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    #002

    After the invasion, as survivors gathered on the west coast, regions were no longer referred to by their old names or units but were now divided into zones. Unlike other areas stretching from Zone 0 to Zone 29, the center, which nominally continued the legacy of South Korea, had established several guidelines for guiding. Guides were strictly controlled to prevent guiding until they reached adulthood, and the matching rate with espers was measured only after they became adults.

    Baek Seung-woo, who was the operations team leader in the center, went missing five years ago when Ha-gyeom was 16 while performing a mission to rescue ability users. Thus, there was never an opportunity to measure the matching rate between the adult Baek Seung-woo and the then-minor Ha-gyeom.

    Unless Baek Seung-woo miraculously returned alive to the center, his data remained sealed and inaccessible to anyone other than key personnel.

    “Why does Esper Seok Ji-ho always say such brainless things?”

    Ha-gyeom said, closing and opening his eyes slowly, pushing the flood of past memories to the back of his mind.

    “…Is that so?”

    Sensing the sudden drop in temperature, Seok Ji-ho rubbed the back of his head. Dr. Park also looked uncomfortable at the mention of Baek Seung-woo’s name.

    Ha-gyeom gave the two a nonchalant glance before suddenly turning his head to look out the window.

    “Emergency-! Emergency-!”

    The piercing sound of a siren accompanied by sharp alarms drilled into their ears. At the same time, Ha-gyeom, who had been gripping the edge of his seat, flinched. A massive shadow approaching from a distance was the cause.

    “……!”

    In an instant, darkness spread over the tidal flat. Ha-gyeom had seen the sight of monsters swarming like storm clouds several times before.

    “It’s not just one….”

    While dealing with a single monster was routine for ability users, it was a different story when they formed a horde. Even at a glance, there were more than ten, making it clear that the previously dispatched ability users would struggle to hunt them all.

    “Hey! You can’t just remove those like that!”

    Ignoring Dr. Park’s protest, Ha-gyeom hastily disconnected the wires attached to his body and stood up.

    Although he had finished his formal training, Seok Ji-ho, sitting next to him, was still technically a trainee. Ha-gyeom knew that none of the leaders of the hunt would be looking for him or Seok Ji-ho, but his heart pounded as if it would burst.

    Woo- woo-.

    The strange sound emitted by the monstrous creatures gradually reached a threatening decibel level.

    For a guide to properly exert their abilities, they needed to have high energy levels comparable to an esper. While a guide’s energy control did not affect their purification ability itself, it had a significant impact on the area of effect and the duration of that effect.

    Ha-gyeom quickly checked his energy control level displayed on the monitor. The ambiguous 50 percent was the same for Seok Ji-ho.

    The number of espers available for deployment was limited. Some had left the center for missions, so it was uncertain how many remained.

    “They probably won’t get close to the center, but it’s best to follow protocol and take cover.” 

    Dr. Park said, gazing at the unusual scene outside. Seok Ji-ho, tidily organizing the wires, pulled Ha-gyeom by the shoulder.

    “Let’s do as Dr. Park says.”

    Ha-gyeom fiddled with the gun at his waist, doubting it would do more than scratch the monster’s skin. He found Seok Ji-ho’s protective stance annoying but allowed himself to be led away, swallowing dryly. As they entered the hallway, confusion reigned as even the civilians residing in the center headed for the shelters.

    “This way, move slowly!” 

    Dr. Park led the civilians ahead. Amidst the chaos, Seok Ji-ho patted his broad shoulder and said.

    Want me to carry you?”

    “Have you lost your mind because you didn’t get proper guiding?” Ha-gyeom retorted, causing Seok Ji-ho to laugh.

    Despite being a guide and not an esper, Ha-gyeom had undergone extensive physical training. Frowning, he pushed Seok Ji-ho’s chest away and moved forward.

    However, after descending two flights of stairs, they were swept up by a group of dispatched ability users.

    “Hey! Shin Ha-gyeom!” 

    Called out Lee Do-seon, fully equipped in combat gear from head to toe. He was Ha-gyeom’s instructor and an experienced guide who primarily dealt with threats near the center.

    As Ha-gyeom approached, Lee Do-seon grabbed his training uniform roughly and shouted.

    “You, come with me!”

    With no explanation, Ha-gyeom was dragged away by Lee Do-seon’s force. In the midst of the chaos, his gleaming eyes trembled. He didn’t even notice Seok Ji-ho being swept away by the crowd in the distance.

    Where are we going? Could it be…!

    “Am I being deployed?”

    Ha-gyeom’s heart pounded with excitement. He had never had the chance to use his abilities outside of the training grounds, and even after completing training, field deployment was an uncertain promise. But now, the opportunity had come, even before he had a chance to take off his training uniform!

    When Ha-gyeom asked excitedly, Lee Do-seon clicked his tongue.

    “You’re just an NPC, so don’t get ahead of yourself and follow orders.”

