So this was it. The proverbial ball had started rolling.

Squaring his shoulders, Li Yundong took a step towards his mentor. "I take it the drill is ready?" His eyes darted briefly towards the canvas bag on the coffee table. 

Zi Yuan reached down and pulled out a flat, palm-sized object from the bag; Li Yundong found himself leaning forward involuntarily, his eyes glued to the delicate object now resting on top of Zi Yuan's palm.

"Hey... Isn't that… Isn't that some kind of Feng Shui tool?" Li Yundong's eyes snapped to Zi Yuan's face. "A geomantic compass, right?"

Zi Yuan cradled the object in both palms.

"Behold, the Purple Gold Jade Plate."

Li Yundong returned his eyes to the jade plate. The thing looked like a perfect square with a circular disk at its center.

Li Yundong held out his palm. "May I?"

Zi Yuan gave him a small nod before placing the plate onto Li Yundong's open palm. Its lack of size notwithstanding, the thing felt surprisingly sturdy and solid. Li Yundong raised the object to eye level and studied it.

Upon a closer look, he could understand why this thing was called the Purple Gold Jade Plate—its body was made entirely of purple jade. That realization brought an inadvertent smile to his lips. First a purple ribbon, and now a purple jade plate? Clearly there was a pattern here. Not that the pattern was hard to see, of course: the "Zi" character in Zi Yuan's name literally means "purple."

The jade plate's top surface held tiny engravings which were arranged in a perfect circle—like those typically found on geomantic compasses. When he flipped the plate over, he realized that its bottom surface was covered in unknown symbols. For some reason, he thought the symbols looked quite similar to those found on Taoist talismans.

"Fascinating," Li Yundong whispered, handing the jade plate back to Zi Yuan.

"The Purple Gold Jade Plate is one of the Linggong Sect's three signature magical objects," Zi Yuan said, her voice thick with emotion. "My master... He…" She cleared her throat. "He left this in my care."

A wave of sympathy washed over Li Yundong.

Not for the first time, Li Yundong found himself wondering about Wang Yuanshan. How did the man die? Why did he pen down that prophecy? What could Wang Yuanshan possibly see in someone like Li Yundong? Had Wang Yuanshan foreseen Li Yundong's murder of He Shao?

His reverie ended when Zi Yuan released a soft chuckle.

"Wushuang-qianbei cracked the problem," Zi Yuan said without taking her eyes off the Purple Gold Jade Plate. "Your best bet is not to get hit at all." Zi Yuan smiled wryly. "That's the only way you can survive the Heavenly Thunder before the Jinshen phase."

Li Yundong blinked a few times. "So let me get this straight..."

Zi Yuan raised her gaze from the jade plate right then. There was an uncomfortable lull where they stared at each other wordlessly.

Li Yundong shook his head slightly. "You're saying I have to dodge lightning in order to survive." He cleared his throat. "That's… That's basically what you're saying."

So help him God he had tried his best to keep the incredulity out of his tone.

"Yes."

"Well." Li Yundong blinked a few times. "Shit."

"Technically," Zi Yuan added seconds later, "you have to dodge 81 bolts of lightning successively."

And he thought going to Tibet on foot was batshit crazy.

"Is it even physically possible? I mean..." Li Yundong shook his head slightly. "I mean, do you think I can do it?" He shot her a hopeful look.

"With enough training, you might."

Might. He didn't like that word at all.

"And this is where the Purple Gold Jade Plate comes into play," Zi Yuan continued with a small smile, which didn't seem all that reassuring.

Was it just him, or did Zi Yuan seem oddly calm about all this?

Hell, who was he kidding; Zi Yuan was always calm.

"So... um... Let me guess." He pointed at the jade plate. "That thing's gonna shoot lightning bolts at me, and then I have to practice dodging them?"

Li Yundong eyed the Purple Gold Jade Plate warily, suddenly feeling defenseless against the tiny magical object which, for all he knew, could fry his balls within a fraction of a second.

