Alora nudged Loki forward and braced herself. She could have moved along at a much faster gait and gotten the whole scene over with more quickly but her contrary nature prevented her from doing so. She figured they were going to beat themselves regardless of how fast or slow she passed by so she might as well just take her time. Loki arched his neck and pranced forward, his attention now on the ragtag bunch by the side of the road.
Alora approached on the right and watched as they slowly took note of her. She couldn't help but grin.
"Beautiful day isn't it?" She called out as she slowly went by. She watched, unsurprised, as several stopped, dropped their robes, and took to their knees in the road. Alora could not figure out why people wanted to make a hard life even harder by being so stupid. And perhaps she was evil and possessed by imps because she just couldn't control her mouth. At times like these, it took on a life of its own.
"Think all of you can bear my sins? Why don't you give it a try? " She remarked, her tone heavy with sarcasm.
One of the figures stepped out into the road and angrily threw back the cowl of his robe. His gray hair and beard intermingled in a fierce mane and his piercing green eyes stared unflinchingly at Alora. She raised a brow.
This one she knew. JoHan. He was the leader or the "Domyni" of this bunch. His name had travelled the grapevine much like hers did, through whispered tales of awe and amazement at all him and his band of crazies had accomplished by rendering themselves unconscious.
The green eyes stared fixedly into her amused black ones. Everyone saw him as a true holy figure, a man who had conversed with Brede in the midnight garden of dreams but he didn't fool Alora. She saw a quiet cunning to his demeanor. There was no humility, no holiness in the green depths of his eyes, only a hard and bright awareness. Just another snake oil salesmen with a new pitch.
"Demon! You dare to mock us?" JoHan said, his voice strident with devout rage.
"Yes. I do." Alora replied calmly. She jerked a chin at the acolytes kneeling in the road. "I think they want you to beat them. Please, don't keep them waiting on my account."
The old man raised a forefinger and pointed at Alora as he tilted his mane of gray hair back to catch the breeze. She suddenly had the feeling that JoHan knew exactly how he looked as he dramatically confronted The Twiceborn.
"Cut-rate showman." She thought and sneered. JoHan's eyes shifted. His self-righteous fury disappeared and was replaced by an expression Alora couldn't explain.
"Islinn? Is that you?" JoHan croaked. The pointing finger that had appeared so mighty only a moment ago lowered. Alora turned in her saddle to stare at Islinn but the girl avoided her eyes as she slipped off the stag's back. JoHan simply held his arms open and Alora watched as he embraced Islinn in a fierce hug. So. Islinn did have somewhere to go, after all. Little by little her realization of no longer being burdened with the girl was replaced with a sense of regret, the basis of which she couldn't quite put her finger on.
"JoHan. It's been a while." Islinn said shakily as she stepped back from the older man. She glanced at the band of followers, her eyes distant and haunted.
"Islinn. A while, indeed." JoHan's voice was gruff with emotion. "You were my most powerful initiate. A true believer. When you were taken from us, I knew it had to have been the power of Amon at work, in an attempt to make us weak."
JoHan looked at Alora, and his face darkened.
"Brede has returned you to us. In the hands of a demon. This is a test and we shall not fail."
Alora glanced about as JoHan's followers began to keen loudly. She was bewildered by the sudden change of events.
"Islinn." Alora raised her voice in an attempt to be heard over the wailing. "Do you want to stay here? If you do, you're no longer bound to me."
Islinn stared down at the ground and was silent. JoHan once again directed his fierce gaze at Alora.
"Demon, she is bound to no one. She has more power than you've ever dreamed of."
"I don't think I was talking to you." Alora casually replied. She looked at Islinn.
"Do you want to stay here, Islinn? Yes or no?"
For some reason, the girl was struggling but Alora couldn't figure out why. She looked at JoHan and his followers, confused. They appeared to know Islinn and JoHan had greeted her like a long-lost daughter. And, judging from the marks on the girl's back, she had obviously traveled with them for a while and knew what they were all about.
"She isn't all that bright, Duran." Alora suddenly thought with disdain. She looked away from Islinn and gazed off down the road.
"No." Islinn's voice was bare and stripped of emotion.
JoHan studied the girl for a moment then gently smiled.
"You're under her thrall, Islinn. It does not matter, we can free you."
Islinn shook her head.
"No. I'm not enthralled. I'm choosing to go with her. I no longer belong to you." The words spilled from her like a bitter acid and the heated rage within them caused JoHan to take a step back. Alora turned back to watch the proceedings with a renewed interest.
"You will always belong to us." JoHan said in a rich,warm baritone but his eyes were cold. "The shedding of your blood was our greatest weapon. Let us free you."
Islinn shook her head again, not trusting her voice, and turned to mount the little stag. JoHan stepped forward and grabbed her arm. He spun her around and his face had taken on a desperate light.
"You don't know what you're saying. You experienced the half-death. You were chosen Islinn, you cannot deny that."
Moments ticked by as Islinn remained silent. JoHan stared into her eyes, hoping to see something salvageable.
"The breath within, the ebb and flow of the heart, the visions seen, words uttered, all are gifts given us by Brede." JoHan's voice was soft. "To follow his teachings and to believe is to distinguish above and below, light and dark, and right from wrong. Yet…we do stray. We do roam. For we are human and not crafted from the firestorm below us nor do we come from the realm of smoke and mirrors."
His eyes flicked contemptuously over Alora before continuing.
"Those that have strayed, Islinn, are still loved for the word love is the very embodiment of Brede and my brethren can return you to his threshold through their unselfish suffering. "
JoHan reached one gnarled hand up to Islinn's chin and gently cupped her face.
"But you know these words by heart. You lived them with a strength few possess and I…yes, I…was humbled by your belief. You were the Chosen One, chosen to look through the mirror and glimpse the infinite."
Islinn's face worked fiercely as she struggled to hold back tears but her eyes never wavered from JoHan's face.
"Bear witness. I renunciate." She whispered. There was a sudden silence in the air that followed these words, an absence where something vital had been which had abruptly disappeared, leaving a hole of such magnitude no other words or actions were worthy enough to fill it. JoHan's lips pursed with a suppressed fury. The sound of his hand across her face was sharp enough to silence the keening of his followers. Islinn stumbled and fell.
The reins she'd been clutching in a white knuckled grip slipped loose and the speckled stag spun handily around and bolted for the woods across the road. Alora leaned sideways from her saddle and only by a stroke of luck was able to snag the bridle as the little beast started to dash by Loki.
Alora reached for the reins and wrapped them securely around her hand. She ignored the ensuing squeals that followed as the stag realized its escape attempt had been thwarted. She had had enough of this strange little scene. Her mind backed away from the religious trappings and dismissed the strange heart of the words she'd heard spoken. With her other hand, she drew her sword.
"I think she made her decision." She said softly.
JoHan didn't even bother to glance in her direction. He stared at Islinn, his eyes wide and shocked.