On the steps of the temple, between peeling columns, the visitor stands. Above, clouds rumble with lingering thunder. She watches for a while, speaking silently to the fading fury, surrounded by petrichor. The forest is never quiet after rain, droplets sliding off leaves, moss sighing softly in the breeze, trees stretching their roots.
Long ago, the roof of the temple crumbled. Long ago, the stone walls eroded under the song of patient winds. Long ago, ivy wound its way inside, blanketing the space.
The altar, though, remains untouched, a shine to it akin to the one it held on the day of its creation.
Upon it, a tired body rests. Curled, shivering, limbs weak and breaths wheezing.
She nears, carefully. Gentles a hand through the messy hair, soothing.
"We heard the call," she whispers, mindful of causing fear. "But this shouldn't happen. Your world gave up worshipping sacrifices."
The youth's teeth are chattering, and the words come out stilted. "Father thinks otherwise. "
"Hmm. I see. And why would he offer his child?"
"Useless. Not a—not a son."
The nod is shaky, but undoubtedly an affirmation.
"And what would you like for your sacrifice?"
The girl laughs. It sounds hollow, as it echoes in the temple. "I don't know, what am I worth to you?"
"A future," the visitor says. "Come with me and explore your choices, or withdraw your offering and I'll return you to your world."
"I don't understand, what do you get out of it?"
"Why do I have to be rewarded? You have worth to yourself."
"Even if I… let's say I want to read books all day?"
"Yes. There's this old house that gets lonely, down in the city. It could use a companion that doesn't talk too much. Sensitive hearing, you see."
The laughter, this time, blooms with genuine mirth. The choice is made, the visitor can feel it, but she waits for confirmation all the same.
"I'll go with you," the girl says, "if you tell me your name."
"Ah. I have many, which you'll know in time. But one of them translates to: the river is alive, even under thick winter ice."