Three people stood outside Hirai Hikaru’s cave.
Kenja recognized two of them as former ‘Senior’ Brother Matsushita Hizumi and his minion Bando. The third individual was a Herculean old man wearing an elder’s robes with a bristly mutton chop and prickly chest hairs sticking out from his collar.
The junior brothers looked at Kenja with stunned expressions filled with disbelief while the senior was not much better off.
Third Elder Kondo silently inquired of Matsushita Hizumi and Bando, “Is this her?”
Both Matsuhita Hizumi and Bando failed to reply.
They looked over Hirai Hikaru several times, eyes about to pop out. Her appearance was the same as before yet drastically different in a way that was difficult to discern. His current state was abnormal as well.
Kenja’s wet hair strands stuck to his face and neck as the beads of sweat that glistened off his skin gave an attractive and appealing allure none of the onlookers were prepared for. The soft, natural smile that greeted them combined with his unkempt hair, weary eyes and shortness of breath produced the image of a fragile, modest young woman who suffered through a strenuous exercise.
Many of the less savory-minded amongst the disciples viewed him in an obscene and suggestive light.
Moreover, the fragrance coming off his body infiltrated the noses of everyone present.
Those at the Qi Flourishing stage and below found the odour oddly invasive, yet light and pleasing, but the stronger one’s cultivation was, the more powerful one’s senses became.
Those more powerful individuals that caught a whiff tasted an incredibly delicious scent that stirred their heart and appetite. They could not resist taking several dozen more sniffs until they could not smell it anymore.
Under the guise of wanting to get a better look, the distant disciples stealthily moved a bit closer in hopes that they could smell it again, the beautiful fairy emitting the fragrance bewitching them more and more with each passing second.
Even Shimizu Mizutani who was watching from behind the Sixth Elder felt her heart race when the aroma entered her nose, her wariness towards Hirai Hikaru greatly diminished as a faint tenderness towards her was borne.
Feeling the weight of the gazes of, not only the three men in front of him, but the other three elders and all the other disciples, Kenja’s nerves were strained to their limit.
Proper etiquette dictated that the visitors would first greet the one they were visiting, but after several breaths of waiting, Matsushita Hizumi and Bando stood there frozen, continuously blinking their eyes several times. The tall and muscular elder standing by did not hurry them to speak either, keeping his eyes locked on Kenja in unexpected amazement.
Unable to bear the pressure any longer, Kenja greeted them first, “Hikaru greets elder and her two junior brothers.”
Snapping out of his shock, Matsushita Hizumi stuttered, “I-Is that really you, Juni—ahh ahh, Senior Sister Hirai?”
When he recalled the previous two times they had met, this person’s appearance, voice and way of speaking certainly matched the mundane-looking, smart-mouthed, big-nosed little girl that got in his way twice, but why did she seem like a completely different person? And her fragrance…so heavenly, continually assaulted his mind and other senses.
He was troubled, and his bitterness towards this ethereal flower was combating a powerful urge to make peace with her.
Thinking something might be wrong with his disguise, Kenja feigned a light chuckle, “Junior Brother knows how to joke. It has only been a few days since you last treated me to some spirit fruit.”
Due to his nervousness, more beads of sweat formed on his face as he furtively checked his outfit to make sure everything was in place. Yet, this only enhanced his aesthetic appeal as he appeared more like a defenseless girl who worried over her indecent appearance while a bunch of ruthless, older men bullied her.
Matsushita Hizumi coughed loudly to reaffirm control of himself and wake Bando up, but Bando did not waver. Noticing the dazed trance Bando was in, he used his Sixth Sense to knock him awake.
“Owww!” He rubbed the back of his head before instinctively glaring at Matsushita Hizumi who returned a meaner glare, reminding Bando of his place. Cowering, Bando remembered where they were and what he had to do.
Without offering his greetings, Bando glared at Kenja, “This is venerable Third Elder. Third Elder, this is Junior Sister Hirai. Venerable Third Elder came, uh—He, uh—He came to, uh…” he trailed off halfway after losing himself in Kenja’s visage, his sneer completely gone.
Seeing Bando go silent, Kenja took the opportunity to furrow his brows in false anger before looking at Matsushita Hizumi.
“Junior brother, we had an agreement that you all would treat me as your senior sister. I haven’t come to your door to make trouble for you, so I do not understand why your juniors cannot uphold their promises when visiting my door. Is it just those related to you that are like this, or should I expect this from other disciples in the sect as well? Will you also mistreat me?”
