Running is almost effortless. All his attention is on the bird, the magnificent bird that is at once a falcon and…something else. All except for a tiny bit of grit rubbing his consciousness, questioning this entire situation. How is he running so easily and for so long? His legs should have given out long ago, shouldn’t they? After all, he can hardly do more than a slow walk anymore on that left knee of his. And his heart…
No. That doesn’t make any sense. He is not some old man suffering from long-ago injuries. He is in the prime of his life. Middle-aged, perhaps, but healthy and strong. A leader still, and still capable of teaching younger subordinates how to take down a suspect quickly and with minimal force. Or maximal force, when called for.
Still? Why still capable?
He shakes off this musing. The bird is gone from the sky. At the top of the hill is a figure, tall and pale, and on her arm, yes, there it is, perched in all its glorious plumage. The peregrine falcon? No, a far more colorful bird, with a tail of long feathers. Strange. Surely it is a hō-ō, a phoenix, a creature out of legend. And there is a large horse behind her, looking like a living avatar of midnight skies. How beautiful all three of them are.
He knows he is in the presence of the supernatural. But he does not slow as he trudges up the hill. It is not in his nature to shy away from mysteries.
The pale woman is stroking the bird. Despite hair like fresh-fallen snow, even from a distance her youthful beauty makes clear that she is not aged. But as he approaches her, he is almost stunned by her perfection. It takes him a moment to look beyond that and notice that her lovely attire is the deep indigo worn by the Guardia Dei. And then there is her badge. A sergeant. He would outrank her, if she were mortal. But of course she is not.
She is looking at him expectantly, and he senses an unspoken invitation to address her. He stops a respectful distance away and bows from the waist, formally. “Excuse me…I was searching for a falcon.”
“Did you find it?” the woman asks.
He looks at her guarded expression. He is astonished by what he sees there: a vulnerability born of fear. Fear of him. What could she possibly fear from him? “Forgive me, honored goddess. But I think perhaps it somehow…merged with this magnificent phoenix. It is a mystery that leaves me perplexed.”
His words seem to set her slightly at ease. The woman looks at the phoenix as if at an old friend. “Starfax, show me, please.”
The bird spreads its wings, buffeting the air and spreading a faint scent like burning temple incense. For a moment, between one flap and the next, he sees it as a falcon. Then it is itself again. It folds its wings and shakes its head, blinks, and regards Sueyoshi calmly.
The woman tilts her head. “How odd.” She looks at Sueyoshi. “Was the falcon yours?”
“Yes. Or rather, I was helping it. It had been injured. I was trying to nurse it back to health.”
The woman smiles at him, a smile filled with kindly sorrow. “I am afraid your falcon has taken flight for the last time.”
He feels a sharp pain in his heart. “Ah. I thought as much. It did not seem possible that the bird should be able to fly. It had been growing weaker. But…I had hoped.” He bows his head and whispers a prayer for the dead.
“Hoped?” she asks, when he finishes.
“Forgive my poor manners, Sergeant. I am Ishijima, Inspector of Oyafukodōri Station. It is my good fortune to meet you. We do not often receive visits from the Guardia Dei here.” He bows deeply.
“Inspector,” she replies, bowing her head. “My name is Alma, stationed in Three Rats, Fourth Ring. I am a death goddess.”
Death goddess? He feels himself grow cold. “I am honored. This unfortunate falcon…I was hoping to make a gift of it to someone.”
“I see. Unfortunately, I cannot bring him back. Death, I am afraid, only goes one way.”
He nods, then asks, “Forgive me but…is this a dream? It feels like one but I am not sure.” He closes his eyes. “I am sorry. Perhaps I sound like a senile old man.”
“No,” she replies with a smile in her voice. “This is a dream.” He feels a cool palm on his cheek, and he stiffens, but it is the gentle touch of a mother checking the temperature of a child. “Good,” she whispers, “there is still time in you.”
He opens his eyes, looking into hers. Such a strange and intense blue. And the feeling remains of her soft hand so cool on his bearded cheek. “Thank you,” he whispers. Then emboldened by the knowledge that it is a dream, he says, “Then the death of the falcon is not symbolic of my own passing. But is it symbolic of another’s?”
Alma shakes her head. “I believe that the only thing that died was the falcon’s dream of himself. Who do you fear for?”
His eyes fall, and he feels a chill return to his heart. “My daughter. Like the falcon, I found her, and like the falcon, she flew away. I have seen her in momentary dream-glimpses only since she left.”
Alma’s fair expression darkens and becomes sadder. She reaches out to him again, touching his sleeve. “Your daughter is well. She is…with family.”
Sueyoshi feels a rush of warmth fill his body. He fears he must be blushing. “Then she is alive? And…she has found those she lost?”
Alma’s expression clears. “Yes. And yes. She has found her place in the Wakenworld with her siblings. And her mother.”
He blinks rapidly, embarrassed at the rush of emotion he is experiencing. Yet he suddenly feels very close to this mysterious goddess, and he cannot stop himself from speaking of his daughter, even though he knows it makes him sound like every doting parent. “She admitted to me once, when she was very troubled – she must have been sixteen – that she knew she had other family. She had not told me, because she did not want me to think she was ungrateful. But I am very happy to know this.” Still, he realizes that his sorrow at being apart from her fills his voice.
The pale goddess gives him a tremulous smile. “You are truly a good man. I can see why she loves you so.
He feels confused. Then his heart begins to race as understanding begins to fall into place.
“I am glad she had you to raise her,” Alma continues, her hand still touching his arm, squeezing it slightly.
His eyes widen in realization. He opens his mouth to speak, but cannot.
As if she can read his mind the goddess nods. “Yes. Thank you for raising my child as your own. She is more than I could ever wish for.”
He shakes his head. “I must thank you. For bringing her into being and for giving me the opportunity to be part of her life.”
“Would you like to see her again? In the Wakenworld?”
Sueyoshi cannot believe his ears. “Is that possible? She exists there?” He is almost overwhelmed with emotion, but finally says, “Yes. Oh yes.”
The horse stomps his hoof and tosses his head. The goddess looks back at him, then at the Inspector again. “I will see to it. However, I must go now.”
Sueyoshi bows deeply, his eyes lowered. “I could not ask for a greater gift.”
He feels her hand lightly touch his shoulder. “I am sorry for your falcon, Inspector.”
When he looks up, she and her companions are already gone, leaving him alone on the windswept hilltop.