!! THIS IS A NEW, ONGOING NOVEL !!
Terms in the novel may be changed in the future depending on future plot reveals (aka context)
Midnight. The rain was pouring in torrents.
Fog rolled among mountain ridges, where a procession of people was forging on ahead through the rain. The one in the lead was thin and weary, and he tottered unsteadily on his feet like a paper-cut figure who could not withstand the elements. Said paper-cut figure was holding a white paper lantern, its faint light illuminating his face, revealing his long, slender eyes and brows and two cheeks daubed with red rouge. He was dressed like a male matchmaker.
“It’s a wedding, not a funeral. Why all the sad faces?” The matchmaker was displeased. “This is a joyous occasion, so brighten up!”
Each of the sedan-bearers behind looked as though they had lost their parents; rather than a bridal procession, it was more like a funeral procession. But they did not dare to disobey the matchmaker’s instructions, so the group plastered on forced smiles, looking particularly bizarre in the rain.
Being drenched in the rain had put the matchmaker in a foul mood. Seeing how horrible they looked smiling, he scoffed, “How many people have died during the drought these years? I pleaded with Heaven and Earth for you people, kowtowing my head off, and finally, I managed to get Ming-Gong1 to help us out of this predicament and bestow this pouring rain upon us. All that is asked of you people now is to offer a bride to Him, and you want to pull long faces at me. That’s quite the temper you people have there.”
Among the wedding procession was an old man on his walking stick, gasping for breath. Hearing the matchmaker, he hurriedly attempted to pacify him. “Benefactor, please be appeased. If not for you, we wouldn’t have this life-saving rain. We’ll never forget your great kindness.” Having said so, he turned back to rebuke the procession squad, then smiled placatingly at the matchmaker. “There’s still a table full of fine wine and dishes awaiting you when we return later…”
This old man was old and feeble, and all skin and bones. In a rain this heavy, he was still wearing a pair of old tattered common fabric shoes beneath his short garment. These shoes were already worn out to begin with, and being soaked in water on the way here had completely ruined them beyond recognition. For some unknown reasons, the old man, despite his old age, still had to follow behind the matchmaker, stammering as he fawned on him.
The matchmaker was not in the least willing to give him face. “Oh, come on. What kind of fine wine and dishes can this barren place have? Once I’ve sent the bride over in a while, my work will be done. I couldn’t care less about staying here any more than I have to.”
The old man needed his help, so he could only make repeated noises of agreement. Fortunately, the remaining journey was short. After a moment, they saw a stone monument half a person’s height standing erect by the side of the road. The matchmaker took a few steps forward and shone his lantern at the path ahead.
“We’ve arrived at His temple.”
The old man had once served as a study companion in his youth and so could read a few words, but when he approached the stone monument for a closer look, he realized the inscriptions were all in “the language of the gods”. This kind of divine language was also known as the “language for the decree of fate”. It was a type of language used to summon and dispatch deities, and only the officials from the Mandate of Heaven Academy could learn it; rarely would common folks have the chance to encounter it. The old man had seen it once while serving as a study companion to his master, but he only knew it was a divine language and not what it meant.
The matchmaker fished out a paper with a spell inscribed on it from his sleeve and tossed it into the air, where it instantly combusted flamelessly and turned into a floating guiding lamp.
“Hurry,” he urged, “don’t miss the auspicious time.”
The group followed the guiding lamp. Sure enough, in about the time it took for an incense stick to burn, they saw a temple. This temple was odd, straddling alone between the mountain ridges as though it had materialized out of thin air. His expression stern, the matchmaker strode into the temple, while the others followed closely behind him.
As soon as the group stepped in, a wild gust of wind assailed them and extinguished the white paper lantern in the matchmaker’s hands, leaving only the guiding lamp lit. Everyone cried out in alarm, and the bridal sedan chair on their shoulders teetered. With his walking stick for support, the old man managed with effort to steady himself.
“Don’t panic,” he shouted, “hold the bridal sedan steady…”
The group could hardly keep their balance enough to bother about the bridal sedan. A loud BANG rang out as the sedan landed heavily on the ground, and the bride tumbled out. The matchmaker grabbed hold of the bride, who felt hard to the touch.
He flew into a rage. “The cheek of you, stinky old dog! How dare you deceive me with a fake?!”
How was this a bride? It was clearly a big block of wood!
The old man slumped to the ground and pleaded, “Benefactor, it has been one year after another of calamities, and too many people have died… Asking me to offer a bride now would be violating human ethics and going against the natural order of the world…”
“Just as well!” The matchmaker sneered. “I knew you people couldn’t do it. The bride offering was merely a pretext. Humph! Sixteen of you from the procession is just perfect to satiate Him.”
The colors drained from everyone’s face.
“What,” the old man blurted, “what did you say—”
The corners of the matchmaker’s mouth had, at some point, arched into two hooks, giving him an unearthly appearance.
“Did I not tell you? I’m a matchmaker who specializes in matchmaking for spirits and deities. Ming-Gong has huge, sharp teeth, and he has to eat one ‘bride’ a day. To bring forth this rain, He has already been starving for several days.”
Realizing the situation did not bode well, the old man shouted at the group, “Get out! Quick! We’ve fallen for a trap!”
