With the release of Tainted a month away, I wanted to share the first chapter of the book, which I shared recently on my newsletter. Tainted follows seventeen-year-old Cami Anders as she struggles to live her life on the run from a demon that killed her parents. I hope you enjoy this sneak peek and look forward to the release of Tainted as much as I do!
Three Years ago
The scent of smoldering fabric assaults my nose. The sudden darkness of my bedroom hangs over me like a thick wool blanket, blocking all traces of light. One second I’m staring at the pages of my book, and in the next, I blink and open my eyes in smoky air. Perspiration drips from my forehead, my chest heaving in agony as I sputter out a raspy cough.
My heart skips a beat as my world slows. I expect the smoke detector to blare and my parents to come running, but nothing happens. Fear grips me, stopping me from moving.
The air reeks with the putrid smell of sulfur—of burning wood—and the scent clings to my skin. My throat aches with every shallow breath I force to circulate through my lungs.
Billowing smoke clouds my room. I roll off my bed, pulling my star-patterned nightgown over my face to keep from suffocating. It’s soaked with sweat and smells like soot, but it filters the ash from the air, protecting my lungs. It’s no air purifier, but it’s better than nothing.
I crawl across the gray carpet, staying below the smoke like my mom taught me to do if there ever was a fire. When I make it to my door, I stand up and use my sleeve to protect my hand against the heat as I twist the doorknob. I jiggle it back and forth, but it’s jammed, and the thin layer of fabric between my hand and the doorknob sizzles from touching the hot metal. My body goes numb, refusing to react to the heat. I feel nothing at all. Terror consumes me from within as the fire devours my room.
Bright flames lick the walls. They eat away at my house as if they’re alive and hungry for revenge. The dense smoke blinds me to everything apart from the ominous light the fire casts upon the disintegrating drywall. I feel like I’ve died and awakened in Hell.
My legs wobble, threatening to buckle under me, halting my ability to move. Blinding tears sting my eyes, blurring my view of the flames in their mesmerizing dance. As I rub my eyes with the back of my hand, I can’t help thinking about how something so beautiful could be so destructive.
“Mo—” My dry tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth as I try to call for my mom. I doubt my parents can hear me over the roar of the fire. Their bedroom is at the other end of the house.
My window shatters, and a shower of glass cascades across the floor. I jump at the explosive sound, and my burning curtains catch my attention.
“Is someone in there?” A masculine voice asks in a smooth tone above the noise of the raging fire.
“Y-yes,” I stammer, my throat aching.
“Come to the window. Let me help you.”
I hop over the carpet to avoid the broken glass and climb onto my warm bed to kneel next to the window. My smoldering curtains rip as I thrust them aside, despite the heat against my fingers. My body still refuses to react.
Strong hands reach through my broken window and clamp onto my shoulders, yanking me up and over the sill. My bare legs graze over the rough remnants of glass. I wince as pain, hot as the fire, slices into my shins.
The dew-dampened grass breaks my fall. I curl my knees to my chin, comforting the side of me that’s begging to break down. I’m afraid I won’t move from this spot if I allow the terror of this night to engulf me.
An unfamiliar figure hovers over me. “Oh, Camilla. This is nothing to cry about.”
Shock stops me from doing anything other than peek through my wet eyelashes at a stranger who knows my name—a man I have never seen in my life. He wears a black suit with a silver silk necktie and holds out his hands, offering to help me up. His bright green eyes reflect the glowing fire behind me as he smiles, flashing his overly-whitened teeth. All I can do is stare at his proffered hand and his sharp, manicured nails.
“Come on now. Let me take you home,” the man says.
I barely manage to shake my head no. “Home? I am home. Please, call for help. My parents—”
“Camilla, look around. How can this be your home if it’s already gone?” He doesn’t mention my parents. My heart rams against my ribcage, but I still can’t move.
“But I—” The words refuse to escape my lips. I can’t answer his question. Instead, I say, “I’m not leaving with you.”
The thought fights with my urge to take his hand. It’s like he’s hypnotizing me. His strange presence somehow feels familiar but not in a good way. I take in his alarmingly handsome features as he waits for me to pull myself together. His dark hair is perfectly gelled into place, severely slicked against his head. His straight Roman nose and narrow lips with the perfect Cupid’s bow mimic that of a classic Renaissance sculpture. My eyes travel down his boxy jaw line, which is clean shaven and blemish free. It takes all the restraint within me to resist the urge to let him help me stand. He looks like a movie star, radiating confidence, yet I can’t shake a nagging gut-feeling warning me not to trust him.
“It wasn’t a suggestion,” the man growls in a menacing tone starkly different from his coos of comfort. I scamper back, cowering under my window, no longer entranced by his façade.
He leans forward, stopping only inches from my face, and I breathe in his scent of cinnamon and clove. As the smell floods my senses, it leaves a fiery taste on my tongue. The distinct aroma causes me to gag as I’m overwhelmed by the mixture of spices, fire, and my own fear.
“I don’t care. I’m not going with you.” My voice squeaks, and I wish I sounded more intimidating. “My parents will be here any second.”
The man laughs a hardy, shoulder-shaking laugh. His skeletal fingers grip under my arms, and I suddenly find myself dangling midair with nothing to hold on to. I kick, wriggling like a fish on a hook, fighting as hard as I can.
