Silence permeated the living room as Zi Yuan scrutinized him. Her eyes were completely unreadable, and Li Yundong couldn't help but wonder if he had said something wrong. After a while, a cryptic smile formed on her lips, which vanished quickly.
"Well, you know the basics." Zi Yuan gave him a pointed look.
Li Yundong took his cue and quickly slid off the couch. He sat down on the floor, then got into a meditative posture.
"Close your eyes…"
Li Yundong did as told and sat there quietly, awaiting his next instruction.
"I assume you're aware of the changes in your body after you passed the Zhuji phase?"
"I can feel this thing circling inside my lower abdomen." He shot Zi Yuan a quick glance. "That's my Vital Orb?"
"Technically, what you felt is your Zhenqi."
And what the heck was that? Some special form of Qi?
"Okay...? So this Zhenqi thing... What is it really? I mean... I've never felt its presence before, which means it wasn't there before I passed the Zhuji phase?"
"No, it wasn't. It was synthesized during your attempt to pass the Zhuji phase. I won't go into too much detail for now, but in general, the synthesis of Zhenqi involves a two-step process. First, Qi is condensed to increase its concentration. After that, it will be fortified by the Spirit to become Zhenqi."
Moments passed in silence as Li Yundong pondered her words.
"That's why you asked me to run all the way to Tibet..." Li Yundong opened his eyes to look at Zi Yuan. "All that running gave me the ability to condense my Qi."
"Yes," Zi Yuan said. "For your case, it was absolutely necessary because your Qi had been so greatly enhanced by the Jindan that it became too powerful to condense without extra training."
Li Yundong suddenly remembered his many failed attempts at recreating the Palm Print effect.
"My Qi is too destructive. Too vigorous."
Zi Yuan nodded. "It is much more difficult to condense a body of gas that is turbulent in nature."
"Okay... So this Zhenqi thing is somehow involved in the formation of my Vital Orb?"
"When your Zhenqi reaches your lower Dantian, your Essence holds it together to form the orb's structure." Zi Yuan raised a brow. "There's a reason why your Vital Orb is located at your lower Dantian, you know?"
Understanding washed over Li Yundong. "Because the lower Dantian stores the Essence…"
"Exactly." Zi Yuan smiled. "Also, have you ever wondered how its name came about?"
"You mean the Vital Orb?"
"Yes. Why do think it's called the Vital Orb?"
Li Yundong paused in thought. He tried to recall any mentions of the Vital Orb in the Canon of the Yellow Thearch, but he got nothing. "I don't know." He shook his head and shot Zi Yuan a helpless look. "Sorry."
God, it sucked to be clueless.
"It's alright." Zi Yuan smiled reassuringly. "Well. It's called the Vital Orb because its formation involves the three vital components of life."
Something inside his mind clicked. "The Three Treasures." He glanced at Zi Yuan. "The Essence, Qi, and Spirit."
"Indeed." Zi Yuan nodded. There was a pause. "Incidentally, having a Vital Orb also helps secure these vital components inside your body and prevent someone else from stealing them through external means..."
Li Yundong shot Zi Yuan a curious glance. Su Chan had mentioned that before, but he never got around to ask for a further explanation.
"But of course, it mostly applies to your Qi and your Essence," Zi Yuan said, picking up where she'd left off.
"Right. Because nobody can really steal the Spirit."
Zi Yuan nodded. "And how it does that should be obvious if you consider the fact that your Qi and Essence are both key structural components of your Vital Orb."
Li Yundong processed Zi Yuan's words, which made a lot of sense.
The Vital Orb forms when Zhenqi—basically an upgraded form of a person's Qi—combines with the Essence. So rather than flowing around inside the meridians, Qi will circle around the Vital Orb and become part of its structure.
"So the presence of the Vital Orb itself keeps one's Qi and Essence there..." He looked towards Zi Yuan. "As an integral part of the Vital Orb's structure..."
"That's correct," Zi Yuan said with a quick glance towards him. "If the majority of your body's Qi is integrated into your Vital Orb's structure instead of constantly flowing through your meridians, it becomes much more difficult for another Cultivator to suck your Qi out of your body through the use of spells or any other means." Zi Yuan held his gaze steadily. "A helpful way to think of this is to imagine your Vital Orb as some kind of secure vault that stores your Qi."
