Ever since then, things had gotten out of control. In the hundred years since that incident, there had been a total of seventeen brides who went missing in the Mount Yujun area. Sometimes there’d be a couple of decades of peace, and sometimes two could go missing in the short span of one month. A horrific legend quickly spread: a ghost groom lived on Mount Yujun, and if a woman caught his eye, then he would kidnap her on the road and devour the marriage procession.
Originally, this affair wouldn’t have been reported to the heavens. While seventeen brides had gone missing, there were thousands more who were perfectly fine. Either way, the girls couldn’t be found, and they couldn’t be protected even if everyone wanted to do so; everyone could only make do with the status quo. The only thing was, there were now fewer families willing to marry their daughters into this area, and the locals didn’t dare to make a big show of their weddings, that was all. But it just so happened that the father of the seventeenth bride was a lord official who doted on his daughter. When he heard of the legend, he meticulously selected forty valiant and capable martial officials to escort the marriage procession of his daughter. But, the daughter was spirited off anyway.
Now this ghost groom had really stirred up the hornet’s nest. Anyone this old lord official could find in the mortal realm couldn’t do anything about it, so in a fit of outrage, he assembled a group of official friends and conducted a round of crazed religious services. He even followed the guidance of a great master and opened up his stores to feed the poor; something like that. It was a huge uproar, and finally it alerted a few heavenly officials above. Otherwise, it was practically impossible for the voices of insignificant mortals to reach the ears of gods in heaven.
“That’s the gist of it,” Xie Lian said.
Since those two still looked very uncooperative, he didn’t know if they had actually been listening. If they didn’t listen, then he’d have to tell the story again. Nan Feng looked up though, and frowned.
“Are there any similarities between the missing brides?”
“There are those who are poor and those who are rich, those who are beautiful and those who are ugly, there are lawful wives and there are concubines, in short: there’s no pattern,” Xie Lian said. “We can’t determine at all what this ghost groom’s preference is.”
Nan Feng mnn-ed and picked up his teacup to take a sip, seeming to be thinking now. Fu Yao, on the other hand, never touched the tea Xie Lian had pushed in his direction, and had been languidly cleaning his fingers with a white handkerchief this entire time.
He said coolly as he wiped, “Your Highness, how would you know that it must be a ghost groom? This can’t be certain since no one’s ever seen it before, so how would we know if it’s a male or female, if it’s old or young? Aren’t you a little too quick to judge?”
Xie Lian grinned. “This scroll is a summary provided by a civil official from the Palace of Ling Wen, the ghost groom is just the common way to call it. However, what you’ve said makes a lot of sense.”
They spoke a bit more, and Xie Lian realized that the minds of these two junior martial officials were quite clear. While they didn’t appear very friendly, they weren’t muddled at all when discussing matters. Xie Lian felt relieved. Looking out the window, the hour was getting late, so the three left the small shop for the time being. Xie Lian put on his bamboo hat and walked for a bit before suddenly realizing the two behind him weren’t following, so he looked back, feeling puzzled. Turns out, the other two were also watching him in bewilderment.
Nan Feng asked, “Where are you going?”
“To find some place to settle for the night,” Xie Lian replied. “Fu Yao, why are you rolling your eyes again?”
Nan Feng continued his questions, still puzzled. “Then why are you heading to the wild bushes?”
Xie Lian often camped out in the wild and slept on the streets, and could spread out a cloth sheet and spend the night just like that. So naturally, he was ready to find some cave to start a campfire as he’d always done. But it was with Nan Feng’s reminder that he suddenly realized that Nan Feng and Fu Yao were both martial officials under a martial god; if there were any Nan Yang temples or Xuan Zhen temples around, then they could enter directly, so what need was there to sleep out in the wild?
A short while later, the three found a broken-down tudi shrine, in an incredibly inconspicuous little corner, that worshipped a round and small stone Lord of the Ground and Soil. With incense residue and shattered platters, it looked exceedingly desolate. Xie Lian called out a few times; this Lord of the Soil and Ground hadn’t been worshipped or called by anyone for years, so when he suddenly heard the call, he
snapped open his eyes and saw three people standing before his shrine. The two on the left and right respectively were both enveloped in a sheen of spiritual light like the nouveau riche, their faces barely visible at all, and the deity jumped in alarm.
His trembling voice said, “Do the three heavenly officials have anything to command of this humble one?”
Xie Lian inclined his head. “No commands. I just wanted to ask if there are any local temples that worship either General Nan Yang or General Xuan Zhen?”
