SAKIKO: I see. I would hope that it...hasn't worsened. Perhaps she was caught, though, such things are often not so simple…

Crow’s frown deepens. She looks down at Sakiko’s hands, then her own.

CROW: No. She’s too smart to be caught. [delayed sigh] I only hope her...influence doesn’t spread.

Sakiko smiles, a slight, humorless thing. For a moment her gaze is faraway, thoughtful.

SAKIKO: Yes. One can only hope.

Crow stares at her hands a while longer, breeze rustling the treetops high above them. For a long while, she isn’t sure what to say. Seconds pass, though they feel like hours. Her hand quickly comes up to wipe at her cheek. She turns a sad smile to Sakiko.

CROW: I suppose it’s pointless to worry. I am here now...and so are the poachers. [pause] I can at least do something about that.

Sakiko is slower to meet her smile. She stares at her hands for some time, brows drawn, and does not lift her gaze until she can school her expression.

SAKIKO: Yes. There is at least that.

She smiles.

SAKIKO: And you and your companions have already done so much.

CROW: I’m just glad we could do anything, but it still isn’t enough. [pause] Do they...have they taken anyone that you know?

Sakiko takes in a deep, steadying breath. What effort she has been exerting to maintain her expression threatens to shatter, but she takes in another breath and her face is a mask again.

SAKIKO: No, you’ve…. [trails off] My… son was one of the kits they took. I searched for him, but could not find him before I was taken. [dry swallow here or some throat sound] He was among the young ones you saved, Crow-san.

Crow’s face goes through a play of emotions, though it settles on one of relief.

CROW: I-I had no idea! I’m...I am so glad I was able to save him, Sakiko-san!! To think that they would take even children…

Sakiko is quiet for a moment, not daring to lift her gaze. Her hands tighten in her lap.

SAKIKO: Yes. He was...fortunate to be among those who escaped.

She smiles, weakly. Crow frowns, brow knitting tightly. She leans forward a bit, just enough to get a better view of Sakiko’s face.

CROW: You mean to say you have…other children?

Sakiko nods.

SAKIKO: At...a time, yes. They passed some time ago.

[looooooong ass silence]

CROW: I’m...I’m sorry, Sakiko.

Sakiko smiles, shaking her head. After a few moments of silence, of wind whistling through the trees, she lifts her gaze.

SAKIKO: It is alright, Crow-san. It was...a long time ago.

Crow nods. She finally leans back, affording Sakiko some privacy, and settles her weight onto her palms. She stares down at the water, watching as it gently ripples beneath the breeze. By now the sun is past the horizon, the forest around them shrouded in mist, dimly lit in pink and purple light.

CROW: Kitsune...live for a long time, don’t they?

SAKIKO: Yes. A very long time, if we’re clever enough. It’s even said that some have lived for thousands of years, to have known the Kami when they walked Rokugan.

She smiles, and Crow stares in awe.

CROW: Thousands of years? And you? What are you? Hundreds?  [laughs, then awkwardly stops, sounding a bit more formal] I--I don’t mean any disrespect!! It’s just, well---[sigh] Sorry. Nevermind.

Sakiko laughs. It's longer, more robust, less soft than the others.

SAKIKO: [genuine laugh] No, no, not hundreds. Not yet, at least. Closer to a hundred.

CROW: [immediately excited Sakiko answered at all, amazed] A hundred!!! I’m--you’re five times my age!! You must know so much!!!

SAKIKO: [laughs a bit harder] No, no, I -- I mean to say that I am not...nearly so old as that. Not even near to a hundred years. Though you will find many foxes here who are.

CROW: [doesn’t even seem to hear her, too excited] Do you have nine tails???

SAKIKO: [soft laugh, more relaxed now] No, not nine. There are few who ever have managed that.

CROW: [calming down] Oh...how do you get new tails? What happens? What do they do?

SAKIKO: [unsure sound, half laugh, unsure if she should answer]  I...well, that depends on who you ask. On who they are. Each will give you a different answer. It is...usually events of significance. Enlightenment, I suppose.

CROW: Ahhh…[nodding like she knows, but she obviously doesn’t know] Right, I see. Well…[awkward]....how many tails do you have?

Sakiko smiles. It is, for the first time, wide. Mischievous. Fox-like. Her eyebrows slowly rise.

