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    Chapter 142 - Station 24: The Hot Spring Inn

    Ming Yiyang rose and casually adjusted the air conditioning.

    Warm air soon whistled in from all directions, swiftly restoring the bus to a comfortable temperature.

    However, one shouldn't be overly optimistic too soon. After casually checking the fuel gauge, he realized that the gas tank was dangerously close to empty.

    Ming Yiyang's expression remained unchanged as he calmly estimated the situation, then told Guan Zhiyi, whose brows were knitted in concern:

    "Our fuel will last at most three hours, or as short as one and a half if we're unlucky. If the Hot Spring Inn's doors don't open by then, we'll all be stranded here. So we can't stay in the bus indefinitely."

    "What should we do?"

    Oliver, who had been listening attentively, started to grow anxious. Unconsciously, he began biting his fingernails.

    Oliver was an impressively stylish young man.

    His head was dyed a light purple, and he claimed to be from Ikebukuro.

    Indeed, his entire outfit was in line with the trendy image of Ikebukuro, but simultaneously, he was also the most thinly dressed among everyone. Should there be any unexpected drop in temperature, he would likely be the first to fall victim.

    Ming Yiyang ignored the question and proceeded to outline their next steps:

    "We're currently in a pine forest, and pine branches are the best kindling."

    "While the bus's air conditioning is still functioning, we need to gather as many pine branches as possible into the cabin for future use in physical warmth."

    "But wouldn't opening and closing the doors make it even colder?" Oliver couldn't help but grumble.

    Ming Yiyang finally cast a glance at him, speaking without any emotion:

    "Only by extending our heating time as much as possible can we survive longer. If you want to die right away, I suggest you go outside; that would be more straightforward."

    Oliver felt that Ming Yiyang's words were too harsh, but before he could retort, Guan Zhiyi pulled promotional booklets from the back of each seat, cheerfully exclaiming:

    "Can these all be burned? They're all flammable materials."

    "Wonderful."

    Everyone's attention was swiftly diverted by this piece of good news, and all of them sprang into action, no longer paying any heed to Oliver's mood.

    However, the question of who should venture out to collect pine branches arose anew. None of their clothes would hold up for long in the cold outdoors.

    Oliver adamantly refused to go out, as he had an issue with Ming Yiyang and naturally disregarded his suggestion. In the end, Little Li Qinghe decided to join Tojo Shuang and Ming Yiyang on their mission to gather branches.

    Guan Zhiyi stayed behind to keep watch over the fuel tank, ensuring that they wouldn't consume too much fuel and encounter problems.

    As soon as the trio alighted from the car, they felt themselves turning numb from the cold.

    Their clothing provided some insulation compared to others, but it was insufficient against the harsh wilderness environment.

    For the sake of their survival later on, they had to endure the risk of freezing while trying not to venture too far, scavenging for every available pine branch.

    Ming Yiyang was the quickest, and once he had gathered a substantial bundle, he returned to the car.

    The other two were quite fortunate – Tojo Shuang even found an overturned bird's nest beneath a tree, which was actually just a tangled mass of grass but now served as excellent kindling.

    With the help of paper, the fire quickly took hold. Surprisingly, it was Ikeko Touzuki who opposed Ming Yiyang's suggestion to turn off the bus's fuel consumption.

    The woman wrapped her arms around herself, her chestnut hair hastily tied behind her, yet exuding a mature elegance unique to women. As she spoke in a soft voice, she appeared especially vulnerable and pitiable:

    "Without the heater, the bus will soon grow cold, and our current clothing won't be enough to protect us from the chill. A cold could cause more problems. Why not just lower the air conditioning a bit? That way, we save fuel and keep everyone safe."

    If she had been speaking to anyone other than Ming Yiyang, they might have softened their stance considering her condition.

    But unfortunately, she was dealing with Ming Yiyang.

    He was a man who always acted independently, basing his decisions solely on immediate calculations:

    "It will indeed be cold now, but the fire could save lives later. We still don't know where the exit is. If it's down the mountain, and this bus is our only means of transportation, what happens if we run out of fuel too soon? We'll survive for now, but what about later?"

    "Don't tell me you haven't considered this at all."

    From the majority's startled expressions, Ming Yiyang could see that this group genuinely hadn't thought about this possibility.

    Nonetheless, he was accustomed to such situations and had no intention of waiting for others to voice their opinions.

    Just as he was about to turn around and dismantle the connected wires, he saw Yan Qiling standing behind him, his heterochromatic eyes shimmering with an indiscernible light.

    Subtly, Ming Yiyang interpreted the emotions in his gaze.

    After a brief pause, he put on a show of agreement:

    "Of course, if everyone insists on exhausting our fuel before we even enter the hot spring house, I have no objections."

    At his words, Tojo Shuang immediately stepped forward:

    "Ming-san is right. We do need to conserve our resources as much as possible right now. If burning wood can solve our problem, then let's burn it first. If everyone feels cold later, we can always reconnect it."

