Each year, the Offering changes everything. If it is good, the people become smarter, taller. Our silos run over with grain. The berries on the trees around the village hang plump and bright.
But if the Offering is bad, stone covers the earth, and the plants struggle withered and yellow between the cracks. Rusty wires cut the children as they play. People starve.
Last year's Offering was not very good. As he stepped through the Altar, the sky blackened and growled, jagged white teeth arching across the clouds. Pavement grew up and covered the grass. Graffiti spiraled down around the columns framing the Altar. His mother wept and wept as they sliced her head from her shoulders.
My mother starved during the winter. I suppose, if my Offering isn't good enough, no one will suffer for it.
I am seated in front of a huge mirror inside the temple. The priestess flit to and fro, tying ribbons in my hair, adjusting the lace on my white dress. Their pins prick my skin.
I barely notice as they herd me toward the Altar. Lightning crackles and sparkles across its surface. The priest chants the prayer, and I am cast forward.
And so I fall.
The void smells like lavender and honey. My lungs feel light for the first time since the last Offering. I stretch out my arms and breathe deep.
I float downward into the light. Another world stretches out beneath me, with patchwork fields of different greens. The sky turns the brightest blue I've ever seen. I start to wonder if the world I came from had color at all.
Little purple flowers litter the grass below, growing larger as I sink downward. The big fluffy clouds in the sky seem to stay the same size. As I near the ground, my falling slows, until I touch the earth with the tips of my toes.
My dress and hair billow in the wind. The sun glows warm on my skin. The birds sing brightly in a bush nearby
The Priest lied. The Offering didn't hurt at all.
A dog barks, and the birds scatter upward from the bush. Several sharp shots tear through the air. Two birds fall to the ground accompanied by whooping laughter. The dog bounds over the hill and scoops up a bird in its mouth. A young boy, not much older than me, stands at the top of the hill, cheering and laughing.
He falls silent when he sees me. His dog returns to his side with the birds, looks at me, and growls. The boy points his gun at me. I lift my hands, like they do in old movies.
"Who are you? What do you want?" he yells at me in Old English. I struggle to remember the words from school.
"I Talia," I yell, "I come in peace."
He comes closer, his gun aiming for my face. He comes so close I can smell the gunpowder. We stare at one another for a moment, then he laughs and lowers the gun. "J-just k-kiddin'. Ar-are you d-ditching classes, too? My name's Winston, what's yours?"
I understand a few of those words, so I say again, "I Talia."
He touches my hand, and turns back to where he came from, "C-come on, T-t-talia. We'd b-b-better get b-back before they realize we're g-gone."
He runs up the hill, then turns and watches me. I don't know what else to do, so I follow.