Li Yundong looked away from the jade plate when Zi Yuan didn't answer. He frowned. The bottom half of the woman's face was obscured by her hand, and her shoulders were shaking. Mirth shone through her eyes like fine beacons.

"What?" Li Yundong asked warily. "Did I say something funny?"

A giggle burst through Zi Yuan's lips. "Shooting lightning bolts..." Zi Yuan shook her head as another giggle tore past her lips. "God..."

Li Yundong's cheeks heated up. "Well, you said you prepared a training drill... So I thought... I thought you meant…" He cleared his throat harshly. "I don't see how the jade plate can help me train otherwise."

"No, silly," Zi Yuan said, her eyes sparkling with amusement. "The jade plate won't be hurling lightning bolts at you, don't worry." She paused as though she was reconsidering her words. "Not in the way you imagined, anyway." She ran a finger along the plate's surface. "What this does... among many other things…" Zi Yuan glanced at him. "…is allow its user to create a simulated world."

"A simulated world," Li Yundong repeated.

Zi Yuan nodded. "The user can then transport anyone within the plate's vicinity into that world."

Something clicked in his mind. "I see. So the training drill will take place inside the simulated world." He looked towards Zi Yuan for confirmation. "You used the jade place to create a simulation of the divine punishment so that I can practice surviving it."

Zi Yuan nodded. "That's the plan."

Li Yundong laughed. "That way I won't die even if I get hit. Coz it's just a simulation."

Going around the obstacle instead of going through it.

Very clever, Ao Wushuang. Very clever.

"You can go through the drill as many times as you like," Zi Yuan said. "But bear in mind that although the jade plate's spiritual energy reserve is vast, it's still limited." Zi Yuan paused to look at him. "With every simulation, the jade plate's spiritual energy drains a little." Zi Yuan gave him a pointed look. "And I'm sure you know what that means."

Li Yundong nodded. "It means I gotta learn how to dodge 81 successive bolts of Heavenly Thunder before the jade plate runs out of spiritual energy."

"Indeed."

Li Yundong gave her a strange look. "Can't you just, I don't know, recharge it or something?"

Zi Yuan snorted. "I wish it were that simple." Zi Yuan ran her fingers over the jade plate.

Li Yundong waited patiently for more explanation.

Moments later, she sighed. "Recharging it is technically possible. But it will take a lot of time." Their gazes locked fleetingly before Zi Yuan went back to studying the jade plate. "The only reason the jade plate can even come close to emulating the Heavenly Thunder is because it has been around for a long time." There was a pause. "Long enough for it to absorb and store a vast amount of Nature's spiritual energy."

"How long are we talking here?"

"Thousands of years."

"Thousands of—" Li Yundong stared at Zi Yuan in shock. "Seriously?"

Zi Yuan smirked. "What can I say? The Zhengyi School has a long history."

"Oh, wow." Li Yundong shook his head slightly. "Now I'm afraid to ask how long the Fan of Seven Treasures has been around..."

Zi Yuan's smirk widened just a tad. "So. Do you have any other questions before we start?"

"Okay, um…" Li Yundong cleared his throat. "Just to recap a bit…"

Li Yundong waited until Zi Yuan gave him the go-ahead signal before continuing.

"So basically, I'm gonna be transported into this Matrix thingy and then play lightning dodgeball with this simulated version of the Heavens..."

Zi Yuan's lips twitched slightly. "Yes."

"Right." He pointed at the jade plate, then shot a questioning look at Zi Yuan. "How long do you think it'll take?"

"I can't really tell," Zi Yuan said, looking into his eyes. "Maybe days if you're quick on the uptake. But bear in mind that figuring out how to dodge the Heavenly Thunder is no easy task." Zi Yuan sighed. "No one has ever attempted it before."

Moments went by in silence.

"How much time do I have before the real thing comes?" Li Yundong glanced at her apprehensively. "Can you tell?"

Zi Yuan's expression instantly turned grim. She sighed instead of answering.

