I did indeed extend my wanderings throughout the M’an-nest, looking for any metal boxes like the one I’d seen that had trapped Proudwhisker. Sure enough, a few afternoons later, as I was prowling some hidden corners by the big wall, I found one. And worse, one of the Folk was trapped in it. Dashing close to it, I recognized the gaunt frame of Petalpad, an old female–a loner, like myself.
“Petalpad!” I cried to her through the metal bars. “Didn’t you hear about these M’an-things?”
“No,” she replied ruefully. “And even if I had…I think my hunger would have been too much for me.” She nodded back at the pile of fish inside the box with her. The heady scent of tuna reached my nostrils, and my stomach growled. I couldn’t blame her.
I sniffed around and around the box, carefully inspecting it, trying to find something that would tell me how to get her out. Petalpad watched me closely. Finally, she asked, “Others have been trapped in things like this?”
“One, for sure,” I replied. “Possibly others.”
“And do you know what happened to that one?”
I couldn’t speak, or even look at her. After a moment, she said, “That tells me the answer.” I continued to hide my face from her, distressed at what I knew her fate would be. But then, I heard her say strongly, “Fargazer.”
My gaze whipped to her face, startled at hearing her use what I regarded as my true face name, rather than the M’anchild epithet Shadoweye had given me. Understanding shone in her eyes as she said, “Do not torture yourself with guilt. This is not your fault. If my life ends at the hands of this Big One…well, it’s a little premature, but only a little.”
I heard the wisdom of her words, but I wasn’t ready to give up yet. On the side of the box nearest the fish, I saw the round pieces that indicated a door. I clawed and tugged at it, and felt that side rattle back and forth ever so slightly, but something was stopping it from moving more than that. Frustrated, I examined the door all over, and found something strange–another round metal piece that was sitting horizontally on one side of the door. Before I could register more than that, though, I heard–we both heard–footsteps crunching in the snow. A Big One was coming.
“Quick!” hissed Petalpad. “Leave me! Hide!”
I looked at her with anguished eyes for a few seconds, then leaped to the top of the metal box. From there, I jumped to a pile of crates, then a ledge, and so on until I reached the roof of the adjacent M’an-dwelling. I looked down from that safe perch, watching.
The Big One came around the corner, and saw that his box was occupied. Without a sound, without a glance around, he swiftly closed the distance, picked up the box, and turned back the way he had come. When I was sure he was out of sight, I made my way back to the ground, and followed.
The M’an was certainly easy enough to follow, by both the sound and tracks of his footsteps, so there was no need to keep him in sight. The tracks led me to a buidling near the docks…and stopped. I was confused, as I knew the place was a large, open storeroom, and just a quick glance inside showed no signs of any Big Ones about the place. But as I drew back to examine the tracks again, a shadow crossed a window that was placed at ground level. I peered closer, and realized that there was a large space under the ground.
I paced around the building, finding more ground-level windows and peering in each one until I saw the box containing Petalpad. She was lying down now, and appeared to be deeply asleep. The Big One was moving about the large room–indeed, most of the time I couldn’t see him at all. But I settled down and waited.
After a few hours, during which the sun descended and twilight crept through the alley, my vigil was rewarded. The M’an came to Petalpad’s box and began fumbling at the door. I pressed my face against the glass, watching intently. I saw him grasp the round, horizontal metal thing, lift it, and slide it. The door opened easily, and he grasped Petalpad, lifting her out.
I didn’t stay after that. I had no desire to see what would happen to her. But I’d seen what I needed to see.
I couldn’t save you, Petalpad. But maybe, just maybe, through your sacrifice, I’ll be able to save the next one.