Li Yundong ran his palm over the four glowing ideograms at the end of the inscription.
Mystical Silver Fox.
The fourth Head of the Fox Zen School, and one of the most powerful fox spirits to ever live. A controversial figure hailed as the greatest prodigy the Fox Zen School had ever produced. Indeed, the Mystical Silver Fox's legendary talents were said to surpass even those of Ao Wushuang. One could only imagine the kind of things such a person was capable of, the kind of power she wielded.
And apparently, Li Yundong was now staring at a wall containing the Mystical Silver Fox's penmanship. Not to mention the fact that a mysterious voice—which he now suspected belonged to a deity—had guided him towards said wall.
What a day this had been.
And he wasn't even inside the Fox Zen School yet.
Li Yundong released the breath he didn't know he'd been holding and slowly backed away from the wall. After a few steps, he stopped, once again overwhelmed by a sense of wonderment. On the wall, the ideograms continued to coruscate. Periodic ripples of golden light skimmed across the body of the text. It was as though a continuous stream of molten gold was flowing through a bunch of tiny grooves carved onto the wall.
Beautiful. Enigmatic. And mystical, just like its author.
A sharp tug on his wrist snapped him out of his daze. Raising his forearm, he noted that the enchanted string was still lengthening. He lowered his forearm with a sigh, grateful that he still had time to figure this thing out.
He returned his attention to the engravings on the wall.
The style of the language was archaic, so these inscriptions must've been done a long time ago. And he would infer something else: the inscriptions were most likely not meant to be discovered. That much was obvious from the painstaking measures that the Mystical Silver Fox had employed for their concealment: carving them onto a wall that was hidden within an underground maze; sealing said wall with a spell so powerful that it would take nothing less than a deity's power to overcome; the prose itself, which was highly obscure no doubt by design, encoded in a language intelligible only to the author herself.
Li Yundong's eyes lingered on the line directly above the author's signature.
The Nine Elixirs Method.
Whatever this mysterious method was, it was clearly a huge deal in the Cultivation world, almost like a holy grail of Cultivation.
Did the Mystical Silver Fox invent it?
Li Yundong dispelled the idea after a moment of thought. Why inscribe it at all if she had no desire for anyone to learn about her invention? Besides, if she was indeed the inventor, then she would’ve known the method inside out. Why keep a record for people to discover? No. She probably learned the method from an external source and then decided to inscribe everything she had learned onto this wall so that she alone could refer to it in the future.
But that assumption alone begged several other questions. Where was the Mystical Silver Fox now? Was she even alive? Did she intend on—
The voice caused Li Yundong to jump.
Li Yundong glared up at the ceiling. "Gee… Can you not make this whole thing creepier than it already is?"
"Seek…" the voice hissed, clearly ignoring his protest.
Li Yundong sighed. Oh, never mind…
Funny how he was speaking to a deity like they were old buddies, yet he was still alive and breathing instead of being condemned to hell for blasphemy.
Li Yundong returned his attention to the inscription on the wall.
The general structure of the writing was somewhat intelligible: a preface consisting of five paragraphs; a list of nine so-called elixirs; and finally, a brief summary of the various benefits that the nine elixirs would confer upon their master.
Several terms did seem familiar to him such as the term Orb, which probably referred to the Vital Orb. Fire and Water sounded a lot like the Fire and Water elements as described in the Five Elements Theory.
Each item in the list had its own captions, though the precise meaning of those captions was still lost on him. The whole thing was a riddle, some kind of code.
Li Yundong froze.
Seek. The voice kept telling him to seek even though the writing on the wall had been revealed. Perhaps there was something else that needed to be found? Like a cipher?
Li Yundong shook his head sharply and forced his eyes close. He shouldn't get ahead of himself with these assumptions. It would be unwise to search for something that might not even exist. His best bet right now was to work with the things that he had.
He opened his eyes and studied the wall once more.
The first step was to figure out what he should be figuring out. Yes, this was a riddle. Yes, this was a code to be cracked. But he still had to have some idea of what the solution looked like, or what form it would take, before he even try to crack the problem. Otherwise he'd just be grasping at straws the entire time.