Li Yundong's heart sank a little. "That bad, huh?" He chuckled. "Think it would buy me more time if I visit a temple right now and then give the Heavens an offering?"

Zi Yuan glanced towards the sliding door, evidently ignoring his lame attempt at humor.

"When you saw the Heavenly Eyes earlier, you said that they had distinct forms," she said without looking away from the sliding door.

"Yeah."

"Then I'm guessing a week. Two weeks, at most." There was a long pause before her gaze shifted back to his face. "You're gonna have to up your game."

Li Yundong walked towards the couch and sat down. He bent forward until his elbows were resting on his knees. Closing his eyes, he steepled his fingers before pressing the tips of his index fingers against the bridge of his nose.

A week didn't sound like a lot of time considering the sheer difficulty of the task. Could he figure out how to dodge the Heavenly Thunder within a week? Was there some kind of trick to it? Or was it all about reflexes?

No. The speed of his movements mattered too. Even if he could predict when the Heavenly Thunder would strike, it would be pointless if he didn't possess enough speed to move out of the way in time.

Which meant he probably had to do some side training (aside from the simulation drill) to increase his movement speed.

Li Yundong opened his eyes and regarded Zi Yuan for a moment.

"Can you tell me more about the simulation?" Li Yundong leaned back against the couch. "How real is it?"

"As real as they come."

"So it's like a virtual reality thing."

"Virtual reality?" Zi Yuan scoffed. She seemed strangely affronted by his choice of analogy. "There's nothing virtual about this, trust me." Her regal gaze zeroed in on his face. "The Purple Gold Jade Plate acts as a container. When you're inside the simulation, you are, quite literally, inside the jade plate as well."

"Wait. How does that even work?" Li Yundong frowned and shook his head slightly. "I thought the whole point of the simulation is so that I wouldn't actually die if I get hit? But what you said just now sounds like the version of me inside the simulation is the real me." He shot Zi Yuan a questioning look. "Doesn't that defeat the purpose?"

Zi Yuan shook her head. "The jade plate stores your physical body, that's true. But it'll also create a copy of your body."

"Oh. So the copy is the one that shows up in the simulation?"

"Yes."

"Okay…" Li Yundong frowned again. "But wouldn't the copy have its own consciousness as well? Can I feel what it feels, or make it move with my own will? Like, are our consciousness even linked? How does that even...?" Li Yundong shot her a helpless look. "Sorry. But I still don't understand how it works."

"Don't be sorry," Zi Yuan said with a smile. "It's always a good thing to ask when there's something you don't understand." Her smile faded. "This is no joking matter after all." She shook her head slightly. "Anyway. To answer your question, yes, your consciousness will be linked to the copy. And here's how it works." Zi Yuan glanced at him. "Right after the jade plate stores your body, it creates a copy of you, but only the physical aspects of you."

"And that includes what? Bones, muscles, organs, blood..."

"All of that, plus your Qi and Essence." Zi Yuan cleared her throat. "Once that's done, the jade plate will extract your Spirit from your real body, and then insert it into the copy."

Li Yundong nodded. "That way my consciousness will be linked to the copy, not my original body."

"Exactly." Zi Yuan smiled. "But that's not all. It will also create a copy of your Vital Orb using your Spirit."

Li Yundong went silent in thought. "So basically, everything I feel inside the simulation..." He looked towards Zi Yuan.

"Will be exactly the same as what you feel in the real world," Zi Yuan said with a nod, completing his sentence for him.

Li Yundong hummed. "And when the simulation ends, my Spirit will be returned to my real body."

"That's right."

"Which means the memory of my experiences inside the simulation will be transferred back to my body."

"Not just your memory." Zi Yuan smirked. "Any physical changes the copy experiences during the simulation will also be carried over to your real body."

Li Yundong stared at Zi Yuan blankly.

"Muscle memory?" Zi Yuan continued, clearly having misconstrued his lack of response as confusion. "Muscular and sensory enhancements?" One of Zi Yuan's brows arched high. "Even the increase in strength of your Vital Orb and spiritual energy."

