At first, Li Yundong thought he'd misheard Zi Yuan, but then when he looked at her, he saw that she was staring right back at him.
Her expression was dead serious.
"Are you up for it?" Zi Yuan said after a moment of silence. "It's pretty late now, which is ideal because you can practice on the balcony without having to worry about anyone seeing you."
Was he up for it? Oh, hell frigging yeah.
"Yeah. Let's do it."
Zi Yuan gave him a brief nod before turning to face Ruan Hongling.
"Hongling, why don't you head back first?" Zi Yuan said in a low and gentle tone. "I'm just going to teach him the basics. It probably won't take long."
Ruan Hongling stole a glance at him, then said, "Oh."
Ruan Hongling stood up and headed towards the balcony. It surprised Li Yundong a little that she didn't at least argue or throw another tantrum. But still, he was grateful for her acquiescence. He really wasn't looking forward to another bickering match with the girl.
At the railing, Ruan Hongling suddenly turned around to look at him. Li Yundong couldn't decipher the look in her eyes right then. Her expression wasn't angry like just now when they were bickering. Rather, it seemed conflicted, as though she herself didn't know what she was feeling.
He wondered what it meant.
Perhaps it had something to do with that speech he gave earlier.
"Good night," Li Yundong shouted at the balcony when he saw Ruan Hongling turning away.
A second later, Ruan Hongling vanished in green flash.
Li Yundong raised his hand and shut the sliding door with Qi Kinesis.
Then, he turned to face Zi Yuan.
"Now, let's begin," Zi Yuan said, pointing at the cushion she'd left behind the last time she was here.
Li Yundong took the cue and sat down on the donut-shaped cushion.
"As always, we'll start with the concepts," Zi Yuan said. "I want you to understand the principles of flight first and then put them into practice."
Li Yundong sat up straighter. "I'm all ears."
A look of amusement spread across Zi Yuan's countenance.
"Is that how you think this is gonna go?" Zi Yuan raised a brow. "That I'll just tell you everything?"
Err… Okay? Clearly, he was missing something here.
Li Yundong stared at the living goddess in front of him and then frowned. "Sorry, but isn't that the point of taking lessons from you?"
Zi Yuan shrugged nonchalantly. "Well, I will tell you the answers at some point. But only after you try to figure out the answers for yourself."
Li Yundong spend a few seconds pondering the implication of her statement.
"So let me get this straight..." Li Yundong stared at the woman skeptically. "You want me to figure out how to fly. On my own. Just like that."
The tiniest of smiles formed on Zi Yuan's lips. "Why, yes. And I also want you to learn how to think for yourself."
Li Yundong chuckled wryly. "Not even a hint?"
"The hint," Zi Yuan said pointedly and with a slight pause, "is that you're already in possession of all the tools required for flight. You just have to put everything together and get it to work." Zi Yuan gave him a stern look. "Now. Think. How? How can you utilize everything you've learned so far and make yourself fly?"
Li Yundong closed his eyes and got himself to relax. He could do this. He could figure this out.
Before he passed the Zhuji phase, flying wasn't even a remote possibility, so he could probably discount the tools he'd obtained during the Ningshen and Lianqi phases. Granted, they could still be somehow involved—since each Cultivation phase builds upon the previous phases—but their roles were probably minor. Obviously, whatever it was that makes flight possible must be something that he picked up during the Shentong phase.
He spent a minute recalling everything he'd learned so far: during the Zhuji phase, he learned how to synthesize Zhenqi and then integrate it with his Essence to form a part of his Vital Orb; after that, he learned the Qi Transmutation Cycle, which allows him to generate spiritual energy using the Qis of this five Zangs; then there was the Orb Fortification Cycle, which allows him to use Guanxiang to strengthen his Vital Orb; he also learned how to channel his Zhenqi into the Fan of Seven Treasures and then use it to interact with the fan; finally, Qi Kinesis, which was probably the coolest and non-destructive thing he'd ever done since he became a Cultivator.
