Block 2’s first study the following morning was in the laboratory. Za chose an empty table at the front of the class while a majority of his classmates gathered with their friends at the back, taking away chairs from the front and moving them to the back tables so that they were crowded together. Walking in after all the students had arrived, the instructor noticed the arrangement but ignored it. She powered up the screen that took up the entire front wall and turned to face the class.
“I’m Instructor Dion Rosa from the Hollyhock ISC-M Science Division,” she introduced herself, a relatively good-looking middle-aged woman with wavy bright hair and intelligent green eyes. She recognized the boredom on her student’s faces and continued, “In your lessons with me, we will cover these topics.” Instructor Rosa wrote into her tablet and displayed the text through the video screen. “VER-min. VI-rus. PARA-site. OGRE. The of enemies of mankind. Also known as CODED; creatures of destruction, disease, decay, and death.”
The excitement in the laboratory picked up as those words shimmered in front of their eyes. The abnormal creatures that nearly pushed humankind to the brink of extinction many centuries ago. Everyone had seen them on the news and textbooks, and were taught about them in basic education. Current developments in civilization and efforts of the ISC had pushed these deadly creatures out of society’s eye, aside from the rare catastrophic tragedies like Alight’s Day. But their threat beyond reclaimed lands remained a constant that shaped the present.
“Our lessons will be different from what you have previously learned,” Instructor Rosa said. “We’re going in depth on each level. Most of you may have never seen the CODED in live form, but many of you will take up arms as ForeGuards, maybe even fight on the frontlines. Combat experience is important, but knowledge is as important. You need both to survive out there.” She tapped her screen and VER-min was highlighted. “Let’s review. Define. What is a VER-min?”
The students looked at each other in silence until one of them spoke up. “Low-level CODED that causes harm and destruction.”
Satisfied with the simple answer, Instructor Rosa moved on to the next, highlighting it on the display. “And VI-rus?”
Another student answered, “Mid-level CODED that sucks life energy and carry disease.”
“High-level CODED that can also suck life energy and causes decay.”
A brief pause, then one student replied, “They are intelligent.”
“And the OGREs. What are they?”
“King-level CODED. The omens of death. They have the most intellect. And they speak an OGRE language.”
Low-level, mid-level, high-level, and king-level. It was the first time Za had known of the CODED being categorized by their destructive power, though perhaps it made sense. To his master, all CODED were an equal threat.
He recalled his master and him stumbling upon a little more than a dozen CODED at a water stream. They were the size of boulders with gray fur and red eyes, fangs the length of their limbs that protruded from gaping mouths, and razor-sharp claws. They sniffed out both the master and disciple and surrounded their prey. “VER-mins,” his master had said and handed a sword to his younger self. “Go on. If you need my help, then I’ll add more to your daily training.”
Za withdrew from the memory with a mild frown. The experience had not been unpleasant, but his master always found ways to punish him without it being his fault.
In the present, Instructor Rosa was flipping through images of different CODED to show the examples of their diversity. “The CODED have distinct, physical features that will tell them apart. VER-mins are covered in thick fur and move on four legs. VI-ruses come in various forms of multiple legs or wings. Depending on their strength, winged VI-ruses can reach very high altitudes. PARA-sites are aquatic or amphibious creatures, and may slither on their belly or fins. OGREs are humanoid creatures and can walk on two legs. The smallest CODED we have on record was the size of a horse. The largest was the size of a five-story building. It took almost fifty ForeGuard injuries and deaths to kill that one. But we have sightings of even larger PARA-sites underwater. Unconfirmed.”
Finally, she closed the image and opened a video. It projected in front of them in virtual 3D, picturing a four-legged creature with brown fur, furry black eyes, a row of sharp teeth in a gaping mouth, and an extended round belly. The CODED was alive, secured in place by multiple chains to a wall. A personnel dressed in full protective gear walked into view and carefully pressed a blade to the creature. The CODED chittered pitifully.
Instructor Rosa explained as half of the class began to feel squeamish, “Today we’re studying the anatomy of the VER-min. Next time, we’ll dissect a carcass in person. Pay attention. There will be questions.”
Za had first-hand experience cutting into a CODED, but he still found the video fascinating and leaned in close to better observe the technique of the expert worker. Meanwhile many of his classmates turned their heads or closed their eyes and pressed hands over their ears as the living VER-min was cut open. Outside the intense and focused battlefield, they were not accustomed to the vision of real blood and gore.
“This is horrifying,” one of the girls muttered to her friend underneath the overwhelming audio of the terrified and slowly dying CODED.
Erina understood the necessity of desensitizing herself to death, but for now even the dissection of a live CODED was a terror to watch. Similar to many students, she turned her eyes down during the video. She recognized and hated her weakness. A few steps forward in the past several days. Currently, several steps back. Her awareness of the upcoming Alight’s Day intensified her self-loathing. She had not changed from three years ago.
When the study for Block 1 concluded, her classmates were relieved and quickly made their exit but Erina stayed in her seat with clenched hands on the table, until only she remained behind with the instructor.
“Did you have any questions?” Instructor Rosa asked when glancing up from her notes and seeing her alone.
Erina stood from her seat. Again, her nails dug into her palms. She had to overcome this fear. “Instructor, can I get a copy of the video to review?”
Instructor Rosa was mildly surprised. “I will send it to you. Marigold, is it?”
“Erina Marigold,” she confirmed.
Finally exiting the laboratory, Erina messaged Ya Nu asking if her roommate wanted to review’s today’s study material later. She didn’t think she could do it alone. To her relief, Ya Nu agreed. Since she dragged Ya Nu into this, she wanted to treat her roommate.
Intending to prepare dinner for them, Erina went into Celaeno to purchase additional ingredients for their meal. The free market she stopped by was one of the biggest in Celaeno with several consecutive streets of stalls and vendors selling wares and miscellaneous items, food booths, and even a few houses of entertainment. As expected, the capital city of Astradom was a hub for various people.
Before Hollyhock, she’d made several trips to Celaeno for leisure with members of her family. She recalled that her first time at this free market had been during the city’s midnight summer festival. Her oldest sister Marin Marigold had indulged her, leaving behind her husband to accompany Erina.
On that night, the lighted lamps above the streets were bright, obscuring the starry dark sky. The smells of fried food and sounds of music enveloped everyone present in a merry atmosphere. The child Erina held her sister’s hand, but when her curiosity was too much to contain, she broke free of her sister’s hold and wandered into the crowd. She wished she had looked back. She should have cared more about Marin when it mattered. But that didn’t happen. She’d been so excited that she ran down the street until she got lost.
During that festival, Erina had been reckless and free. It was a time before her Attribute awakened and changed the course of her future.
Two consecutive notifications from her phone drew her out of the distressing memory. Erina read the first message from the administrative office. The second message was from her roommate.