In their room later, Ya Nu explained, “I thought Alstroemeria would be interested in reviewing since he was so fascinated this morning. We ran into Lobelia on the way here.” Za Alstroemeria and Lucas Lobelia sat alongside her at the small table they had pulled out from its usual spot tucked in a corner. Za showed no emotion but at least Lucas had the conscience to look apologetic.
“Sorry, Marigold. I don’t want to intrude,” Lucas said.
Ya Nu waved it away. “You’re welcome.”
Erina had already expected this happening after she read Ya Nu’s message. She was prepared. Everyone was surprised as she served their evening meal. Appetizers. A main course. Several side dishes. Shockingly, an attractive balanced meal.
“This looks great!” Ya Nu applauded.
“Marigold, do you cook?” Lucas asked although the evidence was in front of him. With her wealthy family background, he didn’t think she’d put in the effort.
Ya Nu whispered, “EN-hancer.”
“Ah.” Immediately, Lucas understood.
An EN-hancer’s abilities drew on their energy and life force. Consequently, their bodies broke down and stored ingested substances differently. To maximize the Attribute’s efficiency and take advantage of its physical qualities, some EN-hancers paid special attention to their food intake and diet and others indulged in an abundance of all foods. Several EN-hancer ForeGuards were known to be keenly particular about their meals.
Erina simply said, “I like cooking.” Ignoring the rest, she closed her eyes, clasped her hands together, and uttered a few words of grace under her breath.
“Erina is the best roommate. She feeds me all the time,” Ya Nu happily told the boys. “Even when I’m out, she sets some food aside for me. It’s a hundred times better than the food served in the cafeteria.”
“It’s good,” Za suddenly said which drew all of their attention. He’d already dug in, taking small bites. Then he said, “When are we watching?”
After dinner, the table was cleared and replaced with textbooks, their notes, and writing utensils. Lucas dictated to Za who was writing on his sheet, “CODED type: VER-min. Summary: dissection. Purpose: study of anatomy.”
Ya Nu noticed that Za wrote slowly and clumsily in big, fat letters as if he was tracing a pattern. She remembered her own struggles when she’d started learning to read and write. Her education began later than most kids her age because of her impoverished upbringing and lack of opportunities. She knew very little about Alstroemeria but she’d always put him and Lobelia in the same bracket. His studious nature had also misled her. Paired with her recent knowledge of his academic scores, it wasn’t so simple after all.
Erina accessed the video from Instructor Rosa on her phone and projected it. A small virtual window popped up above the screen and she placed her phone at the center of the table. The video opened to the same living CODED secured to a wall. The personnel dressed in full protective gear walked into view with a blade. The VER-min’s pitiful chittering filled their ears. Again, Erina felt revulsion in the pit of her stomach. She only had pure hatred for the creature, and yet her reaction was disappointing. All CODED were vile. This VER-min in front of her was just one of the many creatures that must be eliminated.
Once again, Za was concentrated on the dissection in front of him. Ya Nu wondered what he found so interesting about it. She asked, “Do you like this?”
“This…” he repeated, not quite listening to her question.
“Cutting things and opening them up. Blood. Organs. Dying CODED,” Ya Nu expounded.
Lucas leaned in and asked, “You don’t like killing the CODED?”
“I do. But it’s not about that,” Ya Nu said.
“CODED are disgusting,” Erina muttered.
“Humans are as disgusting,” Ya Nu replied, fully sidetracked from her initial question. “Look. They’re capable of this.”
In the video, the CODED’s blood pooled at the feet of the worker. Erina almost averted her eyes, but she clenched her hands into fists and forced her gaze to remain on the projection. The VER-min continued to chitter despite the blade slicing through its thick exterior. Good. She wanted it to feel the pain.
Finally, Za spoke. “Three deep cuts through the hide. He’s good. That triples for an amateur. More if a moving target. See here.” The VER-min’s interior was on display. The worker named each section then began cutting into the mass. “It doesn’t die. This type of VER-min is most commonly found near the desert. Tough. Persistent. They survive for days even if you gut them.”
After cutting most away, buried at the center was the heart. The worker hacked at it. “To kill them. The heart. Two strong cuts from an experienced hand. See how the VER-min finally dies. Done.” He looked down at his notes and clumsily wrote down one word in large letters: heart.
The video ended and silence followed until Lucas laughed. “That’s the most you’ve spoken since we’ve been here,” he said.
“Your observations. I didn’t notice. I didn’t want to watch,” Ya Nu mumbled the last bit.