Li Yundong blinked a few times. "T- That's... fascinating."

A small chuckle pushed its way past Zi Yuan's lips. "The look on your face right now..." Zi Yuan shook her head, clearly amused by his sudden lack of eloquence.

"What an amazing tool." Li Yundong shook his head in awe. "I mean, you could train for as long as you like inside the simulation. And once you get tired, all you have to do is end the simulation and start over." He held Zi Yuan's gaze for a second. "Coz the jade plate will just create another copy based on your real body, which was asleep the whole time during the simulation! That way, you can begin a new session right away feeling completely fresh!"

Zi Yuan grinned. "Exactly."

"Damn." Li Yundong chuckled. "It's like I'm using a cheat code or something."

"Just by going through the simulation alone will make you more powerful than most Cultivators at the Shentong phase." Zi Yuan chuckled. "You could end up failing the simulation miserably and still reap major benefits from it."

Now that was an interesting statement.

Li Yundong gave her a curious look. "How so?"

Zi Yuan looked at him as though she expected him to know the answer already. They continued staring at each other for a moment before Zi Yuan finally decided to put him out of his misery.

"Every second you spend going through the drill exposes you to the vast amount of spiritual energy stored in here." Zi Yuan tapped the jade plate a few times. "It's been around for—"

"Thousands of years," Li Yundong said with a nod.

"It's got enough spiritual energy stored up over the years to approximate the real Heavenly Thunder. It won't be as powerful to the real thing, but it's the closest we can get." Zi Yuan picked up the jade plate once more. The plate hovered above Zi Yuan's palm and started spinning slowly. "Exposing yourself to such power will strengthen your Vital Orb and spiritual energy to unimaginable levels." The plate stopped spinning and dropped back onto Zi Yuan's palm. "And every progress you made inside the simulation will be transferred back to your real self. Every single one. It's the perfect tool to help you."

"And I can repeat the whole drill over and over again until the plate conks out."

"Brilliant, isn't it? The solution." Zi Yuan glanced at him briefly, then chuckled. "Ao Wushuang..."

"Remind me to thank her next time," Li Yundong said with a shake of his head. "I owe her." He looked at Zi Yuan. "I owe you both."

"Well. You can thank us after you survive," Zi Yuan said dryly. Suddenly, her expression turned somber. "We've... We've done all we could." Zi Yuan looked into his eyes. "The rest is now up to you."

And he was going to give it his everything.

"I'm assuming that the real thing is going to make me stronger as well?" he asked moments later.

"Pardon?"

"Being exposed to the real Heavenly Thunder will strengthen my spiritual energy too, right?"

"Yes," Zi Yuan said with a nod. "And to a much greater effect."

"Right. Coz it's the real thing."

"If you do manage to survive, then your power levels..." Zi Yuan trailed off.

For seconds on end, Zi Yuan's sentence was left hanging.

There it was again, that faraway look in Zi Yuan's eyes. He saw the same look that night, right after she wrote down the prophecy.

"So what's next?"

Zi Yuan's eyes became clear again. "Sorry?"

"I mean what's next for me after I survive?"

If he survived. And he didn't even want to think about how big of an if that was.

Zi Yuan took a deep breath. "Well, there are generally three ways to proceed at your current level." She held his gaze for a moment. "In the Cultivation world, we call it the Three Shentong Paradigms."

"Whoa, okay. This is new stuff." Li Yundong sat up straighter and gave Zi Yuan his full attention. Not that he hadn't been giving her his full attention, of course.

Zi Yuan chuckled. "Good to know that the threat of imminent death hasn't diminished your eagerness to learn."

"What can I say?" He shrugged. "I have a good teacher."

Zi Yuan smiled. "So. Here are the three paradigms. Internal Shentong, External Shentong, and Supreme Shentong."

He stared at Zi Yuan for a few seconds.

"Yeah. That explained a lot, thanks," he said dryly.

"Tsk. Patience." Zi Yuan smirked.

Li Yundong gestured for her to continue.

