Overview: For Jiyong, Bastion Academy is more than just a school for magic in the heart of the Kingdom…
It’s his chance to pursue the secrets of the ancient ones’ machines and get his family out of the poverty-stricken outer-city. His acceptance letter in hand, Jiyong is sure nothing will stand in the way of his dreams.
When a street brawl lands him in a coma only weeks into the year, his chances of graduating are all but shot. With an unlikely digital companion, he’ll have to rebuild his magic core and catch up on all his classes, or risk being dropped from the academy at the end of the year.
But kingdom life is not like the outer-cities, and kingdom kids are far more ruthless about who they’ll allow to climb to the top. Jiyong will have to train hard and fight for every score to make it in this wealthy academy for powerful families, all while supporting his own from afar.

 

Foundations by J.D. Astra Book Chapter One

 

I ROTATED THE STICK on my control pad and felt Tuko’s gears whine as he turned left. I pinned the stick in the opposite direction, and he turned around again. I looked down on my fighter bot with one grip-claw left and six spidery legs, two of which were half-severed from the body. The previous fight had taken a toll on his systems, but he could take it; I built him to take it.

Roars of laughter and shouts of encouragement slipped through the cracks of the door to the stage, and my leg bounced with nerves. I had this. No matter who came out victorious from that fight, I could win.

I had to win.

A clank-boom was followed by shouts of joy and cries over lost bets. My leg bounced harder and the door swung open, casting orange light over the dark wood staging room. Gui, a man with more moustache than face, poked his head into the room.

“Jiyong, you’re up in two. Hwai-nam won.”

I nodded and he closed the door. The scent of burnt bot swirled into the room, and the heat curled the hairs in my nose. I’d fought opponents this fierce before, with Tuko in worse condition than he was now.

But there was nothing wrong with a little more preparation.

I set Tuko’s control panel aside and pulled my legs up to cross under me. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, envisioning the munje core in the depths of my chest. Ma munje, the magic that allowed me to control Tuko—or any machina—slipped through my reservoir with anticipation and I willed it back. The golden-hued magical essence whipped about in my mind’s eye, but did as ordered, returning to the bronze reservoir at the bottom of my core.

I had prepared a large amount of ma munje the night before but used more than half of it in the first two fights. If I were to have an assured victory, I’d need more—for Tuko’s sake. I knew the fighter bot didn’t think or feel, but we had a bond, and I didn’t want to see him destroyed on the betting-room floor.

The semi-sweet smell of seared wiring filled my chest as I breathed in the ashes of the defeated. I focused my effort on converting the breath to more munje. The bronze band encircling my core rotated until the large block designed for ma conversion hovered over the exposed crystal at the center. I needed enough ma munje for whatever spells I would use with Tuko, but even more to operate the control panel to move him around.

I breathed deep and allowed the energy in me to cycle into the band. Pulling energy from the world around was possible, but difficult and time consuming. Using the energy that was already in me from the food I’d had a few hours before was much faster and easier, though it did make me hungry sooner.

When the energy gained enough volume, I pushed it through the block and into the crystal, transforming it into stabilized ma munje. I directed it towards the reservoir for storage and took a breath to clean up the stray energy. I did this practice three more times before the door opened again.

“You’re up,” Gui said, and my eyes shot open.

I pulled the control panel under my arm and looped my fingers under Tuko’s spider-like limbs. I followed Gui through the door and into the bright lights of the run-down arena.

Linked fences cordoned off the battlefield strewn with broken gears and metal plating of the bots who’d fought before. Converted streetlamps shone down on the dirt-peppered concrete, highlighting glossy puddles of oil and coolant. The people gathered around the blocked off warzone in layered tiers, and the best seats in the house were right up against the fence.

Patrons shouted and flashed bronze and silver guli to the bookie, getting their final bets in as they measured up me and my bot. Many of them had seen me here before, watching the legal bot fights that happened during the day. Most of them thought they knew what a fifteen-year-old like me and little Tuko were capable of, but we’d been working on something new. More importantly, tonight was not a legal fight—paying taxes was a hassle—and I had prepared something special for my final opponent.

I crouched at the edge of the fence and pulled Tuko up to my lips. The metal was warm on my skin. I could hear, feel, and see the gears whirring inside him as I transferred the ma munje from my reservoir.

