If you are chosen for the Beast, there is no hope for you. There is no love for you, no kindness for you, and no sympathy for you.
You are abandoned, in every sense of the word.
We know this truth, when they pick them. Every year, the process gets a little too close, a little too true. In my village, we are livestock replacements for the richer who would rather send unknown strangers than their own. Every year, we hear this from the official who comes to collect: "Your families will be compensated. You have done well for your village. You are selfless."
Each year, the eight poorest villages of our country must pick one of theirs to cast away. They are then brought, chained neck and starved, to the Capital in a locked wooden carriage, and then they are placed on a centre stage used for public executions and hangings that stands before the Capital's lord's house.
There is no selfless. They make no choice. It is pre-mediated murder made guiltless by tradition and made legal by powerlessness.
The Capital, of course, seems harmless when you finally enter through the gates. The roads will be backed up for miles with merchant caravans and travelers, so rockiness will settle, and you drift sleep. The guards don't bother you too much, either. No one would dare hurt you before your time is up.
You can pretend people in the Capital are no different from other affluent towns: Their clothes are spun and weaved and bejeweled by craftsmen the same way. Their ornaments are also glass blown and shaped and coloured. Streamers and prizes are kept on display, drapery hangs from buildings with complicated architecture, and lanterns are tied to the shutters of open windows. The stalls and streets are busy, filled with people hustling and children bickering and playing, awaiting prosperity for the rest of the year.
I was angry, at first. Tired, exhausted, and angry.
In the line of us eight now, I am petrified, watching as the guards light the bonfire in the huge pit before us. It blazes high as the tallest buildings, and the heat is suffocating. Beside me, holding the hand of an older girl, a boy no older than six cries loudly at the sight. He knows as well as I know that the flames burn for our flesh, and they will keep burning our bones if they do not pull us out in time.
The crowd that surrounds us is immense in vigour and energy, even as they pull back from the heat of the flames. Loudly, they bang their sticks against the sides of the large doubled-headed drums. They gather in a sea of festive colour, voices mixing together in a cry that calls for us to begin. They are bloodthirsty and black-hearted.
Someone is sobbing among us. The others are silent. An man wobbles on my other side. They took his walking stick when they beat him for asking to spare his siblings. He places a hand on my shoulder, barely able to give me a word of comfort before--
"Him," says the official in charge, gesturing to me. "He'll go first."
My heart has stopped beating. My hands grow clammy, and I can't breathe.
The guards don't speak as they drag me forward and unbind me from the shackles attached to the stage. They strip me down, but all I can hear are the drums pounding. They are heavy things, hide stretched over the wood. My heart beats louder, in time, then faster, like a wild animal before its body gives up and grows cold. My vision is swimming.
The crowd surrounding us has grown so silent, or perhaps that is just the roar of blood in my ears. My arms are bound behind my back, my knees and ankles are tied together where I kneel on a water-damp beam on wooden platform. They've stuffed my mouth with a ripped strip of cloth, and drench me head to toe with oil--it tastes like bitter, dead trees.
If you are among the chosen for the Beast, you are doused in oil and set on fire. To pass the flames of entrance to the other world, unmarred and unmarked virgin flesh must have been devoured by those of ours. They say it is because the other world is unknown, unsafe. They say because its atmosphere is thick and vast in its spiritual dangers, a trial by fire is necessary to protect you before the Beast claims you.
I know better. Fire purifies the dead, but it extinguishes the living. We are the unwanted scraps of black sheep. We are children, parents, siblings, cousins, relatives...so many things of those with no luck in this lifetime.
I manage to fight to get my eyes up to the wall of fire before me. Through it, flickering wildly, I can see a couple at the front. They look right at me, the expression on their faces fearful. Their hands clutch tightly on the shoulders of a boy in front of them, whose expression is rapt. He looks at me, hungry.
And so they throw me, throw me into the fire.