Fallen Academy: Year Two
“Hustle, Atwater!” Lincoln screamed in my ear as I ran along a track behind the school.
I shot him a death glare and took off, making it to the front of the line where Tiffany was running like a freaking gazelle, not a drop of sweat to be seen. I side-glanced at my fellow blonde nemesis. One foot stuck out and she would trip—and at this speed, she’d probably break her nose. Maybe even a tooth.
“Stop and drop!” Lincoln shouted.
I growled and skidded to a halt. All plans of rearranging Tiffany’s face were ruined, as our group of twenty boot camp cadets dropped to the ground, and started to do pushups. The gravel ate into the palms of my hands, but I knew better than to complain.
Shea had dropped a few feet behind me. “Your boyfriend is a psycho,” she whispered.
I didn’t have the extra breath to reply.
We’d been at boot camp for a month. The eighty-seven students who passed the gauntlet had been separated into four groups, with either Lincoln, Noah, Blake, or Darren as their drill sergeant.
Guess which group I got?
“Faster!” Lincoln barked.
Boot camp was supposed to prepare us for joining the Fallen Army. The paychecks had started to come in, and I wasn’t going to lie, it was nice. We were kind of like reserve army members. We would still finish school here at Fallen Academy, but one weekend a month we’d go out into the war zone and help flush out the demons that were ravaging the humans there. And of course, in an emergency, we’d be called out too.
I was just settling into the summer nicely. It took a few weeks for the stares at the devil mark on my chest to die down. Tiffany now called me Princess of Darkness as well as Archie. Her payback was coming—Shea was brewing a gnarly potion that would hopefully make her intestines fall out.
“Up!” Lincoln roared, and I sank to the ground, letting my burning arms take a moment of rest.
Lincoln’s boots stopped two inches from my face. “Brielle Atwater, you are dismissed for the rest of the day.” His voice was layered with concern.
Jumping up, I got ready to defend myself regarding whatever I was in trouble for, when I looked just beyond him and saw my mom. She was standing there with my little brother, Mikey, who was hunched over. It looked like his face was bleeding.
“Preferential treatment,” Tiffany mumbled next to me, causing Lincoln to shoot a sharp glare at her.
“Give me two laps for speaking out of turn, Woods,” he growled.
With a huff, she took off.
I looked up at my man with a thankful expression. “Thank you, sir!” I shouted, then started running to meet my family.
My mind was going through a thousand thoughts. Did Grim—Shea’s boss, who I’d almost killed and was now my mom’s boss—attack Mikey? Did he just get jumped by demon thugs?
As I neared, I saw two duffel bags behind them.
“What happened?” I skidded to a stop and took in the scene.
My mom looked fine. Tired, but normal. My brother, however, looked like he’d been beaten badly. His right eye was swollen, nose broken, lip split, and he was probably clutching broken ribs.
My mom chewed her lip. “He can’t go back to Demon City. Some Tainted Academy kids roughed him up.”
Those assholes! I would kill them.
“Mikey,” I breathed, reaching out to touch his shoulder, but he recoiled.
“They said if I came back, they’d kill me,” he grumbled.
My eyes widened. What the hell? Are they somehow targeting him because he’s my brother?
My mom was staring at my chest and the mark that lay there in shock. I’d spoken to her on the phone several times after the gauntlet, told her what happened and explained the mark, but to see her staring at my chest now with tears in her eyes made my stomach hurt.
“Okay, we’ll figure it out,” I said to Mikey. The demons were clearly after my family.
Mikey swayed a little on his feet. He needed medical attention.
“Come on, let’s get him to the clinic,” I told my mom.
Mikey was eighteen now, which meant he’d be attending the Awakening ceremony in August. As a free soul, he’d be admitted to Fallen Academy. Maybe I could get him in a little earlier than planned.
While my mom helped Mikey limp to the healing clinic, I trailed after them with his duffel bags. After introducing Mrs. Greely to them, I paced while she scanned him for injuries. I hadn’t yet learned the energetic scanning that could tell a healer if someone had internal wounds, such as bleeding or tumors, as it was a third-year thing. I was eager to learn though.
