The dark, sting-tailed Capatas tossed me into the cell. As it locked the prison door, its eyes focused on mine. "You are the last of your blood. This is your inheritance, child. Do or die."
My mind in a haze, my heart ravaged by fear, I scuttled backwards until my back hit the wall. When had this new Capatas taken over; where had the scale-mistress gone with her fairness and harmony? Adrenaline cleared the tears from my eyes. Primal instincts to be silent quelled the whimpers of confusion. The dying spark of fearlessness that had once been a raging, consuming fury sputtered once, twice- then winked out.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I see that I am not alone in this prison. Teacher had prepared me for this as a child, for he knew what was in store for my future. The lessons that I had ignored or spurned for too long flooded my mind. The gaze of a thousand eyes regards me from every shadow. Like a rabbit, I open my lungs and call out my fear. Dinner bell sounded, the Things attached to the eyes flew out from the shadows and descended upon me.
I let Them feed. The friends beyond the walls heard the feeding, and cried for me. I gave assurance that this was all a Learning, and that all would be well in the end. I mourned that I could not share with them that the strings between a puppet and puppetmaster go both ways. Adopting the mask of Prey meant that I could intimately learn of Predators. I had no choice: this was my birthright.
Time flowed on. I grew stronger as my body toughened against the gnashing teeth. My mind armored itself from malicious influences. My sleep, once shattered by terrifying scenes, flourished with rest. The darkness of the cell became Home: a womb for the ancient hidden wisdoms being shared with my unremarkable, mortal self. Fear was slowly being replaced by a wonder and gratitude for such a powerful opportunity to See. Even the weakest light was shirked in favor of the deepest shadows. The smaller Things that once tore at my flesh and soul were now at my command. Larger Things- the Ones that held windows to the past and the future and other realms- showed me truths, but only after I found the courage to question the lies.
Enough time passed for us to ride two whorls around Sol. I finally heard Capatas approach the cell. In an instant, all resoluteness escaped me and I screamed to be released. It inserted the key into the lock and slowly swung the door open. Freedom, freedom, freedom. Feet flying, I ran down the corridor of stone walls and flickering torches. The pen's filth had fallen from me by the time I reached the first step to the staircase leading to promised liberty. Suddenly, an inky tail whipped me against the stone wall, digging its stinger into my chest- but no venom flowed.
"You are not ready."
I awoke days later, finding myself once again in hell. There was a hint of comfort in its familiarity, but my hubris raged at this mistreatment. "What could there be left that I have to learn? What kind of cruelty is this?"
Nothing answered. Every shadow was empty. I felt for a sign of Life everywhere, anywhere. Absolute desolation.
Months passed. As before, my ears picked up the patent rhythm of Capatas' steps. I stood with my straightened back turned to it, even as the key rattled in the lock and the hinges protested movement.
"You are ready, child."
I slowly turned, posture emanating the Power that I had always possessed, but had allowed myself to become weak enough to fear. Along with that Power was a new restraint, a fresh sense of mercy, a respect for the Power and myself that would never have ripened if it weren't for this midnight cage.
Stepping forward, I regarded the new centaurian Capatas with an unflinching gaze. The voice that came from me echoed off the walls; it was soft, but strong and dignified.
I did not flee down the hall- my steps were measured, my movements poised. As I reached the threshold to the stairway that spiraled from the abyss up into the Radiant, I paused and turned to Capatas.