From then on, the situation spiraled out of control. Over the next century, a total of seventeen brides went missing in the vicinity of Yu Jun Mountain. Sometimes there would be years of tranquility, while other times two brides would vanish within a month. A terrifying legend quickly spread: there was a ghost groom residing in Yu Jun Mountain, and if he set his sights on a woman, he would abduct her on her way to marry and devour the wedding procession.

Originally, this matter wouldn’t have reached the heavens. After all, although seventeen brides had disappeared, there were far more brides who remained unharmed. Since they couldn’t find anyone and couldn’t provide protection, they had to make do. Families became reluctant to marry their daughters off in the area, and local weddings were no longer extravagant affairs. However, the seventeenth bride happened to be the daughter of an official. Her father doted on her and, upon hearing the local rumors, meticulously selected forty highly skilled and valiant warriors to escort his daughter. Unfortunately, his daughter still vanished.

This time, the ghost groom had stirred up a hornet’s nest. The official could find no one in the mortal realm who could help, so he joined forces with a group of official friends and conducted a series of rituals. They even followed the guidance of a higher authority, providing aid to the poor and causing a commotion in the city. Finally, they managed to alert a few higher-ranked divine officials. Otherwise, it would have been nearly impossible for the voices of those insignificant mortals to reach the ears of the gods.

Xie Lian said, “That’s the general idea.”

Due to the uncooperative expressions of the two individuals, he wasn’t sure if they were even listening. If they didn’t comprehend what was said, he would have to repeat it again. Nán Fēng, however, raised his head, furrowing his brows as he asked, “What do the missing brides have in common?”

Xie Lian replied, “They come from different backgrounds—some poor, some rich; some beautiful, some plain; some married, some concubines. In short, there is no pattern. It’s impossible to determine the preferences of this ghost groom.”

Nán Fēng uttered a sound of agreement, took a sip from his teacup, and seemed to begin pondering. Fú Yáo, on the other hand, didn’t even touch the tea that Xie Lian had poured for him. He continued to calmly wipe his fingers with a white handkerchief, his eyes indifferent as he said, “Crown Prince, how can you be so certain that it’s a ghost groom? It’s not necessarily the case. No one has ever seen it before, so how do we know if it’s male or female, old or young? Aren’t you making assumptions?”

Xie Lian smiled and said, “The scroll was summarized by the civil officials of Ling Wen Temple. The term ‘ghost groom’ is just a folk term. But you make a valid point.”

He continued with a few more words, realizing that these two young military officials had clear thinking despite their unfriendly expressions. He felt relieved. Seeing that it was getting late, the three of them left the teahouse for the time being. Xie Lian put on his bamboo hat and walked for a while when he suddenly noticed that the two men behind him hadn’t followed. Puzzled, he turned back to look, and to his surprise, they were also looking at him in confusion. Nán Fēng asked, “Where are you going?”

Xie Lian replied, “I’m looking for a place to stay. Fú Yáo, why are you rolling your eyes again?”

Nán Fēng asked again, puzzled, “Why are you heading to the desolate mountains and wilderness?”

Xie Lian was used to sleeping on the streets, braving the wind and dew. He was planning to find a cave to make a fire and spend the night there. After being reminded, he realized that Nán Fēng and Fú Yáo were both military officials under the command of the War God. If there was a temple dedicated to Nán Yáng or Xuán Zhēn nearby, they could simply enter and wouldn’t need to sleep in the wild.

After a short while, the three of them found a shabby land temple in an inconspicuous corner. It was dilapidated and desolate, with a small round stone statue of the Earth God. Xie Lian called out a few times, and the Earth God, who hadn’t been worshipped or called upon for many years, blinked his eyes upon hearing someone call, seeing three people standing in front of the temple. Nán Fēng and Fú Yáo were both surrounded by a layer of dazzling spiritual light, making it impossible to see their faces clearly. Startled, the Earth God trembled as he spoke in a trembling voice, “Do the three immortal officials have any orders for me?”

Xie Lian nodded and said, “No orders. I just wanted to ask if there is a temple nearby dedicated to General Nán Yáng or General Xuán Zhēn?”

The Earth God didn’t dare to be negligent and said, “Well, um… let me see.” He pinched his fingers and said, “There’s a temple dedicated to General Nán Yáng five li from here.”

Xie Lian clasped his hands together and said, “Thank you.” With that, the Earth God, whose vision had been blinded by the two spheres of light, quickly concealed himself. Xie Lian took out a few coins and placed them in front of the temple, then picked up some incense fragments and lit them. In the meantime, Fú Yáo kept rolling his eyes so much that Xie Lian wanted to ask if his eyes were tired.