SAKIKO: That is… not exactly something you just ask, Crow-san. Not normally. [small pause, then quickly] Four.

Crow’s expression shifts belatedly to one of horror, as if she only just now realizes she’s been terribly rude--but when the answer comes, she breaks into an ear-to-ear smile.

CROW: I am very sorry, Sakiko-san. [playfully formal] I will tell your secret to no one.

SAKIKO: [laughs, then stifles it] Of course, Crow-san. Though--I’m afraid it isn’t much of a secret. Nor is it terribly impressive.

CROW: Well, it’s more tails than I have. [laugh]

The morning birdsong begins to mingle with the distant sound of the waking village. Crow falls silent for a moment, leaning back on her palms and looking up toward the sky. Sakiko smiles as she watches her sidelong, her expression soft. She seems to remember herself a second before Crow takes in a deep breath, looking back to her with a smile. Crow, however, is emboldened by this.

CROW: [maximum cheese] Has anyone ever told you that you have eyes like autumn leaves?

Sakiko's face softens. For a moment, it’s as if she hasn’t heard her. A blush slowly creeps above her kimono, into her cheeks. She stammers out some response, anything, but cannot find the words. In the end, she laughs, looking away and to the side -- but her smile when she looks back to Crow is fond.

Crow laughs quietly, looking down at her hands in her lap. She runs a hand through her hair.

CROW: [audible wince/inhale through teeth] Ah...sorry. [laugh] Guess I ought to head back.

She pulls her feet from the water and stands, smiling down at Sakiko. After a moment’s hesitation, she offers her a hand.

SAKIKO: [quietly clears her throat, a little flustered, remembering herself] Y-yes, perhaps you should.

A moment passes, then another of Sakiko staring at Crow’s palm, before she gently accepts. They smile at one another, and then Sakiko turns to leave, bare feet treading softly on the grass.  Crow watches her depart, heart in her throat.

Minutes pass before she remembers herself. Crow puts on her muddy geta and returns to the village, in search of breakfast. Or a drink.

———————————-

When the samurai finally gather for breakfast, the inn’s common room is filled with villagers. A pair of Fox clan samurai sit near the door, conversing over a pot of tea and small bowls of rice, while several servants refill bowls and distribute tea pots.

Crow sits away from the other samurai, quietly eating rice. She seems lost in meditation every now and then, her gaze focused on her meal. Torokai has seated himself a ways away from her, but still within viewing distance. He eats a modest breakfast of rice, egg, and pickled radish, reviewing a small stack of papers and correspondence stamped with various clan mon.

Atsu experimentally rotates his shoulders as he finishes his soup, wincing at the little creaks and pains from his still-healing wounds. Daiyu sits beside him, hardly touching a small bowl of rice.

Torokai looks between everyone, seeming to sense the unease, then stares at the remnants of rice in his bowl. He sips his tea a final time before standing to gather his things with a sigh.

Torokai: “We will follow what leads we have found. Shall we go? I will report to Kitsune Toshio-san first. Then I’ll meet you at the treeline.”

Crow finishes her rice. She returns the bowl, pays well, then heads outside. Daiyu finishes her food and tea quickly, going over what documents and letters she managed to piece together one last time before stuffing everything in her pack. Atsu stifles a yawn, adjusts his obi to account for breakfast, and follows them out.

———————————-

When they meet him, Torokai stands a distance into the treeline with his hands on his hips, brow furrowed as he looks on into the forest. He wears an ornate, though well-used, set of heavy o-yoroi in Lion clan colors, his kabuto tucked under his arm.

Crow hovers in Torokai’s general vicinity, looking stoic and miserable. She does little but  nod. She glances at Daiyu, who stands beside her.

Torokai: “I’ve informed Kitsune-san we are headed into the forest. As I am not skilled in the ways of the hunt, I leave it to... others to find our trail. If there is one." He looks to Crow. Then, Atsu. Then, belatedly, to Daiyu.

Torokai: "And Hida-san and Kuni-san, of course, if that is their skill!"

Atsu wags his hand from side to side to wave-off any hopes of him tracking something, or someone, down.

Atsu: "Regretfully, Akodo-san, I only blow this horn." He lifts the horogai in indication.

Torokai: [belly laugh] “Very well, Hida-san.”