The answer came to him seconds later. "The elixirs…" Li Yundong let out a breathless chuckle. "Of course…"
The significance of the nine elixirs was obvious from the name of the technique—the Nine Elixirs Method. Plus, there were hints all over the passage as well: the list of nine elixirs; a reference to some kind of Elixir of Power in the preface.
Okay. So the goal was to obtain the nine elixirs. That's what the whole thing was about. No. Not obtain, but create. The elixirs had to be created. The author had used the phrase "once created" four times in the passage.
A glimmer of understanding sparked inside Li Yundong. The captions! Maybe the captions described the necessary steps to create the elixirs?
Li Yundong read the first item in the list of elixirs.
Elixir of Formation
What forms the Orb?
Is it not the merging of Fire and Water?
Is it not the byproduct of such a union?
"What forms the Orb?" Li Yundong thought aloud.
Well, if Orb indeed referred to the Vital Orb, then the answer was obvious: Zhenqi.
Alas, the following two lines stumped him. Merging of Fire and Water? What? Li Yundong skipped through the list to look for more references of "Fire" and "Water."
He found four more items in the list that mentioned "Fire" and "Water" in their captions.
Elixir of Yang
Yang stokes Fire;
Vitality thrives in the presence of Fire.
Vitality is the basis of growth.
The Convergence of Yang leads to growth.
Elixir of Yin
Yin-Yang is harmony;
Fire is motion;
Earth is stability;
Balance the Fire;
And be as stable and immovable as the Earth.
Elixir of Bones
Look to the Water source.
Elixir of Flesh
Thy Water source is abundant; nourish with it.
There were mentions of "Earth" as well, which hinted further at some form of application of the Five Elements Theory. Other than that, Li Yundong had no idea what to make of those captions.
With a sigh, he lowered his backpack to the floor and sat down. Might as well get comfortable. Then, he went through the list of nine elixirs from top to bottom, reading each caption carefully. By the time he reached the last item of the list, it became clear to him that the meaning of these captions could only be understood within the right context. Certain terms and concepts were cited across different items in the list: Fire; Water; Earth; Orb. This hinted at some kind of underlying framework that would make those captions meaningful. He just had to reconstruct that framework, and everything else would make sense.
"The preface…" Li Yundong closed his eyes and huffed. "Of course."
Herein lies the truth of all truths. That was stated in the very first line of the preface.
"Bright to the wise, dark to the foolish… seek and thou shalt discover… grasp and thou shalt master?"
Li Yundong paused and shook his head a few times. He didn't know what any of that meant. Yet.
He skipped to the next paragraph.
"The tree of comprehension will bear fruit… The tree of instruction will wither and wilt." Li Yundong paused again, frowning. Then, he reread the previous paragraph a few times. For some reason, he couldn't help but think that the first two paragraphs were intimately related, like they were both implying the same thing.
I'll come back to it later…
He skipped to the third paragraph. "The crossing of Essence yields life, but the crossing of Qi yields power?" Li Yundong rested his elbows on his legs and steepled his fingers.
The crossing of Essence…
Li Yundong's eyes widened a tad. "Fertilization," he said, sitting up straighter.
The crossing of Essence implies procreation; namely, the exchange of Essences between a man and a woman, which yields life.
Okay, moving on…
"The crossing of Qi yields power?"
Li Yundong shifted into a meditative posture and blinked at the wall for a moment. The crossing of Qi. Well, the only thing that came to mind was the Convergence of Five Qis. Not really sure what "crossing" meant, but he figured the Convergence of Five Qis fit the bill pretty well.
He moved on to the next line. "Life is vital, but power is growth…" Made sense, he supposed. Life is vital because without life, power can't even exist. At the same time, life doesn't imply the presence of power—a being can be very much alive, yet be weak and frail. What does imply power is growth. Even a weak person can gain power through growth.
So growth is power, and power is growth…
"Grow the Orb, and thou shalt be exalted..."
Li Yundong trailed off and went silent in contemplation. Grow the Vital Orb. Was that another purpose of the technique?
