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There was silence in the house.

Breathe in, Breathe out.

Look inside yourself. Circulate your Qi.

Time passed. I was actually sitting down and meditating. At first, I tried using the lessons that had been taught to Jin Rou.

They weren’t working very well. I tried to do a Qi circulation like Jin Rou’s memories told me how, and my Qi refused to budge. Sure, it was moving-- slowly. But when I tried to speed it up to the speed it was “supposed” to go, it was like pushing against a wall. Or a mountain.

In fact, when I tried to use anything that Jin Rou had been taught, I got an odd twinge, deep in my stomach, and then nothing.

I also had a rather severe feeling that if I tried to force the issue, things would get unpleasant.

So I didn’t. I had no real desire to push it anyways. It was idle curiosity. So now I was just sitting around and trying to feel at peace.

…...

Holy hell this is boring--

“How the hells do cultivators do this all day?!” Gou Ren finally exploded. “It's so gods damned boring!”

I laughed at Gou Ren’s annoyance, opening my eyes. Yun Ren opened his eyes as well, breathing out and stretching. He flopped over onto his back, irritated. It was just after breakfast, and we were already meditating. I had thought I was through with it.

We were two days into this, and the Xong brothers were already getting fed up with trying to meditate to find their Qi. Jin Rou’s memories told me that it would take a while to fully come to grips with one’s Qi using the method that gramps had taught me. He had just called it “the basics” and it required a lot of meditating, and centering yourself.

Techniques that didn’t seem to be working so well for Gou Ren, while Yun Ren had mentioned maybe feeling something.

Father and Che had gone home after the revelation of the amount of the Xong Brother's Qi, though Xian looked unsurprised. They had their own things to do, the main thing being to prepare for the wedding. They couldn’t stay here, and watch the not yet cultivators sit around.

And indeed, they “just” had a lot of Qi right now.

Just having Qi alone didn’t make one a cultivator. A lot of people had Qi. I’d probably even go so far as to say everybody on this world had at least a little. People were just that slight little bit hardier, faster, stronger, and more skilled than your average joe back home. But that was all. Most people couldn’t do anything truly crazy.

There were...well, I hesitate to call them biological differences, between cultivators and “mortals” but that's essentially what they were. First was the meridians. In your average person, they were so small they were nearly nonexistent. In a cultivator, those thin, tiny branches would begin to expand to accommodate the growing amount of Qi you possessed.

Essentially, they’d transform from capillaries to veins and arteries.

The second portion was the opening, or “ignition” of the dantian. Getting into the Initiate’s realm was often called “The Lighting of The Golden Stove”. Again, in your average person, the dantian was basically a small pool of Qi. With the first Stage of the initiate’s realm, your dantian became something more.

Honestly, it was kind of like a fusion reactor. Hit critical mass of Qi in your dantian, and it starts a self-sustaining reaction. Or if you received some sort of revelation it would ignite, even if you didn’t have much Qi.

The Xong brother’s dantain were starting to light. Like an engine backfiring, it flooded their systems, which is why their power was intermittent. And for the most part, it wasn’t actually increasing their strength. The bows and sticks breaking were from reinforcement overload, the wild, unconstrained Qi damaging the tools they were using when they got too excited.

“Well, let's take a break.” I decided, “We have things to do. Big D, everyone ready to go?”

The rooster bowed his head. I grinned and stood. It was time.

The buckets and spigots were prepared, as were the firepits and cauldrons. The air was above freezing in the morning, and would be below freezing tonight.

‘Twas that most magnificent of times, the sugaring season.

We put on our winter clothes and began our trek into the forest, weighted down by our supplies. The air was crisp and clean, and I was eager to come to grips with the task at hand. I could almost taste it.

The grove of the maples was as beautiful as it had been, even covered in snow, instead of flush with red.

I pressed my hand against the tree, and let my Qi gently flow into it. Like with the Spirit Herbs, I was delicate. I could feel the sap pumping, the lifeblood of the hundred-year old maple coursing upwards as it started to wake from it’s winter rest.