The Lord of Soil and Ground didn’t dare to affront him and replied, “Um um um…” Then in a quick divination with the pinch of his fingers, he answered, “There’s a local town temple five miles from here, and the one worshipped is, is, is the General Nan Yang.”
Xie Lian put his hands together in prayer. “Many thanks.”
However, that Lord of Soil and Earth was blinded by the two balls of spiritual power on both sides of Xie Lian, so he quickly vanished. Xie Lian fumbled out a few coins and placed them in front of the altar shrine, and when he saw there were fallen burnt-out incense sticks on the ground, he picked them up. Throughout the entire thing, Fu Yao was rolling his eyes so hard Xie Lian almost wanted to ask if his eyes were tired.
After walking five miles, they indeed spotted a local town temple standing fiery-red by the roadside. While the temple was small, it had everything, and people were going in and out of it, extraordinarily lively. The three concealed their forms and entered the temple; the one worshipped within the hall was a clay divine statue of the martial god Nan Yang, donned in armour with a bow in hand.
When Xie Lian saw this divine statue, he mhm-ed inwardly.
In a small temple in the countryside, the craft and paint of the divine statues could be expected to be rough, but on the whole, this statue was still significantly different from Xie Lian’s own impression of Feng Xin.
However, distorted divine statues were something that every heavenly official had gotten used to already. Nevermind that their own moms wouldn’t recognize them, there were heavenly officials who didn’t even recognize themselves when they saw their own statues sometimes. After all, there weren’t many artisan masters who had actually seen the real forms of the heavenly officials, so the statues were either distorted beautifully or distorted hideously. One could only rely on the posture, spiritual device, attire, and crown to determine which heavenly official this was.
Usually, the more affluent the area, the more the divine statue would please the heavenly official. The more impoverished a place, the worse the taste of the craftsmanship, and the more tragic the sculpture became. To speak of the present, there was only General Xuan Zhen whose divine statues were in a better situation. Why? Because for everyone else, if their statues were ugly, then whatever, leave it be. But when Mu Qing saw his statues were hideously-sculpted, he would either secretly destroy them and then make people resculpt, or appear in dreams to express his displeasure. This went on for a long time, and the grand believers had all learned that they had to find an artisan master who could sculpt beautifully!
All of the temples of Xuan Zhen were exactly the same as their general: particular and tasteful. After Fu Yao entered the Temple of Nan Yang, for two whole hours he thoroughly criticized this statue of Nan Yang from head to toe, something about how the design was deformed, the colours tacky, the craftsmanship crude, the taste bizarre. Xie Lian watched as the blue veins on Nan Feng’s forehead slowly popped out, and thought he best quickly find another topic of conversation to change the subject.
It just so happened there was another girl who entered to pray, and she very sincerely knelt down.
Xie Lian spoke up warmly. “Speaking of, Nan Yang Zhenjun’s main domain is in the Southeast, I’d never imagine you guys would have such a following in the north too.”
When people constructed temples and palaces, they were actually imitating the divine palaces of the heavenly realm; as for divine statues, they were reflections of the heavenly officials’ venerable selves. The temples were where the believers assembled and attracted worship, becoming an important source of spiritual power for the heavenly officials. And due to various reasons - such as geography, history, and customs - people of different regions often worshipped different gods. A heavenly official’s spiritual power would be unleashed to the max on their own turf, and this was the main domain advantage. Only to a heavenly official like the Great Martial Emperor, who had believers from all over the world and possessed temples everywhere, was the notion of a main domain meaningless. It was a good thing that his own general’s divine temple would be so popular even outside his main domain, Nan Feng should be proud, but judging by his expression, this was very much not the case.
On the side, Fu Yao gave a light smirk. “Yes, yes, he’s deeply loved.”
Xie Lian said, “But, I just have a question that I don’t know if…”
“If you’re going to say ‘you don’t know if it’s appropriate’, then don’t say anything,” Nan Feng said. “No, I was going to say ‘don’t know if anyone has the answer’,” Xie Lian thought.
But, he had a feeling that it wouldn’t be good if he said it, so in the end he decided to change the subject again.
Yet unexpectedly, Fu Yao languidly said, “I know what you want to ask. You must be wondering why there are so many female believers coming to worship?”
That was indeed the question Xie Lian had in mind.
There had always been fewer female believers than males in the martial gods’ stream; only he himself was an exception, eight hundred years ago. However, the reason for this exception was very simple, it was only two words: Good-Looking.