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Jingling chimes rang in my ear as my automated wake-up machina trembled, just on time. The sky outside my window was a deep blue with hues of gold on the horizon. I was tired but too excited to stay in bed. Today was testing day. I would show the Bastion Academy representatives just how much I had to give, and how ready I was to learn. They wouldn’t be able to turn me away.

I pulled back the heavy wool sheet and stood in the tiny space next to my bed for a stretch, then silenced the chimes. My twin brothers, Do-hwan and Daegon, stirred in their bunks next to me but didn’t rouse.

I crouched down and pulled the box from under my bed, eyeing the lock with suspicion. Foreign ma munje was all over the mechanism—my money was on Daegon—but he hadn’t figured out how to spring it.

My reservoir opened, allowing a small trickle of ma munje out. I pushed it down my arm and into the lock, then closed my eyes as I moved the magic through the maze inside. The bolts slipped back, and the gear twisted at my command, then the lock fell away with a click.

Inside was a metal disc no larger than my palm, with three input ports and one output. I still hadn’t figured out all the wiring requirements to turn it on—and had yet to fix some of the power leaks—but I knew once I did, I would discover something amazing.

The treasure had been buried deep in an underground building the ancient ones had built. The building had been raided before, of course, but my father and I were diligent. It seemed like he knew what we were looking for the whole time, and when he saw the disc, he placed it in my hands with a smile.

His words filled up my mind, though it was hard for me to remember what his voice sounded like. “This is yours to rebuild. It’s special, so treat it as such.”

That memory felt like a lifetime ago and was one of the last times I’d ever seen my father. A pained longing welled up in me at the thought of showing him the device once I’d figured it out. It would never happen. He was gone.

I pulled the cool metal disc from the box, running my fingers down the length of it. There was still so much broken inside, my ma munje revealed that easily after practice. I’d spent the first three years mixing up so many connections that I’d only dug a deeper well for myself, but now I could visualize the connections in my mind clearly, and problem-solve faster.

I was getting close now; I could feel it in the way the energy flowed. It felt right, or almost right. I was still missing something.

I focused my munje on the artifact and closed my eyes as I wove my way through its insides. Billions of connections lit up at my probing and I felt small in the enormity of the world that existed inside this tiny object. What secret could it tell me? What truth would I unlock when the machine finally worked?

It was a longshot, but I hoped it was a ghost, a smart one. Something I could talk to and learn about the world of the ancients, not just order a bowl of fried rice from. My father had searched so diligently, and had told me it was so special, I felt in my heart it was true. But he’d let me down before, so I tried not to get my hopes up.

I worked through the early morning repairing connections until sweat gathered on my brow. My core was not stressed in the least, but the work was hard, and the cycled breathing was difficult to maintain. Most of all, it was nearly impossible to ignore my roaring stomach. I’d used up all the energy from dinner and was cycling from some of my sparse fat stores. It was harder to do than utilizing what was free flowing in my body, but still much easier than cycling world energy.

When the sun breached the horizon, I returned the artifact to its case and clicked the lock shut. I would have to reinforce it later and remind Daegon he needed to work on his own project I had found for him.

It was a simple math machine that had been physically damaged—which he repaired in a few weeks—but the interior connectors were more complicated to rebuild than the surface level appearance. It was delicate work that required great focus, but he would get it, if he ever settled down for more than half a second.

Our rooster crowed loudly outside my window and I looked at the annoying bird. If I were even a second late for his and the hens’ feeding routine, he would get on my case.

“I’m up. Thank you,” I said to the bird with a little more sarcasm than gratitude.

The rooster turned his head side to side, shaming me. I put the box back under my bed and made up the covers until it was smooth. I changed into working clothes—loose, dark cotton pants and long-sleeved shirt—and headed out for the morning chores.

I sprinkled the hens’ pen with a mixture of our table scraps and feed, then released them before collecting their offerings. The rooster followed me into the coop, pecking at my shins every so often until I tossed him a handful of feed.