Well, those were pretty much everything he'd learned since passing the Zhuji phase. But how could he put everything together to help him fly? Where should he go from here? How should he approach the problem?
After a few minutes of contemplation, he decided to apply the principle that Sun Tzu had expounded in the Art of War: know yourself and know your enemy, for that's the key to winning a hundred battles.
In other words, he had to first understand what flying entails before trying to figure out how to fly.
Obviously, the prerequisite to flying was levitation. He had to somehow lift his body off the ground and then get it to either: hover in the air for as long as he wanted; or move it through space in any direction he wished.
And all that had to be achieved using just his mind alone.
In a way this was like telekine—
His eyes shot open right then, and he stared at Zi Yuan for a moment.
"It's… It's Qi Kinesis, isn't it?" Li Yundong said. "That's the underlying mechanism behind flying. It's just another form of Qi Kinesis."
A satisfied smile spread across Zi Yuan's lips. "Very good. Looks like you managed to figure it out after all. And in such a short amount of time too." She nodded approvingly. "I'm impressed." She shifted on the couch and gave him a firm stare. "Yes. At your current level, flying is essentially an advanced form of Qi Kinesis."
Li Yundong let his thoughts linger on the "at your current level" remark. He wondered what she meant by that. The only thing he could think of was that there were more than one way for Cultivators to fly. He refrained himself from pressing for details, and chose instead to wait for Zi Yuan to continue her explanation.
"Normal Qi Kinesis involves mobilizing your Zhenqi and then using it to move external objects," Zi Yuan went on. "When attempting to fly, you'll also be mobilizing your Zhenqi, only that you'll use it to move your own body through space."
"Hold on a second." Li Yundong raised a palm. "Something's not right..." He frowned. "I get that part about using Zhenqi to move your own body through space, but how exactly is it gonna work?" He met Zi Yuan's gaze. "Like, for example, if I wanna move an object with Qi Kinesis, my Zhenqi has to be in contact with the object itself, right? But how is it gonna work if it's my own body? I suppose the most obvious way is to send my Zhenqi out of my body and then push it against the floor—sort of like the gas propulsion system they use for rockets. Sure, that might help me levitate off the ground, but to fly through space? That's a little impractical, isn't it? Like, if I wanna fly 30,000 feet above ground level, do I even have enough Zhenqi to cover that much vertical distance? I mean, it's not like I can grab the surrounding air with my Zhenqi and then push my body forward, right?"
Zi Yuan was laughing by the time he reached the end of his explanation. "A reasonable question," she said, her eyes glinting with mirth. "But you didn't let me finish."
"Don't be," she said. "Like I mentioned earlier, I want you to be able to think for yourself. So far, you've been doing exactly that." She cleared her throat. "Now. To answer your question, no. You don't have to latch your Zhenqi to the ground and then use that contact to push yourself through space. That's not how flying works in Cultivation. The key difference between flying and normal Qi Kinesis is that you'll have to expend your spiritual energy to generate the required propulsion force to push your body forward. That's why a Cultivator is taught how to fly before they are taught how to cast spells. Because when learning how to fly, the Cultivator will, for the first time, learn how to convert their spiritual energy into some other form of energy." Zi Yuan glanced at him. "Which is basically what happens when you perform spells from the five elements."
Zi Yuan stopped talking all of a sudden.
Li Yundong used the brief pause to process what he'd just been told.
Seconds later, Zi Yuan picked up where she left off.
"Now. When I said converting your spiritual energy into other forms of energy, here is what I mean. At the most basic level, you're using—or expending—your spiritual energy to generate kinetic energy, like the propulsion force required for flight. And once you become adept at that, you'll be able to manipulate or, at an even more advanced level, create material that belongs to the five elements."
Pretty sure that was exactly what Ao Wushuang did when she kicked his ass that night. Unless he was very much mistaken, Ao Wushuang had created wood, water, fire, and earth seemingly out of nothing. No. In hindsight, it probably wasn't out of nothing, but out of her spiritual energy.