I readied my hand drill, the bit just the right size.

“Now, the trick with this, as all things, is to do it in moderation.” I narrated for the benefit of my disciples. “If you go too deep, you can hurt the tree, and then you don’t get anything next year if it dies. A little hole like this won’t hurt the tree. We’ll give it some compost, and patch up it’s wound later, as thanks for helping us out with this.”

The drill bit was coated with my Qi, and bit into the tree swiftly. No more than two inches under the bark.

I pulled out the bit-- and the sap immediately began flowing. Swiftly, I shoved the tap into the hole, no hammer required, and put the bucket underneath.

Some trees drip when tapped. Some produce a surprising stream. This one gushed. It sounded like a river had just been released.

I handed the hand drill to Yun Ren next.

And so we tapped the trees. Big D precisely poked a hole with one of his talons, and then bowed his head respectfully. Tigger with her claws. I didn’t see what Peppa did, but there was a neat little hole in the tree where she stood, and Chunky gently managed to push in the spigot. The only one who was left out was Washy-- who leapt up to attach himself to one of the already put in taps.

Peppa caught him out of the air, and slapped him on the ground a couple of times for his cheek.

He grudgingly slapped in a tap with his tail, after I picked up his jar.

There were twenty trees in all, and by the time we got back to the first, after about twenty minutes, the bucket was already nearly full.

And now, for tradition.

A mug of the good stuff, straight from the tree. It was nearly ice cold. Everybody got a bit, though Chunky’s cup was more a trough.

Our cups clinked together, and we drank.

Hell yeah, that's delicious. I nearly like Maple sap better than maple syrup. Especially when it's this cold. A little sweet, a little woody. Hey, don’t knock it till you try it.

But there was one thing that having the trees basically pissing into your buckets was bad for-- and that's how long you could rest. I was originally planning on getting the sap, and then sending the Xong brothers meditating again, but right now, we had to hustle. We basically immediately had to dump our hauls into a barrel I had, and then that went straight to the big ol’ cauldron. I kickstarted things with my secret ”boil water” technique.

Truly a frightening, and overpowered ability.

The Xong Brothers sat down when they could, but neither of them seemed to be able to muster the concentration to be able to meditate.

Eventually I started getting a little tired of keeping the sap boiling. So we built a big old fire, and went to bed.

We worked in shifts throughout the night to keep it going, as the sap stopped flowing.

We even had a little bit of syrup that night.

I think I teared up a little, as the sweet-savoury taste hit my tongue.

////////

The next day was insane. You can always underestimate just how much sap can come out of a tree, from one small tap. The trees were producing so much of the stuff it was ridiculous. I had to keep checking that I hadn’t screwed up, and was somehow hurting them. But as far as I could tell, they were just flowing like a river.

We filled up one cauldron. And then had to start collecting every damn pot, wok, and jar I had. There were little fire pits all over the place, and I was running out of storage.

Fires had to be tended. Sap had to be gathered. And the final product filtered and put away.

I had a hand on two cauldrons, The day seemed to flow by like the sap as we worked, all of us together. Chunky carried barrels. Big D fanned the flames. Tigger managed to boil her own pot’s worth of syrup with Qi alone.

There was something so gratifying about this. The toil. The sweat. The bone deep ache of exhaustion.

The next day, thankfully didn’t increase. The fires burned relentlessly. We all worked as if in a trance, like we were almost meditating.

...wait. I looked to the Xong brothers, as they worked, chopping wood and feeding fires.Their faces were serene.

Well, it might be close enough.

////////

For over a week, they toiled without cease. They toiled alongside their Master.

Bi De was ecstatic. He was being useful to Fa Ram-- they all were. Even Wa Shi had his role-- he had captured fish for their supper-- and they were only lightly chewed on!

Bi De’s heart was full of joyful camaraderie. The Disciples of Fa Ram worked as one to harvest this Great Treasure, a gift of the Land and trees. The Land that was rousing to wakefulness, after it’s long sleep.