Mrs. Greely winced. “Three broken ribs, but no internal bleeding. I’ll need Noah to heal the nose and ribs, but I can get started on the rest.”
Relief mixed with anger poured through me. How dare these bastards jump my little bro. Was it because they wanted to get to me? Was that their motive?
“I’ll get Noah,” I told her and bolted from the room, pulling my cell from my pocket.
He was out on the field screaming obscenities at his boot camp group no doubt, so I didn’t expect him to pick up, but he did.
“Hey, Lincoln told me. I’m on my way” was all he said before he hung up.
What the…? Damn, my boyfriend was good. Sort of. When he wasn’t torturing me.
I had barely even made it down the hall when the double doors opened, Noah striding through in all his beautiful perfection.
“What happened?” he asked.
I rubbed my sore arms, still burning from the push-ups. “Some kids at Tainted Academy jumped him.”
Noah growled. “Little shits. Don’t worry, I’ll fix him up,” he told me and then winked. This guy handed out winks like they were high fives.
I nodded. “Thank you.”
He jogged down the hall and I just stayed there, letting my thoughts run rampant. My mom would have to go back, but Mikey needed to stay. There were still five weeks of summer before the Awakening ceremony. What was I going to do with him for five weeks?
I made $2700 a month with my new Fallen Army gig, but that wasn’t enough for a studio apartment in Angel City. Especially after 50 percent taxes were taken out, plus my student health insurance, which was mandatory now that I was in the army. I needed some of that money for my own shit too—I was expected to have all these uniforms and military-grade boots, and that stuff wasn’t cheap. The army surplus store gave student deals, but—
“Bri?” My mom’s soft voice cut through my overthinking of the situation.
I spun, and upon seeing her open arms, I fell into them. Feeling her, smelling her, it made me emotional. I was homesick. I didn’t get to see her enough, and having her here with me now was a welcome relief, even under these circumstances.
When I pulled back, she smiled down at me through tired eyes.
“I gotta get back. This was my lunch break,” she said, her eyes flicking to the tattoo on my chest again. She didn’t say a word though. When I’d told her over the phone, she’d cried, but my mom was the type of person who didn’t dwell on bad shit. She just got over it and moved on. A useful survival tool.
“How’s work?” I asked her. Since Lincoln killed her boss to dissolve my slave contract, she’d gotten a new boss—Mr. Grim, Shea’s old boss who owned all the strip clubs.
“It’s okay. Not making as much money as when Burdock was running it. Grim doesn’t like that.” She shrugged.
Panic gripped me. “Does he hurt you? Grim?”
She shook her head. “No. He leaves me be, but docks my pay for stupid things. He’s all about the money.”
Suddenly I felt selfish. Every time we spoke, we talked about me. Did my mom need money? “Well hey, I am a salaried Fallen Army soldier now, so I can help out with your bills,” I told her.
Her limp blonde hair fell across her shoulders, as she shook her head. “No, baby. I’ll be okay. I rented out your and Shea’s room about four months ago to Mrs. Conner. You just take care of Mikey, okay?”
Mikey. Shit. What am I going to do with him?
I nodded. “Of course, Mom. I will.”
She smiled again, weaker that time. “Love you, bee.” The childhood nickname caught me off guard. She hadn’t called me bee or bumblebee since I was ten.
“Love you too, Mom.” I pulled her in for another hug, but then all too soon she was drawing away.
“Bernie and Maximus miss you,” she added, and then she left. Just like that. She just left me with my little brother to take care of, and an ache in my heart for her, for Bernie, for all of them. It was the first time that I really realized how bad Demon City was, how bad being a slave bound was.
I smoothed my hair and left the healing unit in search of the only person I knew could, and would help Mikey.
* * *
I knocked on the large double doors lightly, praying he would be in his office.
“Come in!” Raphael’s cheery voice called out.
Relief mixed with nerves flooded through me as I stepped into his office. He sat at his desk, looking over what looked to be maps and papers. He seemed surprised to see me.
