Branded (Sinners #1)
by Abi Ketner and Missy Kalicicki
Release Date: 06/28/13
Summary from Goodreads:
Fifty years ago the Commander came into power and murdered all who opposed him. In his warped mind, the seven deadly sins were the downfall of society. He created the Hole where sinners are branded according to their sins and might survive a few years. At best.
Now LUST wraps around my neck like blue fingers strangling me. I’ve been accused of a crime I didn’t commit and now the Hole is my new home.
Darkness. Death. Violence. Pain.
Now every day is a fight for survival. But I won’t die. I won’t let them win.
The Hole can’t keep me. The Hole can’t break me.
I am more than my brand. I’m a fighter.
My name is Lexi Hamilton, and this is my story.
I’m buried six feet under, and no one hears my screams.
The rope chafes as I loop it around my neck. I pull down, making sure the knot is
secure. It seems sturdy enough. My legs shake. My heart beats heavy in my throat. Sweat
pours down my back.
Death and I glare at each other through my tears.
I take one last look at the crystal chandelier, the foyer outlined with mirrors, and the
flawless decorations. No photographs adorn the walls. No happy memories here.
I’m ready to go. On the count of three.
I inhale, preparing myself for the finality of it all. Dropping my hands, a glimmer
catches my eye. It’s my ring, the last precious gift my father gave me. I twist it around to
read the inscription. Picturing his face forces me to reconsider my choice. He’d be
heartbroken if he could see me now.
A door slams in the hallway, almost causing me to lose my balance. My thoughts
already muddled, I stand waiting with the rope hanging around my neck. Voices I don’t
recognize creep through the walls.
Curiosity overshadows my current thoughts. It’s late at night, and this is a secure
building in High Society. No one disturbs the peace here—ever. I tug on the noose and
pull it back over my head.
Peering through the eyehole in our doorway, I see a large group of armed guards
banging on my neighbors’ door. A heated conversation ensues, and my neighbors point
toward my family’s home.
It hits me. I’ve been accused and they’re here to arrest me.
My father would want me to run, and in that split second, I decide to listen to his
voice within me. Flinging myself forward in fear, I scramble up the marble staircase and
into my brother’s old bedroom. The door is partially covered, but it exists. Pushing his
dresser aside, my fingers claw at the opening. Breathing hard, I lodge myself against it.
Nothing. I step back and kick it with all my strength. The wood splinters open, and my
foot gets caught. I wrench it backward, scraping my calf, but adrenaline pushes me
forward. The voices at the front door shout my name.
On hands and knees, I squeeze through the jagged opening. My brother left through
this passage, and now it’s my escape too. Cobwebs entangle my face, hands, and hair. At
the end, I feel for the knob, twisting it clockwise. It swings open, creaking from disuse. I
sprint into the hallway and smash through the large fire escape doors at the end. A burst
of cool air strikes me in the face as I jump down the ladder.
Reaching the fifth floor, I knock on a friend’s window. The lights flicker on, and I
see the curtains move, but no one answers. I bang on the window harder.
“Let me in! Please!” I say, but the lights darken. They know I’ve been accused and
refuse to help me. Fear and adrenaline rush through my veins as I keep running, knocking
on more windows along the way. No one has mercy. They all know what happens to
Another flight of stairs passes in a blur when I hear the guards’ heavy footfalls from
above. I can’t hide, but I don’t want to go without trying.
Help me, Daddy. I need your strength now.
My previous desolation evolves into a will to survive. I have to keep running, but I
tremble and gasp for air. I steel my nerves and force my body to keep moving. In a matter
of minutes, my legs cramp and my chest burns. I plunge to the ground, scraping my knee
and elbow. A moan escapes from my chest.
Gotta keep going.
“Stop!” Their voices bounce off the buildings. “Lexi Hamilton, surrender yourself,”
they command. They’re gaining on me.
I resist the urge to glance back, running into what I assume is an alley. I’m far from
our high-rise in High Society as I plunge into a poorer section of the city where the
streets all look the same and the darkness prevents me from recognizing anything. I’m
My first instinct is to leap into a dumpster, but I retain enough sense to stay still. I
crouch and peek around it, watching them dash by. The abhorrent smell leaves me
vomiting until nothing remains in my stomach. Desperation overtakes me, as I know my
retching was anything but silent. My last few seconds tick away before they find me.
Everyone knows about their special means of tracking sinners.
