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    #033

    As expected, it was Seo Jae-yeol, the esper with dyed hair.

    The guide in the next bed, startled by the commotion, clammed up and pulled the blanket over his head, clearly wanting no part in the situation. Ha-gyeom didn’t even get a chance to ask why he had been questioned earlier.

    It was nearly lights-out. Ha-gyeom intended to ignore both the guide and Seo Jae-yeol, but then a noise resembling a child’s cry caught his attention. Ha-gyeom immediately got out of bed.

    With a crash, he saw the child who had given him clothes on the first day, standing there with a tearful expression. Pills were scattered on the floor, and Seo Jae-yeol was glaring at his injured arm.

    It seemed Seo Jae-yeol had gotten hurt during training, and the child had tried to give him medication, resulting in this mess.

    If the pills fell, he should just pick them up and take them. Why is he taking it out on a kid who was just trying to help? It was pathetic behavior, especially for an esper who was supposed to be much stronger than the average person.

    “Are you okay?”

    Ha-gyeom reassured the frightened child, pulling him close. The child looked up at him with tear-filled eyes but seemed to be holding up okay.

    “I’m not okay, damn it. This hurts like hell. Why the fuck did Lee Se-kyung have to go on a mission now? Guides should just spread their legs, not go on missions.”

    There were so many things wrong with what he said. Guides were supposed to prioritize their purification abilities. Reducing guiding to “spreading legs” was insulting. Besides, Ha-gyeom’s concern wasn’t even directed at Seo Jae-yeol.

    This guy had an overinflated ego.

    Though Ha-gyeom wanted to snap back, he held his tongue. The child wasn’t hurt, and the other espers’ indifference suggested Seo Jae-yeol’s behavior wasn’t new.

    “Why are you just standing there? Pick up the pills and bring them to me! How old are you that you can’t figure that out? Are you stupid?”

    “God, your voice is loud…”

    Ha-gyeom finally muttered, stepping on one of the precious pills with his dirty shoe, crushing it into powder. Seo Jae-yeol looked ready to explode.

    Pointing to the CCTV, Ha-gyeom added,

    “You know someone is watching, right? Don’t cause a scene. If it hurts that much, scrape up the powder and shove it in your mouth…”

    He checked the time. One minute until lights out. Ha-gyeom picked up the child.

    “If you don’t want to crawl on the floor, shut up and lie down. Got it?”

    Even if injured, an esper was still an esper. Afraid of getting hit, Ha-gyeom shielded the child in his arms.

    “What did you say to me?”

    Thud!

    The lights went out just as Seo Jae-yeol’s voice turned nasty.

    The moment darkness fell, Ha-gyeom ran to the door with the child in his arms. Despite the lingering effects of the energy extraction, the thought of getting hit by an esper spurred him to reach the door with almost superhuman speed.

    “Ah…”

    He realized too late that Seo Jae-yeol probably wouldn’t dare hit him. No one would want to face the consequences of harming an S-rank guide.

    “Fuck…!”

    He heard Seo Jae-yeol stomping his feet in frustration behind him. Whether he took the medicine or just went to sleep wasn’t Ha-gyeom’s concern.

    Feeling slightly embarrassed, Ha-gyeom glared at the CCTV in the darkness. He knew from the first night, surrounded by ability users, that the cameras weren’t very useful at night.

    Ha-gyeom defiantly opened the door to the corridor. The hallway was as dark as the room.

    Baek Sa had only instructed him not to cause trouble during lights out. As long as he didn’t cause trouble, he reasoned, there was no rule against leaving the room.

    “If it’s really not allowed, someone will come get me.”

    He knew the children who served the espers moved around even during lights out. Ha-gyeom put the child down, thinking up an excuse.

    “Are you done with your tasks?”

    The child nodded, looking a bit puzzled. He was an ordinary child, not an ability user.

    “That guy… Well, he probably acts like that all the time, but don’t worry about it. Not all espers are cool.”