Daiyu: "I only know the direction we were told to go. If someone else can pick up the trail..."

Daiyu sniffs and scratches at some hair stuck behind her ear while adjusting her pack.

Crow steps forward, noticing footprints. She leans to inspect them, allowing the others to converse for a moment before gesturing towards the tracks. She wordlessly begins to follow the trail. The others exchange a glance, then follow.


———————————-

Fallen branches, split leaves, and mossy trees litter their path, but for some time lead to no other clear traces of the poachers. After some time and distance more, there is a slight sign, a trail of dried, muddy footprints that lead northward. They grow less obvious as the trail disappears into tall grass.

Crow slows, eventually stopping, as the footprints disappear. She frowns and sighs through her nose, then looks back to the group.

Crow: [sigh] "I've lost the trail, and the deep woods can be dangerous."

Atsu: "More dangerous than, say, caves full of poachers?"

Crow: "In some ways."

Atsu holds up the horn suggestively.

Atsu: "If we are lucky, some of the poachers have left. If we are luckier, they are asleep."

Crow: "After several days of slaughtering them, I suspect they may take the horn as a sign to flee, not gather. Perhaps I could scout ahead.”

Atsu concedes with a pouty frown. He puts the horn away, looking sheepish.

Torokai braces his palm against his katana and steps over a fallen, decaying log. He hums and holds a branch out of the way as they pass.

Torokai: "They may be expecting us. Or be waiting for us in the trees. I would not think scouting wise unless you do. We will simply find and face them head-on, as a group."

Daiyu: [perking up] "I can ask the local kami. The earth tends to remember what walks across it."

Daiyu sinks into a cross legged sitting position in one, unceremonious drop. She murmurs and makes quick, complex gestures with her hands, until finally she holds them out in front of her, fingers splayed.

It takes some time. More time than it usually does, and sweat breaks out across Daiyu’s hairline by the time she feels the first vibration. With some further concentration, a kami makes itself known to her, manifesting as a sudden tightness in her chest. A large, bulky earth kami erupts suddenly from the ground in a small cloud of, motes of earth and grass floating around the yellow, glowing holes that serve as its “eyes.”

[rumbled, gritty, loud] "WHAT IS IT, MORTAL?"

Daiyu bows, somewhat awkwardly due to her position. The sound of rocks pressing and grinding together surround Daiyu as the kami hovers just beyond her reach, dirt and pebbles trickling to the ground beneath it.

[Daiyu]: "We seek poachers. They violate the peace of these woods and we would see that they cease their activities here. I was hoping you might know if they have travelled through here, and if so in what direction?"

[loud rumbling, like grinding its teeth] "PEACE OF THESE WOODS? THE GROUND HAS SEEN THE FEET OF MANY. IF YOU SEEK THEM, THERE IS A GREAT TREE NORTH OF HERE. AT ITS BASE IS A CAVE THAT GOES DEEP. THEY HAVE MADE MADE IT THEIR OWN."

Daiyu: “A tree north of here. A cave. Yes.”

Atsu: "Ooh! So, they cannot run far!"

Daiyu clasps her hands together and bows again. "That is exactly what we needed. Thank you, kami-sama."

There is another, cacophonous rumble. The rocks and dirt slide together and collapse into a small mound atop the earth.

Crow: "Another cave? Perhaps it isn't the same band. Either way..."

Torokai: "I wouldn’t doubt that it is the very same. They wish to remain hidden."

Atsu hums. He doesn't look like his day has been particularly full unless he's pulped a bad person or eaten and drank tea until he's gone into a food coma.

Crow grunts and heads off, northward, at a quickened pace.

Torokai raises an eyebrow, but follows. Daiyu rises and hurries to catch up.


———————————-

By the time they have covered a fair distance, the sun has risen higher in the sky. Atsu lags a few paces behind the rest of them. He sets about squatting here and there, looking rather pleased when he finds decent specimens to add to his herb pouch. His discoveries are accompanied with appreciative "hmms" and "ou!"s. More than a few herbs in Kitsune Mori are used in healing, and Atsu's keen eye for them makes them stand out all the more. Most are unassuming and dull green or brown, others yet are strange in shape and shades of saturated reds and oranges.

Daiyu keeps her eyes down on the forest path, stopping every few seconds to inspect larger sticks she encounters. She trails a bit behind but keeps up, choosing a suitable walking stick after discarding the first few candidates.