“Instructor Rosa said we’re doing dissections next time,” Lucas said. “That’ll be hard on you. But I think the CODED will be dead.”
Erina retrieved her phone and removed the video. She tried to hide her trembling hands. “Dead or alive, it doesn’t matter. I can do this.”
Lucas checked his phone and saw the time. He commented, “It’s late. We should be heading out.”
As he stood, Ya Nu asked, “Did you see the notice for next week?”
Erina dropped her phone.
Ya Nu said, “Want to go together?”
Lucas noticed as soon as they met in the cafeteria that something was off about Erina. Her eyes were unfocused and cast on the ground. He did not know her well enough to intrude, but he kept her disposition in mind as they entered the arena and settled in a row of empty seats. Za sat on his left. To his right sat Erina and next to her was Ya Nu. Other students filled in while the instructors and staff positioned themselves around in the aisles.
The forcefield was down today and the stage was bare except for Counselor Davis Mazus. He was a little under average height and physically lean. His presence was weak compared to most instructors. Lucas remembered the counselor from their first day orientation and also recalled thinking that he was very dramatic in his gestures and expressions.
“Greetings, students of Hollyhock,” Counselor Mazus began, raising his arms into the air melodramatically. His voice boomed throughout the arena effortlessly. “We gather here today to remember a tragedy. Three years ago.”
Ya Nu leaned forward to speak to her teammates, whispering, “Counselor Mazus is an Ordinary?”
Tilting forward in his seat, Lucas caught her eye and nodded. “Surprising?”
Ya Nu nodded. Hollyhock employed Ordinary staff and instructors, but it was notable that the key counselor position within the institute was also taken by an Ordinary. Despite his appearance, Counselor Davis Mazus must be extraordinary individual.
Although, his current performance in front of them was not compelling. He finished the opening with an embellished bow and then almost stumbled out of the way as a young man and woman took the stage.
“Woon Anemone of Formicidan, Class 1114 NE, Student Aide,” the man introduced himself.
The woman did the same. “Pinta Tulipa of Astradom, Class 1116 NE, Student Aide.”
Members of the Student Council. Lucas stealthily pulled out his phone and searched their public student information. Woon Anemone. Age 22. Pinta Tulipa. Age 19. Both were within the 500s in rankings.
A projector displayed an image over the stage. A city of giant dunes and grand stone buildings rose above their heads. Woon started, “In 1117 NE, Dorylus had a population of over 2 million. Originally, the residence of the Formicidan Prime Military’s Central branch. Dorylus was also a famous spot for tourists and adventurers. Known for its landscape and carved stone buildings. Today, the city is in ruins.”
“On this day, three years ago, more than one hundred CODED and five OGREs attacked the city. For three days,” Pinta said. “Our ForeGuards risked their lives on the front lines. Combing for survivors. Subduing the CODED.”
“We had friends and relatives from Dorylus. Or maybe you knew someone who fought on the front lines. We cannot forget the sacrifices that was made,” Woon said. “We have invited a ForeGuard to recount his experience. Please welcome him.”
The arena broke into polite applause as an older gentleman stepped onto the stage. He bowed to the audience. “I am grateful to speak today.”
Lucas felt tremors from his right and realized Erina was shaking. Combined with her distant demeanor, her reaction worried him. He leaned in and whispered, “Are you okay?”
Erina nodded. But she wasn’t and that was soon apparent when her trembling continued as the ForeGuard detailed his experience of the attack.
He had been one of the later arrivals after a majority of the original ForeGuards stationed in Dorylus had been wiped out. Some of the stronger quints were tasked with entering the city to salvage what they could of the situation. His quint remained at the edge of the city to hold the line and prevent CODED from escaping and drifting to the other inhabited areas.
Even from his vantage, he could see the smoke and smell the decay. Most of the city had been levelled within the first two days of the CODED’s rampage. Some of the CODED were the size of buildings and could be spotted from a far distance. Worse, there were not enough healers. His late arrival meant he missed the initial shrieks of fear and upheaval when the CODED descended upon the city, but he heard enough of the cries of the dying and their tears in the remaining days to last a lifetime.
Erina had enough and stood from her seat. “Sorry,” she murmured before covering her mouth, skidding pass the seats, and dashing down the aisle. An instructor saw her pale complexion and allowed her to pass.
Lucas easily locked eyes with Ya Nu now that the seat between them was empty. Ya Nu moved to get up from her seat but Lucas shook his head at her. “I’ll go. Stay here,” he said and jumped up from his seat. He followed Erina down the aisle and luckily the instructor did not stop him.