The camp fire glowed bright against the growing dusk. Over the fire sat a cooking pot, filled almost to the brim with a stew of northern herbs and spices, some crunchy, purple tzabek root, a few strips of sweet tree bark, a handful of the little dried beans from their travel kit, and, in pride of place, mouth-watering chunks of fresh snow-hopper meat.
Sora knelt before the campfire. Her bag was open, and various cooking supplies were scattered on the ground where she had accidentally dropped them during the cooking process. She wasn’t ambidextrous, and her left hand didn’t always have the fine coordination or the endurance that she expected, now that she had to keep her right arm out of the way. Slowly, carefully, she picked up the travel-sized mortar and pestle she’d brought with them, and placed it on the flat stone that she had elected to serve as their makeshift camp table.
Kiri helped her to load their little mortar with the moon ivy leaves, his nose still wrinkling against the pungent scent of the plant. Once they were done, he immediately backed away from the mortar, and scrubbed his paws in the snow to clean off the sap.
“I know it’s far from your favorite thing to do,” Sora whispered, “but I appreciate the help.”
Kiri squinted his red eyes at her in acknowledgment, but he still stayed well away from the mortar, preferring to lean in close to the bubbling stewpot.
Slowly and carefully, Sora took the pestle in her left hand, and began grinding the leaves. The ivy leaves and stems were juicier than they looked, and soon the mortar was filled with a mushy blue-green paste that smelled strongly of menthol.
The blue tendrils coiling up her arm and into her shoulder hurt with a dull and persistent ache that had begun to get more distracting as winter fought to keep its grip on the north. They didn’t quite cut off her circulation, but her fingers were purple and they tingled whenever she moved the arm too much. She couldn’t always feel her fingers, and she had lost the ability to hold anything with her right hand almost two weeks ago.
When the outbreak occurred, the northern capital immediately deployed the Arth’ezbur Rašanaji Kyr. ARK, as they were more often called, was a joint medical and military team of trained professionals specialized in identifying, containing, and treating infectious diseases. The ARK issued an emergency warning that attempting to remove the parasitic worm without trained medical assistance was extremely dangerous, even life-threatening, for both the infected and anyone assisting them.
The parasite integrated itself so completely with its host’s tissues that extraction was excruciatingly painful in even the best case scenario. Often, recovery and rehabilitation necessitated amputations, organ replacement, and extensive skin grafts. Such extreme procedures were sometimes necessary to ensure that no trace of the parasite remained; complete removal was the only method the ARK had found to kill the worm without also killing its host.
“If we had stayed at the winter camp, perhaps this wouldn’t have happened,” Sora whispered as she awkwardly shrugged herself out of her shirt, hissing slightly at the cold air against her skin. She scooped up a handful of the paste from the mortar and began to rub the mashed leaves on her right arm. “But then we’d never have had an excuse to go see Auntie Žym, and it’s been years since we visited the capital.” She smiled at Kiri.
In the worst-case scenario, the worm completely infested the living tissue it fed from, broke through the blood-brain barrier and unleashed its spawn, killing the host. Sora had no intention of letting her parasite get that chance. They had to make it to the Kyr.
She scooped the rest of the mashed leaves out of the mortar, and rubbed them, less gracefully than she had hoped, over the blue tendrils twining over her right shoulderblade. The effect of the sap was subtle at first, but after a few minutes, she noticed that the painful tingling in her fingers had ebbed, and moving her elbow and shoulder joints didn’t feel quite as stiff or uncomfortable.
Finished with her first aid, she turned back to Kiri. He was still standing by the fire. His tail was bushy, a clear indication of his excitement. Sora knew he was especially proud to have felled such a large snow-hopper; the creature had been almost three times his size.
“Help me with this, and then we can see about the food.” She held out the sleeve of her shirt to Kiri, and cocked her head to indicate her sap-covered right arm.
He didn’t protest, but his nose wrinkled again as he drew nearer. With fuzzy paws, he held the fabric steady so Sora could push her arm through the sleeve. Sora took advantage of their proximity to kiss the top of his furry head, eliciting a snuffle from her companion.
“It was a good hunt,” she whispered. She rubbed her good hand in the snow to remove some of the sticky sap, then wiped her fingers on her trousers and looked at the cooking pot herself. The meat had darkened, and the beans had turned from red to brown. Carefully, she took a spoonful of stew out of the pot, and blew on it to cool it. Then she held it out to Kiri.
“Want to see if it’s cooked through?” Faravi ate raw meat as a regular part of their diet, but she knew from experience that Kiri liked cooked meals more than raw fare. This was considered an odd trait among the other faravi in the crèche, a fact that Sora secretly rather liked.
Kiri sniffed the meat on her spoon and, with one gulp, devoured it.
“Well, I take it dinner’s ready, then.”
They ate quickly on average, which is to say that Kiri devoured his bowl without a second glance, and Sora took her time. As was customary, she shared the last scraps with her friend, and Kiri ate so enthusiastically that he got broth all over his nose and whiskers.
When they were done, they sat back and watched the fire. Kiri leaned against her side, his rear paws and his fluffy white tail dangling lazily over the edge of their camp blanket. He grasped a greasy bone in his paws, licking it clean. Once he had removed every scrap of flesh and gristle from his prize, he turned it in his paws, closed his teeth over the bone, and snapped it in half with his jaws to lick the marrow.
“We should be at the bridge tomorrow night,” Sora whispered, watching Kiri munch enthusiastically on his treat. “From there it should be just another week to the Kyr.” Kiri snuffled, but whether this was an acknowledgement of her statement, or just excitement over his treat, Sora wasn’t sure.