The Western Road is a fairly easy route, but seldom used; the Lion keep it in fair but not excellent repair, making lanterns and a slower-than-preferable pace necessary. The trail of two ponies soon becomes apparent in the dust of the road as it approaches the foothills. Hisayo and her companion verged off the main trail onto a small, secondary track that winds upward more steeply; scouts and smugglers call these paths and game trails the Shadows of Beiden.
The path crests a low rise, and the samurai come upon a copse of trees nestled into the foothills of the Spine of the World Mountains. A small shrine, its stone softened by years and moss, sits beneath them, and before it kneels Hisayo. Her head is bowed as though in meditation, and her yojimbo, Seppun Tadashiro, stands nearby. Tadashiro looks alert and anxious, his hand on the hilt of his sword. A small lantern is hooked from a nearby branch, the light pooling around his feet.
As the samurai start towards Hisayo, Tadashiro turns toward them, his eyes narrowing and feet sliding into a more balanced stance. “Halt! State your business,” he calls sharply. His hand remains at his sword.
Atsu gives Tadashiro a dour look that seems to say what the hell do you think, pipsqueak.
“We were asked to ensure Fukuro-san’s safety by Ikeda Akimitsu-san…” Crow bows deeply to him.
Tadashiro seems tired and uncertain, and his eyes dart reflexively to Hisayo every few moments. He relaxes slightly at the mention of Akimitsu, then immediately stiffens again as Ryojiro takes a tentative step forward. “I cannot let you near Fukuro-sama,” he snaps at him, a hand raised in warding. “We will return on our own.”
Atsu frowns at Tadashiro. “We were sent by Akimitsu-dono to ensure her safety; we cannot simply leave.”
Crow looks to Hisayo in concern, and ventures carefully, “Is everything alright?”
Tadashiro shakes his head. His shoulders slump, and he lets his hand finally stray from his sword, swinging disconsolately by his side. “The lady Fukuro-sama does sometimes take it upon herself to go on personal spiritual pilgrimages, but she has never done so in the dead of night before, or left a place where she was an honored guest.”
Crow tentatively approaches, her hands far from her sword. She stops alongside Tadashiro, peering over at Hisayo’s still, silent back. “And you are… concerned?”
Tadashiro exhales. “I am careful. She said only that a shrine to Lady Kitsune existed just inside the mountains, and she wished to pray there. I tried to argue her out of it, but she was adamant.”
Crow hovers a few moments, then takes a step toward the shrine. Tadashiro does not move to stop her now.
Shio follows after a moment, being sure to move slowly and with her hands clearly visible. “Lady Kitsune,” she repeats. “Has she shown concern over Kitsune before?”
“No. I must admit this is recent,” Tadashiro replies. He shifts in place, unease furrowing his brow as Crow kneels beside Hisayo before the shrine.
Hisayo seems to sway slightly, like a tree in a breeze, but her face is still and calm. A small bowl of rice sits at the base of the stone; a smile comes unbidden to Crow, and she too bows her head. She withdraws her prayer beads and begins running them through her fingers.
Shio nods to Tadashiro. “If I may ask… How recently?”
Tadashiro’s eyes dart to Shio, then back to Hisayo. “She has shown an interest only over the last week.”
Daiyu narrows her eyes at the shrine and starts towards it. “In the interest of her safety I would ask that you allow me to make sure the local kami are comfortable. A shrine is a dangerous place to be if they are in a state of unrest—”
Something changes in her eyes, maybe recognition. She freezes in her tracks and reaches for her scroll satchel, no longer having the time to wait for Tadashiro’s answer.
“A powerful spirit is possessing Fukuro-san,” she blurts out. “It is critical that we deal with this immediately.” She directs this at Tadashiro, as if asking if he will allow it.
Atsu takes a faltering step forward. Tadashiro’s calm falters. His eyebrows come together and his hand goes for his sword.. “Possession? How do you know this?”
Shio makes soothing motions with her hands, like she wants to pat his eyebrows back into submission. Atsu tentatively steps forward and moves to place a hand on Tadashiro’s shoulder, fully intending it as a friendly gesture.
“Kuni-san is quite experienced in dealing with things such as these. You said yourself that Fukuro-dono was behaving strange!”
Tadashiro stills at Atsu’s words. He grits his teeth. “Do what you will. If you harm her, it is on penalty of death.”
Atsu observes him with an unreadable expression, but gives an understanding nod along with a (hopefully) reassuring pat. “We are familiar with this arrangement!”
Daiyu turns to Crow, ignoring Tadashiro. “That lantern you received, it was blessed, wasn’t it?”
Crow looks over her shoulder at Daiyu, confused. “It was? I… left it in my room.”
Exasperated by their confusion, Daiyu waves a hand at the others without looking at them. “Something blessed would help. Anything. Quickly!” She retrieves some incense from her obi—remnants from her earlier attempts at exorcism—and starts jamming the sticks into the earth around Hisayo, lighting them with little breaths of flame. The smell of agarwood begins to rise, tangling with damp earth scents of night.
Shio blinks at Daiyu a few times, trying to parse what she’s yelling about, and then pulls out her prayer beads with a questioning look. Crow stands and also offers hers, somewhat reluctantly. Daiyu snatches them and wraps them around her wrist, then steps back, unfurls a scroll, clears her throat, and begins to chant an incantation. The others move a respectful distance away, wary and unsure of what may happen next.