Sure enough, after traveling five li, they saw a lively temple standing by the roadside. Although the temple was small, it was bustling with people coming and going. The temple, though humble, was complete with all five internal organs. Inside the main hall, there was a clay statue of General Nán Yáng, dressed in armor and holding a bow.

Upon seeing the statue, Xie Lian murmured, “Hmm…”

This rural temple’s statue was roughly made and painted, and it looked quite different from the impression Xie Lian had of General Nán Yáng himself.

However, it was common for the statues to be poorly crafted, and the divine officials were accustomed to it. Some divine officials wouldn’t even recognize themselves if they saw their own statues. After all, few craftsmen had truly seen the divine officials in person. So, whether the statues were excessively beautiful or ugly, they could only rely on specific poses, implements, and headdresses to identify which divine official they represented.

Generally speaking, the more affluent the area, the more the statues matched the preferences of the divine officials. In poorer areas, the taste of the craftsmen was worse, and the statues were unbearable to look at. Currently, the overall condition of General Xuán Zhēn’s statue was relatively good. Why was that? Because if the statue of a divine official looked ugly, they would either secretly destroy it to have it remade or express their dissatisfaction through obscure dreams. Over time, the devoted followers learned that they had to find a master who could sculpt well!

The same applied to the Xuán Zhēn Temple, which was quite exquisite. Once they entered the Nán Yáng Temple, Fú Yáo immediately began critiquing the statue of Nán Yáng, commenting on its distorted form, garish colors, poor craftsmanship, and peculiar taste. Xie Lian noticed Nán Fēng’s temples throbbing with veins and thought it best to change the topic. Just then, another young girl entered the temple and knelt down piously. Xie Lian spoke in a gentle voice, “Speaking of which, Nán Yáng True God’s main temple is in the southeast. I didn’t expect the incense here in the north to be so prosperous.”

The construction of temples and palaces was, in fact, an imitation of the heavenly palaces in the celestial realm. The statues, on the other hand, were the reflections of the divine officials themselves. Temples gathered followers and attracted incense, becoming an important source of power for the divine officials. Due to various factors such as geography, history, and customs, people in different regions usually worshipped different divine officials. A divine official’s power would be strongest in their own territory, which was known as the home advantage. Only divine officials like the God of War, who had followers everywhere and temples throughout the world, had no meaning to the concept of home advantage. Even in a non-native temple, the temple dedicated to their own general would still thrive with incense. This was a good thing, something Nán Fēng should be proud of. But judging by his expression, it seemed that he wasn’t pleased. On the other hand, Fú Yáo smiled faintly and said, “Yes, yes, deeply loved and revered.”

Xie Lian said, “However, I have a question, I don’t know…”

Nán Fēng interrupted, “If it’s a ‘question that shouldn’t be asked,’ then don’t ask.”

Xie Lian thought to himself, “No, I wanted to ask if there is anyone who can answer it.”

However, he had a premonition that it wouldn’t end well if he asked that, so he decided to change the topic again. Unexpectedly, Fú Yáo calmly said, “I know what you want to ask. You must be wondering why there are so many female worshippers here.”

That was precisely the question Xie Lian wanted to ask.

Traditionally, there were fewer female worshippers of the God of War than male worshippers, with the exception of himself eight hundred years ago. However, the reason for this exception was simple: good looks.

He was well aware that it wasn’t because of his high virtue or extraordinary divine power; it was solely because his statue was attractive, and so were his temples. Almost all of his temples were built by the imperial family, and the statues were crafted by top-notch artisans from all over the country, meticulously replicating his face. Moreover, due to the phrase “in the mortal realm, but with the heart in the Peach Blossom Springs,” the artisans often liked to add some decorative elements to his statue and turn the temple grounds into a sea of blooming flowers. Therefore, he had another nickname back then, “the Flowery Crowned God of War.” The female worshippers liked his handsome statue and the fact that his temples were adorned with flowers, so they were willing to pay him their respects.

On the other hand, the statues of most other gods of war often had a stern, ferocious, and cold appearance due to their fierce aura, which made female worshippers prefer to worship other gods like Guanyin. Although the statue of Nán Yáng had nothing to do with a fierce aura, it was even farther from being attractive. However, there were almost more female worshippers than male ones who came to pay their respects to it. Nán Fēng clearly didn’t want to answer this question, which intrigued Xie Lian. Just then, the young girl finished paying her respects and stood up to light incense. As she turned around, Xie Lian nudged the other two. They were initially quite impatient, but when they followed his gaze, their expressions changed abruptly.

Fú Yáo exclaimed, “She’s so ugly!”

Xie Lian choked for a moment and said, “Fú Yáo, you can’t say such things about a girl.”

