The core of Central is hollow, like a warehouse. The ceiling is netting, and above that is darkness. There are things that move on the netting, and people too.
In the core, Central’s not a very nice-looking place. There’s a laminated harpoon attached to one wall, or there used to be. There’s sacks of open grain, gnawed on by rats and bugs. There’s fire and red and things always watching.
Below that, there are the cages.
“How many?” the hero asks.
“Seventeen,” the monster says.
“Nine here. Four with building passes. Four in special environments,” the monster says.
The cages aren’t like dog cages. Some of them are very nice and have pillows and books. Others are small and cramped and made of wire with rotting feathers in the mesh.
“Most of them aren’t like Jane,” the monster says. “That’s rare. Most of them aren’t even really djinn. Just . . . kin. Distant relatives. The unsuccessful byblows of our kind.”
The hero goes from one cage to the next. He looks in. He looks kind of helpless. “I don’t know which to let out first.”
The monster smiles brightly.
“Start at the front,” he says, “and move back.”
So the hero lets out a young boy named Brian. Brian stares at him.
“It’s over,” the hero says. He reaches into the cage. Brian scuttles back.
“It’s funny,” the monster says, “how unequipped the hero actually is for rescuing people.”
The hero glares at him.
“Well, it is,” the monster says. “Somewhere along the way you people got the idea that heroics was about killing evil and not so much about saving people, and I’m sure that’s why the world is in the mess it’s in today.”
This is technically incorrect, but it’s a solid rhetorical point.
“What do I do?” the hero asks.
“Come on, Brian,” the monster says. He grins. “It’s time for one of the good times. You know. When it doesn’t hurt so much.”
So Brian inches out of the cage. He stands. He waits.
The hero goes to the next cage. It has a girl. Her name—she doesn’t even remember her name. It might be Iris. He lets her out. He holds out his hand.
“No,” she says.
The hero stares at her.
“No,” she says, louder. “Don’t want to.”
“Iris,” the monster says. His voice is oozing. But the hero looks at him in horror.
“You can’t . . . you can’t threaten her into coming out—”
“Oh,” says the monster. He looks happy. “I didn’t know.”
“Come on, Iris,” says the hero. He holds out his hand again.
“I live here,” she says. “I make gods for them. Every day, Leonard comes. We play. He closes the cage. He checks the lock. He smiles at me. I like him.”
The hero frowns. He looks at the monster.
“Leonard’s still alive,” the monster says. “You didn’t kill him when you were burying yourself in the corpses of your enemies. He recanted, absolving himself of that whole abusing-children thing.”
“Ah,” the hero says. He looks at Iris. There’s something messed-up in his eyes. Then he shrugs. “Okay,” he says.
He opens the other cages. Some of the kids come out. Some of them don’t.
Then he and the monster go down the stairs, to where they keep the gods, and Iris can’t see them any more.
That night, Leonard comes, and they don’t play—they just make some funny faces at one another—and Leonard closes the cage, and locks it up, and smiles at Iris, and she sleeps.
It’s strange, she thinks, that some people leave.