"Another thing to keep in mind is the movement pattern of your Zhenqi the whole time you're flying. In this regard, there are two requirements to be fulfilled. One, a small portion of your Zhenqi must extend beyond your body, just like when you're doing Qi Kinesis. This requirement is logical if you think about it—"
"Because it would be pointless if the propulsion force is generated inside the body," Li Yundong cut in. "We want to force to propel the entire body through space, not push our internal organs within the confines of the body."
"Precisely. And the second requirement is that your Zhenqi has to move in a circulatory pattern. And the reason for that is simple." Zi Yuan glanced at him. "You already know that your Zhenqi is the entity that carries or conveys your spiritual energy to anywhere inside or outside your body."
"Like how blood carries nutrients and stuff."
"Indeed. And you also know that a small portion of your Zhenqi has to be outside your body while you're flying, and that your spiritual energy will be expended to generate the required propulsion force." Zi Yuan raised her brows. "So you do the math."
Li Yundong nodded. "After the propulsion force is generated, the spiritual energy contained within the Zhenqi outside the body will be used up. So I'm guessing the idea is to return the depleted Zhenqi back into the body and then replace it with a fresh batch that contains spiritual energy. That's why the Zhenqi has to move in a circuit."
"Yes. And there has to be continuity its flow as well," Zi Yuan said. "Otherwise, you won't be able to fly smoothly. This is why flying is essentially advanced Qi Kinesis. It takes complete mastery of Qi control to be able to fulfill both requirements. If you're really advanced, you can even fly and perform the Qi Transmutation Cycle at the same time." Zi Yuan held his gaze. "That way, you'll always have enough spiritual energy to fly."
"Right, because the Qi Transmutation Cycle regenerates your spiritual energy. So if we perform it while flying, we'll never run out of spiritual energy."
"Alright. I think I get the theory." Li Yundong gave Zi Yuan a determined look. "But what about the execution? What's the proper technique to execute it?"
"Well, the training is done into two stages," Zi Yuan said. "The first stage involves levitation only. And then in the second stage, you will bring propulsion into play. That is, you will generate the propulsion force to move yourself through space while you're levitating."
"I suppose that makes sense," Li Yundong said contemplatively.
"For the first stage, there are three main focuses. One, how to properly mobilize your Zhenqi to lift yourself off the ground. Two, how to maintain balance while you're in the air. And three, developing the mental concentration required to keep yourself in the air under stressful situations."
Li Yundong nodded.
"It all sounds very easy, but I assure you that it's not." Zi Yuan gave him a stern look. "Do not underestimate the simplicity of the task. All three aspects are very important, especially the last one. If you lose mental focus while you're in the air, you'd just fall off the sky."
"Okay. Got it."
"Good. Now let's begin with the first stage." Zi Yuan pointed at his feet. "Get into a proper meditative posture and close your eyes."
Li Yundong did as told and waited for Zi Yuan's next instruction.
"Whenever you're ready, mobilize your Zhenqi towards the bottom part of your body." Zi Yuan paused. "This, of course, depends on your posture or body positioning. If you're in a standing position, the bottom part is obviously the base of your feet. But right now, you're in a meditative posture, so the bottom part is... well, your bottom."
Li Yundong had to bite the inside of his cheek to stifle his laugh.
"Tsk, don't smile," Zi Yuan said a second later. "Stay focused."
What? The last part of her statement was funny.
"Keep pushing your Zhenqi out and keep your eyes closed for now. Don't open your eyes until I say you can. Tsk! Oh, come on. That's not good enough. Make it a continuous flow. Good, good. That's better."
The next thing he knew, his butt was off the cushion and his felt a force pushing against his ass and lifting him upwards. Seconds later, he ran into a problem: his body kept tilting and wobbling in the air, and he felt like he was drifting towards his left.
"Balance... Li Yundong, balance... You're not balancing properly," Zi Yuan said. "You're way off center. Right now you're moving away from the cushion. Put more Zhenqi towards your left side. Make sure they flow at the same rate on both sides."