"Okay… But what if I actually need my Qi to be flowing through my meridians? Err... Like during combat, for instance."
Zi Yuan waved her hand casually. "That's just a matter of Qi control," she said. "The Vital Orb isn't rigid. Your Zhenqi can be released back into your meridians."
"But wouldn't that cause the Vital Orb to fall apart?"
"Patience..." Zi Yuan raised a hand. "I'll get to that part later."
"Earlier, you mentioned that you've been feeling this new sensation inside your lower abdomen, correct?"
"To be exact, that sensation is caused by the movement of your Zhenqi around the outermost layer of your Vital Orb."
"You mean right on its surface?"
Zi Yuan nodded. "That's where your Zhenqi is furthest away from the center of your lower Dantian. That portion of your Zhenqi breaks free from your Vital Orb's structure because it's no longer held together by your Essence."
"Right. Because it's on the outer layer of the Vital Orb, so it's too far away from my lower Dantian. It didn't have access to my Essence."
"Since you can feel the presence of your Zhenqi, you can move it around your body through your meridians with basic Qi control."
"Just like that? No special techniques required?"
Zi Yuan shook her head. "The normal techniques you learned during the Lianqi phase will do."
Well. That certainly simplified matters.
"Now." Zi Yuan's voice drew his attention back to the conversation. "To get a picture of how everything works, you need to understand the process of the Vital Orb's formation."
Li Yundong shifted on the floor and gave Zi Yuan his full attention.
"But before you get into that, tell me the physical cues you experienced while you were climbing the Himalayas, the ones that told you it was time to make your attempt at the Zhuji phase."
Li Yundong searched his memory for the sensations. "Um… It's like everything was happening on its own. The crown of Three Flowers. The Convergence of Five Qis. All that stuff." He looked towards Zi Yuan. "I didn't even try. They just happened automatically."
Zi Yuan nodded as though she'd been expecting his answer. "That's because your body was in a state so ideal for the task that it literally required no conscious effort at all."
"Right. It just happened naturally."
"Okay. What did you do after you started noticing those cues?"
"Well, I found a secure location inside a rock and performed Guanxiang straightaway. I ended up inside my Spirit Space and…" Li Yundong winced slightly. "And I met my personal god again."
A look of concern formed on Zi Yuan's face. "What happened?"
"Don't play dumb." Zi Yuan glared at him. "There was a look on your face just now when you mentioned your personal god." Zi Yuan's eyes narrowed. "You ran into difficulties when you were trying to sustain Ishvara, didn't you?"
"Yeah, I did." Li Yundong sighed. "It was the scariest thing I've ever experienced."
"What did you see?"
"I was..." Li Yundong shook his head. "It was the divine punishment. I was struck by the Heavenly Thunder over and over again." Li Yundong shuddered. "I thought I was gonna die. It felt so real."
Zi Yuan chuckled humorlessly.
Li Yundong frowned. "What?"
Zi Yuan shook her head. "The first time, it was lust that you had to face. But the second time, it was fear." Zi Yuan held his gaze. "Your personal god used your fear of the divine punishment against you."
"I guess so."
"How'd you gain control?"
Warmth flooded his chest. "It was..." He chuckled. "I remembered Su Chan. And all of a sudden, I didn't feel so scared anymore. Then as the fear slowly went away, I was able to think rationally again. I began to realize that none of it was real. Coz I'd seen how devastating the Heavenly Thunder was. He Shao practically evaporated in seconds. I knew I wouldn't have survived that many strikes, so it had to be an illusion."
Zi Yuan nodded. "Achieving and maintaining the state of Ishvara allows your Spirit to be strong enough for the task, which is to fortify your Qi to produce authentic Zhenqi. Otherwise, you'd just end up producing subpar Zhenqi. The resulting Vital Orb would of course be—"
"Pseudo Vital Orbs," Li Yundong said.
"Correct." Zi Yuan smiled. "The rest of the process should be pretty obvious now. The synthesis of Zhenqi began once you reached Ishvara. Your Zhenqi then moved towards your lower Dantian where it interacted with your Essence to form your Vital Orb. The important thing here is this." Zi Yuan looked towards Li Yundong. "Ishvara has to be sustained long enough until a certain threshold is reached."
"The threshold amount of Zhenqi required for your Vital Orb to have a stable structure."
