Exclusive Excerpt: The Key to Fear - Vilma Iris | Lifestyle Blogger

This post contains affiliate links, meaning I’ll receive a small commission should you purchase using those links. All opinions expressed are my own. I receive no compensation for reviews.

Exclusive Excerpt: The Key to Fear

#1 New York Times bestselling author Kristin Cast is back with a new, immersive fantasy thriller. Rife with intricate world building and well-drawn characters, THE KEY TO FEAR imparts the chilling story of a post-pandemic world where touch is largely forbidden, and two teenagers lives collide in a way that changes everything.

I was thrilled to talk to Kristin about her new novel, out tomorrow, as well as share an exclusive sneak peek!

ORDER: AMAZON | AUDIBLE | iBOOKS | BARNES & NOBLE

  • About THE KEY TO FEAR

    No touching today for a healthy tomorrow.

    For 50 years, the Key Corporation has defended humanity against a deadly virus that spreads through touch. Lovers don’t kiss, or even hold hands. Personal boundaries are valued above all. Break the laws, and you’ll face execution.

    Elodie, a talented young nurse, believes in the mission of the Key and has never questioned the laws that control her life. But Elodie is forced to break the rules when she sets out in search of a terminal patient who goes missing while under her care.

    From the outside, it seems like Aiden was given everything he could want from the Key – a purpose, an education, and a future. But Aiden knows more than he’s letting on, and the dark secrets he’s keeping could tear the Key’s strict society apart.

    When Elodie and Aiden’s lives collide, the fallout will be devastating. What do you do when the brutal system that once kept you safe hunts you down?

    Run.

  • Interview

    What sparked the inspiration for this book?

    I started to create the world where The Key to Fear takes place and change Portland into Westfall about six years ago while on tour for the final House of Night novel.

    I was sitting in a cafe in Salt Lake, staring out the window and wondering where my career was going and what I wanted to do next. All these big, huge thoughts. When I glanced across the street at Key Bank and their giant, red logo. For some reason, that image stuck with me. From where I was sitting, it was larger than life and seemed to take up everything.

    Fast forward to a few months later, I was in line at Mod Pizza behind several pairs of teens. It was obvious that each group was together, but they didn’t interact physically or even talk outside of showing the other what was on their phone. My writer brain started spinning and throwing out all of these questions like what would happen if all of our social meet ups were in virtual reality? Or, what if we weren’t even allowed to touch each other? Then, and this is when everything clicked into place, what would have to happen to create a world in which no one touched? I got my food and sat down and asked myself, what that world would look like and why it would happen.

    I’ve been interested in viruses and pandemics since eighth grade when I read Richard Preston’s Hot Zone. So, a deadly virus spread by touch popped into my head as the why. Then, I started thinking about who would come to power if the population was nearly wiped out and everything feel apart. Well, my uncle works in the pharmaceutical industry doing something I don’t quite understand, but I had recently talked with him, so that was fresh in my mind. Boom, a pharmaceutical company in power.

    While thinking about these different aspects, my stored memory of the Salt Lake City cafe ran to the front of my brain, screaming and carrying this giant red sign that said, to health, to life, to the future, we are The Key. I could have just thrown up my entire lunch right then. It had all fit together so perfectly. The Key Corporation and The Key to Fear were born.

    The story takes us into a world where a deadly virus spreads through touch, and humanity has had to adapt to survive. It’s obviously super timely. Did what’s happening now help shape the world you created?

    Since I had the idea so many years ago, our current pandemic wasn’t the inspiration for this world. However, this is not the first time civilization has been under the threat of a deadly virus. When I began building this story, I looked to history to help me shape this world.

    Can you tell us a little bit about our main characters, Elodie and Aiden?

    Elodie is a seventeen-year-old nurse who craves more than the structured plan the Key Corporation has made for her and wishes to make meaningful connections outside of virtual reality. Elodie’s life changes when she nearly bumps into Aiden, a free spirited, bad boy who has more secrets than he’s letting on.

    Even though the story is focused around Elodie’s and Aiden’s relationship and how it propels them both toward a new life, this is not a love story. At least, not a love story between this girl and boy. The Key to Fear is a story of self-love and hope and the discovery of inner strength.

    Both Elodie and Aiden were built from pieces of myself. Elodie very much embodies who I was when I was living in Oklahoma. At that time, I believed that there was only one way to be a straight, cis woman. Because of that, I felt like my life was already planned out for me, and I worked really hard to force myself to love what that picture looked like. I also thought there was something wrong with me when I dreamed of living a different type of life.

    Aiden represents who I was when first moving to Portland, Oregon. For the first time, I knew I could be whoever I wanted and that I would be enough. I felt this renewed sense of life. I remember walking around the forest feeling like I did in fourth grade when I finally got glasses—like I was seeing the world around me for the first time. Aiden is for dreamers. Those of us who are, and those of us who aspire to see the beauty in everyday life.

    Could you set up the excerpt we’re sharing with everyone today?

    In this excerpt, we join Elodie as she walks to her job at the MediCenter while talking with her best friend, Astrid. Eos, a terrorist organization, has just set off a bomb right outside of downtown, and Elodie and Astrid are preparing to watch the live news feed of the attack. During this, Elodie will discover something about herself that starts her on a new life path.