Next was gathering water. Though the inner-cities and kingdom had running water, this far in outer-city, it was difficult to accomplish without experienced en munje users working round the clock, and the infrastructure to support it in outer-city. I gathered up my buckets and yoke, then walked down to the river. Townsfolk grinned with a warm “Good morning,” as I passed, and a few people inquired about the test today, then wished me best of luck.

While we couldn’t stay in Namnak, I was going to miss the cordial greetings and the investment in each other that we had in outer-cities. My few experiences in inner-cities were a stark contrast to the simple farming life. People in the kingdom were too busy to get to know one another, or sometimes too rushed to even acknowledge one another’s presence.

We all had a lot to get done in Namnak, but we knew that being kind to one another was how we survived when things got tough. We could rely on our neighbors to give a helping hand and understand our troubles.

We had received many helping hands in the past six years, and while I wanted to get my family into the inner-cities for better care, I would never forget the town that supported us when my mother couldn’t work. I would repay them, somehow, as soon as I was strong enough.

I filled all four buckets, straining out the sediment from the water with en munje before heading back to the house. The chickens and goats got the first round, and the second and third trips were for the kitchen. The chickens didn’t necessarily need clean water, but it was good practice for me, even on an empty stomach.

Mother was already busy in the kitchen when I brought her the water she needed for breakfast, while Eun-bi and Suyi were in the garden picking fresh vegetables. Mini went to work rinsing rice for our porridge, and I could hear Do-hwan and Daegon thundering around in our tiny barn with the troublesome goat.

I wanted to take a break, but the test was in a few hours. I needed to meditate and store as much munje in my reservoir as possible. Especially li munje—the magic of growth and change in all things except the self. It was by far my worst magic of the five.

Eun-bi told me I needed more practice, that it would get better, but every time I tried to harness the energy for li munje it felt as if I was pushing water backwards through a swiftly running stream; fruitless and exhausting. Her li flowed like a river after spring melt, and she delighted in using it to help our small garden flourish.

The garden was an invaluable source of energy for the entire family, but it hadn’t always been that way. We’d spent many nights hungry for years after our father left, but Eun-bi stepped up to the challenge of taking over the garden when mother became a munje mute, or was too ill to tend it by hand. It took Eun-bi several years to learn the skills necessary, but now she far surpassed me in li munje.

I sighed and pushed away the thoughts of worse times. As Eun-bi said, it will get better as I practice, and so I can’t back down from the challenge just because it’s hard. It was easy to ignore the sounds of morning routine as I sat cross-legged at our short table for dining. I cycled energy into the band around my core and centered the insignificant li block over the crystal. When I pushed the energy through, the stream fought me to the core, whipping about and trying to escape. I focused, pushing harder, until a trickle of li munje flowed from my core.

I siphoned it away into the reservoir, trying not to let a fragment of li leak out into my system. Not that it would hurt me, but it would be wasted there. Ma munje and I were well acquainted. It could exist in my system for hours, even days sometimes, without leaking out through my pores. Li munje and I were not good friends.

“Breakfast!” Mini’s voice pierced my practiced meditation and I was instantly alert.

The scent of rice porridge with fried eggs, fresh persimmons, and jasmine tea had me salivating. I jumped to my feet to help them set the table. My stomach groaned loudly and Mini giggled as she carried the teapot.

Mother leaned out the window to yell at the boys. “Breakfast! Hurry, you’ll be late for your assessments!”

Daegon groaned loudly, protesting that the assessments were useless, but Do-hwan simply nodded, hurrying along with his bucket of goat’s milk. They stripped off their boots before entering through the garden door, and poured everyone a fresh glass of milk.

When we were all seated, my mother started our prayer. “Let us reflect on the work which brought us this food.”

I waited a breath, then continued. “Let us be aware of our deeds and their impacts.”

“Let our deeds bring us peace, and prosperity,” Eun-bi projected with her strong presence.

Suyi spoke barely above a whisper, but with fervor. “Let us remain mindful throughout our day.”

Do-hwan spoke next. “Let us use this mindfulness to grow beyond our anger and greed.”