"Look within, not without… For therein live the Elixirs of Power…"
Li Yundong stroked his chin a few times. So to create those elixirs, one must look within oneself because the stuff required to create the nine elixirs resides inside everyone.
It made sense, he supposed. It was stated at the end that the Nine Elixirs Method was the ultimate form of Internal Alchemy. The method must therefore involve some kind of internal reformation that had nothing to do with external sources.
Which means, what? Qi control?
He tabled that idea for later and read on.
"The path to the heavens is a ninefold ascent. Omit none lest all be vain… Skip none lest the foundation crumble."
Now that he had enough context, these few lines seemed pretty sensible. The "path to the heavens" was a metaphorical way of saying "the mastery of the Nine Elixirs Method."
"Ninefold ascent" most likely implied that there would be nine steps involved in the whole process. And considering there were nine elixirs presented in order, this interpretation of this line became even more suggestive.
Omit none lest all be vain: this one was rather self-explanatory.
Skip none lest the foundation crumble. This one seemed pretty obvious as well. The creation of the elixirs had to be done in the exact order they were presented, starting from the Elixir of Formation to the Elixir of Transcendence. The use of the term "foundation" also suggested some kind of dependency between the elixirs; perhaps each elixir was a crucial ingredient in the creation of the next one?
Li Yundong exhaled and rubbed his hands together. Now that he had a basic understanding of the context, it was time to give those captions another shot. Alright then…
He studied the captions for the Elixir of Formation.
What forms the Orb?
Is it not the merging of Fire and Water?
Is it not the byproduct of such a union?
Well, the Zhenqi forms the Vital Orb. Easy-peasy.
However, the Mystical Silver Fox had, in a somewhat poetic fashion, likened the Zhenqi to the byproduct of the merging of Fire and Water. Why was that? After sitting there for about a minute or so and coming up with nothing, Li Yundong shook his head and shut his eyes again.
Okay, so she had made some sort of obscure reference to the Zhenqi.
Why? What did that imply? Li Yundong's eyes shot open a second later. Obvious, wasn't it? The creation of the Elixir of Formation must involve the Zhenqi.
Right. But how was it related to the union of Fire and Water?
Li Yundong closed his eyes and spent a few seconds in silent contemplation. If I merge Fire and Water, I would get…
"Steam…" Li Yundong whispered, opening his eyes. "Steam is a water in gaseous form."
Okay. So what? Li Yundong sighed and hung his head low. A second later, he raised his head again. Well, in Chinese culture, Qi was often likened to a gaseous substance. So there was that. Not that the information was helpful. It still didn't say anything about how to create the Elixir of Formation.
Li Yundong sighed and massaged his temples. What am I missing?
Li Yundong's head shot up. His eyes travelled down to the end of the inscription.
"Unlock the full potential of their corporeal existence," he whispered.
It said corporeal existence. The method had something to do with the human body. In that case, he should probably incorporate ideas from Traditional Chinese Medicine as well!
He returned his attention to the Elixir of Formation. The merging of Fire and Water. Okay. So what did TCM have to say about Fire and Wat—
The organs! Each of the five Zangs is associated with an element in the Five Elements Theory.
Excitement coursed through Li Yundong's veins. So the merging of Fire and Water was probably referring to the mixing of the Qis from two different Zangs! Also, the idea concurred with that line in the preface: the crossing of Qi yields power.
Li Yundong exhaled slowly to calm his excitement. The Zangs associated with Fire and Water are the Kidney and the Heart respectively. Okay. So the Qis of these two Zangs had to be mixed. But where? Where should the mixing take place? Inside the Zangs themselves? Somewhere along the meridians? At the upper Dantian?
Seconds later, Li Yundong chuckled. "Of course."
The Vital Orb.
That's where his Zhenqi is gathered. And in this case, the Zhenqi would probably act as some kind of catalyst.
Good. That's one down…
The caption for the Elixir of Structure was a lot longer than the one for the Elixir of Formation.
Whatever generates, grows; whatever overcomes, withers.
Order is structure wherein power grows.
Disorder is chaos wherein power withers.
What is power without structure?
What is growth without order?