Ahead of them is a clearing, a few shafts of sunlight between the thick canopy touching the forest floor. Standing tall among the underbrush are stone pillars, mossy and scattered, their carvings long since faded. In the distance is a large, gnarled sugi with tattered shimenawa wrapped around its massive trunk. At the base of it is a wide-mouthed cave, with a series of torii gates that grow smaller as they near its entrance.

Crow slows as they enter the clearing. Daiyu nearly runs into her, caught in awe of the surroundings.

Crow: "Well. I suppose we've found it."

Torokai: [awed] “And so we have.”

Atsu sucks his lower lip for a moment. "I... I will stand here and wait, for the rest of you to signal for me."

Crow slowly looks to Atsu, then at the horn, as if making completely sure he's not about to blow it.

Torokai: “Of course, Hida-san. Stand watch for any who might approach.”

Atsu eyeballs them as they walk past him, up a sloping incline of great roots that heave and twist from the earth. When they reach the cavern, the sugi’s wide, low-hanging branches half-obscure its entrance. Several pairs of tiny, glowing eyes appear along the branches, hidden amongst the needles as they pass. A faint sense of whispering that they cannot understand surrounds them. Kodama. Their whispering grows louder, more feverish, as the samurai approach the cave.

Crow peers at the kodama, bowing her head. She looks down into the cave for several moments. There is a slight hint of firelight in the cavern beyond, enough to see the damp floor and the beginnings of a path. She looks back toward the group.

Torokai enters the cave first, securing his helmet and sliding his lion-featured mempo down over his face with a grimace. Crow tries to stay quiet as she follows after him, hand wrapped tightly around the hilt of her katana.

Daiyu, for a moment, hovers around the entrance. She blinks at a kodama, then bows her head low in respect. It blinks back. After another moment of inspection, she follows after them, hand on her walking stick as the other braces against her scroll case.

———————————-

[In cave]

The cave is wide and humid. Tiny bridges of stone pass over surprisingly deep crevices filled with water, and an old, wooden bridge passes over a trickling stream. Distant, muffled conversation echoes from the end of the path. Long, human-shaped shadows dance along the walls.  

Crow manages to make her way along the path without making a terrible amount of noise. She crouches low, hidden by a stone outcropping, and listens to the conversation as it grows louder, staring at the backs of their heads.

Five poachers sit in a circle around a small fire, wearing scimitars and knives at their sides. Several bedrolls are scattered to the side, dirtied and half rolled up. The man at the rear of the cave has long, black hair and tan skin, with high cheekbones and a grim expression. His face is square and travel-worn, his hands as weathered as his voice. Dressed in fur and intricately scribed leather, he is the tallest and broadest of the poachers.

Hotaka: [Hotaka speaks deliberately. His voice is dire, serious, gravelly, a little unsettling] [gruff] “We will have to return, soon. Before more of them notice and we lose what we’ve gathered.”

[another voice] “Do you think it will be enough?”

Hotaka: “It will be enough. Some of them have left the forest already. We don’t need to further risk ourselves. Even if the Fox clan will not spread themselves so thin to find us, others will.”

Crow frowns deeply. She's had enough. She walks into the light and openly into view, staring them down. Torokai appears beside her, his expression stoic.

Daiyu’s eyes widen a little as Crow simply plods on, but she recovers quickly. Atsu appears behind her, his face pulled into a stoic grimace.

The poachers stand suddenly, hands going to their weapons. The one in furs stands last, towering above the rest, his dark eyes amused. At his side, a falcon sits perched on a post -- the same they carried some time ago. Daiyu’s eyes immediately dart to it.

Hotaka: “So. You are the one called Crow.”

Crow: "Is there a problem with that?"

The man hums, amused. He steps off a small, raised ledge.

Hotaka: "You are the ronin who killed Haru."

Crow exhales through her nose. She assesses the situation, the number of men, their positioning, their weapons, before responding to him in no hurry.

Crow: "Perhaps I will be the one who kills you, too." [A long enough pause to look him over more fully] "What is your name?"

Torokai presses his thumb against his tsuba. His katana clicks from the scabbard.

The poachers are seemingly more trained than the others they have encountered. Less fear glints in their eyes, but they look upon Crow with an air of recognition. Perhaps anxiousness.