    In the end, apart from Oliver's strong opposition, Ikeko Touzuki, who had initially raised concerns, reluctantly agreed with the suggestion.

    Ming Yiyang dismantled the wires and opened a small gap in the back window to vent the smoke, preventing carbon monoxide poisoning in the enclosed space.

    Amidst the freezing cold, everyone eagerly awaited the opening of the hot spring house.

    Only Yan Qiling, unfazed by the temperature, sat farthest from the crowd and the fire, observing the group before him with a contemplative expression.

    Ming Yiyang approached and inquired,

    "Did you notice it too?"

    The word "too" held a subtle nuance.

    Yan Qiling nodded slightly, clearly approving of this cryptic mode of communication with his companion,

    "Keep it low-key, act normal. We need further confirmation."

    While they were engaging in their coded conversation, the others had already turned to discussing food.

    Food was, of course, an essential survival commodity in this world without respite.

    Assuming it was currently morning, they would have to wait at least five hours before the Soup House might open its doors.

    During this period, due to temperature issues, their energy would be significantly drained.

    It was impossible for them to go without eating; they wouldn't make it through the morning otherwise.

    Not only would they struggle to endure until the afternoon, but even if they did, they would still have to face unforeseen dangers when the Soup House opened.

    Without food to replenish their strength, they would be virtually powerless to fight back.

    The conversation had veered from eating pine needles and leaves to the myriad ways of cooking snow water.

    Just as the discussion was heating up, Guan Zhiyi, who had been constantly observing the view outside, suddenly stood up!

    He strode quickly to the window as if to confirm something, his face betraying a look of excitement.

    "The Hot Spring House... is lit up! Everyone! The Hot Spring House is lit up!!!"

    The crowd, who had been gathered, sprang to their feet in unison and swarmed to the windows, pressing their noses against the glass for a better look.

    They could clearly see that the once-shut entrance of the Hot Spring Inn was now ajar.

    A traditional Japanese lantern illuminated the extraordinary door, its heavy cotton quilt hanging exposed to the icy wind and snow.

    A new signboard stood at the entrance, facing directly towards the direction of the bus.

    It clearly stated: Welcome to our establishment for lodging.

    The illuminated sign ignited the hope within everyone!

    Oliver was the most enthusiastic among them all.

    He had grown weary of the strange gazes from these humans. Rather than listening to their incessant deliberations on an "entry strategy," he preferred to simply go inside.

    Rubbing his arms, he disregarded the gasps of others and leaped off the bus, dashing through the snowy ground with resilience against the chill towards the entrance of the Hot Spring House!

    Shivering, he pulled aside the heavy quilt like a frozen fish, his entire body numb from the cold. With great effort, he made his way into the shop.

    In that short sprint, he had lost all his body heat.

    Yet, the moment he stepped inside the Hot Spring House, it was as if a frozen fish had entered warm water, regaining its vitality!

    All the indicators that had plummeted due to the cold gradually recovered.

    This sensation was so blissful, it bordered on ethereal. He soon savored a sweet sense of security, which granted him almost fearless courage and pride.

    Even if a couple of Sadako clones were to appear before him, he wouldn't have found it an issue; he might even have challenged them to a contest of strength.

    However, this comforting feeling dissipated swiftly as his rationality returned.

    Upon entering, Oliver took a seat on a row of waiting chairs by the door. In front of him was a small, exquisite modern wooden counter.

    There was no one behind the counter, but the tapping sound of wooden clogs could be heard coming from the corridor to the left.

    The sound didn't keep him in suspense for long. Oliver soon spotted a woman whose cheeks were painted like walls emerging from the corridor in a flowing kimono, offering him a toothy grin.

    Her entirely blackened teeth contrasted starkly with the shadows, creating an eerie sight. Despite her open mouth, it seemed to contain nothing, giving an unsettling impression.

    Initially, Oliver was still in a state of numbness. Unfazed by such a minor spectacle, he only wished to remain in the warmth for a while longer.

    At that moment, his tolerance was as vast as Jesus', showing affection and infinite patience towards anything bearing warmth.

    As if she could read his thoughts, the woman spoke in a graceful and antiquated tone:

    "You've traveled far, esteemed guest. Please follow me."

    She behaved much like a vixen from folklore, suddenly appearing in the wilderness to lure men into her abode, only to kill them by gutting them at the opportune moment under the cover of night.

    By now, Oliver was thoroughly warmed up.

    Simultaneously, his previously frozen intellect had returned.

    Facing the woman's invitation, he suddenly realized how foolish it was for him to have ventured alone into this unknown territory.

    He sat there by himself, while his so-called "companions" had yet to enter.

    This realization sent shivers down his arms, accompanied by an indescribable chill running down his spine.

    The woman maintained her toothy grin, extending her invitation:

    "I bid you, come hither."

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