Once again, the notion of "growth" was propounded. This could mean several things, of course. The growth of the internal organs? Tissue? Spiritual growth? The growth of the Vital Orb?
Li Yundong's eyes narrowed. Order. This elixir was about order and how order relates to growth. Indeed, what is power without structure? A motor can't possibly produce efficient work without having a good supporting structure to convey its power. An engine will be useless on a car with a weak chassis. Structure is necessary for the effective use of power. And order gives rise to structure.
Order and growth… power and structure…
There was something there. But what?
Li Yundong snapped his fingers repeatedly. "Whatever generates, grows… Whatever generates, grows… Generates… generates…"
It hit him.
The generating cycle from the Five Elements Theory: Water feeds Wood; Wood fuels Fire; Fire forms Earth; Earth contains Metal; Metal carries Water.
"And if I think about it in terms of Traditional Chinese Medicine…" Li Yundong sat up straighter and scanned over the inscriptions a few times.
Moments later, he chuckled.
It was about growing the Qis of his Five Zangs using the principles expounded through the generating cycle of the Five Elements Theory. And the process had to be carried out in a cyclic manner: begin with any Zang, say, Kidney (Water element); then use Kidney's Qi to stimulate the growth of the Liver's (Wood) Qi; and so forth.
The Elixir of Structure would probably be formed by the end of the whole process.
The captions for the other elixirs became much easier to grasp once he had understood the context better. It took him around twenty minutes to figure out the rest of the elixirs.
The Elixir of Yang was a bit tricky, but he still managed to crack it in the end. Yang stokes Fire, and the Convergence of Yang leads to growth. The difficulty was that he hadn't been able to figure out what Convergence of Yang meant. After a few minutes of fruitless brain-wracking, it was his knowledge of Traditional Chinese Medicine that came to his rescue. The five Zangs are internal organs of Yin nature; the six Fus, on the other hand, are internal organs of Yang nature. The Convergence of Yang, therefore, referred to the gathering of the Qis of the six Fus. Also, the convergence had to take place within the Heart, since the Heart was the organ related to the element of Fire. To stoke Fire with Yang, the Yang had to converge at the source of Fire; hence the Heart.
The Elixir of Bones was pretty straightforward. Look to the Water source—the Kidney. And guess which part of the human body the Kidney is responsible for according to Traditional Chinese Medicine?
In other words, the creation of the Elixir of Bones required him to strengthen his Kidney's Qi to the point where his bones were reformed.
The Elixir of Flesh builds on the Elixir of Bones.
Elixir of Flesh
Thy Water source is abundant; nourish with it.
Water nourishes two things: Wood and Earth.
The meaning became obvious when he translated that into the language of Traditional Chinese Medicine: strengthen the Liver (Wood) and Spleen (Earth) using the Kidney's Qi. Again, this involved the crossing of Qi, which yields power. The name Elixir of Flesh made sense as well, since the Liver is responsible for general tissue health, whereas the Spleen governs the skeletal muscles.
The Elixir of Eleven Transmutations was where things started to get serious.
Elixir of Eleven Transmutations
Look inward! Look within!
Look for the eleven constituents of your constitution;
For they are the ingredients of the True Flames.
The Orb fortifies the Eleven;
The Eleven sets the Orb ablaze.
The captions themselves weren't that hard to decipher, but the process of creating the elixir itself seemed grueling even from the get-go. The meaning behind the captions became apparent the moment he worked out the meaning of the second line: look for the eleven constituents of your constitutions.
The "constitution" referred to the physical body. With that idea as a basis, "constituents" must then refer to the internal organs of the body. There are eleven internal organs that make up the body (five Zangs and six Fus), hence the name Eleven Transmutations.
The term "transmutation" provided the next clue. In the context of alchemy, it means a change in state, form, or nature of some substance. By putting them all together, the procedure required to create the Elixir of Eleven Transmutations became apparent: the reformation of his internal organs.
His five Zangs and six Fus had to be transmuted, so to speak. Not only that, but the transmutation had to occur at the Vital Orb, as hinted in the line "the Orb fortifies the Eleven." Because of this, he highly suspected that transmutation process would require the expenditure of spiritual energy.