Hotaka chuckles, stepping forward and standing with his feet set wide apart. His  travel-worn gutul are tracked with dried mud.

[Hotaka] "I was once called Moto Batu. I am now called Hotaka. I have heard of you, Shinjo Inari. Perhaps you /will/ be the one to kill me."

Atsu glances at Crow, confused. Who? He exchanges a bewildered look with Daiyu.

Crow grits her teeth, unsuccessful in keeping her grimace from reaching the rest of her face. She grips her katana, her knuckles turning bone white.

Crow: "Let us be done with it, then."

Torokai draws his katana with a single, smooth motion, holding it in front of him. Daiyu performs a few quick, subtle movements of her hands and fingers inside her sleeves, the light of the fire reflecting in her eyes as she incites the kami to rage.

Torokai: "I am Akodo Torokai, an Emerald Magistrate for the Emperor. If you leave this forest, we may yet spare your life, and you may answer for your crimes against this land."

Hotaka raises his chin. He looks her over, then drags his gaze over the rest of the samurai with a grunt. His eyes come to rest on Torokai.

Hotaka: [chuckle] "Ah. You are with a magistrate. [sneer] Are you of his yoriki, Crow-san?"

Crow: [huffs, maybe half laughs] "Do I look like yoriki?"

She is, indeed, filthy and her clothes are all but falling apart.

Crow: "Your stalling tires me."

The fire crackles, erratically jumping and casting long, rolling shadows on the cave walls. There is the scrape [[sound effect here]] of several drawn swords. Suddenly, the fire explodes outward, the sparks singing clothing and sending several swords clattering to the cavern floor. Crow charges for Hotaka as the flames flare up around her, her eyes ablaze.

Atsu rears back from the fire, throwing his full weight against the wall. He yanks Daiyu beside him as she sweeps her warfan reflexively across an approaching poacher’s cheek and leans out of the way of a sword swing.

Hotaka brings his arm up to shield his eyes from the sparks. He draws his gleaming scimitar, kicking over the stool he was sitting on. Hotaka lunges, sweeping his sword across Crow's arm. It doesn't quite hit the mark, but bites into her shoulder, casting a strip of cloth aside.

Crow grits her teeth, biting back a grunt of pain as the blade digs in. She channels the pain, the anger, into a swift, decisive slash as she draws her sword, catching Hotaka’s arm mid-swing. A ribbon of blood sprouts from his furs. He clenches his teeth and grins, bearing down on her as the conflict erupts around them.

Torokai quickly watches diplomacy fail, or never begin. For a moment, he stands by, torn between who to help. In the end, he leaves Crow to deal with Hotaka on her own, rushing toward Atsu and Daiyu. He assumes a low, solid stance, several paces from Atsu staring down a semi-circle of the poachers. Torokai cuts one down just as Daiyu diverts a scimitar with her tessen, but it arcs downward, catching her in the thigh.

A man in a blue, worn kimono advances on Atsu with a shout, taking advantage of a larger target. The ronin strikes true, bloodying his shoulder, but Atsu is stronger. Like a bear mauling its prey, he presses on and swings his tetsubo once, then again, obliterating any chance the ronin has of standing. His body slumps against the shattered remains of a low stool.

Atsu grits his teeth, light bleeding through his fingers as he maintains a vice grip on the tetsubo’s handle. The club sails through the air with weighty thumps, staggering a man in a tattered kimono seeking to catch him off guard, finishing him with a loud whump a second later. Daiyu takes advantage of a lull, shielded by Atsu’s bulk, to wave her tessen towards the pool behind them, bringing a jet of glowing water over his wounds. She glances frantically around the battle, then rushes to Crow’s side as her duel with Hotaka seems to take a turn for the worse.

Torokai grunts, breathing heavily beneath his mempo. He finishes off the remaining, fleeing poachers with a cut, then another, dropping them both with a kiai.

Torokai: "Are you alright, Hida-san!"

Atsu spits onto the cave floor, very clearly bleeding through his kimono. "THEY ARE ONLY SCRATCHES, AKODO-SAMA!”

Atsu nods appreciatively at Torokai and Daiyu, chest heaving while he surveys their handiwork. He clutches his wounds and makes his way toward Crow as soon as the other poachers are no longer a threat. His expression is furtive but confused as he watches Crow and Hotaka’s duel unfold.

