The Two Elders
The old man who came out of the mist was much smaller than I had imagined. When sensing him at first, I had gotten the impression of someone very large. But this person was thin, much like a dead tree.
He wore nothing but his clothes. And he was unarmed.
However, I was still not foolish enough to think that this stranger was completely harmless. I needed to know who he was first.
The old man spoke calmly.
“I have no name worth saying. But let me see, you can call me the Elder of the Mist.”
It was not very imaginative, but I didn’t say anything. Besides, it did not seem like he was joking.
I could sense power from him. This was someone who could overwhelm others. However, he was also calm, and showed no signs of aggression.
I felt it immediately. If I fought against him, I would lose. This was a being who was above me.
At the very least, this was not a battle that could be won with military might.
And so naturally, I bowed my head and went to one knee. Upon seeing this, the old man chuckled.
“There is no need for that. Bowing as well. I am just an old man. And you are a Demon King.”
“However, I can tell that you are someone important. And I’ve been told to respect my elders.”
“You’ve been educated well, then. I will accept this show of respect.”
“Elder of the Mist, why have you come to visit me?”
“Why indeed. I was merely searching for mushrooms when I got lost. I’m looking for my companion.”
“You must be joking. I feel that fate is related to this. Either that or some plot.”
“You want to find meaning in everything don’t you, Demon King of Strategy? It is a bad habit.”
“However, this encounter with you is surely fate. And so I must ask you to share with me your teachings.”
“We have only met, and now you want to be my apprentice? Besides, don’t you have something else you should be doing?”
“Yes. We must slay a dragon, and then head to the count’s lands.”
“You talk as if you are taking a walk in the park. You have no doubts of your victory.”
“Yes, I have no intention of dying in a place like this. Nor will I fall into the hands of the count.”
“That is good to hear. Indeed, up until now, you have used your knowledge to overcome all manner of adversity. I’m sure you will continue to do great things.”
“However, there are limits. And so I must reach higher. Your teachings could help me.”
“Well, you do know how to flatter an old man. Let me see…can you kill the dragon by tomorrow?”
“I will be rid of it before the sun falls.”
“Then come back to this place at dawn, tomorrow. And I will teach you something about tactics.”
“Do you mean it?”
“I do not tell lies.”
The old man declared, and then turned his back away. He said that he wanted to continue his mushroom hunting and reunite with his attendant.
I asked him if he needed help searching, but he refused. ‘You have your own job to do,’ he replied. And it was true. I needed to defeat the dragon and save the village.
After that, the old man disappeared into the mist.
A silence fell over the area then. It was as if the old man was never there.
During that time, in the same place…
Toshizou Hijikata had left in order to relieve himself. He got up from the tree stump and entered the bushes. That was when the mist closed in.
He was surprised, as it all happened so quickly, but then again, such things sometimes happened in this world. It wasn’t like Tama or Kyoto.
Still, there was so much mist that he had to stop in his tracks. It would be too dangerous to return now while relying on his instincts alone.
If he couldn’t return, that meant he might be cut off from the Demon King. As they did not know when the dragon might attack Jeanne, there was little time to waste.
And so he finished relieving himself and then decided to wait for the mist to clear. After some time, he felt a presence close by.
But he did not reach for his weapon, because he realized that the person was not hostile or even armed. Otherwise, he would have cut him immediately.
Without any sense of shame, the man stood next to Toshizou and began to relieve himself as well.
“It’s been a while since I last did this while next to someone.” He laughed.
Though, Toshizou wasn’t sure, as the man wore a fox mask.
The kind that you might see someone wearing during a festival.
“…That mask. Are you from Hinomoto?”
The man answered calmly.
“Yes. I am from Hinomoto.”
“What do you want? Have you come to kill me?”
“Hardly. I don’t even have a sword. And I am old. Can an old man kill the demon vice-captain?”
“You certainly urinate like an old man.”
He chuckled. So did the stranger.
“Still, you must have some other reason for coming here. Who are you?”
“How sad. Have you forgotten the face of an old acquaintance?”
“Unfortunately, I don’t know any foxes.”
“I see. I could take off my mask, but that would be so boring.”
“No, it wouldn’t. Now take it off.”
“I think I will wait until you remember me.”
The man said as he took a step back. The movement was very smooth. Perhaps he had realized that Toshizou was going to split the mask open with his sword.
“…You don’t move like an old man. I doubt I would forget someone like you.”
“Well, my voice has changed. I lived for decades after your death.”
“Are you a friend from the Shinsengumi?”
“I’m surprised to hear you use the word friend.”
“…Maybe I’ve softened.”
“Ah, but it is a good change. Your subordinates in this world must be happy.”
The old man said with a nostalgic expression, and then he turned away.
“This really was just a coincidence. I was climbing the mountain as someone’s guard, and bumped into you. We will surely meet again. But this is it for today. Now, I only hope you realize who I am.”
The old man said, and then disappeared into the mist.
Toshizou didn’t follow. As the old man said, he thought they would meet again. And not too far into the future.
After that, the mist began to fade as if it had never been there. And Toshizou and I reunited on our tree stumps.
And while we had both had odd encounters, neither of us brought it up.
Indeed, they felt like encounters that would affect our fates greatly, but we did not speak of it.
As I sat on the tree stump and thought back on what had happened, I realized that the talisman around my neck was glowing.
Apparently, Jeanne had met the dragon. I looked at Toshizou and we immediately switched gears.
“We must go before the dragon takes a bite out of the Saint.”
I said jokingly, and Toshizou replied.
“I think it’s the other way around. If left alone, she might eat the dragon.”
“You’re right. Let’s return to her while there is still some dragon meat left.”
I said, and then we rushed through the trees.