The Elixir of Fire was related to the Elixir of Eleven Transmutations in that they were both involved in the generation of something called the True Flames. One line in the Elixir of Eleven Transmutations' captions hinted at the eleven internal organs being the ingredients of the True Flames. Another line stated that the Eleven would set the Orb ablaze. Since it fit the context, he interpreted ablaze as "the generation of the True Flames."
Elixir of Fire
When the Eleven Converges at the Cauldron and the Spirit sparks, the True Flames will be born.
The creation of the Elixir of Fire, Li Yundong realized, was merely an advanced form of the Qi Transmutation cycle; while the normal Qi Transmutation cycle involved only the Qis of the five Zangs, this one involved the Qis of the five Zangs and those of the six Fus. From the holographic images Zi Yuan had shown him last time, he knew that the "Cauldron" referred to the upper Dantian.
As for the nature of the True Flames, Li Yundong had no doubt that the True Flames referred to a more powerful form of spiritual energy, since it appeared to be a byproduct of an advanced form of Qi Transmutation cycle.
Ironically, the last elixir, the Elixir of Transcendence, was the easiest to figure out.
Elixir of Transcendence
Burn! Burn! Burn!
From the ashes a new power shall rise!
The word "burn" hinted at the use of the True Flames generated during the creation of the Elixir of Fire. And since the True Flames was a kind of spiritual energy, and since spiritual energy is stored inside the Vital Orb, the meaning was obvious: fortify (or burn) the Vital Orb with the True Flames.
Li Yundong stood up from the floor and strode towards the wall. He now had a pretty good idea how to create each elixir. There were still a few lines in the preface that he hadn't figured out, but he figured he'd return to those later; right now, his wanted to see how the elixirs would come together as a whole to form the big picture.
Once created, the Elixirs will grant immense power;
Once created, the Elixirs will never go dry;
Once created, the Elixirs will never be spent;
Once created, the Elixirs can be called upon to serve their master;
Li Yundong reread the paragraph again and again, coming to the same conclusions every time he did: 1) the elixirs will become a part of the body once they are created; 2) the elixirs can be activated by their user some time after their creation; 3) when activated, the elixirs will produce certain effects and grant "immense power."
Li Yundong furrowed his brows in thought.
The first conclusion certainly made sense. From what he had gathered so far, the mastery of the Nine Elixirs Method involved a complete internal reformation of the body: the reformation of bones and flesh; heck, even the eleven internal organs had to be reformed.
Perhaps these elixirs would physically exist inside his body once they were created. None of the captions described the physical forms of the elixirs. His best guess at this point was that perhaps these new structures (elixirs) would form somewhere inside his meridians—since the whole process involved Qi control and meridians are the passages through which Qi flows.
After a while, Li Yundong looked away from the wall and shook his head. He was going nowhere with this. It was implied that each elixir could be activated to produce certain effects, but it was impossible to figure out what those effects were unless he'd mastered each elixir. The Mystical Silver Fox did mention some effects in the final paragraph. Increased metabolism was one of them. Then, there was also the altering body size and shape at will (probably the effects of Elixir of Bone and the Elixir of Flesh). Growing six arms and three heads! What the heck?
Li Yundong sighed and looked up at the ceiling. "Can't I get a hint or something?"
For some reason, that mysterious voice had gone awfully quiet.
"You… cannot… be taught…" the voice hissed.
Li Yundong frowned.
"What do you mean I cannot be taught?" he fired back.
Honestly. Why wasn't he condemned for blasphemy already?
"You… must… comprehend…"
"Comprehend," Li Yundong repeated. "Uh-huh. That's what I've been trying to do, you see?"
"The… truth… cannot… be… taught…" the voice hissed. "It… must… be… discovered…"
Li Yundong froze. Wait a minute… Comprehend...
He read the preface again. "Bright to the wise, and dark to the foolish… Seek and thou shalt discover. Grasp and thou shalt master. Ask, and thou shalt stray. Follow and thou shalt fail…" He paused in thought. Doesn't all that convey the same sentiment? That the truth cannot be taught? He skipped to the next paragraph. "Tree of comprehension will bear fruit… tree of instruction will wither…"
He froze again. Comprehend. That's what the voice said. It said comprehend.