Crow and Hotaka exchange blows and sidestep swings until, finally, Hotaka’s scimitar digs in with a sickening crunch. He drags it roughly from her left side to her stomach. The only thing that prevents him from running her through is the sight of Daiyu bursting from the shadows, shoving Crow out of the way of his sword just in time.

Crow grimaces, refusing to let herself be distracted. A grunt of pain slips out. She forces it into a kiai as she shoulders into him, katana first. Hotaka whirls and side-steps, his foot braced against a raised slab of stone, but Crow is faster. The katana digs into his side with a meaty, wet sound.

Hotaka grunts as the blade slides through, his eyes bulging, his grip faltering. He does not stop, glancing frantically around the cave to see his companions are finished. Only he remains. He gasps for air and stubbornly, desperately grips his scimitar with both hands and brings it down.

Hotaka: "You battle fiercely, Shinjo Inari. What is it that drives you, so far from the plains?"

Crow staggers as it connects. The pain blooms white hot and intense; her grip on her sword falters; her eyes go wide. She sinks to her knees, her vision blurring. But then she's soaking wet, and somehow revitalized, Daiyu crouched at her side. She lifts her sword and brings it down on Hotaka in a wild, careless, powerful swing.

It sends him to his knees. His scimitar slides, spinning, across the cave floor.

Crow staggers to remain standing, her knees trembling. A line of blood has widened to a pool across her stomach. She takes in heaving, labored breaths, her eyes wet and glassy.

Crow: [screamed] "SHINJO INARI IS DEAD!"

Crow brings her sword to his neck. The blade stops just at his skin. She stares at him hatefully, a sheen of sweat and streaks of blood across her cheeks.


Crow: "Was it Tomei?! Is this her work?!" [spits the name out like a rancid taste]

Hotaka makes a show of not flinching. For a time, he is quiet despite the slow, steady trickle of blood from his wounds, his chest heaving. Slowly, he smiles. Then laughs.

Hotaka: [still half laughing] "Tomei? [beat] Tomei. [breathless, stifling pain] Hah. You are just as she said."

Crow’s eyes narrow, her pupils small, expression crazed. She grits her teeth and lets out an angry grunt, pushing the blade into his neck enough to draw a thin line of blood, but no further. Her knuckles are white, her hands nearly trembling from the force with which she grips her sword.

Hotaka: "You may kill me, Shinjo-san."

He stares at her, his gaze level. A trickle of blood drifts down his neck.

Hotaka: "Where I stand, there will be more."

Torokai's jaw works. He looks between Crow and Hotoka, expression distressed beneath the stoic grimace.

Torokai: [growing concern] “Crow-san. He is lying to you.”

Crow: "Why did she send you?!" A hot, angry tear rolls down her cheek, unbidden. Her hands tremble as she lifts her sword, pressing the blade against his jaw.

Hotaka stares hard, his face twisted into a sneering grimace.

Crow grits her teeth so hard it hurts. Abruptly, she grabs his jaw with her free hand, closing the distance between them. She poises the point of her katana directly over his eye.

Crow: "WHY DID SHE SEND YOU?!"

Hotaka’s jaw tightens. He stifles a cough, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth.

Hotaka: "What other use is there for a ronin?

For a time there is only the sound of them breathing, of Daiyu, Atsu, and Torokai watching the scene unfold, the trickle of the stream. Crow stares into Hotaka’s face, her chest heaving. For a moment, it seems as if it is over.

Hotaka: [pained, breathing, but still stubborn] [said at length] “She said you were soft."

It barely exits his lips before Crow digs the blade into his eye, suddenly and with purpose. His cheeks flush plum red, his teeth gritted hard enough to groan as veins sprout along his neck. After several, stifled grunts and grimaces, he finally cries out in pain.

Torokai turns his head. Atsu scrunches his brow, but shrugs half-heartedly.

Crow withdraws her sword, flinging what gore comes off with it to the side. She maintains her death grip on his jaw, her arms trembling.

Crow: "Why does she want the foxes?! Has she run out of horses?!"

Hotaka alternates between swallowing grunts of pain and gritting his teeth, his fingers digging into the hard stone. He gropes reflexively for his ruined eye socket.