"Just now, when I told you that it's possible to release your Zhenqi back into your meridians, you expressed some concerns about the Vital Orb losing its structure?" Zi Yuan arched her brow.
"That's a reasonable concern, of course. But it won't happen as long as you don't overdo it. As for the reason why… I'm sure you can figure it out on your own."
"Um... The Vital Orb will stay intact as long as I don't release so much Zhenqi that it drops below the threshold amount?"
Zi Yuan smiled. "Bingo."
Li Yundong did a mental fist pump. It felt good to not act like a clueless idiot for once.
"Your Vital requires a minimum amount of Zhenqi to maintain its structural integrity. That's just the threshold. And obviously, the lower the threshold, the better."
Li Yundong nodded. "What factors determine the threshold then?"
"There are a lot of factors involved. But mainly, it depends on the strength of your Zhenqi and Essence." Zi Yuan looked towards Li Yundong. "If you have a strong Essence, you wouldn't need as much Zhenqi to maintain your Vital Orb's structure. Likewise, if your Zhenqi is powerful, you wouldn't need too much of it. But of course, the strength of your Zhenqi depends on the strengths of your Qi and Spirit."
"Damn... It's amazing to see how everything fits together..."
Zi Yuan gave him that cryptic smile again. "So. Do you have any more questions regarding the Vital Orb's formation?"
Li Yundong shook his head.
"Okay then. Now let's move on to the function of the Vital Orb," Zi Yuan said. "There is another important function of the Vital Orb other than to secure your Qi inside your body."
"Yeah?" Li Yundong snorted. "How about turning someone into an object of the Heavens' target practice?" he mumbled.
"Tsk! Be serious..." Zi Yuan sounded amused.
"Sorry." Li Yundong cleared his throat. "Umm... To store... magical powers?"
Zi Yuan nodded. "Your Vital Orb serves as a container to store spiritual energy. Or magic."
"Yeah. I've been meaning to ask… Where do we get this magic stuff from anyway? I mean..." Li Yundong raised his palms and stared at them for a moment before lowering them back down. "Like, do I possess any magic now?"
"Oh." Well. That was a bit of a bummer.
"Don't look so disappointed," Zi Yuan said with a smile. "Close your eyes."
Li Yundong closed his eyes. "Okay?"
"As usual, you start with the basics. The Crown of Three Flowers. The Convergence of Five Qis."
"Then you have to release a portion of your Zhenqi from your Vital Orb, and then gather it at your upper Dantian. Keep your Zhenqi inside your upper Dantian, where it will be fortified by your Spirit."
Well. Everything sounded pretty easy enough so far. Li Yundong waited silently for more instructions. A minute later, Zi Yuan still hadn't spoken.
Li Yundong opened his eyes. "And then?"
Zi Yuan looked outright amused at his question. "And then return your Zhenqi back to your Vital Orb, of course."
Li Yundong chuckled. "What? That's it?"
Zi Yuan raised a brow. "Is there a problem?"
"But it sounded so easy."
Zi Yuan gave him a disapproving look. "Just because it involves only the basics doesn't mean that it's easy." She arched a brow. "The Goldbach's Conjecture, for example, involves the basic notion of sums and prime numbers, yet it remained one of the oldest unsolved problems in mathematics."
Li Yundong stared at the woman in front of him. Had she really just spouted a bunch of scientific gobbledygook that he knew absolutely nothing about?
Zi Yuan rolled her eyes. "What I just described to you is a process known as the Qi Transmutation cycle."
Zi Yuan wiggled her fingers: a large holographic image of a human torso materialized in the air.
It was the projection spell again.
Li Yundong stared hard at the image until he saw the outlines of all the five Zangs appear within the holographic torso. A few moments after that, a glowing, spherical object materialized at the bottom of the image.
Zi Yuan flicked her hand again.
The image rose from the floor and stopped when it was hovering several feet above their heads.
"Picture your upper Dantian as a cauldron." The image of a cauldron appeared above the torso. "And think of the Qis of your five Zangs as the different types of metal to be used as the raw materials to make coins. And your Spirit…" A small human-shaped figure appeared above the cauldron. "Your Spirit is the alchemist, the one manning the cauldron." Suddenly, the five Zangs began to glow. Colorful substances emerged from the five Zangs and began moving towards the cauldron.
"The Convergence of Five Qis…" Li Yundong whispered.
