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    Chapter 152: The Ping-Pong Ball

    It had to be said that the Fog Lamp was indeed incredibly useful.

    Once lit, it dispelled a vast expanse of fog, providing an immense sense of security for the explorers.

    However, as the blood in the lamp was consumed, the light grew dimmer, eventually becoming barely able to resist the encroaching mist. The fog would then blanket them once more in large areas.

    Each time this happened, they knew it was time to replenish the blood.

    Before setting out, they had already agreed on a strategy: five protecting one.

    Rotating the blood donation was the fairest approach, but in the wilderness, if everyone were injured, any unexpected issue could lead not only to new mistakes amidst panic but also to total annihilation.

    After discussion, Guan Zhiyi decided to take on the role of the blood donor.

    They had also studied the extent of bloodletting needed, ensuring they could make it back and forth through the woods.

    As Yan Qiling had predicted, their exploration that day yielded nothing worth pursuing further.

    For they had yet to find an exit as their blood reserves reached a critical point.

    However, his originally sapphire right eye, without anyone noticing, suddenly shifted to a purplish-blue hue, radiating a gentle glow like that of a gem, piercing through the denser mist ahead.

    Only Ming Yiyang keenly directed his gaze towards the man with unwavering focus, then revealed a cryptic expression. He used his towering figure to shield any anomaly and deliberately slowed his pace, ensuring he remained by the man's side.

    During their return, an undercurrent of unease subtly permeated the group.

    Yan Qiling, however, maintained an extraordinary calm. His mission thus far had proceeded smoothly, encountering virtually no obstacles, and the information he sought was mostly within his grasp.

    The young man held his hand, cold as steel, without betraying any emotion.

    It was broad, warm, rough, yet conveyed an inexplicable sense of security.

    Yan Qiling reciprocated the gesture calmly, and they both understood its meaning.

    The exit was right ahead, and their path had been correct all along.

    Yan Qiling observed clearly that the marker indicating the way out stood tall amidst the depths of the forest.

    Merely to reach the location, they estimated it would take more than ten minutes on foot.

    Ten minutes might seem brief, but in this snowy and icy season, with the need for fog lamps consuming their energy, those ten minutes could significantly impact their return journey.

    Guan Zhiyi appeared unusually weak; Kichiro was supporting him, while Tojo Shuang, holding the lantern, persistently led the way forward. Yan Qiling and Ming Yiyang naturally fell back to guard their rear.

    Though they exchanged no words, their cooperation was seamless.

    Due to their declining physical stamina, their return journey proceeded much slower than anticipated, causing them to miss the agreed-upon time to meet near the bus.

    In truth, everyone was concerned that Little Li Qinghe and his wife might have driven the bus back to the hot spring inn earlier, since they held both the fuel tank and the vehicle keys.

    However, upon seeing the bus still standing resolutely in the snow, all of them involuntarily broke into genuine smiles.

    But those smiles vanished when they discovered the bus was empty.

    The couple, Little Li Qinghe and his wife, had disappeared.

    The cabin seemed undamaged, showing no signs of struggle or conflict. The black fuel tank was peacefully placed inside, with no indication of anything amiss.

    A chilling terror gripped their spines.

    Guan Zhiyi's face betrayed a profound unease and self-reproach.

    He said,

    "I... shouldn't have let these two unprepared individuals wait for us here. What do we do now?"

    Tojo Shuang felt a mix of helplessness and bewilderment.

    "Let's search first. The fog lights still have some use; we can look around the vicinity."

    Ming Yiyang, meanwhile, immediately used his fingers to part the ashes on the car.

    After touching them, he sensed a faint trace of warmth at the core of the ashes.

    Then, he opened the gasoline tank, and the fuel inside had not frozen; it remained in a usable condition.

    Koichi Tsukishiro, with his arms crossed, watched him and asked,

    "How is it?"

    Ming Yiyang spoke calmly.

    "They should have been gone for quite some time now."

    Koichi Tsukiyome's voice wavered, tinged with faint hope.

    "Could... Could they have gone to look for us because they've been waiting too long?"

    "It's not entirely impossible."

    Although Tojo Shuang acknowledged this possibility, his tone couldn't help but darken.

    "However, Mr. Little Li is a very responsible person. I can't imagine him venturing out in the fog without a lantern, especially with his wife, and leaving behind the gasoline drum..."

    "Though we don't know what happened to them, it's best for everyone to accept the reality sooner rather than later... They might have met the same fate as Mr. Oliver last night..."

    He didn't finish his sentence, but those present understood his unspoken meaning.

    Ming Yiyang shared the same thoughts with Tojo Shuang, believing that addressing hypothermia was more pressing than searching for others. Without hesitation, he refilled the gasoline and started the engine, activating the heating system.

    Out of basic courtesy, he asked, "Should we wait for them?"

    Tojo Shuang appeared hesitant, while Guan Zhiyi held a resolute stance, "It'd be troublesome, but let's wait for them a bit, perhaps half an hour?"

    Ikeko Touzuki's eyebrows twitched slightly, a mix of concern and unpleasant anxiety shadowing her face. She opened her mouth as if to speak, but then swallowed her words, instead settling into a silent wait in her seat.

    Since they didn't have to endure the freezing snow outside, it was somewhat comforting.

    However, perhaps due to exhaustion, she dozed off soon after sitting down.

    Half-awake, she seemed to hear the faint singing of a child near her ear.

    Unconsciously, she absorbed the melodies into her consciousness.

    "…Cross six lanes, seven streets, and past the eighth, you'll find the Mirror of the Gods. Through that, home awaits."

    The nursery rhyme abruptly ceased, replaced by the shattering of immense glass!

    Ikeko Touzuki jolted awake from the sudden upheaval, only to witness a colorful ball bouncing in from outside!