Something clicked inside his mind.
"I see…" he whispered.
He read on just to be sure.
Woe to those to whom counsel hath been given;
For your body shall fall into ruination;
Never to heal, never to rise.
Slaves ye shall be;
Fettered by ignorance, shackled by infirmity.
And the Truth shall elude you for all eternity;
The entire paragraph expressed the same idea: the Nine Elixirs Method cannot be mastered through direct instruction; those who wish to master it must complete it without guidance.
Why though? Would this record on the wall be considered as guidance?
Body shall fall into ruination… Never to heal, never to rise…
Li Yundong frowned. "That kinda sounds like Zouhuo Rumo…"
A loud thud ended Li Yundong's musings. He turned around and saw Lin Youfa leaping down from the staircase.
"Say, Li Zhenren, what's this amazing place that you've discovered, eh?" Lin Youfa said as he made a beeline towards him.
Li Yundong glanced down at his wrist. The string was shortening. He must've been too distracted by the writing on the wall to notice it.
Li Yundong withdrew his Zhenqi from Lin Youfa's neck. "Did you find the secret passage?" he asked, ignoring Lin Youfa's question.
Lin Youfa smirked. "I did, and—" Lin Youfa came to a halt, his smirk faltering. "Li Zhenren… What is that?"
Lin Youfa was staring at the wall behind Li Yundong.
Li Yundong smirked. "It's a wall."
Lin Youfa ran forward and touched the wall.
"T- This is… T- This!"
Li Yundong rolled his eyes. Very coherent there, old man.
"T- The legendary Nine Elixirs Method!" Lin Youfa stammered. "B- But I thought it's…" Lin Youfa gestured at the wall. "It was supposed to be lost centuries ago, during the period of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms!"
"Hey!" Li Yundong said sharply. "Enough, now let's—"
He was cut off by Lin Youfa's roaring laughter.
"It's here! I can't believe I'm seeing this!" More laughter rang out. "Do you know how much this is worth, Li Zhenren?"
Li Yundong opened his mouth to speak, but Lin Youfa kept talking.
"No. I wouldn't even sell this thing!" Lin Youfa turned away from the wall. The old man's features were twisted into a manic grin, and Li Yundong could see the greed shining in the man's eyes. "This!" Lin Youfa pointed a finger at the wall. "This is power, Li Zhenren. True power!"
Li Yundong frowned and tossed the digital camera at Lin Youfa, who caught the device with one hand.
"Whatever," Li Yundong snarled. "Snap a photo of it and let's go." Li Yundong glared at the old man. "You're gonna lead me to the Fox Zen School. Now."
"Tsk, tsk, tsk. No, no, no, Li Zhenren." Lin Youfa smirked. "I will show you the secret passage, yes. But not before I mastered the Nine Elixirs Method first."
Anger rose inside Li Yundong.
"You're lying, aren't you?" he growled. "You never found the secret passage!"
Lin Youfa laughed. "Who says I'm lying?" He stopped laughing and pulled out a piece of paper from his pocket. "See this? This is a map—"
Li Yundong didn't wait for Lin Youfa to finish his sentence; he launched his Zhenqi towards the paper and pulled the paper towards him using Qi Kinesis.
Li Yundong unfolded the paper.
It was blank.
"What the hell?!" he growled.
Lin Youfa started laughing again. "Do you really think I'm that stupid, Li Zhenren?"
"Why didn't you give me the map from the start?" Li Yundong snarled. "You've wasted so much of my time."
Li Yundong took a step forward.
"Ah, ah, ah…" Lin Youfa said, raising a hand. "Kill me, and you'll never be able to find the map."
"What do you want?" Li Yundong said coldly.
Lin Youfa shrugged. "Like I said, we should help each other."
"Get to the point," Li Yundong snapped.
"Let's make a trade." A smug look formed on Lin Youfa's face. "You teach me how to master the Nine Elixirs Method, and I will give you the map. How about it?"