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    Chapter 143: Stop 24: Plum Wine

    Oliver sat rigidly in his seat.

    He tried his best to maintain composure, concealing any trace of his panic.

    In this situation, delaying was the best strategy. They could discuss further when everyone had arrived.

    Completely disregarding how desperately he had just moments ago wanted to distance himself from the crowd.

    He forced a friendly smile at the woman, responding stiffly,

    "…I'm sorry, I'm not in a hurry. I'll stay here for now."

    "Is that so?"

    The woman withdrew her ink-black lips into a nonchalant question. Her eyes glowed with an eerie blue light, like burning blue flames. Then, she raised a hand to cover her mouth, as if laughing.

    She didn't press Oliver, still speaking elegantly with a leisurely tone:

    "It seems that we're not fated to meet for now. But it's alright. If you have any needs, just ring this bell three times, and I'll appear."

    The woman pointed at the prominent golden bell on the wooden counter. Then, just as she had arrived, she slowly retreated back into the corridor, her long skirt trailing behind her, vanishing from sight.

    Her long skirt concealed her feet, and Oliver, in a state of high alert, was solely focused on whether there was a shadow beneath her feet, thus failing to notice anything amiss.

    But when the woman fully disappeared into the corridor, Oliver caught a glimpse of a faint gray shadow falling behind her, his face paling drastically.

    He suddenly realized that when the woman had arrived, her shadow had formed a rhombus shape beneath her feet.

    However, as she walked back, her shadow remained unchanged, rigidly following her steps into the corridor...!

    ...This woman was genuinely dangerous.

    A chill ran down his spine, mingling with the cold sweat, as he gazed at the gleaming golden bell, vowing not to let anyone else touch it!

    But where were those damned companions of his?!!

    He wasn't concerned about the deliberations of those involved; he didn't want to face this entirely unfamiliar, perilous world alone at least.

    Although Ming Yiyang, who had traveled ten stations previously, was annoying, the man did possess competence and considered every aspect meticulously, making him a decent choice for collaboration.

    But now, it didn't matter anymore. Even if it wasn't that person, as long as there was a breathing creature to share this situation with, to let him know he wasn't alone in facing all this, that would suffice!

    Anxiously, he waited, periodically rolling up his sleeve and biting his thumb to count the passing seconds on the red ticket's countdown.

    This made him feel as if he were enduring an infernal torment.

    At that moment, the heavy quilt hanging by the door stirred.

    This was a unique practice in the northern winter: using thick blankets as door curtains to block the wind, retain warmth, and facilitate entry and exit.

    Oliver leaped up from his chair, reaching out to help roll up the cumbersome quilt.

    Just entering was Little Li Qinghe and his wife, followed closely by Guan Zhiyi and others. Ming Yiyang and Yan Qiling brought up the rear.

    Among them, Ming Yiyang carried an exaggerated large black trunk, catching Oliver's attention more than once.

    However, compared to this peculiar trunk, having everyone present was of greater importance.

    Relieved, Oliver regained his courage, now filled with the boldness of asserting himself within his domain.

    Perhaps due to the numerous attendees, the rhythmic tapping of wooden clogs echoed down the corridor once more.

    This time, though, the footsteps seemed hurried and synchronized, suggesting that more than one person was approaching.

    Two young ladies emerged, both dressed in simplified versions of kimonos. One wore a light pink kimono, while the other donned a light blue one, adorned with delicate white bird patterns.

    Their hair was styled into the distinctive updos often seen on hotel staff, with small cherry blossom pink fans inserted at the sides. The fans hung down with pink tassels, perfectly complementing their youthful appearance.

    They minced along gracefully and quickly took their positions behind the reception desk. With smiles on their faces, they bowed together towards the group, greeting them:

    "Welcome to Yadoya Tsubaki Onsen. Thank you for choosing our establishment for your stay. Please proceed to the front desk for hotel registration."

    Their demeanor was so exaggerated that no one dared to approach them for a moment.

    In the end, it was Little Li Qinghe who found the standoff awkward and took a step forward, maintaining a respectful distance as he asked:

    "May I ask if the inn operates continuously, and how many days can guests stay at most?"

    The blue-clad attendant seemed more composed:

    "Yes, it operates continuously. However, if guests leave the hot springs during closing hours, the inn will not reopen just because they return. That's the rule, and it's for the consideration of other guests in the inn."

    "So, if guests need to go out, they should calculate their time carefully. Otherwise, being locked out would be quite unfortunate."

    Little Li Qinghe felt a slight relief, but Sanwa Haruka's face was tinged with concern:

    "Is it really alright not to grant exemptions to guests? Wouldn't that be quite unfair? This is a hot spring inn in the snowy mountains, yet it refuses to let guests admire the scenery outside..."

    "We absolutely do not have such intentions," the blue-clad attendant continued to explain.

    "Primarily, there are some inexplicable dangers lurking in the Cedar Forest, and they tend to be more active during closing hours. Hence, we kindly request our guests to understand. By the way, may I ask if any of you have made a reservation?"

    Little Li's face showed a hint of difficulty.