    I hope you will come on this new journey with me. You’ll find that it’s only a terrifying step away from our current world.

  • Excerpt

    A gray rectangle appeared above Astrid’s image. The shape bisected the translucent panel covering the left side of Elodie’s vision and created two separate panels—the lower was Astrid, and the upper was the live feed of Tilikum Crossing.

    The first thing Elodie noticed was all the people lined up, each on their backs with their arms in an X across their chests. Hazmat-clad soldiers pointed guns at each person while trashcan-sized bots sped around the bridge spraying every surface with liquid.

    Her breath hitched in her chest and her legs ceased moving. This time, she couldn’t force herself forward. She couldn’t make her body blend in with the others who moved around her, swerving so as not to bump into her, not to touch her, everyone a little more cautious, a little more anxious, as the morning news spread. Maybe they could do all these things at once, their bodies continuing through the world on autopilot while their minds attended to more

    important matters, but Elodie couldn’t do it all. She felt too much.

    The drone transmitting the live feed didn’t supply audio and was too high above the scene for Elodie to tell whether or not the eyes of the men and women lying on the bridge were closed out of fear, obedience, or death.

    Elodie’s fingers tingled. “Are they dead?” she finally heard herself ask.

    Astrid’s ponytail slid from her shoulder as she shrugged dismissively. “If they aren’t now, they will be soon.”

    Elodie wanted to run until Westfall was nothing but a distant haze, but she would only be able to go so far. The Key had locked down the city at the threshold of Zone Seven. And for good reason.

    Astrid cocked her head. “You think one of those soldiers is Rhett?”

    Elodie squinted at the image, but it was no use. With their shiny Key Corp–red Hazmat suits and black weapons, the soldiers resembled a swarm of ladybugs. “I hope not. I don’t want him anywhere near that kind of stuff.”

    “Even if he is, they have such intense sanitation procedures that there’s no way Rhett could get infected.” Astrid’s gaze slipped to something out of Elodie’s line of sight before she continued. “Key soldiers are always safe. No one fights against them and no germs can get to them. It’s pretty much a no risk job.”

    The scene on the bridge froze and dissolved into the gray hold screen before blinking white. Elodie opened her mouth to speak, but the Key’s red logo unfurled across the small box in her vision.

    Astrid resumed twirling the ends of her glossy ponytail. “You getting this?”

    Elodie nodded as a woman strode into view, but it wasn’t Holly. The woman’s hourglass hips swished hypnotically as she took her place. She clasped her slender, earth-brown hands in front of her hips and locked her hazel eyes on the camera.

    “Good morning, citizens. By now, I am sure you have heard about the attack on our city.”

    Elodie’s brow furrowed. “She sounds so familiar . . .”

    “Like Holly?” Astrid let out a slight grunt of admiration. “That’s Blair Scott. The hottest thing since VR. Like, Icarus-too-close-to-the-sun hot. Blair developed Holly’s new coding, and as a signature, used her own vocal pathways in the new-and-improved Holly.”

    Elodie adjusted her beanie, hiding her grimace behind her hand. She barely noticed the other pedestrians racing by in either direction. The thought of creating a weird voice-twin made her skin crawl.

    Blair continued. “Eos is trying to shake us, but they will fail. Westfall and its citizen are stronger than their hate. While we do not yet know how the attack on Tilikum Crossing happened or why, this is what we know for certain—

    “You. Are. Safe.” Her tender smile lifted her round cheeks but stopped short of her eyes.

    Those remained unchanged—smooth and fierce.

    “Mere moments after the attack, the Key Corporation activated Westfall’s intense containment protocols, and we are pleased and thankful to be able to say that our city is one hundred percent free of any infective agents, and no one outside of the immediate attack zone was exposed to any pathogens.”

    Elodie released a stored breath and scooted out of the way as a group of button-down- clad men approached.

    “Another win for the Key!” one of the men cheered as they passed by.

    Had Elodie really been standing in the middle of the sidewalk like a dolt? Mentally, she shook herself and continued her walk to her office building as she resumed listening to Blair Scott.

    “We are safe, and we owe that safety to the Key, and the more than five decades of work they have put into protecting us. That is why we know for certain that the corporation is truly the key to health, the key to life, and the key to our future.”

    Recognizing the end of a Key Corp message, Elodie focused on ending the feed. “Doesn’t it bother you how they’re always saying that? The key to our future. It’s creepy, right?” she said as Astrid’s image expanded to full size.

    Astrid shrugged. “It might seem a little intense if it wasn’t true, but isn’t it just a fact? I mean, if it wasn’t for the Key, we wouldn’t even be here. Our species would have died out forever ago.”

    “Fifty years ago,” Elodie corrected.

    “Since you and I have only been here for seventeen, it might as well have been forever ago.” Astrid punctuated with a flick of her ponytail. “Either way, we’re alive because of the Key.”

    “You’re totally right,” Elodie said, more to remind herself than in response to her best friend.