"The Three Shentong Paradigms, as the name implies, refers to three different approaches to completing the Shentong phase. Each of these three paradigms differ in terms of training method, training philosophy, the level of difficulty, and also the risks incurred during training. Now." Zi Yuan paused to give him a look. "The first paradigm, Internal Shentong, is the easiest and also the safest approach. It focuses primarily on strengthening the Vital Orb."

"Oh. That's why it's called Internal Shentong, isn't it?" Li Yundong said as he tried to put the pieces together. "Coz the approach focuses on what's internal to the Cultivator's body."

"Hmm..." Zi Yuan's head tilted slightly as a frown marred her delicate features. "You're definitely on the right track, but your understanding is still incomplete."

"Okay?"

"Let me explain." Zi Yuan placed the Purple Gold Jade Plate back onto the coffee table and then took a seat beside him on the couch. "The key to passing the Shentong Phase is to strengthen your Vital Orb to a certain point where your Yin Spirit takes form." Zi Yuan paused for a moment. "As long as you do everything right, your Vital Orb will grow no matter which paradigm you choose to follow."

Something clicked inside Li Yundong's mind. He turned slightly to face Zi Yuan on the couch.

"The difference is..." Zi Yuan paused when their eyes met. "Yes, any questions?"

"Essentially, what you're saying is that all three approaches will strengthen the Vital Orb to some extent. But the Internal Shentong approach is different from others in that it trains the Vital Orb directly rather than through some external means?"

"Bingo." Zi Yuan smiled. "For Cultivators of Internal Shentong, training begins within. Their mind and body are all they need. Cultivators of External Shentong, on the other hand, rely on their mastery of magical objects to make progress." Zi Yuan gave him a wry smile. "The latter group spend most of their time and effort tinkering with magical objects rather than, say, practicing Qi control or undergoing the Orb Fortification Cycle."

"Hmm..." Li Yundong held his own chin. "When you put it that way, the External Shentong approach sounds like a real challenge. I mean, you have to own at least one magical object for it to work, right?" Li Yundong gave her a curious look. "What if someone starts out with none?"

"Well, there are easier ways to obtain magical objects, of course. Like through inheritance, for example."

An image of Yan Hua's annoyingly smug face popped up inside Li Yundong's head. He quickly pushed the image away before it could ruin his mood.

"But yes, generally speaking you're right." Zi Yuan continued. "The second approach tends to favor the luckier ones..." Zi Yuan waved her hand. "Regardless, each paradigm has its own pros and cons."

"Well, you already told me that the Internal Shentong is the safest and easiest approach." He glanced at Zi Yuan. "What are its downsides?"

Zi Yuan smiled wryly. "Time."

Li Yundong thought for a moment, then hummed in agreement. "Makes sense I suppose. Progress will be much slower without the help of external means."

"But the reward is definitely worth the time invested," Zi Yuan said. "Over-reliance on magical objects is never a good idea."

Li Yundong nodded. "Coz you'll be left completely defenseless the moment someone disarms you."

"Exactly. Most Cultivators today prefer a hybrid of the Internal and External Shentong paradigms. Even so, they still start off with Internal Shentong first before transitioning into External Shentong."

"Makes sense." Li Yundong nodded. "You make your Vital Orb strong first so that others can't claim your magical object that easily." He chuckled. "No point in owning dozens of magical objects if you're dead."

"True."

"What about the third approach? Supreme Shentong."

"Well..." Zi Yuan sighed. "Supreme Shentong is the riskiest among all three approaches." She gave him a serious look. "I'm pretty sure you already know what it entails." One of Zi Yuan's brows raised. "Absorbing the spiritual energy of the Heavens and Earth? Harnessing the power of the Heavens and then wielding it? Ring any bells?"

Li Yundong's breath caught in this throat.

"The Five Thunders Spell..."

"Yes. The Supreme Shentong paradigm advocates learning the Five Thunders Spell and the like before learning anything else."