Zi Yuan didn't speak for about a minute or so.
"Just a heads up," Zi Yuan said. "You're now about three meters off the floor. Okay... Now slowly open your eyes."
The ceiling lamp was the first thing he saw. Hard not to, since it was directly in front of his face. He glanced down and saw Zi Yuan looking up at him. The next thing he knew, he was falling straight down. A yelp escaped his lips. Seconds later, he landed.
On his balls.
Li Yundong didn't think he had ever experienced so much pain in his nether regions. All he could do was roll around on the floor, moaning and groaning. He couldn't even open his eyes.
F*ck. This must be what Director Qian felt like when Su Chan kicked him in the nuts.
F*cking, f*ckity, f*ck!
Footsteps sounded beside him, then stopped.
"S- Son of a bitch..." he gritted out.
A second later, he felt a gentle touch on his shoulder.
This time he did manage to crank one eye open. Zi Yuan was staring down at him with a look of utter confusion plastered on her face.
"Hey, what's the matter? Does it really hurt that much?" Her frown deepened. "It was just a fall, you know. I'm sure you've had much worse."
The incredulity he felt right then nearly chased away the excruciating pain in his nutsack. Are you kidding me right now? Are you f*cking kidding me?! Here he was, feeling like Mike Tyson had just delivered an uppercut straight into his balls, and she was there asking him whether it f*cking hurts?! What the actual f*ck?
Ugh. Okay. On second thought, he should probably cut her some slack. An otherworldly goddess like Zi Yuan couldn't possibly understand the woes of being whacked in the balls. Well, that, plus the fact that she was anatomically incapable of experiencing such pain.
"Of course it hurts! Do you even know what hap—Ugh! Never mind," Li Yundong said in a strained voice. "You're a woman. You'll never understand the agony of... of... testicular pain... Goddamnit!"
Li Yundong pushed his knees together and rolled away.
"I suppose not," she deadpanned. "Just like men will never be able to understand the kind of pain a woman has to experience once every month."
Li Yundong closed his eyes and tried to come up with a retort.
"You're one to talk," he said. "You passed the Zhuji phase way before you hit puberty, so you've never experienced menstrual pain as well."
"Oh? Looks like somebody's been reading up on Cultivation books. I'm impressed," Zi Yuan said dryly. "But sadly, you're wrong. I have experienced that kind of pain before."
Li Yundong's eyes shot open.
Zi Yuan smirked. "Don't look so surprised. It's part of the Linggong Sect's requirement for its Cultivators to gain enough mortal experience. So my master put me through a simulation..."
An image of Zi Yuan inside a bathroom with pads and tampons flashed inside his mind.
He shuddered at the thought.
Li Yundong shook his head. "Don't you know a healing spell or something?"
Goddamnit. His balls still hurt like hell.
On second thought, no. He wasn't letting any woman other than Su Chan near his balls. That would just be... inappropriate.
"You'll be fine," Zi Yuan said casually. "Just wait it out. The Jindan will take care of such trivial injuries."
Yeah. That woman clearly had no f*cking clue what the word trivial means.
It took him half an hour to get the hang of levitation. Apparently, just now he fell because his focus was disrupted when he opened his eyes. His earlier ball-busting experience aside, things had gone pretty smoothly, and he was now able to hover 3 meters above the floor in a steady and non-wobbly manner.
This time, he had made damn sure that he was hovering right above the cushion.
"Ready for the next step?" Zi Yuan asked.
"Sure. As long as it doesn't threaten the well-being of my gonads," he quipped.
He thought he saw a tiny smile gracing Zi Yuan's lips.
"Right now, you're floating nicely, but you're still in a meditative posture. Now I want you to straighten out your legs and move into a standing position."
THUD! His feet hit the ground.
"What the—" His gaze snapped towards Zi Yuan, and he gaped for a moment. "But why? I was doing fine just now."
