Alora's frustration at the situation rose a notch. The way she saw it, who wouldn't be weak-kneed at the thought of being almost beaten to death on a regular basis?
"Islinn, you reacted like any sane person would. So, you left JoHan at some point and now you've chosen not to go back. You can do that, you know, True Believer or not. "
The only thing complicated that Alora could see in this entire idiotic situation was Islinn's failure to see the simplicity of reason. Islinn's brown eyes took on a new bleak tint.
"I didn't leave JoHan of my own accord. I was in Westerfox. Domyni JoHan granted me shrift to bear for a woman and her child…"
Alora held up a hand, clearly confused.
"Shrift to bear? "
"It means to be forgiven of your transgressions before bearing. If I had died while bearing, my soul would be pure when I was delivered to Brede."
Alora kept her face neutral. Underneath her display of disinterest though, she was actually fascinated by this unexpected peek into what she had never understood. Her world was simple in comparison.
Alora knew of the Blood Desert and had walked through the Land of Dead Dreams. The legacy that had been promised to her before birth through whisper was she would one day ascend and rule the Land of Shadows. The UnderRealms waited on bended knee for her. She called. And they answered. It was all very plain and simple to understand.
Unlike the obscure preachings of all the devil dodgers as they carried on about "curses" and "sins." Yet people, like Islinn for example, believed in all of that to where their life depended on it. They believed, they preached, they squalled, they quarreled, they warred, they sacrificed, and they wallowed in guilt like pigs in mud and even after all of that…they still weren't sure if they'd be sitting down to feast with Brede at the end of their life or were doomed to wait in the chaos of the Below until The Twiceborn decided she needed to puppet them about and spice up the life of some villagers. It simply didn't make any sense.
"Okay, so JoHan made you as pure as the driven snow. What then?" Alora struggled to remain serious. The fact that Islinn was lamenting the loss of being given the chance to be beaten again because she viewed being afraid as a downside to all of that was becoming more and more ludicrous.
"If this doesn't wind up soon, I'm just going to start laughing." She thought with an equal amount of panic and humor.
Islinn studied Alora for a moment.
"I experienced half-death. Behrin was in town, I guess, watched me bear, and decided he wanted me. That's how the story goes."
Islinn turned away and presented Alora with a taut shoulder. Alora sat for a few moments, thinking.
Islinn didn't bother to turn around.
"It's when someone is past the point of death…or should be…and they still live. It's an exalted state of being."
"It's an exalted state of stupid."
Alora couldn't take anymore. She stood up and raked an aggravated hand through her dark hair. What did it matter to her if this thick-headed girl wanted to be beaten to death in the name of her god? Why did she even care? There was an easy way to solve all of this. She could ride up the road, run JoHan through, drag his body back and ask Islinn, "Where's your god now?"
Alora closed her eyes and took a deep breath. It would be a quick solution but…she looked down at the girl.
"Look. I don't understand. I probably never will. But it is what it is, like you said. You had your reasons for not going back with JoHan just now, I suppose, but anyway, we need to ride a bit mo…"
" I was glad." Islinn whispered, not looking up from the road. Alora leaned over.
"I said I was glad. I was glad when I realized I wasn't with JoHan anymore and I was with Behrin. That is why I renunciated. Because I'm not worthy to bear any more. Because of my fear."
"Behrin saved your life. It's probably the only good thing he's ever done and he could only accomplish that by not knowing anything about it." Alora snorted derisively.
"So…in order to set up house with Brede in your afterlife, you were expected to stay until you were beaten to death? And now…you're going to be punished because you've decided you wanted to keep some of the skin on your back? Islinn, listen to what I'm saying,what you believe is just…just…"
Alora scrabbled for some dazzling rhetoric that would sway Islinn into seeing things her way but fell woefully short.
"stupid." She concluded,lamely. "It's just…stupid, Islinn. Asinine. Ridiculous. And for what? To maybe be blessed by a god you've never seen?"
"You're right. I've never seen Brede." Islinn quietly replied.
"Exactly. That's my point."
"But I've seen what he can do. Many times."
Alora was intrigued. She'd never seen anything amazing aside from how quickly priests could make hard-earned coin simply disappear into thin air.
"In Westerfox. He brought a dead child back to life."
Alora looked at the younger girl uneasily. The conversation had taken a serious turn. Alora considered life and death her domain.
"The usual way. One minute the child was dead and the next it was alive." Islinn said, exasperated.
"I don't believe that. The child was probably sick and got better and you and JoHan just happened to be there at the right ti…"
"No. The mother was a whore who threw her bastard child against a wall and smashed its head open. It had been dead for a few days before we got there. I bore while holding the child. Brede gave it back its life."
Alora, finally, had nothing to say. She thought about the scenario, came at it from all different corners, and didn't like the fact she couldn't figure out another reason for what had happened.
"Wait…you were bearing? Which is being beaten, right?… while holding that dead baby?
The scenario was almost beyond Alora's comprehension. She felt disgusted. Islinn, naked and kneeling in muck while holding a dead baby, surrounded by a wailing crowd while JoHan methodically beat her to death in the name of some god.
"Yes. Yes, that's right." Islinn looked up, her eyes blazing. "And I felt it. Felt whatever it was, whatever you want to call it. It went through me and into the child and when I heard him cry I knew it for what it was. A miracle. And I was amazed. I was grateful. I felt lov...needed." Islinn looked down again as her eyes filled with tears.
" But more than all of that, I was afraid. So. Fucking. Afraid. Because it hurt so much and I knew I couldn't do it again. That I could never be a vessel again for my god."
Alora was silent as she listened to Islinn break down in a fresh round of tears. She glanced up the road again, her expression grim.
"And here I thought I knew all the devils in this world by name." She brooded.
If the girl's account of the power of Brede had been meant to inspire awe in Alora, it had accomplished the exact opposite. She knelt down one final time and ignored the sudden copper taste in the back of her throat as she reached out and took one of Islinn's hands.
"Don't you think…if your god was so powerful…and you were so chosen…he wouldn't make you suffer just to bring a child back from the dead?" Alora's voice was as gentle as she could make it but the words in her mouth were bitter with what she innately felt to be true.
Something in Islinn's expression broke and shied away but Alora didn't let go of her hand or look away. Islinn held her gaze for a few moments longer, her brown eyes unfathomable. Alora had a split second to realize what was about to happen just as Islinn brought her other hand up and slapped her sharply across the face.