"Now all the raw materials are gathered inside the cauldron. Next …" The human-shaped figure above the cauldron moved. It appeared to be adding some kind of liquid substance into the cauldron. "The Essence acts as the catalyst." A moment later, the bottom of the cauldron burst into flames. "The Qi acts as the fire, or energy source. The three flowers are now in place." There was a pause. "There's a name for that physical state."
"The Crown of Three Flowers…" Li Yundong answered.
"Correct. And now to kick-start the transmutation process…"
Some kind of strange substance emerged from the surface of the spherical orb at the bottom of the image. The substance flowed through the meridians towards the cauldron on top. The process was slow and a little dull, but he did notice something interesting: the Five Zangs began to glow like crazy whenever the substance flowed past them.
Flames erupted from the top of the cauldron when the substance went inside. It was like watching some kind of intense chemical reaction. Seconds later, the flames disappeared.
The cauldron was now filled to the brim with coins.
Surprisingly, the strange substance from the orb wasn't used up during the reaction; it remained bubbling inside the cauldron, slipping back and forth between the coins.
The next thing he knew, the cauldron was overflowing. The strange substance was pouring out of the cauldron, carrying the coins back to the orb with it. While all that was happening, the Qis of the Five Zangs began moving towards the cauldron once again.
"There you have it," Zi Yuan said. "The Qi Transmutation cycle."
"The coins…" Li Yundong said after a moment. He glanced at Zi Yuan. "The coins represent spiritual energy, don't they?"
"Indeed." The holographic images vanished into thin air when Zi Yuan curled her fingers into a fist. "Here's a simple analogy that involves trade and commerce. Suppose you want to make a purchase from a merchant. Then, you'll need to expend coins." Zi Yuan held his gaze steadily. "Well, the purchase of goods represents—"
"Spells," Li Yundong answered. "The use of spells."
Zi Yuan smiled. "And the coins represent spiritual energy, the entity that you need to expend in order to use spells. So. Is there anything else you're still unclear about?"
"What about that strange substance flowing into the cauldron from the orb? I'm guessing that represents the Zhenqi?"
"Is it even an ingredient? I mean it wasn't used up at all during the reaction."
"The Zhenqi isn't an ingredient, no. Only the Qis of the Five Zangs are." Zi Yuan paused. "Even so, the Zhenqi's presence is absolutely necessary for the transmutation to occur. It plays several roles in the process, you see?" She held up a finger. "First, it activates the entire reaction."
"Right. The stuff inside the cauldron sort of started cooking the moment the substance was added into it."
He must've said something silly because Zi Yuan suddenly looked very amused. Whatever.
"And did you notice how the Zhenqi carried all the coins back into the Vital Orb?"
"That's the Zhenqi's second role. It acts as a conveyor of spiritual energy." Zi Yuan stared at Li Yundong. "Your spiritual energy is stored inside your Vital Orb, but it can only be mobilized to all parts of your body via your Zhenqi."
Li Yundong nodded. "What's up with the Five Zangs though?" He gave her a searching look. "They started glowing like crazy when the Zhenqi got near them."
"Good eye for detail," Zi Yuan said in a tone of approval. "That's one of the properties of Zhenqi." Zi Yuan regarded him seriously. "It revitalizes your Zangs and stimulates the production of their Qis. The Qis of your Five Zangs will be expended during Qi Transmutation. So there has to be a way for your Five Zangs to regenerate their Qis. Otherwise, your organs will die."
Li Yundong snapped his fingers. "That's why it's called the Qi Transmutation cycle, isn't it? The Zhenqi moves around in a loop. When the transmutation process is completed, the Zhenqi carries the spiritual energy back to the Vital Orb. After that it flows back up to the upper Dantian again. On the way up, it will pass by the five Zangs and stimulate the production of more raw ingredients. And the process repeats itself."
"Very good. Seems like you've caught on quite well."
Hey. Come to think of it…
Li Yundong glanced up at Zi Yuan. "The Zhenqi works a little bit like blood, doesn't it? It carries spiritual energy around just like how—"
"Just like how blood carries nutrients around, yes."
"Wow." Li Yundong shook his head a little. "Cultivation Theory, huh?"
Zi Yuan smiled. "Are you ready to put theory into practice?"
Li Yundong smirked.
"I thought you'd never ask."