I push myself to my feet and look left, right, and left again. Their batons click against
their black leather belts, and their boots stomp the cement on both sides of me. I shrink
into myself. Their heavy steps mock my fear, growing closer and closer until I know I’m
Never did I imagine they’d come for me. Never did I imagine all those nights I heard
them dragging someone else away that I’d join them.
“You’re a sinner,” they say. “Time to leave.”
I stand defiant. I refuse to bend or break before them, even as I shiver with fear.
“There’s no reason to make this difficult. The more you cooperate, the smoother this
will be for everyone,” a guard says.
I cringe into the blackness along the wall. I’m innocent, but they won’t believe me or
The next instant, my face slams into the pavement as one guard plants a knee in my
back and another handcuffs me. A warm liquid trails into my mouth. Blood. Their fingers
grip my arms like steel traps as they peel me off the cement. The tops of my shoes scrape
along the ground as I’m dragged behind them until they discard me into the back of a
black vehicle. The doors slam in unison with one guard stationed on each side of me, my
shoulders digging into their arms.
Swallowing hard, I stare ahead to avoid their eyes. My dignity is all I have left. The
handcuffs dig into my wrists, so I clasp them together hard behind me and press my back
into the seat, unwilling to admit how much it hurts.
Did they need so many guards to capture me?
I’m not carrying any weapons, nor do I own any. I don’t even know self-defense.
High Society frowns on activities like that.
The driver jerks the vehicle around and I try to keep my bearings, but it’s dark and
the scenery changes too fast. Hours pass, and the air grows warmer, more humid the
farther we drive. The landscape mutates from city to rolling hills. They don’t bother
blindfolding me because they escort all the sinners to the same place—the Hole. Twentyfoot
cement walls encase the chaos within. There’s no way out and no way in unless they
transport you. They say the Hole is a prison with no rules. We learned about it last year in
To the outside, I’m filth now. I’ll never be allowed to return to the life I knew. No
one ever does.
“All sinners go through a transformation,” one of the guards says to me. His smirk
infuriates me. “I’m sure you’ve heard all kinds of stories.” I don’t respond. I don’t want
to think about the things I’ve been told.
“You won’t last too long, though. Young girls like you get eaten alive.” He pulls a
strand of my hair up to his face.
Get your hands off me, you pig. I want to lash out, but resist. The punishment for
disobeying authority is severe, and I’m not positioned to defy him.
They’re the Guards of the Commander. They’re chosen from a young age and
trained in combat. They keep the order of society by using violent methods of
intimidation. No one befriends a guard. Relationships with them are forbidden inside the
Few have seen the commander. His identity stays under lock and key. His own
paranoia and desire to stay pure drove him to live this way. He controls our depraved
society and believes sinners make the human race unforgivable. His power is a crushing
fist, rendering all beneath him helpless. So much so, even family members turn on each
other when an accusation surfaces. Just an accusation. No trial, no evidence, nothing but
I lose myself in thoughts of my father.
“Never show fear, Lexi,” my father said to me before he was taken. “They’ll use it
against you.” His compassionate eyes filled with warning as he commanded me to be
strong. That was many years ago, but I remember it clearly. My father. My rock. The one
person in my life who provided unconditional love.
“Get out,” the guard says while pulling me to my feet. The vehicle stops, and I’m
jerked back to reality. The doors slide open and the two guards lift me up and out into the
night. A windowless cement building looms in front of us, looking barren in the darkness.
The coolness of the air sends a shiver up my spine. This is really happening. I’ve
been labeled a sinner. My lip starts to quiver, but I bite it before anyone sees. They shove
me in line, and I realize I’m not alone. Women and men stand with faces frozen white
with fear. A guard grabs my finger, pricks it, and dabs my blood on a tiny microchip.
I follow the man in front of me into the next room where we’re lined up facing the
wall. Glancing right, I see one of the men crying.
“Spread your legs,” one of the guards says.
They remove my outer layers and their hands roam up and down my body.
What do they think I can possibly be hiding? I press my head into the wall, trying to
block out what they’re doing to me.
“MOVE!” a guard commands. So I shuffle across the room, trying to cover up.
Five of us sit in the holding room. One by one, they pull people into the next room,
forcing the rest of us to wonder what torture we’ll endure. An agonizing amount of time
passes. I lean my head back and try to imagine a place far away. The door opens.
A guard escorts me out of the room, and I don’t have time to look back. As soon as
the door closes, they pick me up and place me on a table. It’s cold and my skin sticks to it
slightly, like wet fingers on an ice cube. Then they exit in procession, and I lie on the
table with a doctor standing over me. His hands are busy as he speaks.
“Don’t move. This will only take a few minutes. It’s time for you to be branded.”