    The gray stretch of pavement beneath Elodie’s feet abruptly changed to rust-red brick when she reached the front of the MediCenter. “I’m at work. I’ll call you after,” she said, suddenly remembering she could finally remove her hat. She yanked it off her head and stuffed it into her backpack before shaking out her dark curls. Instead of cascading around her

    shoulders in beautiful waves as she’d imagined, her wet hair splatted against her shoulders in two damp clumps.

    Astrid’s eyes widened for the zillionth time that morning. “Is your hair wet?

    Elodie scooped her hair off her shoulders, leaving behind two wet shadows across her top. “I took a shower. It’s no big deal.” If she’d had more time, she would have taken another one after her nursing lesson. She needed a real shower after that nightmare; needed to feel the steaming torrent of water against her skin. She needed to feel clean.

    “Hmm.” Astrid pursed her pale pink lips. “I don’t want to say it’s weird, but, you know,” another shrug. “It’s weird.”

    You’re weird.” Elodie batted down her insecurities with a forced chuckle.

    “Thank you much.” Astrid grinned, straight and shiny. “Hey, even though everything is good now, don’t take the MAX home. Take a Pearl.”

    Elodie snorted. “Yeah, maybe I’ll think about it in twenty years when I’m head of the nursing department. I get that you work with your genius dad, but us normal people don’t make thousands of bits each year to go spending on fancy Pearl rides.”

    The rosy red of Astrid’s cheeks deepened. Bits. That was the one thing that would embarrass Astrid every time. Each coin her family made seemed to add to her shame. Elodie didn’t understand. If she had that much money, she’d be long gone. Across the ocean and deeply rooted in foreign lands. Westfall would become nothing more than the place she’d come from. The place that made her unique, different from everyone else. Her stomach clenched with the lie. As much as she wanted to believe she’d be anywhere else, her place was in Westfall, with Rhett, in the MediCenter, with her plain, safe life.

    Astrid pulled a thick curtain of hair across her face like a mask. “Shut up,” she teased, releasing the dark strands. “We’re working on a new Pearl prototype and need people to test it out. I’ll send one to pick you up. For free.

    “A prototype? I’ll have to figure out if I would rather die in a fiery ball or test my luck in some horrible germ attack.” The men and women laying on the bridge, Xs on their chests, flashed behind Elodie’s eyes. “You know what,” she cleared her throat. “That was stupid. Don’t listen to me. I’ll take your free ride.”

    Astrid plucked the air with a delicate wave. “Later, later.”

    The image filling the side of Elodie’s vision went gray and disappeared as she ended the call and stared up at Westfall’s downtown MediCenter building. Bronze sconces framed the smooth concrete facade, their tines stretching toward the sky like points on a crown.

    Elodie’s clear plastic cuff flashed green as she approached the spotless glass doors. They opened noiselessly, their shiny gold handles glinting in the dappled sunlight. How long had it been since anyone had actually touched them? The handles on all of the entrances in the remaining buildings in Zone One were now nothing more than metal jewelry for doors.

    The scent of fresh pine, of the forest after a rainstorm, swirled through the air.

    “Is this one of those experiments where someone stands in the middle of the walkway to see whether or not people are gullible enough to start a line behind them?”

    Heat flooded Elodie’s cheeks and she flicked her gaze to the pavement behind her and the owner of the deep, silky voice and source of the piney scent. How had she missed those giant boots clomping up behind her? The boots moved, leaving a dusting of dirt across the red brick. Elodie grimaced. Who even knew where to find that much dirt?

    “You are going in, right?” The owner of the boots spoke again.

    Elodie jerked forward and absentmindedly shook her head at the dingy, mud-splattered yellow laces. “No. I mean yes.” She forced her attention to the ground beneath the nearly silent shuffling of her brilliantly white sneakers. Maybe she did get lost in her thoughts way too often. “Yes, I—” The glass door clanged surprisingly loud when Elodie smacked into it.

    The heavy boots clomped up behind her, bringing with them more of the crisp evergreen scent. “Oh, shit. Are you okay?”

    Elodie’s vision danced as she waited for the doors to reopen before attempting to walk through them again. “Yeah.” She rubbed the side of her head and stayed facing forward, refusing to look at whoever had just witnessed what had to be the most embarrassing moment of her life. The doors opened and Elodie concentrated on proceeding as calmly and incident- free as possible to the bay of elevators. “Eleven,” she squeaked after scanning her cuff beneath the elevator’s control panel.

    The heavy, crunchy footsteps continued to shadow her. Elodie pressed her eyelids shut and held her cool palm against her flaming cheek as she waited to see which elevator would descend first.

    Another beep of the control panel. “Twelve,” the boots’ owner said with a muffled groan.

    Or maybe Elodie was the one groaning.

    Her eyelids fluttered open and she cast a sideways glance at the dirty brown boots waiting by her side. There was no way she could board an elevator and ride all the way to the eleventh floor with that forest scent, with someone who had just watched her walk into a door. Not with the morning she’d been having. She smoothed her wet hair over the tender knot forming on the side of her head.

    An elevator chimed its arrival, and Elodie darted away from the opening doors and the heavy boots.

    Today seemed like a really good day to take the stairs.

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