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    After climbing about a thousand stairs, nobody cared that dust was rolling on the floor of the landing where they had to rest. All they did was inject the damp air into their lungs and rest their aching legs. In the darkness, I apologized to Seo Jihyuk.

    “I’m sorry. I have… no money. All I can offer Infinity Church is only my dental knowledge and labor. Of course, they will send me a salary at this underwater dental clinic. But, even if it means dying of hunger, I’m not the type to ever make donations to those guys.”

    “Did you want better dental treatment? Perhaps more grinding of the teeth with a drill?”

    Yoo Geum-yi’s voice was much lower than usual as she lay down, asking the question.

    “Dental treatment is free, you know? The drill… that depends on the doctor.”

    Answering Yoo Geum-yi’s question with another question, Baek Ae-young, lying in the distance, yawned and asked, “Why will you never make donations, even if it means dying of hunger, given your personality, Doctor?”

    A long silence filled the landing. It was because I did not answer. I had never been asked such a question in my life. I realized I’d never had such a conversation with anyone before. Staring into the darkness, I gave an appropriate response.

    “I despise giving money to religion.”

    It wasn’t a lie. I hate the way religious organizations take money under the pretext of donations. If there is a God, he surely would not tolerate his priests and followers robbing money under the guise of faith. Either that or God isn’t a decent being.

    Seo Jihyuk scratched somewhere and asked, “Like tithes?”

    “Including that. I hate all donations. Why is money needed to maintain faith? Why don’t they even pay taxes as if they’re some privileged class?”

    Seo Jihyuk chuckled, lying down, stretching.

    “My church-going father should hear this.”

    A faint laughter echoed in the darkness. I couldn’t tell if it was Baek Ae-young or Yoo Geum-yi; it was hard to distinguish in the dark. Shin Haeryang spoke softly, his voice almost like the wind.

    “Have you ever talked about your family to Elliot or the people around you?”

    “No. Never.”

    I don’t know if Shin Haeryang believed my answer, but I only told the truth. I was neither emotionally attached to this place nor had I stayed for a long time.

    Baek Ae-young’s voice, signaling it was time to get up, rang out. Has it already been 5 minutes? Those who didn’t get up were attacked in the eyes by Baek Ae-young, one by one, with a flashlight. “Turn it off!” Seo Jihyuk yelled like a vampire. Thanks to that, I easily went over to Seo Jihyuk, grabbed his arm, and pulled him up. Looking at the stairs ahead of his feet and the distant ascending light (presumably Baek Ae-young), he grumbled.

    “Damn these stairs. There really is no end.”

    “There will be an end.”

    It was a voice full of conviction. Shin Haeryang grabbed Seo Jihyuk’s other arm. I felt like asking Shin Haeryang what he did for a living while having a drink someday.

    Standing in front of the stairs, a sigh escaped my lips. I couldn’t feel my calves. I must not ask how many stairs we had climbed. Hearing the number might truly make me want to roll down.

    Going down has always been easier than going up. I’ve always struggled not to fall from where I was, but trying to get out of that place and climb up was pushing me to my limits. But yes, there will be an end.

    “If only I had been exercising regularly.”

    I sensed Seo Jihyuk shaking his head at my muttering.

    “Even if you exercised, it wouldn’t have worked like that.”

    He seemed to be talking about the swaying flashlight up high. He must be in good shape. Vertical marathon, was it?

    “I never knew there was such a thing as a vertical marathon until Ae-young-ssi told me.”

    “Is that so? I wish I could have stayed ignorant forever.”

    Seo Jihyuk and I chuckled as we climbed the stairs.

    Climbing so many stairs made my back bend forward, and I wished I had a cane. Eventually, the thought consumed my mind, and I kept stepping on the stairs without a word.

    I began to breathe faster. How many flights have I climbed? When can I rest? I climbed in silence, consumed by thoughts like eating a lifetime’s worth of dust here. Suddenly, Seo Jihyuk tapped my shoulder, and I looked to the side and then followed his gaze forward.

    The light had stopped. Baek Ae-young spoke to us, “You need to jump a little here.”

    She then handed the flashlight to Yoo Geum-yi. Looking at the stairs, there was a gap of about 1 meter. It looked fine, but this was the first time I had seen stairs broken to such a length. Baek Ae-young leaped over the dark gap like a deer jumping a barrier.