His Great Master’s Qi drenched the earth, filling all with his glory. It was all he could do not to weep.

Brother Chun Ke did weep, oinking happily as he was loaded with sap, and given a task of great importance.

Bi De observed the human disciples, as they toiled along with his Great Master. They were silent, deep within the throes of an awakening. Like gutting candles, they sparked and spluttered, throwing sparks everywhere.

But as they toiled, those sparks stopped being so random. Their movements became smoother.

It was at the end of the ninth day, that “Yun Ren” gasped, staring at his hands in wonder. A small spark ignited into a fire.

“I--I have it. I have it!” He shouted with joy, and leapt up into the air-- with far more force than he intended. He yelped in shock, and impacted the Great Mater’s golem.

Not an hour later, the other shouted with surprise.

Bi De bowed his head at their accomplishment.

That night, there was a celebration, as the human brothers played with their Qi, marveling at it’s feel.

But while they were happy, the Great Master’s smile was tinged with worry. Bi De understood why. Now, came the time for a choice.

“I’m sorry to interrupt, but this is a question that needs to be asked. What do you intend to do now?” The Great Master asked.

Gou Ren looked stunned by the question. Yun Ren paused, looking equally as concerned.

“You have power now-- more power than most men will ever have. Any army in the land would fall over themselves to have you. A Sect in the Azure hills would be sure to allow you to join. Wealth and power are at your fingertips.

So-- what will you do?”

The humans paused, mulling over the Great Master’s profound question.

“You don’t need to answer right now. But you do need to think it over.” The Great Master rose, and went out to tend to the fire.

The brothers went out, to sit upon the veranda. Bi De followed them, and observed. Their Qi roiled underneath their skin, rocking with turmoil and indecision.

The brothers sat in silence together.

“So…” Yun Ren began, staring up at the moon. “You could be a Great General of the Heavens now.”

His brother let out an awkward chuckle. “You could go and be the master of a thousand sword styles. Get a harem of a thousand women too.”

They lapsed into silence again.

“Fuck.” Yun Ren declared.

“Fuck.” his brother agreed.

“None of the cultivators in the stories feel bad about this kind of stuff do they? They always just go for it.”

“They say ambition is a virtue.”

There was a splash, as Wa Shi flopped from his trough into the river. Yun Ren lay back, staring at the sky.

“Having a thousand women sounds like entirely too much work. Could you imagine two of them like Meimei, or that Xiulan chick? Or someone like mom? You’d be dead in a week, Qi or not.”

Gou Ren barked out a laugh.

“....I don’t think I want to kill anybody.” Gou Ren said in a quiet voice. “Beat somebody up, sure, but…”

The wind lifted a slight, chilling breeze across their skin.

“I’ve got a job to do this summer, anyway. Something that will help the village.” Gou Ren mused.

His brother nodded. “...Gramps asked me to come up and help him this summer, and dad said I should go.”

Gou Ren nodded. “Well, there's always next year to become a general, or a sword master.” He declared.

Yun Ren shrugged. “Or the year after that. ‘Sides, If I have to try and meditate one more gods damn time I’m gonna go nuts.”

Bi De felt amusement, as the turmoil settled. Their minds were made up, at least for now. They had chosen wisely-- The Great Master would receive them with joy, and he, their senior, would protect the junior disciples.

The brothers sat outside for a while longer, and began playing with their Qi again. It was inexpert… but they were disciples, so they should know one of their most important duties.

He cast out his Qi, and brushed against their own. Both men jumped at the sensation, as they met his might. He brushed them gently, as to not hurt them, their paltry Qi wavering even at just his attention. But he had no designs to harm them.

Bi De guided their Qi, down, down into the earth. He guided their senses, carefully showing them the twisting strands of awakening energy, the land truly coming alive.

He impressed upon them the most basic of the Master’s profound wisdom. Eyes widened, as they beheld the Blessed Land in all its glory.

We give to the land, and the land gives back.

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