Had he lost focus again? No. He didn't think so.
"The Qi flow in your body is the smoothest when you're sitting cross-legged," Zi Yuan explained. "This has to do with the distance between your lower Dantian—or your Vital Orb—and the Yongquan acupoints at the base of your feet. The distance is much shorter when you're sitting cross-legged compared to when you're in a standing position."
Well. Okay. That would certainly explain why the cross-legged posture was the ideal posture for any form of Qi-control training.
"Okay. So what should I do?"
Admittedly, floating around in a meditative posture seemed somewhat ridiculous.
"Just increase the speed of your Qi flow when your Zhenqi reaches your feet."
"Alright, I'm gonna try again." Li Yundong moved towards the cushion and got into a meditative posture.
"No," Zi Yuan said. "Try it from the standing position straightaway. Just make sure your Zhenqi flows much faster than the first few attempts."
Li Yundong nodded and stood back up.
Minutes later, he did it. He was hovering in the air with his legs extended and his feet pointing straight down.
Zi Yuan motioned him back to the ground.
"Well, that was fun," Li Yundong said when his feet touched the floor.
"Ready for the second stage?"
Li Yundong stared at Zi Yuan for a moment. Had he misheard her?
"Really? Isn't that too soon? I mean I've only just learned levitation…" he trailed off.
His Jindan-enhanced balls might be able to survive a three-meter drop, but he doubted they could maintain their structural integrity after a thousand-foot drop.
He shuddered at that mental image.
Zi Yuan smiled. "I'm not asking you to take off into the sky, of course." Zi Yuan's smile faded away. "That would be foolish."
Li Yundong nodded in agreement. He didn't think he was ready to take on the Heavenly Thunder just yet.
"I just want you to start learning how to convert your spiritual energy into other forms of energy." Zi Yuan paused. "The practice will come in handy when you learn how to cast spells."
"Sounds good to me," Li Yundong said, rubbing his palms together. "So should I levitate first or...?"
Zi Yuan nodded. "Levitate from a standing position."
Li Yundong closed his eyes and mobilized his Zhenqi. Seconds later, his feet were off the ground.
"Open your eyes," Zi Yuan said. "You want to be able to see for this task. Well, at this point, you should already be able to levitate with your eyes open anyway. If you can't, then perhaps you aren't ready for the task."
Li Yundong opened his eyes. He wasn't floating very high this time—just a few inches above the floor.
Zi Yuan was standing somewhere behind him.
"Great. Now, for the task," Zi Yuan said. "I want you to float from here to the balcony, and then back. Understand?"
Li Yundong nodded and exhaled slowly.
"Slowly," Zi Yuan said sternly. "Keep your Zhenqi flowing, but expend only a small amount of your spiritual energy, okay? Just a small amount."
"Slow," Li Yundong said. "Got it."
Li Yundong gave her a determined look. "Yup."
He so wasn't ready. But hey, at least he was still levitating.
Zi Yuan nodded. "Alright, go."
He felt a powerful lurch, which sent him cartwheeling towards the balcony.
"No! That's too fast!" Zi Yuan shouted. "You gotta slow down!"
He stopped expending his spiritual energy. Slow… slow—
Li Yundong's head smashed into the railing. He flailed his arms, hoping to grab hold of something to stop his flight. Gosh, was he even flying?
Zi Yuan was still shouting something behind him, but he couldn't hear her anymore.
He was panicking.
His body spun around rapidly.
Then it hit him why he hadn't been able to grab hold of anything despite all the flailing he'd done with his arms: he'd somehow flown off the building.
Shit… Shit… Don't panic, don't panic.
He might fall if he panicked. He had to stay afloat until Zi Yuan came over to get—
He felt a sharp, downward lurch, followed by a feeling of weightlessness.
He was free falling.
Up! Damn it! Up! He had to propel himself upwards before he hit the ground. He expended his spiritual energy once again.
He felt a powerful lurch. Next thing he knew, his body was shooting into the night sky like a cannon ball.