Kenja’s words were venomous, cornering both Matsushita Hizumi and his followers as wrongdoers that lied and brought disgrace to their sect and its disciples. Any other day, against any other person, Matsushita Hizumi would not worry about such words and pummel the slanderer.
But with such a large crowd spectating, including his master and several elders, and the fact that his enemy was safely protected behind the Soul Oath he made, he could only stand there and be thoroughly humiliated.
Worst of all, his enemy now had the impression, voice and fragrance of a bewitching fairy that instantly ensnared the sympathy of the young disciples behind him, causing many looks of anger and disapproval to land on him.
One of the beloved and respected Tributaries of the sect!
Matsushita Hizumi was aggrieved.
He grit his teeth and locked eyes with Kenja.
Every time they met, he would suffer a loss, and each loss was greater than the previous one. If he had not felt a burning hatred for Hirai Hikaru to the extent that he wished he could completely ruin her, he might have taken such a woman as his companion alongside Ryuga’s younger princess.
A woman of this calibre and appearance could stand by his side as a partner for many decades.
Alas, too much enmity had been sown between them. He could only pray his master would redress his grievances on his behalf.
Fuming, he turned to Bando.
Witnessing his junior create such trouble for him before falling into a stupor, Matsushita Hizumi unceremoniously grabbed Bando’s collar and launched him several dozen meters backwards, letting him fall hard onto the crowd of disciples behind them.
While this would not kill him, Bando would surely suffer a couple of broken bones as payment for embarrassing him.
“Junior Brother Bando is still young and prone to err. Please, excuse his faux pas, senior sister. I will take care to educate him properly in the future,” he forced out through grit teeth, praying Kenja would not make things more difficult for him.
Kenja grinned at him. “Senior sister was just teasing junior brother. Don’t be so serious.”
Kenja was merely testing the limits of the Soul Oath constraining Matsushita Hizumi.
He was pleasantly surprised with the results. Seeing the Core Crystallization cultivator dance to the tune of his words so obediently, Kenja wondered whether there was a practical way of utilizing a Soul Oath in combat or other life threatening situations.
Maybe he could trick Snail into swearing a few more so that he would be easier to manage.
How great would that be!
Hearing Kenja’s remark, Matsushita Hizumi nearly spurted blood, and Elder Kondo’s face darkened several shades.
Right after injuring Bando to showcase his sincerity, Kenja’s innocent-sounding reply portrayed Matsushita Hizumi as a cruel person who punished his juniors over insignificant matters and jokes to curry favor with his superior.
He could sense the previous disapproval of the crowd directed at him transform into derision and disdain, infuriating him to the point where he could barely control himself. He scowled at Kenja, but whenever he thought of pressuring him with his cultivation, a stabbing pain infiltrated his heart and mind.
And because the other elders were present, he could not take his anger out on the junior disciples watching them. Left with nowhere to vent, he squeezed his fists until they bled and looked to his master for help.
“Ho ho ho, she really is an interesting one. Such wit! Certainly, she must be a fellow architect. What do you think, Aracha?”
The perpetually-brewing tea girl was, for once, not brewing tea as she stood a little behind the elders staring wide-eyed at Kenja. She could not reconcile his current image with the person she met at the studio, yet she was unable to pick out a single difference.
“Che-che-che, look at her regal demeanor and her enchanting appearance. She’s obviously an apothecary, an alchemist, like me.”
Because cultivators frequently relied on external supplements to advance more quickly, pills were always in hot demand. Thus, pill-makers were widely respected and revered even if their cultivation happened to be lacking, and because of their capability, they would look down on others regardless of one’s cultivation.
“In fact, I bet she used her own personal creations to help digest the spirit fruit and to enhance her looks, che-che.”
After the Third Elder left to knock on Hirai Hikaru’s door, his disciple, Shimizu Mizutani, had just finished relaying to them the sequence of events that transpired between Matsushita Hizumi and Kenja.
Naturally, they assumed the large amount of spirit fruit Kenja had consumed was most likely an embellishment made by the witnesses and subsequent story tellers.
Plus, they could name several methods that would allow a Qi Flourishing cultivator to appear as if he ate and processed more spirit fruit than he should be capable of.
“Enough of your laughing and ‘che’-ing! It’s obvious that Third Brother’s little disciple has been tormented by her. Be ready to intervene in case Third Brother can’t control himself,” the Fourth Elder reminded them.
“You’re just sore because you know I’m right, so you’re trying to change the subject,” snorted the Sixth Elder.
