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    Despite all their efforts, the boundary of the wave kept precariously expanding and contracting.

    A skilled guide would have been able to create a wave as calmly as Lee Do-seon did beside him, as if in meditation… but not Ha-gyeom. The weight pressing down on his entire body made even breathing feel excruciatingly painful.

    “How many times have I told you that it’s not your body that moves but your energy? Struggling like that won’t help you control your energy!”

    Lee Do-seon spoke. Ha-gyeom took a deep breath. He tried to empty his mind of jokes and laughter, closing his eyes and attempting to relax his tense body.

    “How many left?”

    – Now, seven!

    Espers, led by Yang Gaeun, were each busy in their own way. The sounds of them punching the monsters with bare fists, striking accurately with their weapons, and the continuous cacophony of battle filled the air.

    The ground vibrated every time they launched themselves from it, demonstrating their immense power.

    – Five!

    Ha-gyeom was doing his utmost to manage his energy, but it didn’t seem to be working as intended. His entire body felt like it was being pricked by needles, and his breathing grew shallow, as if crushed under concrete.

    When his concentration faltered for a moment, the wave rapidly shrank.

    “Shin Ha-gyeom, you damn idiot…!”

    Despite trying to regain his focus, the wave wouldn’t expand again. He knew that even Lee Do-seon had limits when it came to covering for him. With a control capability of only 50 percent, things were bound to go wrong.

    “Lee Do-seon! Do something about that rookie! We’re going to get crushed by these filthy, stinking monsters!”

    Han Youngjae, holding a bazooka, shouted. His feet, sinking into the tidal flat, were soaked.

    Wooo- wooo- woooo-!

    As the emboldened monsters lowered their altitude, Ha-gyeom’s heart pounded violently. Cold sweat started to pour from his body. The espers were being pushed toward the ground due to the shrinking wave.

    It was then.

    “Is this all you’ve got? Do you think Baek Seung-woo risked his life to save you for this?!”

    “……!”

    …Of all times, Baek Seung-woo again.

    For five years, Lee Do-seon had trained Ha-gyeom, and he knew exactly how to push Ha-gyeom’s “panic button.”

    “Why bring up hyung’s name now, of all times?!”

    Ha-gyeom screamed at the end of his words, glaring fiercely without caring about the insubordination. Equally drenched in sweat, Lee Do-seon glared back at him as if unaffected.

    “If we’ve fed, clothed, and sheltered you for over ten years, shouldn’t you at least pay us back properly?”

    He wasn’t the one who fed, clothed, or sheltered him!

    Finally breaking free from the oppression, Ha-gyeom stared straight ahead. The one thing he feared most in the center was being deemed a useless human under Baek Seung-woo’s name.

    Taking a deep breath, Ha-gyeom fixed his gaze on the crumbling boundary of the wave.

    Work with the resolve to die? It wasn’t impossible.

    Ha-gyeom pushed his energy out of his body recklessly, regardless of bursting his internal blood vessels. If he couldn’t do his job without getting hurt, then he had no choice but to inflict the wounds.

    Crack, crackle….

    As the sound of something breaking echoed repeatedly, the wave began to stretch endlessly outward. The silently expanding area was intimidating, and its sheer power was jaw-dropping.

    Life blossomed within the wave. The lush green scenery, reminiscent of Earth before the invasion, was truly spectacular.

    “Ugh…!”

    Ha-gyeom’s determination was half about burning out completely, and half about rebelling against Lee Do-seon’s provocation. Even as bright red blood flowed not only from his nose but also from his ears and eyes, he did not stop.

    To be the strongest S-class guide with the most potent energy, this much was necessary….

    “That’s enough.”

    “…….”

    “I said that’s enough!”

    Lee Do-seon shouted. Thanks to the unnecessarily large wave, Yang Gaeun, who had just split open a monster’s belly, was compelled to glance at Ha-gyeom. She hesitated, sending a doubtful look his way, while Han Youngjae slammed a monster into the tidal flat.

    Two more left.

    The energy extended infinitely, whipping up stormy winds. Yang Gaeun brushed aside her flying hair and simultaneously impaled the two remaining monsters with long spears.

    Squeal!

    The noise subsided abruptly with the sound reminiscent of a pig being slaughtered.

    Han Youngjae laughed as he fired his bazooka at the already dead monsters, further mutilating their split bodies. He leisurely looked around to ensure no living monsters remained.

    A brief silence followed.

    “Is it over?”

    “If it’s quiet, doesn’t that mean it’s over?”

    Yang Gaeun flicked the blue blood off her spear and responded. The sunlight began to shine again, and the sky, previously filled with storm clouds, turned blue. The tidal flat, now littered with the corpses of monsters, resembled a slaughterhouse.