    As the ball hurtled towards her, a silver-haired young man with a foreign appearance suddenly stepped in front of her like a deity descending from an idol drama, reaching out to grasp the ball forcefully, then holding it up for closer inspection.

    Scrawled across the vibrant ball were two signatures—those of Little Li Qinghe and Sanrin Haruka!

    Everyone was baffled by these names, except for Yan Qiling, who sensed something. She opened the car door, stepped out, and looked upward.

    The tall pines formed a dense canopy, but through the gaps, she could vaguely make out a pair of suspended shoes hanging high above.

    They weren't just hanging shoes; there was someone up there!

    Tojo Shuang, with his commendable physical fitness from his past involvement in the rock climbing club, quickly scaled the tree to assess the situation.

    However, he didn't get very far before descending with a pale face, stumbling as he came down.

    Without uttering a word, the others could already anticipate the grim outcome. Clutching his scarf, he spoke in a quivering voice:

    "There are two of them, hanging up there."

    Silently, they all returned to the vehicle. Guan Zhiyi held onto the colorful ball, his expression somewhat dazed.

    The remaining five passengers sat in the moving car, shrouded in silence.

    Regaining his composure, Tojo Shuang took a deep breath and asked,

    "How did they end up hanging there? What's the story behind this colorful ball, and that song about the bouncing ball... It's something children sing while playing with one."

    Ikeko Touzuki struggled to suppress the surging palpitations within her chest.

    "In a frigid, snowy landscape, how could there possibly be a child wandering about? Isn't that highly peculiar?"

    Guan Zhiyi, stunned, finally spoke up at this moment:

    "Tojo Shuang, you're the only one who witnessed the scene... What exactly happened?"

    Tojo Shuang hesitated to speak, but noticing no one around him seemed inclined to object, he gritted his teeth and struggled to recall the image he had been trying to escape:

    "Mr. Little Li and Ms. Sanrin... They were both hanging from a tree, covered in frost that had already started to freeze. Their expressions appeared serene, with no signs of struggle."

    "People who freeze to death often die with a smile on their faces, passing away in an eerily calm manner."

    Yan Qiling pondered calmly:

    "Hanging seems more like a ritual than the direct cause of death. In other words, if there is a rule in play, then it's likely connected to the manner of freezing to death."

    "Could it be because open-air burning is illegal in the wilderness?"

    Ikeko Touzuki expressed her genuine confusion. However, the statement now sounded more like a darkly humorous exaggeration rather than a speculation.

    Ming Yiyang: ? What kind of hellish joke is this?

    But in Ikeko Touzuki's view, neither Little Li Qinghe nor his wife had done anything out of the ordinary. Both were cautious and responsible individuals – how could they have died simply for breaking a rule?

    Yet, in this damn world, rules were omnipresent, and one could die at any moment for either disregarding or excessively "following" them.

    The Qinghe couple might have fallen into the latter category.

    Upon this realization, Ikeko Touzuki managed to suppress her sorrow, adopting instead an air of indifference, as if nothing mattered anymore.

    The initial fear and worry on her face dissipated.

    However, Tojo Shuang and Guan Zhiyi weren't as philosophical about it.

    Tojo Shuang looked at Yan Qiling and asked,

    "Is it possible that he was also lured outside by a similar nursery rhyme or some sound? And their order of leaving might have been different."

    "I saw frost covering Little Li Qinghe's entire body, while Sanwa Haruka was merely frozen stiff with a thin layer of frost. That's why I suspect that Mr. Little Li heard some noise and went to investigate, asking Ms. Sanwa to stay in the car. However, he never returned."

    "Ms. Sanwa might have gone out to add firewood or out of concern for him, and then she too succumbed to hypothermia, collapsing on the ground."

    "As for why they were found hanging there, I truly have no idea."

    Just as he spoke, the engine of the bus roared to life, shooting the vehicle forward like an arrow from a bow!

    Everyone was stunned by this sudden turn of events. The bus lurched to one side and began accelerating noticeably!

    Ming Yiyang gritted his teeth and said,

    "…Now you understand. Look behind us."

    The shock of the change left people devoid of basic reasoning, and they instinctively turned to look out the rear window –

    Through the thick fog, a two-meter-tall silhouette emerged, its glowing, bulbous eyes piercing through the mist, but its face remained indistinct.

    Yet, it seemed to have set its sights on the moving bus and began limping towards them with uneven steps!

    Tojo Shuang felt as if he were suffocating. He gauged the creature's size with his eyes and concluded with certainty,

    "Mr. Little Li Qinghe is hanging at a height of about three to four meters. This monster could reach that height just by raising its arm. Perhaps it lured Mr. and Mrs. Little Li Qinghe before killing them!"

    "You do have a point, but our priority now is to get rid of this inexplicable entity as soon as possible!"

    Ming Yiyang sharply turned the steering wheel. He wished he could speed up and shake it off, but it wasn't easy to accelerate on snowy roads. Moreover, doing so would only escalate the danger.

    Perhaps this was just one of Wujian Lord's twisted delights.

    Regardless, the threat was swiftly eliminated.

    Yan Qiling stood in front of the rear windshield. A brilliant, diamond-like ray radiated from his right eye as he fixed a perilous gaze on the indistinct monster.

    The creature, under this intense stare, suddenly let out a deafening shriek and bolted back the way it came!

    Everyone sighed in relief, but their situation hadn't significantly improved.

    Their outing lasted roughly six hours in total, going back and forth.

    That left four hours before the initial ten-hour plan was up, and spending four hours in the snow was a challenge for anyone.

    Ming Yiyang could certainly turn on the heater, but the issue was that the gasoline available in the hot spring house was limited. In reality, what they had was all there was.

    The question now was how to pass the remaining four hours.


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