There were few things, Garuda liked to think, that could inspire this kind of fear within him. But the sight of his High Priest, deathly pale and still in the hands of two women from whom roils of twisted power flowed was one of them.
"Release the high priest!"
The tallest woman was staring at him, her face full of fierce delight. "Garuda! You are Garuda!"
"I am," Garuda acknowledged stiffly, feeling Hanuman tense at his side. If he could hold their attention securely enough for the monkey to leap...
The woman was laughing, the other staring hungrily at him from over Fuuto's drooping head. "You stole the Peaches of the Gods for your mother's sake, didn't you?"
Garuda started. "What-"
The woman laughed again. "Would you dare the same crime for this boy, Garuda? The Peach's of Immortality for this boy's life. That's our bargain."
Even as Hanuman leapt, they vanished in a swirl of freezing air.
Garuda stared at the empty space blankly, panic begin to beat within his chest.
"Shit!" a familiar voice cursed as Genrou came up to join them, dragging a struggling young woman with him.
Garuda turned a distraught gaze on Genrou, wringing his hands together frantically. "They took him!
"They took the High Priest!" Hanuman wailed.
"Let me go you brute before they come back!" Genrou's prisoner snarled.
Garuda's gaze snapped to her. She was very white; white skin, white hair. The only spot of dark on her was her eyes. The human disguise of a deer. Garuda remembered seeing her racing down the street, shoving past the scattered clumps of human shoppers. Then her eyes had lighted upon them and she had dived behind... she had dived...
"You put the high Priest between you and them, didn't you?" Garuda whispered.
"Of course I did!" The deer snapped. "Why not? His power is like the sun. Why wouldn't I want the benefit of its protection?"
Genrou's claws tightened around her shoulders. "I should have ripped your throat out when I caught you," he growled.
It was impossible to see if she paled, but her eyes went very wide.
"Tell us what you know."
She sighed and sagged in Genrou's hold. "Fine," she said quietly. "I'll tell you what I know. If," he head came up, large dark eyes narrowed. "Only if you promise to protect me from them."
"Why the hell should we do that?" Genrou snarled.
"Genrou!" Garuda said, and waited until the general had subsided somewhat. He turned to the deer. "Tell us."
The deer huffed a reluctant sigh. "They're two nature spirits. They are consumed with unnatural desires. They reject the Great Wheel and hunger for life and more life..."
"What has that got to do with anything?" Genrou demanded
The deer took a deep breath, as if steeling herself. "I am one thousand, nine hundred and ninety seven years old."
They stared at her in silence. "Shit," Genrou said at last.
"That is why they are pursuing you?" Garuda asked quietly.
The deer nodded once, stiffly. "As soon as I reach my two thousandth year, when my skin has turned from white to black, they will slaughter me and eat me for two thousand more years of life."
"They desire immortality..." Garuda whispered.
"But they don't want you anymore!" Hanuman protested.
Her head snapped around to face him, her expression stunned. "What the hell do you mean? They've been chasing me for five hundred years, since my coat turned from blue to white. Why would they stop now?"
"Because they've got the High Priest!" Hanuman hopped impatiently from one foot to the other. "They're going to use him to force Garuda to steal the Peaches of Immortality from the gods again!"
"What will they do to him?!" Garuda demanded half hysterically.
"Garuda-sama!" Hanuman clung to his leg pleadingly. "Please calm down!"
The deer shifted uncomfortably under his frantic gaze. "Um, they probably won't kill him... " Garuda moaned. "I mean," she said quickly, "They definitely won't kill him! They need him for a hostage after all, in order to get the peaches. But..." She hesitated.
Genrou shook her roughly, making her gasp. "But what?"
The deer rubbed at her shoulder where Genrou's claws were digging into her resentfully. "They've managed to stay alive this long by draining the life out of others. They're addicted to it by now. And your high priest is something special; he smells of sunlight and rich stars, and tastes of souls upon the Wheel. I doubt they'll be able to resist taking a sip."
Garuda swayed on his talons, horror-stricken at the mere thought.
"Where are they?" Hanuman's young voice demanded. "Do you know?"
The deer sniffed. "I'm not such a fool that I don't know where my enemies lair."
"Tell us then!" Genrou snarled, giving her another shake.
She stiffened and her chin came up. "Why? Why should I?"
"What?!" Garuda screeched.
The deer tilted her head to one side, a thoughtful look in her eyes. "If they keep the boy, you will be forced to fetch the Peaches of Eternal Life for them, Garuda-san. Once they have them, they won't be interested in the flesh of a black deer that can grant them a mere two thousand years..."
Garuda stared at her, feeling a familiar cold close about his heart. Felt Hanuman flinch away from him. "You will tell us, or you will die in your white skin." Genrou's mouth widened in an answering, savage grin, and at last Garuda saw an appropriate fear for the Celestial Guardian Beasts dawn in the deer's eyes.