    The espers simultaneously flew back to the center’s outer wall. As Lee Do-seon began to dissipate his energy, the wave remained as large and powerful as ever. Within the unnecessarily large and strong blue wave, only Ha-gyeom was left, breathing heavily.

    “Is he crazy to the point of wanting to die?”

    Yang Gaeun muttered cynically, folding her arms. Lee Do-seon, who had been watching Ha-gyeom bleed from every pore, raised his hand and struck Ha-gyeom’s neck with a precise chop. Ha-gyeom collapsed as if lifeless.

    Thud!

    It took about five seconds for him to fall flat on the ground.

    Shaking his head, Lee Do-seon immediately knelt and checked Ha-gyeom’s pulse. It was astonishingly strong but irregular.

    The provocation had indeed been effective.

    The wave, which disappeared in the blink of an eye, seemed like a mirage. The large-scale hunt, carried out after a long time, left only traces behind. The espers, standing side by side and looking down at the lush green tidal flat, all voiced their thoughts.

    “That purification wave was enormous, wasn’t it?”

    “Yeah, it looked like it could have reached the mainland.”

    “And it smelled nice too, if not for the stench.”

    “So what? The kid is in that condition.”

    All eyes were on Ha-gyeom, who lay bloodied and in a severe state. Some of the espers exchanged glances with expressions not much different from when they looked at the monsters, and some clicked their tongues.

    Watching them leisurely chat about the aftermath, Lee Do-seon reluctantly waved his hand.

    “Someone carry this kid to the infirmary!”

    Amongst everyone displaying clear reluctance, Yang Gaeun took the initiative and landed on the ground with a loud thud.

    Thanks to the wave, the tidal flat temporarily revived, but it would turn black and die within a few days.

    ***

    “Guide Shin Ha-gyeom. Can you open your eyes?”

    His eyes were already half-open. Staring helplessly at the white ceiling, Ha-gyeom nodded slowly.

    Losing consciousness was expected after such an exertion. He even remembered being hit by Lee Do-seon, so he merely rubbed his bruised neck without much reaction.

    “That was quite a show. I’ve never seen a wave like that before. We were all tense because there were so many monsters, but it ended safely.”

    Dr. Seo Su-jin whispered softly. Ha-gyeom appreciated the consideration, given how much his head was pounding.

    Ha-gyeom painfully sat up and leaned against the bed. He noticed multiple IV bags attached to the line in his hand. Without thinking, he blurted out,

    “Can you give me more painkillers?”

    “Guide Lee Do-seon said no. He threatened me, saying if you get used to painkillers, you’ll just abuse your body without thinking about the consequences.”

    Even if he got the painkillers, they wouldn’t be enough to alleviate the pain significantly. It felt unfair that after such a grueling ordeal, he wasn’t even given a small comfort.

    Then, Ha-gyeom suddenly remembered that he had participated in an actual mission as a trainee. With his formal training complete, he wondered if he would now be involved in more field missions.

    He had been waiting for this day, perhaps even more eagerly than his coming-of-age day.

    As Seo Su-jin handed him a gauze pad, Ha-gyeom spat out the collected blood and smiled. Watching him smile with blood-stained teeth, Seo Su-jin handed him some water.

    “Dr. Park said your energy control level dropped to 30 percent after the hunt. You’ll need to rest for a few days.”

    “Dr. Park already checked my levels?”

    “Of course. You were out cold for half a day.”

    Resting didn’t suit him, and Ha-gyeom sighed deeply. In his current state, he couldn’t guide an esper to achieve his goals, and there were no espers who could give him what he needed, so he had no choice but to rest.

    Then, as if she remembered something, Seo Su-jin spoke up.

    “By the way, did you hear the news?”

    “What… why? What’s happened?”

    “Director Kim Hye-jeong is finally clearing out Team Leader Baek Seung-woo’s room….”

    Before Seo Su-jin could finish her sentence, Ha-gyeom’s upper body sprang up like a spring.

    “What did you say?”

    “They’re already clearing out his things. As far as I know, you’re using that room now….”

    “Why didn’t you tell me something this important earlier?”

    Without a moment’s hesitation, Ha-gyeom pulled out the IV needle and stood on the ground barefoot.

    Ignoring his hospital gown and the fact that his lower body was exposed, he burst out of the infirmary. As he sprinted, the blood that had just stopped flowing began to ooze out again.

    Wiping the blood off his face haphazardly, Ha-gyeom skidded to a halt in front of Baek Seung-woo’s room. Workers were in the middle of moving a table out.

    “What the hell…! What are you doing in my room without permission?!”

    Footsteps echoed as a pair of flats tapped on the smooth floor. Kim Hye-jeong, towering over Ha-gyeom at 178 cm, appeared.

    “Shin Ha-gyeom. How is this your room? It’s Baek Seung-woo’s room.”

    March 19.

    Today was Ha-gyeom’s birthday and the fifth anniversary of Baek Seung-woo’s disappearance.

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