    I grabbed the flashlight handed to me by Yoo Geum-yi, who hesitated once before leaping over with a scream. Now it was Seo Jihyuk, Shin Haeryang, and me. We agreed to have one person jump first, then throw Seo Jihyuk to the other side, where the remaining people would catch him. Shin Haeryang asked me.

    “Do you have any strength left in your arms?”

    Although I wanted to brag, I honestly answered.

    “I have no strength left in my body.”

    Hearing this, Seo Jihyuk urged me to go over first. I easily jumped over the 1m gap. After passing the flashlight to Baek Ae-young and preparing to catch Seo Jihyuk, Shin Haeryang asked him.

    “Do you want to fall forward or backward?”

    “Side!”

    Since Seo Jihyuk’s left leg was injured, we agreed to throw him at an angle so that his right leg would touch down. As Baek Ae-young lit them with her flashlight, the spot where they stood collapsed.

    “Kyaaah!”

    Yoo Geum-yi screamed, and Baek Ae-young’s light shook wildly. Shin Haeryang was nowhere to be seen, and Seo Jihyuk had been thrown towards our stairs. Suddenly, I felt a tremendous impact on my stomach and was dragged into the dark hole. Aahhh!

    I strained my legs to avoid being pulled down through the gap that had widened to over 2 meters and reached for the opposite stairs leading up. Baek Ae-young and Yoo Geum-yi caught me as I was about to tip over from the weight and forced me onto the stairs.

    “Crawl!”

    I did just that, crawling up the stairs. The pain in my stomach didn’t register until they had pulled me up by the parachute cord that Shin Haeryang had tied us with earlier. As they pulled me up, Shin Haeryang emerged from the gap.

    Seo Jihyuk lay on the floor, wrapping the taut parachute cord around his arm several times, cursing. Baek Ae-young’s flashlight illuminated Shin Haeryang’s forearm, and Seo Jihyuk, lying down, pulled him in. I continued to crawl up the stairs.

    Shin Haeryang finally revealed himself from the dark stairwell and moved into position beside us. Seo Jihyuk leaned against the stairs and cursed. Fearing the current stairs might also break, we decided to climb 50 more steps before resting.

    My body felt like it was flooded with blood from the tension. The adrenaline made me feel dazed, and I could hear my heart pounding in my ears. We sprawled on the dusty floor at Baek Ae-young’s signal. I looked at Shin Haeryang next to me and asked.

    “Are you injured anywhere?”

    Shin Haeryang checked his arms and legs, then wiggled his fingers and toes before replying.

    “I’m fine. Even if I had fallen, I would have landed on the stairs below, so I wouldn’t have been seriously hurt.”

    I finally sighed in relief and lay down on the dusty floor, asking, “When did you tie us?”

    “At the first break. I thought the stairs might collapse.”

    I didn’t even know that someone had tied a rope around my waist. Well, I wouldn’t even know if someone stabbed me with a knife in this darkness.

    Baek Aeyoung was looking at Seo Jihyuk’s splint. Though it was tightly bound and nothing seemed loose, she checked whether the shoe was coming out of the splint, shone a flashlight on the feet of me and Shin Haeryang, and sighed.

    “I thought my heart would fall out.”

    Seo Jihyuk grumbled at Baek Aeyoung.

    “I’ve already fallen. Look carefully in that darkness.”

    “Just live without it.”

    Baek Aeyoung, who calmly replied, was now patting Yoo Geum-yi’s back, which was quietly sobbing from too much shock. Hearing the crying made my elbows and knees feel sore. I must have bumped them on the stairs. My palms also stung from supporting myself on the messed-up stairs.

    Won’t we be wrecked when we climb all the stairs? Suddenly, pains that I hadn’t noticed in my suddenly tensed body began to rush in. Baek Aeyoung looked at the three men groaning here and there, sprawled on the ground, and asked.

    “What about temporarily joining the cult? Such religions must be thirsty for new members. You just join and pray a little, then run away when you get a chance, right?”

    “Like cherry picking, you mean?”

    Yoo Geum-yi snorted as she drank water. Shin Haeryang thought quietly for a moment and then asked, “Would it be easier to run away after joining or not to join at all?”

    “It’s better not to get involved at all. Escaping won’t be easy.”

    I could feel people’s gaze on me even in the darkness at my answer.

    “They know everything about our families, right? Including our financial situations. They might follow or watch us even after we leave here.”

    An uncomfortable silence brushed past one another. The fact that someone without permission could secretly gather information about oneself, and that such information could be used somewhere without knowledge, is an incredibly unsettling matter.

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