The shimmering tendrils of sunset gold magic spilled out of my mouth and flowed into the bot like a rushing river. I remained keenly aware of its destination, focusing on all the parts my magic needed to inhabit. When Tuko’s reservoir was full, I pushed the rest of the ma munje into his one good arm, then down his legs, and finally into the secret compartment on his underbelly.

“Fighters, at the ready!” the announcer shouted, and my gaze locked onto our opponent, Hwai-nam.

He was a fighter from inner-city, no doubt about it. His pressed shirt, clean pants, and slicked back hair were signs of his status. He wasn’t wealthy, but he wasn’t bad off—not like us out here in the outer-cities. I knew most of the bets would be hedged his way. Hwai-nam had more money for proper care and upgrades for his bot, a monstrously large thing that looked as though one swift stab between the chest armor plates would spill its overflowing ma munje reservoir.

Hwai-nam had a large bot for endurance. He wasn’t particularly fast, nor good at the controls, but he could outlast most opponents. I knew Tuko’s ma reservoir would run dry long before Hwai-nam’s bot’s would, leaving him inoperable. Limited stamina led to hasty mistakes, so I would have to end it fast, or pace myself.

I could do this.

Hwai-nam smirked as he pointed to me, then thrust his thumb down toward the ground. A taunt. The crowd cheered with excitement and looked to me for a retort. I let the challenge roll off my shoulders without a reply, inciting an even larger roar of excitement. We were in outer-city, and while the crowd may have bet on Hwai-nam, they loved when one of their own had the guts to put well-off men like him in his place.

The countdown block hanging over the ring showed ten seconds, and I set Tuko at the edge of the arena. My hands were sweaty against the buttons of the control panel, but my mind felt at ease as I allowed some of my ma munje to slip into the panel in a measured trickle. I connected with the systems and listened to their whispered responses as I moved Tuko forward. His legs were damaged, but not broken.

Three, two, one—the buzzer rang loud and long, and I saw Hwai-nam flinch at the noise. His bot lumbered forward on two legs like a swordsman. It shook the discarded parts on the ground with a jingle as it jogged forward and transformed its claw-like hands into maces.

Tuko jumped into the ring like a nimble arachnid, skittering towards the first obstacle—an overturned barrel—with the twist of the joystick. He jumped up onto the iron-bound wood, and we waited for Hwai-nam’s bot to get closer.

I held my leg still as my hand hovered over the newly minted button on the control panel: the secret weapon. Hwai-nam’s bot swung toward Tuko with a twist of its hip gears, and Tuko jumped up just in time. The opponent smashed into the barrel, its arm getting pinned in the metal frame.

Perfect.

Tuko landed back on the split wood with a nimble dip, then leapt again as the second mace-fist pummeled into the barrel, trying to free the first. I activated the burst mechanism on Tuko’s side, angling him directly over our opponent, then mashed the secret button.

The compartment on Tuko’s underbelly snapped open, launching a volley of hyper accelerated shards at the other bot’s exposed neck joint. Golden light zipped through the air, smashing into the opponent with a snap-snap-ping! Ma munje oozed out in waves from the decapitated bot.

The crowd held their breath as I landed Tuko on the ground behind the opponent, ready to surge in for the kill. But Hwai-nam’s bot fell forward into the barrel, its right arm still trapped and hollow neck pouring misty gold magic. Black smoke curled up from inside it, and when Hwai-nam jerked his controls back and forth, nothing happened.

My mouth dropped open. It worked!

“Cheat! He cheated!” Hwai-nam declared as he shot to his feet, his control panel clattering to the floor.

The crowd booed, groaned, and shouted protests, but I wasn’t afraid. I knew the rules of the game and knew that these people wouldn’t turn on me. I’d done nothing wrong.

Gui approached the ring and stepped in. He moved Hwai-nam’s bot around, then focused his ma munje on the damage, making an assessment. He moved on to Tuko, lifting and inspecting, then set him down.

“Hwai-nam is defeated. Jiyong is the winner,” Gui declared, and I let out the breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding in. The crowd gave a half-hearted cheer, glad to have a local win, but most of them lost their bets. A few excited whoops—my best friend’s loudest of all—followed the crowd’s groans.

My sweaty hands relaxed on the controls, and I pulled Tuko back to the edge.