He glowers and shakes me until I stop moving, but he doesn’t let me go. His cinnamon breath warms my ear as he leans in and whispers, “Haven’t I made it clear? You have nowhere else to go except with me, and your parents aren’t coming, Camilla. I made sure of it.”
Please, let him be lying.
Unable to contain my panic any longer, I scream, my throat burning from the shrill exertion of air. He fumbles, disoriented by the noise, and I use his distraction to my advantage by shoving my fingers into his eyes as deeply as I can. He jerks his head back, cracking his neck, and he drops me. The world rushes by as I crash to the ground, the air whooshing from my lungs as I collide with the stone path beneath me. I somehow manage to get to my feet and stumble toward the wooden gate that leads out to the street.
I fling it open and break into a sprint even though my body is begging me to give up. Shadows haze my vision. My exhaustion and fear make it hard to hold onto the frayed edges of my consciousness. I sneak glances behind me, searching for the man, as my bare feet pound the sidewalk. Tripping over a crack, I lose my footing. My arms flail like pinwheels as I tumble into the street.
My hands and knees scrape against the rough asphalt. I lift my head to gaze around. Dread presses down on me as I see an old truck barreling down the street, traveling way over the speed limit, and heading directly toward me. Paralyzed by fear, I squeeze my eyes shut and brace myself against the ground, preparing for the impact. The smell of burning rubber assaults my nose just before the ear-piercing squeal of the brakes reaches my ears, and I look up to see the truck stop merely a foot away.
A tall, muscular woman clad in black races from the driver’s seat and charges at me. She yanks me off the ground with enough force to show her strength. I stagger while she drags me to the truck, unable to do much more than shuffle my feet across the loose gravel that sits atop the pavement. In one swift motion, she shoves me up onto the dirty bench seat and slides in behind me. I don’t even have a chance to grab the seatbelt before she accelerates, leaving my burning house and the mysterious man behind in her dust.
As the truck skids around the corner and onto another street, she throws her arm across my chest reflexively in an effort to keep me in my seat. Her other hand grips the steering wheel, although her fingers relax slightly as the road straightens out, and I join in her relief by exhaling a long, painful breath.
“Fu—freaking demon,” the woman mumbles, shaking her messy blond hair. “You’re lucky I arrived when I did. He almost stole your soul.”
My eyes widen, and my mouth falls agape. Oh, God, not another crazy person. “What are you talking about?”
“You know, the creepy man who set your house on fire? He’s not your friendly neighborhood pyromaniac. He’s a demon. And I just saved you from him,” she says.
I’m not sure if I should laugh or cry. This woman’s story is as crazy as her unruly hair. There are no such things as demons—everyone knows that. But if there were, and there aren’t, they wouldn’t be coming after me. I have nothing to offer.
“You’re joking, right? You don’t really believe in demons, do you?” I ask, my hands trembling in my lap.
“You’d be stupid if you didn’t,” she answers, her tone mocking me. She takes a hand off the wheel and offers it to me. “I’m Alana O’Neil, demon hunter extraordinaire.”
Instead of shaking her hand, I scoot closer to the other door, keeping my hands firmly in my lap. “If you’re a demon hunter, and that man really is what you say he is, we have to go back. My parents are trapped back there with him and need help.”
“I’m sorry.” Sadness extinguishes the feistiness in her voice. “They’re already gone.”
She confirms what the man—the demon—told me. It feels like someone has shot me in the chest, shattering my heart to pieces. This is all too much to take in. A demon, a creature I believed to be fictitious my entire life, has attacked my home, and the self-proclaimed demon hunter, Alana, isn’t going to try to save my parents. So now I’m stuck in the car with a crazy demon hunter who won’t actually hunt the demon after me. This isn’t possible—this has to be a nightmare.
I bow my head and hug myself. A series of convulsions shoots throughout my limbs, causing a wave of dizziness. My muscles seize up in response, tightening every part of my body. The pain sends chills down my spine. I’m on the verge of blacking out.
“Talk to me,” Alana says. “I need you to be conscious for a little while longer.”
“What do you want me to say?” My voice sounds muffled to my own ears, like I’m speaking underwater.
“Tell me your name,” she says.
Through gritted teeth and hot tears, I open my mouth and reply, “Cami Anders.” Grief and pain threaten to consume me. It takes every ounce of my will power to stop myself from succumbing to the anguish of knowing the two people I love most in the world are gone.
“Well, Cami, I know this must be hard for you, but eventually you’ll get used to the Veiled Realm. Believe it or not, it’s not always this bad,” Alana says.
Struggling to sit up, I squint toward her in confusion, creasing my forehead. “What is the Veiled Realm? Is it a club for people who abduct strangers, claiming to have saved them from a demon who possibly just killed their loved ones?”
“No, smart a—” She snaps her mouth shut for a second before saying, “Any other questions?”
I want to ask her to elaborate on what the Veiled Realm is, but she’s clearly too focused on driving like a maniac to be bothered by something as silly as offering proof to corroborate her outlandish claims.
Instead, I stay silent, unable to ask the question burning deep inside me—the only question I really care to know the answer to—because I’m terrified of her answer. I peer into the dark sky, holding myself for comfort. How am I ever going to survive this?
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