I feel their overwhelming presence around me, stronger than all of the crowd put together. We walk together, stepping off of the mosaic circle within which the altar rituals were conducted, and as I step out of its threshold towards Ideón, I am overcome with another sort of presence. It washes over me like a spring breeze, lifting the roots of my hair and making my heavy arms feel little more than air. The sensation is stronger than when I had stood here with Amaryllis, and it only grows as I take another step closer. I keep track of where the blocks of spectators end, where the restricted zone begins and where I am meant to walk alone. I know what to expect, the adults will stop and I will advance alone for the first time. The spectators will sink to their knees in respect even if they don't mean it, and since I have no sponsor's gift to be handed by Akantha, all I have to do is wait - and hope - for the Idea to fall.
I look to my left at the final spectator at the edge - and it's Thaddeus. My heart soars! Thatty, but how can he be here? It's not allowed unless...Akantha. I want to turn to her, thanking her, but I can't. Instead, all I can do in that final moment is smile at Thaddeus, who beams at me with sad eyes, nodding with pride. We all stop, but before I can walk forward alone, I feel a hand on my shoulder unexpectedly. I turn, and there stands Akantha besides Calliope, holding something wrapped in golden ribbon, passing it to me. It's her cloak, the blue cloak that she'd given to me when I'd had nothing else to wear. Akantha is the closest I have to a sponsor, yet she's so much more. I hold it in my hands, my mouth slightly open in shock, and Akantha smiles, lifting her head to tell me to turn back around and go. I want to say something, but the sanctity of the ceremony holds words back for me, and I have no choice.
I turn, and taking a deep breath, my eyes fixed forward on the largest hollow at Ideón's roots, I walk forward. There's a ripple of noise, like there had been at Marissa's ceremony. It's different, though, filled not just with the moving of material as everybody kneels, but there are gasps, loud and unapologetic. What's wrong? I think frantically to myself. What have I done wrong? I thought it was all going so well but now...
I feel her behind me, and my heart fails for a moment. No, that's impossible. No way... But she's there, I feel the air move behind me as somebody follows me towards Ideón, and it hurts that I can't look, not just yet in those cruel seconds that I must keep my head respectively up. Why me? Why not Marissa or Illiana? They're better, they deserve it, it's not fair to them! I might be wrong I might be imagining things, no, I'm not oh oh oh what do I do? I haven't rehearsed this, how could I have ever expected this? I make it to the base of Ideón, stopping at the first root, and without a second thought, I turn, and I see her.
Her expression is calm and reassuring, but how am I supposed to be calm and reassured with what's about to be done? My panic comes wave upon wave, dislodging me as my knees quake. The One has to gesture in a downward motion for me to kneel, just before her, and as I sink down onto the cold stone, I can't bring myself to lower my head humbly. My eyes are fixed, watery, terrified on her in her splendour and power as her thumb dips into a pouch at her waist, emerging glistening with sacred oil. She brushes it across my pale and pallid forehead in a tree form, and as I rise again - though it feels like I'm too paralysed to, my fingers clawing desperately onto the cloak.
Calliope takes a step forward, her lips coming near my ear, and I dread it. My stomach swirls with sickness, terror, disbelief, the unknown. Don't say it, please, don't say it, don't say it. But she does. The word is whispered, but by the reaction of a crowd that has long been blurred from the corners of my eyes by tears, it's as if they've heard it too.