Hotaka: [defiant] "She said you were weak! A coward who could not do what needed to be done!"

[Crow screams a little bit. A lot./Crow DBZ scream] Crow brings the katana down on the hand over his eye with purpose. She lops it off swiftly, shattering what remains of his resolve. He is left breathing through gritted teeth and clutching the stump, his fur-lined kimono touched with blood.

Atsu takes a step forward. A tremor pulses across Torokai's face. He turns around the moment Atsu begins to speak.

Atsu: [terse] "Crow-san! Do not entreat this babbling fool; end his jabbering and be done with it!"

Crow's face flashes between several extremes of furious, sad, pained, confused. She holds the blade tight against Hotaka’s throat.

Crow: "WHY DID SHE SEND YOU HERE?!"

Hotaka: [grunts, swallowing pain] "You know there is power in these forests. She knew it better than most. A simple meal does not sate one like her."

Crow seems to calm a bit when he actually speaks. 'Calm' being a relative term. She breathes heavily.

Crow: "What is the lotus."

Hotaka’s stoic countenance begins to fade.

Hotaka: [laugh, bitter and weak] "You will find them. Or they will find you."

Crow doesn't seem thrilled with this answer, but she's beginning to face the truth that she won't get more out of him.

Hotaka: [ragged] "I am sure you will see them, before long.”

Crow’s breath grows increasingly rapid as she considers, as she lets the thought deepen, before she quickly lifts her blade. She sinks it into the center of his throat in a hard, decisive thrust. He falls to the side in a lifeless heap.

She stays there for several long, silent seconds, allowing the weight of it to sink in. She withdraws the blade much more slowly than she put it in, then flicks it, wipes it on her sleeve, and stalks decisively out of the cave.

Atsu surveys the carnage with a grim expression, exchanging a glance with Torokai. He seems unsure of what he just witnessed.

Torokai makes his way out of the cave, his armor clicking together as he crosses the small stream of water.

[Outside]

Outside, he stands silently with his arms folded, near the base of the great sugi. Crow stands near him, not speaking. She barely acknowledges him. She stares hard into the treeline, hardly moving, a series of veins standing out along her temples, forehead, and the backs of her hands.

Torokai frets at his hands. He folds them behind his back. They whiten at the knuckles as he squeezes a few times. Another moment passes. Then another. Finally, after letting out a great breath, he speaks.

Torokai: [soft, patient, but quietly stern] "I did not ask before, Crow-san, as it was your path, your concern. But -- it seems our paths are quickly converging. Tonight, I would have you tell me of your lands. And name."

Crow is quiet for some time, the muscles in her jaw visibly working. She brims with anger - not at Torokai, but at circumstance. Her eyes glisten, threatening tears. It takes a while for her to muster the will to respond, and even then, her voice is shaky, almost tentative, like a drum pulled too tight.

Crow: [shaky, tentative] "My name is Crow and I have no lands, Akodo-san."

[Long pause]

Torokai’s armor clicks as he takes a step forward.

Torokai: "I do not wish to trade blows with you, Crow-san. That he knew your former name must mean something."

Crow’s brow knits, her expression floating somewhere between frustrated, angry, and confused. But she doesn't look hostile, only glassy-eyed.

Torokai falls silent, recognizing her tension, and bows his head. After a moment, he steps forward, carefully placing a broad hand on Crow's shoulder. It's a gesture unaccompanied by words, one that draws her brows together in confusion. Torokai moves on before she can react.

[A few beats]

Crow: [wavery] "If you have questions of me, I will answer them later."

A hot tear rolls down her cheek. She wipes her face when he isn't looking.

Torokai settles at the edge of the stream, at the end of a small hill and past several ancient, heaved-up roots. He cleans his blade in the bunched sleeve of his kimono, beads of sweat running down his neck as he removes his kabuto.

Crow waits a while longer before she follows him, schooling her emotions into something halfway neutral. She mostly fails, but kneels a distance away from him and cleans her blade by the creek, avoiding eye contact.


———————————-

[in the cave]

Having since regained her composure, Daiyu reluctantly returns to Hotaka's corpse, staring at it darkly before cursing under her breath. Atsu stands nearby, looking pensive as he presses a hand against his wounded chest and shoulders. There is nothing on his person besides his scimitar, laying beside him, and a small netsuke in the shape of a wolf tied to his obi.