    Ha-gyeom was still at the level where he could barely ignite a spark, let alone maintain a fire. His lack of energy control often left him feeling frustrated, so this was an exceptionally lucky break. With a brighter than usual expression, he responded energetically.

    “Of course!”

    “Talks a good game.”

    Lee Do-seon handed him a nominal pair of goggles and a bulletproof vest, which Ha-gyeom donned while giving a thumbs-up.

    As they reached the first floor, only the ability user group remained, their skeptical eyes piercing like arrows. However, they quickly diverted their gaze, too busy to give more attention to a trainee. Relieved, Ha-gyeom hurried along with them.

    As soon as they exited the building, espers with vision sharper than hawks launched themselves into the air with a single kick, scaling the towering center walls in an instant to check the sky above.

    – Exactly fifteen of them.

    It was a radio transmission from Yang Gaeun, the esper with the most powerful energy and control abilities in the center. Among the three espers on the wall, she stood out with her bright red hair.

    “Any followers?”

    – None. Not picked up on radar either. But the radiation levels are no joke already.

    Lee Do-seon cursed under his breath.

    “Only two purification guides left, including me. And one of them… is just a trainee.”

    – So it’s true? How are two guides supposed to handle that many, especially with one being a trainee?

    “Take that complaint up with Director Kim, who drafted all the guides for the mission.”

    Lee Do-seon’s meaningful glance landed on Ha-gyeom.

    “And that trainee is Shin Ha-gyeom.”

    – …We’re screwed. Isn’t this going to screw us all?

    Ha-gyeom sheepishly rubbed his nose. The rumor that he was an S-class guide with powerful energy was widespread, but equally well-known was his inability to properly utilize that energy.

    If he couldn’t perform when it mattered, everyone would suffer.

    – What choice do we have? We’ll just have to face it. We’ve never hunted with everything perfect anyway.

    Feeling the weight of Yang Gaeun’s scrutiny, Ha-gyeom fiddled with his bulletproof vest nervously.

    “Open the main gate.”

    After all six espers had leapt onto the outer wall, Lee Do-seon led Ha-gyeom with clear instructions.

    As they stepped out through the main gate, the ear-splitting roar of the approaching monsters filled the air. It was Ha-gyeom’s first time seeing such imposing creatures up close.

    Wooo- wooo- woooo-!

    The sun was completely obscured, casting an eerie atmosphere as if rain would start pouring any second. The sudden stench made Ha-gyeom wrinkle his nose as he took his place beside Lee Do-seon.

    – 300 meters ahead. Get ready.

    With Yang Gaeun’s announcement of the start of the battle, Lee Do-seon turned to Ha-gyeom and asked, “Can you control it?”

    “I’ll try.”

    “Do it with the mindset that if you fail, you die. Otherwise, they all die.”

    Guides had to work together to extend the wave as far as possible. The espers could only fight within the protective barrier created by the guides. If the barrier was too narrow, the espers’ range of action would be limited, and the time needed to destroy the monsters would increase.

    If they got irradiated, everyone here would suffer a slow and painful death.

    “I don’t know about you, Instructor, but I always train like I’m about to die.”

    “And yet you end up like this every time?”

    Ha-gyeom had no choice but to accept Lee Do-seon’s taunt, as it was the truth. Resigned to the situation, Ha-gyeom followed suit and closed his eyes, focusing on the energy swirling around his body.

    Soon, he sensed Lee Do-seon’s energy merging with his, creating a precarious but coordinated wave. The key was to extend this wave outward.

    – 200 meters. Hurry up, Lee Do-seon!

    From the beginning, Ha-gyeom felt the strain on his body. As the wave expanded, the initial minor discomfort transformed into intense pressure.

    But Ha-gyeom didn’t back down. As Lee Do-seon said, only by enduring this pressure and preparing to die could he hope to perform at the level expected of a field-deployed guide.

    He clenched his eyes shut and held on.

    In the next moment, he felt the energy spreading out rapidly, expanding into a massive spherical wave!

    “Ugh… Is it done?”

    “You did well. Now hold on.”

    It was a partial success. However, this level was still achievable in training. The real challenge was maintaining the wave. Not knowing how long it would take made the endurance feel torturously long.

    Ha-gyeom finally opened his eyes. The monsters, previously like dark clouds, were now right above him. As their slimy mucus dripped down, all the espers swiftly entered the wave.

    As the espers began attacking within the wave, pieces of the monsters’ bodies fell onto the tidal flat.

    “How long…?”

    “Hold on. It’s just starting.”

    As he watched the trajectory of the wave, a strange sight unfolded. The water puddles on the tidal flat cleared, and green sprouts began to emerge. The contamination was being purified, and life was blossoming.

    Around this time, Ha-gyeom felt internal injuries starting to manifest.

    “Instructor Lee, if I die, bury me outside the center. It doesn’t matter if my body gets exposed to contamination….”

    “Burying you might kill me too… doesn’t matter…?”

    “……”

    “Stop whining and focus, Shin Ha-gyeom.”

    Drip….

    Blood trickled from Ha-gyeom’s nose, running down his lips and chin.

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