Ariyoshi Miji rolled his eyes at him.
“A tiny Qi Flourishing girl is humiliating Little Nephew Hizu, who has reached the Core Crystallization stage, in front of his own master who has cultivated his Nascent Soul, just like us. Is idiotic recklessness and a desire to die also things you lab monkeys possess?”
Gao Diao did not reply, but he turned his nose up at him and looked back at the scene.
Ariyoshi Miji was intentionally critical towards Kenja, not because he no longer wished to accept her as one of his own, but because of the opposite. He wanted her more than ever, and he would do anything he could to discourage these annoying brothers of his to back off.
That fearlessness and ability to adapt to the unforeseen were excellent traits for a seedling that would be groomed as a fighter. Additionally, Kenja lacked the usual female proportions that would hamper a woman’s physical capabilities in the early stages of cultivation, elevating his chances of surviving to an old age where he could better utilize the advantages of his gender.
Imagine, if he could cultivate to the end, Kenja would have the best of both worlds! And he, the master of such a person, would become famous worldwide.
Moreover, he was the only one amongst them that had seen Kenja previously, so he could discern the change in his aura and appearance.
Despite his mannish build, Kenja released a feminine appeal so grand and enchanting that the contradiction with his profile formed a bittersweet temptation that could stir anyone’s heart.
Ariyoshi Miji deduced that Kenja must have a special constitution!
He could already imagine the countless number of sect leaders and suitors asking for his disciple’s hand, offering the world’s riches just to curry his favor. Even if he were wrong and Kenja lacked a special constitution, having such natural beauty at such an early realm would mean his future prospects were boundless.
Ariyoshi Miji’s thoughts raced as he estimated the countless benefits he could obtain from picking up Kenja. But they all came to a stop when he saw Third Elder Kondo step forward to speak with Kenja.
Elder Kondo was aggrieved.
He thought he had come to put a rambunctious and insignificant junior back in her place.
Yet, this little girl had stirred up quite a commotion within the sect. Apparently unsatisfied with just his Fifth Sister, she had triumphed over two of the elders’ challenges and attracted the attention of three more elders.
And after seeing Kenja for himself, he was deeply disappointed in his disciple.
Such a fine young woman!
Despite his old age and infatuation with his Fifth Sister, his heart was actually moved.
Surely, such a disciple was quite fitting for his beloved Fifth Sister.
Yet, his disciple was such a fool, troubling this treasure and making her despise him.
He had half a mind to scold and punish his disciple in an attempt to break down the enmity between them before it became irresolvable, but then, Little Hizu’s idiotic junior provoked her into making a fool of Little Hizu.
After receiving Little Hizu’s silent plea for help, Third Elder Kondo could only shake his head in disappointment.
It seemed there was no way of resolving the hatred between them so that he could discover a way to attach her to his disciple.
What a waste!
They could have been a pair of masters and disciples!
Elder Kondo huffed through his nose to steel his resolve before stepping towards Kenja.
About five or six times wider and several heads taller than Kenja, he resembled a towering giant that could squash his existence with a single step.
Kenja felt an invisible pressure engulf him, but it was restrained, not attacking or burdening him in any way. It was obvious that the Third Elder was using his force of presence to threaten and scare Kenja more than anything.
“I know what you’ve done to Little Hizu. What do you have to say for yourself?” He roared, intentionally boosting his volume with Qi to allow all the other disciples to hear him.
He had to regain some face for Little Hizu and himself else a knot might form in his disciple’s heart that could threaten his future progress.
Plus, he was a sect elder!
Even though he would not wrongfully bully a junior, especially in front of his other brothers, Kenja would still have to afford him the treatment and respect of a sect elder.
Otherwise, he would be punished by the sect rules for disrespecting the authority and hierarchy of seniority.
He would scare him a bit with his voice and pressure, have him return the keystones, and allow Little Hizu to remove the Soul Oath placed on him.
Strangely, Kenja faced him without a hint of fear, prompting the Third Elder’s brow to furrow even more.
Just as he was about to increase the pressure placed on Kenja, the young disciple did something no one expected.
He cupped his hands and bowed respectfully to the Third Elder, staying bowed for several breaths.
His medium-length hair parted to reveal a clean and enticing nape with several wet hairs sticking to it in a picturesque manner that stupefied a large portion of the stronger disciples who squinted their eyes and salivated at the sight.
Then, he stood back up and said something that left all of them, even the other elders and Snail, completely stunned.
“Please, Third Elder, don’t punish junior brother. He is young and prone to err.”