Li Yundong did a double take. "And the like?" He stared at Zi Yuan for a moment. "You mean there are other spells that allow Cultivators to wield the power of the Heavens?"

Zi Yuan smirked. "Quite a few, actually."

"Huh." Li Yundong leaned back against the couch. "I'll be damned..."

Yeah… Let's just hope I don't run into one of those.

Then again, what did he have to fear if he could survive 81 successive bolts of Heavenly Thunder?

A poignant smile spread across Zi Yuan's countenance. "But most of them are, sadly, lost."

"Lost... as in?"

"The scrolls and manuals containing the instructions to master those spells are gone." Zi Yuan shook her head. "Nobody knows how to master them."

Li Yundong frowned. He found it a little odd, to be honest. If those spells were indeed so powerful, then surely people would find ways to keep the records safe. Unless of course someone thought the spells were too dangerous and had decided to burn all the scrolls associated with them.

"Do you have any more questions?" Zi Yuan asked moments later. "If you don't, then I say we begin the drill." Her expression turned grim. "Time isn't on your side."

"Okay." Li Yundong rose from the couch. "I'm ready."

Zi Yuan nodded and picked up the jade plate from the table.

Anticipation coursed through Li Yundong's veins as he watched Zi Yuan move away from the table. Moments later, she stopped at the center of the living room.

Zi Yuan raised the jade plate above her head with both hands, then closed her eyes. A green glow bathed Zi Yuan's figure. Seconds later, the jade plate levitated off Zi Yuan's palm and rose upwards, revolving on its axis all the way up. The jade plate stopped its upward motion and then hovered several feet below the ceiling.

Li Yundong gazed up at the plate, watching its revolution pick up speed. When the plate's form turned blurry, a cylindrical beam of golden light shone down from the base of the jade plate.

"Step under the light."

Li Yundong looked away from the spinning plate and found Zi Yuan staring back at him.

Li Yundong walked towards the circle of light on the floor, coming to a halt right near the circle's edge.

"Will the simulation begin as soon as I..." Li Yundong pointed at the spinning plate.

"Not right away," Zi Yuan said with a smile. "It will begin at my command."

Li Yundong gave her a shaky smile.

The light beam felt warm, like sunshine during summer. Soon, the light became too bright for his eyes to stay open, so he shut them. Even from behind his closed eyelids, he could feel the intensity of the light.

Li Yundong blinked his eyes open when he felt the heat on his eyelids start to wane.

He was no longer inside his apartment, but was hovering in the sky instead. Beneath him, winding rivers slithered over the vast landscape where thick mountain ridges jutted out.

The view was breathtakingly beautiful.

"Good, you're in."

Li Yundong flinched when Zi Yuan's voice echoed in the sky.

He spent a moment scanning his surroundings, though he didn't see any signs of Zi Yuan. Then again, he supposed it made sense that she wasn't here. After all, she wasn't the one who was supposed to play lightning dodgeball with the Heavens.

"The simulation will begin in three... two... one..." Zi Yuan's voice paused. "Good luck."

Thrill coursed through Li Yundong's veins as he waited with bated breath for the first bolt to strike. If the Heavens had made its move, then it was subtle as hell because his surroundings hadn't changed one bit after the announcement.

It happened in a blink of an eye. Literally.

Pain ripped through him, pervading him down to the last fiber of his tormented existence. He screamed and screamed, knowing full well that there was nothing he could do except wait out the pain. No point in dodging if he was already hit.

Stop! Stop! Please!

It was useless. This overwhelming and omnipotent power probably wouldn't stop until it tore his body asunder, until there was nothing left of him other than a bunch of disconnected atoms.

Weak! You're nothing but a pathetic weakling—

The pain stopped. Something solid was pressing against his back; he was lying down somewhere.

Zi Yuan's amused expression was the first thing he saw when he blinked his eyes open.

"Why, hello there?" Zi Yuan said in an innocent tone. "Did you have a nice nap?"

Li Yundong groaned and rolled his eyes at her.

Yeah. It was going to be a long, long night.

Hell. It was going to be a long week.