    The child nodded vigorously, seeming to agree. So he does think espers are cool, Ha-gyeom mused.

    Remembering his own childhood admiration for Baek Seung-woo, Ha-gyeom smiled.

    “It’s dark out. Can you get home by yourself?”

    The child nodded again. Suspicious of the child’s silence, Ha-gyeom lifted the scarf around the child’s neck.

    Feeling the throat, he found a scar about 3 cm long. Like many children who moved around a lot in this place, the child’s vocal cords had been damaged. It was one of the many insane acts perpetrated by Zone 0 to prevent information from being relayed through speech.

    A chill ran through his heart, but he didn’t show it. Instead, he ruffled the child’s buzz-cut hair and added,

    “Be careful on your way.”

    The child nodded gratefully and bowed. Ha-gyeom, making a motion as if to wave, stopped.

    The child headed to a small door next to the emergency exit at the end of the corridor. The faint light seeping out revealed exactly where the child was going. It wasn’t a passage used by the other ability users.

    Instead of returning to the dormitory, Ha-gyeom crouched down. He glanced around, not just out of curiosity.

    Rescuing Baek Seung-woo and dismantling this fortress was a mission Ha-gyeom couldn’t fail. Despite being a guide whose primary duty was guiding, he had not managed to gather any proper information about Zone 0 due to constant surveillance.

    No matter how plausible things appeared on the surface, he knew there was more beneath. The rot within could only be understood by probing deeply, much worse than during his own rescue.

    Even Assemblyman Kim had no known background, and the same went for Baek Sa. Despite unofficial investigations, there was no record of either. The true nature of Zone 0 was far from what they had anticipated.

    Ha-gyeom knew Director Kim Hye-jeong didn’t expect him to act as an informant, but he wasn’t one to waste time idly.

    Just as he was bristling like a cat on edge, he heard thudding footsteps and felt a hand grab his neck.

    It was Tae-seong, with his exceptionally sharp eyes, even in the dark.

    “What are you doing? Don’t you know it’s against the rules to be out after lights out?”

    “Rules? No one told me about that.”

    “If you don’t have enough sense to figure that out, you’re bound to get killed soon. Keep your wits about you. These ability users won’t hesitate to stab you the moment you slip.”

    Tae-seong’s words were harsh. While it seemed like empty bravado, Ha-gyeom knew they wouldn’t put an S-rank guide in a place where he could easily be killed.

    Ha-gyeom chuckled and dusted off his knees. Better to aim for the next opportunity than get caught.

    “Got it. I’ll just go back to bed.”

    Though he voiced his displeasure, he didn’t resist as he turned to go back inside. Tae-seong grabbed his arm with a curse.

    “Where do you think you’re going? I’m not done talking.”

    “What now?”

    Tae-seong added, looking like he was barely restraining himself from hitting Ha-gyeom.

    “Baek Sa is calling for you.”

    Without further explanation, Tae-seong dragged him along, his grip painfully strong.

    “Hey, that hurts!”

    Tae-seong only let go when they reached their destination, as if to cover up any evidence of his rough treatment. Ha-gyeom rubbed his arm while giving Tae-seong a dirty look as he opened the door.

    Inside, a vast space appeared, one that seemed impossible from the outside.

    Why would he call me here? It’s not even Friday, and it’s the middle of the night.

    “What are you standing around for? Get in.”

    Tae-seong prodded Ha-gyeom in the back with his elbow, intentionally causing sharp pain. Ha-gyeom suppressed a groan and stumbled inside.

    ‘He’s really good at subtly torturing people.’

    Grinding his teeth, Ha-gyeom glared at Tae-seong, but the dim lights flickered on with a click, illuminating the vast space even more.

    Typically, esper training rooms were like this, built to withstand any destruction.

    Ha-gyeom turned his head towards the source of the noise. By the switch stood Baek Sa, arms crossed, waiting.

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