    The pink-clad server immediately picked up a hidden sign from under the table, held it up for everyone to see, and said with a grin, "If you haven't made a reservation, please take a look here~"

    "Our establishment is currently running a Summer Cooling Day event. Guests can enjoy free accommodation and meals as long as you increase the 'coolness level' of the store! If you're interested, we can arrange it right away."

    A Summer Cooling Event.

    Amidst the howling blizzard outside, everyone restrained themselves from voicing any objections to this offer.

    The pink-clad server seemed overly enthusiastic, leaning forward and asking eagerly, "Gentleman, would you like this service?!"

    Little Li glanced at the group, while Ming Yiyang let out a scoff.

    "Is there really a better alternative than agreeing?"

    Silence fell upon the group at these words, and Guan Zhiyi hurried to smooth things over.

    "The situation does seem to be beyond our control. It appears to be part of the rules. We should agree for now; otherwise, if we're forced out, we definitely won't make it through the night."

    With that, Little Li nodded to the server as their representative.

    "I wonder, what is the itinerary for this event?"

    "The activities will commence on the second night after guests have checked in for free. If there are no objections, please press your fingerprints onto this ledger."

    The pink-clad server produced a massive book, large enough to accommodate a person's face.

    Seeing that she was unwilling to divulge more details, the group had no choice but to dip their fingers into red clay one by one and stamp their prints onto the ledger, much like signing an ancient indenture.

    The atmosphere throughout the process was eerily quiet, with no conversation taking place. Everyone simply carried out the tasks requested of them by the servers.

    Once all fingerprints were recorded, the two servers began assigning rooms. Almost everyone chose to pair up in twos.

    Oliver couldn't help but feel a bit flustered at the situation, as he hadn't participated in the previous discussion and was unsure if he would be separated alone.

    However, Guan Zhiyi quickly reassured him with a composed demeanor:

    "We're in the same group."

    Oliver's renewed tension subsided upon hearing this.

    He vaguely understood why the group hadn't entered the hot spring house earlier.

    Perhaps they had negotiated something beforehand, thus allowing their entry to be so orderly. Moreover, Little Li had been in charge of the main communication from the start; it was likely prearranged.

    This made Oliver feel a tinge of regret.

    He really didn't know what he had been thinking when insisting on rushing into the hot spring house earlier. If only he had waited a little longer.

    Now, he was clueless about the information within his own group and had done no investigation on the hot spring house, leaving him filled with anxiety.

    But this unease quickly dissipated when everyone's rooms were assigned on the same floor, neighboring each other.

    The Onsen House was exceptionally tranquil, and as its name implied, it was indeed a resort centered around hot springs.

    One had to admit that the room arrangements were superb – cozy and inviting at first glance, with perfect lighting to complement the ambiance.

    Moreover, each room had its own private hot spring, separated from the rest.

    Such a comfortable setting would be hard to come by even in reality.

    As for the service, it was impeccable.

    Two attendants knelt on the floor, diligently changing everyone's shoes. Then, with small, delicate steps, one led the way while the other pulled open doors, guiding each guest to their respective rooms.

    Within ten minutes, they catered to individual preferences by delivering drinks suitable for sipping during a soak in the hot springs, along with so-called floating trays.

    These floating trays could be placed in the water, making it easier to enjoy a drink, and a fresh cherry blossom was fixed on each tray, adding a touch of whimsy.

    The attendant in blue brought Yan Qiling a fragrant plum wine with a subtle sweetness.

    The bottle of plum wine was adorned with the pattern of "Four Gentlemen," and Yan Qiling gazed at the hand-painted depiction of white cranes flying around them before setting it down again.

    He could now almost certainly determine whose world this was.

    Back when that person lived in his home, he had acted as their "teacher," instructing them on how to sketch flying cranes.

    At the time, he had originally drawn it for his younger sister, but the other party was clever and diligent, which brought him great satisfaction. So, upon their return to their country, he had gifted them an artistic inkstone featuring the theme of "Four Gentlemen," hoping they would cherish it.

    Reflecting on it now, it still seemed ironic.

    Knowing that he had been exposed, what was the intention behind sending such a bottle?

    Ming Yiyang was unaware of the thoughts lingering in the person behind him. He placed the black suitcase in the closet and then proceeded to open the bedroom door, directly facing the steaming hot springs area.

    It was a very convenient design.

    Guests could access the hot springs either directly from the bedroom balcony or through a small staircase in the shower area.

    On the other hand, this also meant that if anything were to crawl out of the hot springs and into the room, it could enter through these two routes as well.

    It seemed very convenient to enter or exit.

    What an "enchanting" design.

    That being said, soaking in hot springs was indeed a refreshing activity on such a cold day.

    Moreover, it might just be his imagination, but since entering the inn, the snowstorm seemed less intense, and the sky appeared much brighter than before.

    Looking at the sky now, it was still early evening. At this time, there should be no fear of monsters appearing while soaking.

    But no one could predict what might happen if it got even later.

    Ming Yiyang, however, didn't mind. He was quite excited to try something new.

    "Professor Yan, shall we soak together?"

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