“How can you call that a clean win? He used the environment to trap my bot!” Hwai-nam declared as he dropped into the ring to retrieve his broken bot.

I’d aimed just to disable it and clean up with a few well-placed slices, but apparently Hwai-nam’s designer needed some education on easy targets. Why would he put the reservoir in the chest, and why would he connect it to the absolutely unnecessary head?

Gui puffed up his chest. “Come off it. You think you can show up as the wealthiest man in the room and get your way on just that? The environment is a legal part of combat, and we’re not changing the rules for some rich, inner-city pungbahn.”

We in outer-city threw the word around casually since it wasn’t derogatory, but the rich folk really hated being called stuck-up and self-centered, so it was like a curse to them. Really got their blood boiling.

Hwai-nam’s face was red as he snatched what was left of his bot from the filthy battle arena. “That boy didn’t beat me cleanly! You’ll hear about this!”

Boy... well, at least he hadn’t called me something worse. At fifteen years old, I still had a narrow face that made me look more like thirteen, though working in the arborum had given me the upper hand on fitness compared to others my age. Tuko didn’t look like much either, which was why everyone thought we were easy prey. Tuko was a saucer with legs and claws, with plenty of space for secret compartments and surprises. That was why we won.

Se-hun—my best friend and foreman at the arborum—crammed through the audience and leaned up against the fence that separated me from the crowd. He grinned. “You did it again, you crazy bastard! I need to bet on you more often. These odds were amazing!” He tapped his knuckles on his chest twice, then held his fist up to me, though he was pressed against the chain link barrier.

I chuckled and reciprocated the gesture. “How amazing?”

“Ten to one.”

I shrugged. “Their loss.”

I grabbed Tuko and pulled the ma munje that remained in him back into my reservoir. Se-hun held the chained gate open for me, and we walked toward the bookie, who eyed me with a wild grin.

“My boy, Jiyong!” The mid-fifties woman barked with laughter as I gave her a cheeky smirk. She shooed away the groaning losers and pulled me in close. “Next time I’ll give you better odds. You really did a number on that inner-city pungbahn, didn’t you?” The bookie tried to wrap an arm over my shoulder but fell short by a few inches. I dipped my knees to allow her that familiar gesture.

She laughed again, throwing her arm over my back. “I like you. You can come back any time!”

“I intend to, but not for a while,” I said as I accepted the guli coins from her other hand.

A concerned glare furrowed her brow. “And why not?”

Se-hun threw himself into the conversation. “He’s getting into Bastion Academy for pungbahn losers.”

The old bookie’s eyes glimmered with excitement. “Good for you, young man.”

I held up my hands. “I haven’t even taken the test yet, but I hope so.”

“With a performance like that, I know so,” she said and patted me hard, then walked away with a wave. “Best of luck in the assessment test!”

“Sungchal!” A voice rang out and my hand clamped down on the money.

The dispersing crowd took on a feral nature, scrabbling for their belongings and seeking an exit. Sungchal were the kingdom guard, and they were not kind when they discovered illegal activities.

“Let’s go!” Se-hun grabbed the control panel from under my arm, then pulled me toward the rooms behind the arena.

“What are we doing?” I asked as he yanked the door shut behind us, locking us in the staging room I’d just come from.

“Quiet,” he whispered, and blue-green ry munje twisted between his fingers.

“This isn’t going to work!” I urged in a hushed voice but allowed him to push me into the corner of the room. I crouched down with Tuko, my fist clamped tight around the guli that promised my family’s security.

Se-hun turned and danced, his ry munje creating an intricate web in front of us. Then he clapped his hands together and pulled back into the corner, shrouding us in complete darkness with his spell.

“Just stay quiet,” he whispered as heavy boots clomped outside the door.

How had they gotten in so fast?

That didn’t matter. All that mattered was getting this money back home, any way I had to.

The wood frame of the door snapped as a heavy boot kicked through it. Two soldiers in shimmering red plate mail stepped in. They wore the crest of the kingdom on their breastplates; a wingless dragon twisting around a sword, talons gripping the hilt at the top. The sungchal’s left hands glowed a soft yellow while their short swords in their right glowed bright red.

My lungs burned as my heart pounded in my chest and I prayed. Please, for the love of Mun-Jayu, let Se-hun’s ry munje be better than it was last time we tried this.