My fingers curled into fists. “Are you on my side, or hers?”
“He’s on yours, and that was his mistake.” Wilta curled one hand over his shoulder. “Ever since his capture, we let him lie about his true loyalties, knowing eventually he would do something truly harmful to you.”
I looked directly at Roden. “What did you do?”
Roden took a deep breath to get control of his emotions, but still struggled to choke out, “I caught Tobias trying to free Amarinda from the jail. I had to deal with him.”
I rushed forward as if to strike him, but Mercy pulled me back. “Deal with him? Where’s Tobias?”
“He escaped, but Roden left him injured,” Wilta said. “We will find him again soon.”
“Why would you have done this, Roden?”
“If I didn’t help them, they’d throw us both into the opening!”
My expression hardened. “That should have been your choice! You asked me to trust you and this is what I get for it?”
“He’s weak,” Wilta explained. To demonstrate, she pushed on Roden’s shoulder and he immediately crumpled lower, tears still rolling down his cheeks. “Once we understand a person’s weakness, we can bring them down to nothing, and then we take control. That’s why my mother has sought to understand you, because we will do the same to you.”
“I understand him perfectly now.” Strick turned to me again, her lips thinning as a smile spread across her face. “You do fear death, Jaron. That is the curse you constantly bear upon your shoulders, haunting your every step. But it is not your own death that keeps you awake at night. It is the deaths of those you love.”
She had hit closer to me than anyone ever had, which unnerved me more than I dared to let show. Instead, I looked from her over to the cave entrance and muttered, “I am about to be the curse upon your shoulders. Before morning comes, you will kneel to me.”
Before she could answer, I saluted her as I had done once before, then jumped back into the cave.
I had tried to prepare myself for the icy cold that would greet me, but the instinct to suck in choked me almost immediately and I arose from the pit coughing on water and already shivering. The cave was much colder tonight, or maybe my strength was finally failing. I needed to get out of the water, if I could.
Phillip had followed me into the water, though the tide had carried him some distance away before he surfaced inside the cave. “You cannot escape me!” he shouted. “We will find the lens together.”
Ignoring him, I swam out from beneath the waterfall to the same wall that I had climbed before. By this time, I knew the holds well, though because of the river now running into the cave, the wall was wet and the holds were slippery.
I shouted up to Strick, who was leaning over the opening, “You are wrong about me. The greatest of my fears is not death. It is that one day I will be faced with a challenge that I cannot overcome. Today is not that day. You will never see the third lens!”
I doubted she could hear me, but that wasn’t the point. Nor was it even meant to be my response to Phillip, though from his side of the cave, he was glowering at me. I had only said those words because I needed to hear them.
I didn’t know where I should be on the wall to see the third lens, only that once the moon rose into the proper location, I needed to be high enough to see the entire cave clearly. With that thought, I began to climb.
The first attempt lasted less than a minute before I lost my grip on the slippery wet walls and fell, splashing into the frigid pool and sinking almost to the very bottom. The incoming tide was little threat to me, but the pull of the water to take me out to sea was almost more than I could fight. I finally righted myself, only to be caught by a wave, which sent me crashing into the side of the cave wall. I tried again from there, just to take hold of any place where I might breathe, but I fell again almost immediately. I climbed higher on my third attempt, looking across the cave to see Phillip on the wall across from me, shaking his head.
“You are wasting your strength,” he said. “This is not about the climb.”
“It’s always about the climb!” I shouted back, though the distraction cost me my balance and only made my fall harder than before.
This time, the cold surface slapped against my body like I’d landed on rock. I also landed heavily on my injured leg, and it screamed at me when I tried using it to kick toward the cliff wall again. That same leg shook as I relied on it to lift me out of the water, but I had no other choice. I started to climb again.
Thoughts entered my mind, telling me that this was not a fight I could win, and I pushed them away. What I had said before was the absolute truth. Every risk I ever took, every leap of faith, every step into the darkness, was to prove to myself that I could overcome any challenge that came my way. No matter how small I often felt, I needed to know that I could face the hard thing ahead because I’d already done harder things before.
But I had rarely faced anything like this. If I only had to find the lens, or only had to climb these walls, it would be difficult enough. But this was proving to be impossible.
And the impossibility of it was how the cold was affecting me internally. My teeth were chattering beyond my control and the tips of my fingers were numb. But I was already experiencing something worse: Thinking was becoming diff
icult. I couldn’t even remember how to think.
I recalled my conversation with Imogen from early this morning, that I had come close to death before and always found a way out of it. She had said that was only because I had fought death before.
So I would again. Gritting my teeth together, I found a hold for my fingers and climbed.
I had been here before. I had done this before, though it was different tonight. The riverfall was back now, as it had once been. As Tobias had suggested, a grand moon was rising, sending a sliver of light through the opening. But tonight, that light reflected off the riverfall to the water below. There, strange lights suddenly appeared, not in the turbulent water coming in from the sea, but below it. The lights came from within the pit.