For several minutes the only sound is Daiyu’s voice weaving through the words of exorcism. Hisayo continues her slow sway—but it soon becomes apparent she has found the rhythm of Daiyu’s incantation and is matching it. Then, her body begins to shudder. The kanji adorning the prayer beads begin to pulse with a soft, blue-green light that is soon matched by a ghostly glow rising from Hisayo’s skin.
The air chills around them, and the trees shake in a sudden gust of icy wind. The creaking and rustling of their leaves nearly overcomes Daiyu’s words, and she raises her voice almost to a shout. Hisayo freezes, then slumps to the side, her body going dark and limp.
The light remains, coalescing into the pulsating form of a young woman dressed in a fine kimono, the tip of a fox’s tail stirring below the hem. She stands slowly and turns to face them. Pale tears track down her cheeks, and a bitter smile twists at her lips. She looks to Crow in what seems like something like recognition.
“I am sorry,” Kitsune Chizu whispers to her. Her voice wavers and echoes, as though she is speaking from a great distance. Crow’s face cracks with emotion before she takes a few tentative steps toward Chizu, but stops as she continues to speak. “It was too much to bear, to have died before our wedding night and see him wed so soon. I could not bear it…”
Chizu’s spirit lingers, her voice breaking. “It was selfish of me. Please, tell my love… Tell him to see that my braid returns to my home.”
Crow finishes her approach to Chizu, looking her over in something like wonder—and an edge of fear. She nods slowly, then gives her a deep bow. “Is… there anything else?”
Chizu shakes her head, her white hair drifting in the air as though underwater. “I need nothing else, samurai. I only thank you for your kindness.” She fades away, leaving Crow stricken beside Hisayo’s body.
Daiyu folds her scroll and bows to the stone. “Help Tama find his way, if he needs it,” she murmurs.The air remains icy, but the wind has died; a flicker of movement in the trees catches their eyes. Half-hidden amongst the greenery, an old woman watches, framed by a fan of seven tails. She smiles to them and gives a deep bow, her tails coiling about her like smoke. Shio is frozen for a moment, then bows deeply in return, not caring who sees her. Ryojiro also returns the bow, his eyes wide. When they rise, Mara is gone.
Crow bows her head, waiting several long moments before she kneels to place a hand on Hisayo’s shoulder. She stirs at the touch, struggling to sit up. Confusion blooms over her face. Tadashiro rushes to her side, kneeling and bowing his brow nearly to the ground. Hisayo gently touches his head and urges him to sit up again.
“I…know not how I came to be here, but I thank you, samurai-sama.” She looks to Crow, blushing with embarrassment, and then slowly takes stock of the rest. “It is as if the days have been a passing dream.”
Atsu opens his mouth to ask something, but knits his brow with effort and slowly closes it again. Shio kneels in the dirt before the shrine, ignoring Hisayo and Tadashiro completely as she bows to it. She rises back to her feet after a moment, watching Hisayo with half-lidded eyes.
Daiyu hands the prayer beads back to Crow and Shio once she’s standing. “Don’t lose these, and thank you.” She bows slightly then goes to examine the shrine just a bit before they leave. Ryojiro joins her, offering a moment of silent prayer and reflection.
Hisayo slowly and shakily stands with Tadashiro’s help. “I… am unsure as to what the spirit wanted.”
Shio gives Hisayo a sad smile, but doesn’t answer. She tucks her prayer beads back into her obi.
Tadashiro bows to them. “I thank you for saving Fukuro-sama from the grip of the…” He pauses, discomfort tensing his weathered face. “The spirit. I apologize deeply for distress we may have caused.”
Hisayo straightens and brushes her kimono clean. “I thank you for your help. I… I think it believed it could take my body forever. I will tell Ikeda-san of your doings.” She bows deeply and begins to walk to their ponies, which Tadashiro prepares for them.
Atsu looks at everyone else with a shall we go expression. Crow smiles in an exhausted way and bows to Hisayo. Ryojiro lingers behind a moment before everyone vanishes from sight, taking in the peace of the moment. He catches up before the lantern light fades.
When they return to Shiro Matsu, Ikeda Akimitsu listens to the circumstances of Hisayo’s disappearance in grave silence. He, equally gravely, thanks them for their assistance, and asks if they will do him the honor of returning Chizu’s braid to the Fox Clan lands, bowing deeply as he does so.
Akimitsu presents them with a delicate box; within it rests a clipped braid of red hair, tied off carefully with ribbon. Crow accepts it with a deep bow, and keeps it in a place of honor in the shared room that she and Shio share.
The wedding is a highly formal affair. Kitsu Mokuna presides over it with traditional seriousness and grace. At the completion of the ceremony, Ikeda Taneka speaks, looking tired but also pleased, almost relaxed.
“Now that my son Akimitsu is wed, I wish to formally announce my retirement. Should the new daimyo wish, I will remain for a few years to advise him, but it is time for a new generation to take the reins of our family. I wish my son well in leading us to a bright and glorious future.” There is enthusiastic applause, and the meal continues joyously; Akimitsu and Hisayo are both smiling in their seats of honor, accepting gifts and congratulations.
Kitsune Mara meets their eyes as they search for her and smiles to them. It is knowing, but never anything less than polite.