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106 The Encounter

    Standing on a line to exit the city, Xue'er was probed once again. Though the search was slightly more thorough, all the guards did to amp up the search was to compare her features to those on the poster. After making sure that she did not have any semblance to the fugitives, she was free to go.

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    As she walked out of the city, there were shoe prints that were separated uniformly into distinct lines, along with two lines that indicated a heavy wagon had once tread upon the snow. It seems that the soldiers had already begun making their way towards the border town. But, that was not a matter to be worried about, as it would take a few days to get there. On foot, a healthy man would take about six days to get there, yet in this weather of snow that would continue to fall and the cold temperatures, the travel time would most probably lengthen.

    Skipping a few steps, she made her way into the depths of the forest. Once reached, she made her way into a sprint, heading for a place that was off the main road. With little shadow clinging to her neck for dear life as the cold wind washed over her face.

    By the time she stopped, they were ninety li away from the city, her black hair was encased with flakes of ice. Little shadow's white fur also had a thin layer of snow stuck to it, though it looked much better as the snow had blended in perfectly with its white coat of fur. On the other hand, Xue'er looked very much like she had been lost in a blizzard and frozen for many days before she was found.

    They had just stopped a few kilometers away from a village that had a few wooden barricades up, to prevent anyone from going across. The barricades were sharpened at the ends and had the image of spikes. Yet at the end of the day, it was still wood, and there was no one preventing the villagers from leaving.

    Walking around to get through the barricades, Xue'er made herself invisible to the villagers, following the distinct smell of vinegar. The village was a place that was old and worn with some of the straw roofs fallen into disrepair. It did not seem that they celebrated the new year, passing it as they would the rest of their days. The streets were also eerily quiet, though her ears picked up on a few heaving coughs and heavy breathing from fluid-filled lungs.

    She made her way to the middle of the village where the largest cottage sat. It was also the place with the strongest smell of fishy vinegar. At this time she could perceive that the others did not notice this very pungent stench that she smelled or they would have already done something about it already.

    The kitchen was like any, the corner had a hollow stone surface where there were openings for the pots, along with a place where firewood was stored. The condiments that looked like small jars of potions were stored on the other side, on a small shelf. The bottom shelf had a large jar that resembled that of a wine jar, the smell emitting from it was quite strong, that Xue'er could not help but notice it.

    With a simple pull, the cork was lifted off, revealing the mouth of the jar. At once, the pungent smell of vinegar and a fishy scent came out, the scent immediately making Xue'er twitch her nose and replace the cork.

    She let out a long, bemoaning sigh. Just, how in the world did she end up trusting that no one would take the vinegar and use it?

    Little shadow seemed to have sensed the despair that was written all over Xue'er's face and purred near her ear in an attempt to comfort her.

    [How is this to be resolved?] Xue'er contemplated for a moment before Li Yang surfaced in her mind. Right, he was a doctor, and quite skilled at it too. Since he had the formula for many ailments and was okay with trying new things, he would indeed be a candidate who would work diligently, and besides, he had a caring heart as well.

    Footsteps came from outside the cottage. A strange rustling sound of uneven footsteps, that seemed like they were unable to get stable footing. Like that of a ship sailing in violent winds. Moments later, a muffled thud came from outside. Xue'er couldn't hold her curiosity and peeked out the window.

    Outside, lying on the ground was a middle-aged man, whose face was an unnatural shade of red, his chest slightly heaving and weakly coughing. She waited some more, to see if there would be anyone who would help him up. All she heard were the thumping sounds that came from his chest, like the gentle tapping of a leather drum. But after waiting for what seemed like many moments, there was no one who came.

    Xue'er returned her eyes back towards the shelf where the vinegar sat. A finger reached out, tipping the jar over, drowning the room with a scent of fishy vinegar. The pungent liquid scattered above the frozen ground, forcing Xue'er to take a few steps back, lest she get tainted with the poisonous smell.

    The gentle tapping of the leather drum seemed to have stopped at this very minute.

    ~

    Footsteps walked briskly in the snow. The shoe prints that were left behind were rapidly blown away, leaving the snow as untouched as it once was. Trees were bare, spurned from the frozen ground and bent at estranged angles, as though they were old and bony hands reaching from beyond to grab any living creature that happened to walk by.

    "What's wrong?" Looking around, it was only a field of white dust being blown all different directions. Though with certainty, she could hear the uneasiness within little shadow's breath.

    As though sensing a dreadful horror about to arise, little shadow struggled from Xue'er's arms and bolted.

    Her eyes were vacant as she saw the white spot disappear, blending amongst the snow. Her lips twisted into a mocking smile. Sure enough, though she had saved it and kept it by her side, it had not yet become close enough to her that it would protect her from harm's way.

    Her thoughts were cut short when she heard the sounds of rustling amongst the winds. She whipped her head around quickly but was met by the unmoving scene of bare and oddly angled trees. Just when she was prepared to turn around, she felt a sharp pain in her right hand.

    Her hand unconsciously pulled back. Yet this did not lead to the mutilation of flesh she had expected, as the pain had stopped. She shifted to see a filthy creature with eyes that were red with a thirst for blood. Dripping from his mouth were lines of thick, dark crimson blood. Her blood.

    Looking at the creature, though it had a human silhouette, it was slightly smaller, like that of a child. Though the pain was enough to make anyone faint, Xue'er pressed firmly on the fresh wound. Making the blood flow, and keeping her mind in a state of clarity.

    Such a creature could easily repulse anyone. Oddly enough, she did not feel a sense of dread as she looked at the face that seemed to have blue and purple veins stretching over the surface of the skin that was a pale shade of ivory.

    It took some time before she realized the creature in front of her was indeed human. His eyes a violent shade of red that seemed to be devoid of emotion or humanity. She could not fathom that such eyes would understand anything other than catching, devouring prey and killing. The broken capillaries beneath the skin made everything so much more frightening.

    A low growl emerged from the depths of his throat as she entered his sight. His teeth bared, and there were remnants of the deep crimson blood that had stuck to the cracks between the teeth.

    Narrowing her eyes, Xue'er quickly moved towards him at a lightning speed.

    As quick as he tried to doge, Xue'er was quicker.

    The finger of her unwound hand accurately ripped through the rags and created a deep wound in his abdomen. The ragged figure froze for a moment before scampering back into the woods. Yet before that happened, there was a slight amount of clarity that appeared in those crimson eyes.

    Xue'er held up her left hand and looked at the blood that came from the wound she inflicted. Her nose caught a whiff of the blood, and this did not smell like the fishy iron scent that she was used to smelling, whether the scent was fresh or rotting. The scent that came from this blood was very much similar to the dregs of brewed medicine.

    Her bloodied fingers slowly moved towards her lips. As she closed her eyes to savor the blood, there was a sense of pleasure that appeared on her face. Like that of a child eating a special treat. When she opened her eyes once more, the amber gray eyes were now speckled with hints of crimson, like that of blood splattering upon being dropped.

    Once she had a taste, her shoulders could not help but shudder uncontrollably. This movement was not from the cold. Rather it was from the uncontrollable laughter that she could not hold in. As the laughter continued, there were tears that welled up in her eyes one could not tell if these were tears of joy or tears of woe. Every drop that slid from her face became drops of ice, that landed gently with the snow.
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