After a moment’s consideration, Daiyu takes it and tucks it into her kimono. It comes off easily, only tied there with a bit of fine string. Atsu raises an eyebrow at her, but ultimately doesn’t say anything. She looks at him.

Daiyu: “Anything may be a thread, Hida-san.”

Atsu shrugs.

Daiyu eases herself down by the stream in the cave, resting with her legs crossed and shins touching the edge of the water. If the water spirit was willing to help them in battle, it might be willing to answer her questions. She closes her eyes, letting out a steady, quiet breath.

After a long delay, the water slowly begins to ripple, like a stone has been cast into the stream. It bubbles and rushes forward, until finally the kami comes into formation, a spinning, uneven disc of water. It does not speak, but waits.

Daiyu: “Thank you, kami-sama. Was this the last of the poachers? Have more passed?”

The stream ripples. The scene it portrays is vague, depicted on ripples and waves, but Daiyu is able to discern it. It progresses, like flicking through pages of a pillowbook, showing a scene of an empty forest clearing, dominated by a single, large tree. The image fades into an empty, green forest, the unmoving body of a fox.  The retreating back of a figure in black robes. An empty, darkened cave.

Daiyu’s face twists up in a potent mix of confusion, frustration, and exhaustion. A triple threat. She thinks of the man in black she saw in Beiden and frowns deeply.

Daiyu: "That one in black...Do you know how we can find him?"

There is another, smaller ripple. A gush of water, a small splash. A sense of not knowing, of emptiness, wells up in Daiyu’s chest. She hums, not taking it as a negative, then bows politely, looking a bit like a tortoise with her pack piled on her back. Daiyu releases the spirit, still maintaining a deep bow. There is a splash, like a pitcher of water being dumped all at once, and the stream goes still.

Daiyu slowly stands. She sighs and begins a sullen search for what leads she can find.

She spends some time rooting through scattered packs and nudging dirty bedrolls with her foot, but finds little. There are a few, scattered zeni, some on strings, several weapons, and clay jugs of sake, some of it spilled on the cavern floor. Nothing like letters or correspondence. Perhaps they had burned them.

With a sigh, she closes her eyes to focus, desperate to find a thread. After what seems like minutes of nothing, the scent of magic stings her senses. She sniffs. Her eyes snap open. The aura emanates from the falcon’s perch -- the falcon itself.

Daiyu’s eyes narrow. She stares directly at the falcon. It stares back, unmoving and eerie, like someone else is looking through them. The veil lifted and the truth of its purpose revealed to her, Daiyu shoots Atsu a look of severity that only increases as her realization deepens.

Daiyu: [hissed] "We are being watched!" Daiyu motions to the falcon.

Atsu jumps from the suddenness of her speaking after minutes of silence.

Atsu: “Hmmm! That is not good. Watched how, Kuni-san?”

Daiyu: “It is the eyes for a shugenja from far away.”

Daiyu strides to the falcon purposefully, her expression darkening as she draws her wakizashi. The falcon flaps its wings but is otherwise strangely calm, as if bound to one place. Daiyu swiftly grabs it with her free hand, pinning the wings to its sides, and severs its neck. There is no time for it to react.

Daiyu: "How long was it with us? How much has it seen? It was with us all the way back to Kitsune Mori Mura… Was there a shugenja with them…?"

Daiyu wipes her wakizashi off viciously then sheathes it.

Atsu: "We should be prepared then, if we might see them again."

Daiyu stares flatly at Atsu as she glances what remains of Hotaka and his companions. "We should leave. We will burn them outside. They will desecrate this place no more."

———————————-

As soon as Crow finishes cleaning her blade, she walks around the perimeter of the clearing several times. To an observer, it mostly looks as if she’s searching for something, anything of note--and perhaps she is, but whatever her goal, it’s only to distract herself from crying. She eventually settles onto a log, resting her katana beside her.

After a while of watching the treeline, her gaze unfocused, she unsheathes her wakizashi and stares at it in steely silence. Crow turns it over in her hand once, running her thumb over the handle wrapping. She stares at it just a small while longer, finally sheathing it and tucking it away once Atsu and Daiyu emerge from the cave. She stands and waits, avoiding eye contact.

Torokai stands against a nearby tree, arms folded as he watches, his face unreadable.