“We appreciate this food which sustains and grows our body and munje core.” Daegon mumbled through his part. Mother shot him a disapproving glare and he grimaced but said it again with more effort.

Mini finished our prayer. “We accept this offering to continue our work!”

We ate quietly, allowing the sounds outside our window to entertain us. Bees buzzed near the flowers in the window box, the chickens clucked happily as they moved about the garden, clearing it of pests, and a troublesome goat bleated occasionally as she ate her roughage.

“Are you nervous?” Eun-bi asked me as she set her spoon down, already finished with her porridge.

“No, why?” I asked with a scowl.

She and Suyi exchanged a glance I couldn’t decipher, then Mini spoke up. “Your leg is bouncing the table.”

When I looked down, my knee was tapping against the wood. I held it still as I became keenly aware of the tightness in my stomach. I was nervous. “Sorry.”

Mother picked up her persimmon. “Don’t be sorry, Jiyong. This is an important test. There are many candidates trying to enter Bastion this year and only five hundred will be accepted.”

That didn’t make me feel much better.

“I believe in you, bro,” Daegon said as he patted me on the shoulder.

“Me too,” Mini declared, thrusting her chopsticks in the air.

Eun-bi beamed. “We all do.”

“Don’t be nervous. It’s a waste of energy,” Do-hwan said stoically before taking a sip of tea. He was eight going on eighty, it seemed.

Suyi nodded. “He’s right. You’ll only let munje slip through your reservoir if you don’t have focus.”

“And—”Eun-bi added—“that energy could’ve become munje, but it was wasted on worry.”

Mother’s lips turned up in a forced smile. “If you don’t get in, there’s always Nam-je.”

The words lanced through my heart. She didn’t believe in me—or didn’t want to. Was she afraid? Her husband had left her without a word for years… would his son do the same?

Daegon’s face lit up. “Then we could keep practicing together!”

I took a deep breath, then sipped my tea. “We can practice when I’m home for planting season.”

Mother put her persimmon down, half eaten, and stood. Mini was up in an instant, Eun-bi and Suyi following suit with confusion. “Get ready for assessments, children.”

“But I’m still eating,” Daegon protested and mother’s eyes narrowed on him, sending an icy chill through the room.

My brothers stood and all five of the children tromped up to their rooms to dress. Mother knelt beside me. “I think you should attend Nam-je.”

There was warmth in my stomach that wasn’t from the breakfast. It was a fire that mother had tried to extinguish over and over, every time I advanced. She was afraid my loyalty would end when I left Namnak. Her venomous words would be the poison that would drive a less resilient son away, but not me. There was nothing in this world that could prevent me from coming to my family’s aid in a time of need.

I set my tea aside and closed my eyes. “Why?”

Sounds of the siblings thundering through the upstairs and fighting over the wash bucket filled up the silence between us. I waited for her answer, but it never came. She stood and I opened my eyes.

A single tear carved its way down her cheek as she picked up the children’s bowls. “Get ready for your assessment. You have a lot farther to go than them.”

I wasn’t sure if that was meant literally or not, but either way, she was right. I had a long way to go if I wanted to be a Bastion.

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About the author

Jess D. Astra

Bio: About me… I’m a baller. Keyboard crawler. 20 inch display, on my ink scrawler. Holler. Getting flayed tonight, all my characters getting splayed tonight!

In my spare time I love to cook, hike, play video games, and spend quality time with my people.

Three questions people never ask me are; how do I look at myself in the mirror, what’s in the box, and what does it take to build a story with likable characters in an interesting setting with important goals?

The answer to the last is determination, dedication, and sacrifice. I’ve been working at being a writer since before I could string more than two sentences together, and it never gets easier, but it does get better.

I’m surrounded by people who love and support me, which is the most amazing gift the universe could ever give. I will never give up, never surrender, and hopefully, keep on entertaining for the rest of my life.

Want to support my crazy dreams of making people hallucinate my fantasies? Hit me up on Patreon and get early access to all my work and cool behind the scenes content: patreon.com/jdastra

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