“Brielle? Is everything all right?” he asked, standing up from the desk, and walking around to meet me. His huge white wings were always striking, and I found myself staring, transfixed, at them.
“Is someone hurt?” His concern deepened.
Damn, I forgot about the mind reading.
“Yeah, my brother. Who is a free soul!” I added quickly. “He was beat up by some Tainted Academy kids, and now… he can’t go back to Demon City.”
I let that linger for a minute. Raphael’s brows drew together with concern.
“But it’s only five weeks until the Awakening, and since he’s a free soul, he’ll be coming to Fallen Academy anyway.” Unless he’s a Gristle. Oh God please don’t make him a Gristle.
“So….” I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t ask.
Raphael chuckled. “You want him to stay here in the meantime?”
Relief poured through me once again. “Yes. Please. If that’s okay?”
The archangel rubbed his chin and then consulted some of the papers on his desk. “We are still transitioning students who failed the gauntlet out of school. We’ve allowed them to stay for the summer in the dorm housing, but we are working to get them jobs and more permanent housing, so I don’t have anything open at the moment.”
My heart sank. I guess I could stay at Lincoln’s and he could have my bed, but I doubted they would allow a guy in the girls’ dormitory.
“Except.” Raphael held up a hand. “Is he okay with doing yard work? Mowing the field, trimming hedges? My groundskeeper just graduated last year, and his cottage and job are open. Your brother could have the job for the summer, give me time to find a replacement.”
A fifty-pound weight lifted off my shoulders.
“Yes! Thank you, sir! He’ll do anything you need. He’s a super hard worker.”
Not exactly the truth, but he could learn to become one. Maybe.
Raphael beamed. “Wonderful.” Walking over to a cabinet, he produced a set of keys. “Here are the keys to the cottage. It’s the one behind the gym.”
So that’s what it is. I’d seen it before and wondered what it was. It looked like a tiny stone house that had been left behind when they were building this enormous school.
“Thank you so much, sir.”
My walk back to the healing clinic was a little bit lighter. I’d figured out a temporary situation for Mikey. Now, I just needed him to not be a Gristle.
When I got back to his room, he was knocked out, fast asleep. Noah was doing his crazy orange glowing hand, healing magic thing.
“He okay?” I asked as I heaved his two duffel bags over my shoulders.
Noah nodded. “Gave him a sedative. Mending bones is painful.”
“Thanks a lot. I’ll be right back, gonna set up his new living space,” I told the healer.
I wasn’t sure which was harder, Lincoln’s drill team exercises or schlepping two huge, heavy duffel bags across campus to the little stone cottage.
By the time I got there, my arms were so fatigued they were shaking. I let myself in quickly, and then dumped the bags on the floor. One of the zippers split the second it landed, and I winced as all my brother’s shit came tumbling out.
What a mess.
Leaning down to pick it up, my eyes fell on a bright orange flyer that had rolled out of his bag. The bold font stating $1,000,000 caught my eye first, then the words ‘Fight Night.’
I picked it up and scanned over the flyer.
* * *
Winner gets $1,000,000
(no strings attached)
Teams of two fighters will face off.
Whoever is left standing wins.
Televised. Ages 18-21 only.
$100 entry fee per team.
Winners get invited to join the Tainted Army.
* * *
The last line made the room sway. Tainted Army? What the hell was that? I mean, it sounded a lot like Fallen Army, but… were the demons now using kids to fight for them beyond the wall? It was sickening.
My head was reeling, so I sat down a second. As I leaned on the bed, I flipped the flyer over and my brother’s messy handwriting made my heart jackknife in my chest.
Win the money. Buy mom’s demon contract. Free soul.
I sat up straighter. Could my brother have been onto something? Would Mr. Grim take a million bucks to release my mom from her contract? She had just said he was all about the money…
I stood then, a fierce desire in my heart. I was going to win Fight Night and free my mom. But it was going to take some help.
Glancing at the paper, I noted the fight was scheduled for February, months away from today. I had time to plan.
Hang on, Mama. I’m coming for ya.