The matchmaker’s body twisted like a rope, and his dark reddish-brown sleeves fluttered in mid-air. Holding the guiding lamp with both hands, he looked askance at the group. “Only the dead can get out of this temple. You want to leave? Fine, I’ll fulfill your wishes. Ming-Gong, manifest yourself for your meal!”
The curtains in the temple fluttered windlessly onto the group of people, scaring them so much that they screamed in unison. A great force seized the crowd from behind and dragged them toward the spirit tablet’s altar. It was dark deep in the altar, as though it was hiding some kind of behemoth. Seeing them wailing, the matchmaker threw his head back and laughed. The bells on the fallen bridal sedan rang wildly and with even more urgency than the pelting rain outside.
Seeing as it would not end well tonight, the old man bemoaned, Alas! If I’d known it would come to this, I’d have come alone tonight and paid for this rain with my old life instead of dragging everyone to their deaths with me!
Stricken with regret, the old man shouted toward the altar, “Ming-Gong, please hear me out. The recent prayers for rain were all my own doing. If you want to eat someone, take me first!”
Having said this, he threw himself before the altar and closed his eyes to wait for death to claim him. But strangely enough, there was none of the pain he expected; instead, he heard a laugh. Astonished, the old man snapped his eyes open. Entering his vision first was the corner of a deep-red robe with black trimming, adorned with embroidery of goldfishes in red and gold threads.
“Who’s there?!” the matchmaker bellowed.
“Someone who doesn’t eat humans,” the person answered.
There was only one guiding lamp in the temple in the hands of the matchmaker, and the light could not reach far enough to illuminate the altar. The matchmaker silently recited several divine incantations in the language of the gods in an attempt to summon Ming-Gong, but something seemed to have gone wrong, and Ming-Gong didn’t materialize as he expected.
“What’s that lamp you have there?” the person asked.
His voice was clear and mellow, with a hint of laughter, as if he were someone who would not get angry.
Suspecting this person to be behind his failure to summon the god, the matchmaker flung the guiding lamp between his palms at him. “Your Lamp of Everlasting Flame!”2
The guiding lamp spun the entire way over. Several spirits suddenly materialized from the pea-like wick, baring their fangs and claws as they lunged at the person. He raised his hand, remotely cupping the guiding lamp, and the evil spirits promptly vanished.
“Sending me a lamp even while you’re running for your life,” he said, “you’re really a nice person.”
“What?” The matchmaker answered. “Who’s running for his life?!”
“Aren’t you?” The person looked surprised.
Seeing how he had caught the guiding lamp while chatting and laughing, the matchmaker knew this person was no ordinary man. He started harboring the idea of retreating, although his mouth said otherwise, “Nonsense! When have I ever run for my life…”
Before he could finish his words, the person laughed again.
“What are you laughing at?” The matchmaker asked, his hair standing on end.
“At your foolishness,” the person answered, “for not running for your life on encountering me.”
The faint light of the guiding lamp revealed the man’s figure sitting in a casual and uninhibited manner that was very unruly. One of his hands was holding the guiding lamp and the other, an ebony folding fan. The fan, which had no ornaments or patterns, was gloomy black all over, creating a distinct contrast of black and white against his hand.
The matchmaker stared blankly at that hand, or perhaps at that fan. It hit him in a flash, and his expression underwent a drastic change. “To the netherworld the mystic fan guides, reverence he shows not of ghosts and gods—You’re Jiang Zhuo!”
The matchmaker flashed to the entrance of the temple even before he had finished his words. He had never run for his life before, but now, he was fleeing even faster than anyone else. Outside, the rain persisted, unabated. He quickly recited a spell, his body already half out of the door when there was a loud thump, and his head fell to the ground.
“Jiang Zhuo,” the head raised a slender eyebrow and raged, “I have no feud with you—”
Another snap, and his arms fell off too.
Seeing this, someone’s eyes rolled back into their head, and they fainted from fright.
The matchmaker’s legs were still running. The instant they stepped into the rain, his head screamed, “It’s scalding! It’s scalding! Jiang Zhuo, to think you summoned the spectral rain to burn me!”
The rain pelted the matchmaker, reducing him to nothing in the blink of an eye, like a paper being burned away. A faint burned smell pervaded the air. The head was still making a ruckus, and a hand—belonging to a young female swordswoman about fifteen or sixteen of age—picked it up.
Jiang Zhuo opened up half of the folding fan and waved it at the young swordswoman. “Keep it with you first. I’ll be right there.”
A gust of wind blew the young swordswoman and the matchmaker’s head away.
The old man was badly shaken, and he still looked a bit dazed, as if he had been robbed of his mental faculties. A sudden tap of the folding fan on his shoulder snapped him back to his senses, and he immediately said his thanks, “Benefactor…”
Seeing his new savior’s true appearance upon looking up, the old man exclaimed aloud and froze in place, dumbfounded. Not that the old man was rude; this new benefactor indeed had an extraordinary appearance, blessed as he was with a pair of amber pupils and a smile like deep, sparkling water that could completely spellbind a person, making them lose themselves within. The most peculiar of all was the three red dots arranged in the shape of a fan behind the outer corner of his left eye, making it hard to tell if he was a demon or an immortal.
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- 溟公 basically the God/Lord of sea/netherworld/drizzling rain. Using pinyin for the time being until more context is available.
- 长明灯 Changming lamp (or literally everbright lamp), an everlasting altar lamp that is kept burning day and night.
- Si-ge, fourth (elder) brother.