A wet cloth that smells like rubbing alcohol is used to clean my skin. Then he places
a metal collar around my neck.
Click. Click. Click.
The collar locks into place, and I struggle to breathe. The doctor loosens it some as I
focus on the painted black words above me.
The Seven Deadly Sins:
Lust ⎯ Blue
Gluttony ⎯ Orange
Greed ⎯ Yellow
Sloth ⎯ Black
Wrath ⎯ Red
Envy ⎯ Green
Pride ⎯ Purple
“Memorize it. Might keep you alive longer if you know who to stay away from.” He
opens my mouth, placing a bit inside. “Bite this.”
Within seconds, the collar heats from hot to scorching. The smell of flesh sizzling
makes my head spin. I bite down so hard a tooth cracks.
“GRRRRRRRRR,” escapes from deep within my chest. Just when I’m about to pass
out, the temperature drops, and the doctor loosens the collar.
He removes it and sits me up. Excruciating pain rips through me, and I’m on the
verge of a mental and physical breakdown. Focus. Don’t pass out.
Stainless steel counters and boring white walls press in on me. A guard laughs at me
from an observation room above and yells, “Blue. It’s a great color for a pretty young
thing like yourself.” His eyes dance with suggestion. The others meander around like it’s
business as usual.
I finally find my voice and turn to the doctor.
“Are you going to give me clothes?” A burning pain spreads like fire up from my
neck to my jaw, making me wince.
He points to a set of folded grey scrubs on a chair. I cover myself as much as I can
and scurry sideways. Grabbing my clothes and pulling the shirt over my head, I try to
avoid the raw meat around my throat. I quickly knot the cord of my pants around my
waist and slide my feet into the hospital-issue slippers as the doctor observes. He hands
me a bag labeled with my name.
“Nothing is allowed through the door but what we’ve given you,” he says.
I hide my right hand behind me, hoping no one notices. A guard scans my body and
opens his hand.
“Give it to me,” he says. “Don’t make me rip off your finger.” He crouches down
and I turn to stone. I don’t know what to do, so I beg.
“My father gave this to me. Please, let me keep it.” I smash my eyes shut and think
of the moment my father handed the golden ring to me.
“It was my mother’s ring,” he’d said. “She’s the strongest woman I ever knew.”
With tears in his eyes, he reached for my hand and said, “Lexi, you’re exactly like her.
She’d want you to wear this. No matter how this world changes, you can survive.” I
turned the gold band over in my palm and read the engraving.
“You’re going to take the one thing that matters the most to me?” I say, glaring into
the guard’s emotionless eyes. “Isn’t it enough taking my life, dignity, and respect?”
A hard blow falls upon my back. As I fall, my hands shoot out to stop me from
smashing into the wall in front of me. The guard bends down and grabs my chin with his
“Look at me,” he commands.
I look up and he smiles with arrogance.
“What the hell?” He staggers a step backward. “What’s wrong with you? What’s
wrong with your eyes?”
“Nothing,” I respond, confused.
“What color are they?”
“Turquoise.” I glower at him.
“Interesting,” he says, regaining his composure. “Now those’ll get you in trouble.”
Reality slaps me across the face. I have my father’s eyes. They can’t take them from
me. I twist the ring off my finger and drop it in his hand.
“Take the damn ring,” I say. I walk to the door. He swipes a card and the massive
door slides open to the outside.
“You have to wear your hair back at all times, so everyone knows what you are.” He
hands me a tie, so I pull my frizzy hair away from my face and secure it into a ponytail.
My neck burns and itches as my hand traces the scabs that have already begun to form.
Squinting ahead in the darkness, I almost run into a guard standing on the sidewalk.
“Watch where you’re going,” he says, shoving me backward. His stiff figure stands
tall and I cringe at the sharpness of his voice.
“Cole, this is your new assignment, Lexi Hamilton. See to it she feels welcome in
her new home.” The guard departs with a salute.
“Let’s move,” Cole says.
I take two steps and collapse, my knees giving out. The unforgiving pavement
reopens the scrapes from earlier and I struggle to stand. A powerful arm snatches me up,
and I see his face for the first time.
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About the Authors
Abi and Missy met in the summer of 1999 at college orientation and have been best friends ever since. After college, they added jobs, husbands and kids to their lives, but they still found time for their friendship. Instead of hanging out on weekends, they went to dinner once a month and reviewed books. What started out as an enjoyable hobby has now become an incredible adventure.
2 grand prize winners with photo and notebook of Matt with signed paperback (INT)
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