Objectively speaking, Fú Yáo spoke the truth. The girl had a flat face that looked as if someone had slapped it, and her features were unremarkable at best. If one had to describe her appearance, “crooked nose and slanted eyes” might be the only fitting description.

However, Xie Lian didn’t see if she was beautiful or ugly. It was mainly because when she turned around, there was a huge rip in the back of her skirt, something that couldn’t be pretended to have gone unnoticed.

Fú Yáo was initially shocked but quickly calmed down. The throbbing veins on Nán Fēng’s forehead instantly disappeared.

Seeing their drastic change in expression, Xie Lian hurriedly said, “Don’t be nervous. Don’t be nervous.”

The girl took the incense and knelt down again, praying, “Blessings from General Nán Yáng, I am a humble believer named Xiǎo Yíng, praying that we can catch the Ghost Bride soon and prevent innocent people from being harmed by him…”

She prayed devoutly, completely unaware of the unusual situation behind her or the three people squatting by the feet of the statue she was worshipping. Xie Lian felt a headache coming on and said, “What should we do? We can’t let her leave like this. People will stare at her the whole way back.”

Moreover, judging by the rip in her skirt, it was clearly deliberately made with a sharp object. It was not only a spectacle to be observed but would also be widely ridiculed and mocked. It would truly be a humiliation.

Fú Yáo nonchalantly said, “Don’t ask me. She’s not worshipping our General Xuán Zhēn. We shouldn’t look at her disrespectfully. I didn’t see anything.”

Nán Fēng had a pale face and could only wave his hands, unable to speak. This defiant young man had been reduced to a mute, and there was no hope for him. Xie Lian had to take matters into his own hands. He took off his outer robe and tossed it down. The robe fluttered and landed on the girl, covering up the extremely indecent hole in her skirt. The three of them breathed a collective sigh of relief.

But the wind was peculiar. It startled the girl, and she looked around, taking off the outer robe. After hesitating for a moment, she placed it on the altar and seemed completely unaware. Once she finished lighting the incense, she was about to leave. If she wandered out again, the poor girl would be too embarrassed to face anyone. Seeing that neither Nán Fēng nor Fú Yáo could do anything, Xie Lian sighed. He revealed himself, jumped down, and said, “Excuse me.”

The temple was dimly lit, and when he made the leap, a gust of wind followed, causing the firelight to flicker. The girl, Xiǎo Yíng, suddenly saw a man emerge from the darkness, shirtless, reaching out his hand towards her, and her soul seemed to scatter in an instant.

As expected, a scream ensued. Xie Lian was about to speak, but before he could, the girl swiftly slapped him, exclaiming, “Inappropriate!”

A crisp sound echoed as Xie Lian received a slap across his face.

The two people squatting on the altar involuntarily twitched at the sight of the half-red handprints on his face.

However, Xie Lian wasn’t angered by the slap. Instead, he handed her the outer robe and quickly whispered something. The girl was taken aback, touched her back, suddenly blushed, tears welled up in her eyes, whether from anger or embarrassment. She tightly clutched the outer robe that Xie Lian had given her and fled, covering her face, leaving Xie Lian standing alone. With the girl gone, the temple was empty, and a chilly breeze passed through the hall, making it suddenly feel cold.

He rubbed his face, turned around, and faced the pair of half-red handprints on his cheek as he said to the two boys, “It’s okay now.”

As soon as he finished speaking, Nán Fēng pointed at him and said, “Are… Are your wounds reopening?”

Xie Lian lowered his head and said, “Oh.”

He took off his clothes, revealing smooth and delicate skin. However, his chest was tightly bound with layers of white cloth, with bandages tightly wrapped around his neck and wrists. Numerous tiny wounds peeked out from beneath the edges of the bandages, a truly shocking sight.

Thinking that his twisted neck was almost healed, Xie Lian began to unbind the bandages layer by layer. Fú Yáo glanced at him and asked, “Who was it?”

Xie Lian said, “What?”

Fú Yáo asked, “Who did you fight against?”

Xie Lian replied, “Fight? I didn’t fight anyone.”

Nán Fēng asked, “Then how did you sustain these injuries?”

Xie Lian, bewildered, said, “I fell by myself.”

“…”

It was the injuries he sustained when he fell from heaven three days ago. If it was a fight with someone, he wouldn’t have sustained injuries of this magnitude.

Fú Yáo muttered a few words that weren’t quite audible, but they were definitely not praising him for his resilience. Xie Lian didn’t ask and finished removing the thick bandage from his neck. At that moment, both Nán Fēng and Fú Yáo’s gaze became fixated on his neck.

A black collar encircled his snowy white neck.