He was cold. He hated the cold. He was lying on a cold floor, there was something cold binding his ankles together, and he could almost hear a familiar voice pointing out that Darashaal was a hot desert country...
"Gah," he muttered into the floor. "Shut up, Garuda."
"Oh!" A soft voice exclaimed. "You're awake!" Fuuto blinked his eyes open, turning to look at her just as she reached out to pull him into a sitting position.
Fuuto hissed through his teeth, pulling back. "Your hands are freezing!"
"Stolen life can't keep them warm," the woman said sadly.
Fuuto stared at her. "Who the hell are you?"
"Oh! I am so sorry!" The woman raised her hands to her cheeks. "I should have introduced myself. I am Kaika. My sister is Hannoki."
Fuuto blinked as memories filtered back in. "You were chasing that woman... Hey!" He exclaimed indignantly. "You kidnapped me!"
"Yes," Kaika said agreeably.
"Why?" Fuuto prodded impatiently.
"Well, usually it would be to steal your life and extend our own." She extended one hand and stroked his cheek. "You're so powerful," she said wistfully. "I bet you could have given us a year of life..."
Fuuto flinched back from her. "What the hell?"
"Oh, don't worry!" she exclaimed. "We won't kill you." She bit her lip. "Probably."
Fuuto stared. "'Probably?!' Hey-"
"Well, that garuda did seem very worried about you," Kaika said defensively. "I'm sure he'll steal the Peaches of Immortality, like Oneesama asked, and then we won't have to kill you at all..."
"So you've kidnapped me in order to make Garuda steal these... what?"
"Peaches that grant immortality. He's stolen them before, to ransom his mother from the nagas."
"Why do you want immortality anyway?" Fuuto mumbled. His head was pounding.
"It was Hannoki's idea!" Kaika cried. She waved her hands about in distress; the withered leaves that patterned them fluttered feebly in echo. "Why wouldn't we want immortality? Why shouldn't we be afraid to die?"
"What's so great about immortality?" Fuuto mumbled, wondering. "It just means you drag everything around behind you... everything you've ever done. You can't leave anything behind you. You can't start again. It just means you don't get any second chances..." And the High Priest of Darashaal, he thought. Even if he is reborn, he's still trapped in the same life...
"Hannoki and I..." Kaika whispered. "We've committed so many crimes. Sometimes I think it would be nice to stop. To just forget..."
"Why don't you then?
"You don't understand!" Kaika cried, covering her face with her hands. "I've been living off stolen life force for centuries! If I stopped now, I'd just die!"
"So?" Fuuto mumbled drowsily. "You should be dead anyway."
She slapped him. Stunned, Fuuto blinked up at her, as the pain chased away some of his drowsiness.
"How, how can you say that?" She whispered.
"Look, you really don't want to keep living like this do you? It's not really a life..."
"Maybe," Kaika whispered, "but my sister..." Fuuto could feel it suddenly; the dependence of her ki on Hannoki...
"It's your life, your choice. Not your sister's." He held out a hand. "I can help you..."
Her expression still fearful, but edging into determined, she reached out, and laid her hand in his. Fuuto smiled, as for once his powers decided to do what he wanted them to.
A light began to glow between their hands.
"Oh!" she breathed out once, and then the light swallowed everything.
The deer was being noisily sick in the doorway as Hanuman and Genrou began rending at the corpse of the woman who had met them at the door. Garuda ignored them all as he flung himself bodily through the thin ice walls, searching for the dimming brilliance of his High Priest's ki.
He found him in a small room, his ankles shackled with ice as he knelt, staring blindly down at the floor.
"High Priest!" Garuda exclaimed thankfully, diving for him.
"Ack! Garuda!" Fuuto jumped as he landed beside him. "You startled me!"
"I am so very glad you're alright, High Priest," Garuda sighed. His eyes widened in panic as Fuuto swayed suddenly. "Ah! High Priest!" He wrapped a steadying arm around Fuuto's shoulders, babbling in panic all the while. "Are you well? Are you hurt at all? You're so cold, you should have a blanket..."
"Garuda!" Fuuto interrupted irritably, "I'm fine. I'm just," he yawned, "I'm just tired from purifying a spirit..."
"I don't see why anyone would want immortality. It just means you're trapped; you can't even change..."
"High Priest..." Garuda whispered.
Fuuto started suddenly. "Wait, there's another one-"
Garuda settled a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "It's alright, High Priest. Genrou and Hanuman are taking care of her."
"Oh," Fuuto muttered, sagging back against Garuda's chest. "That's good." He yawned blearily. "M' tired..."
Garuda folded his arms around him, slightly amazed at his own presumption. "Sleep, then, High Priest. I will guard you."
This time... I will.