Chapter 1

If you think you've never met a member of the Sevenfold Society, chances are that you are very wrong. They don't dress in crimson robes and hang about airports begging for petty cash. Nor are they the types to hold meetings discussing the arrival of an alien space ship to haul them off to heaven at light speed. They're not even what you would consider a doomsday cult.

A passive observer wouldn't recognize that woman with the overloaded grocery cart shushing the wailing infant for what she was. Or recognize the teenager who diligently mows the neighbor's lawn to save up for his I-pod. Or even recognize the homeless man skulking in the alley with a large collection of pop cans stuffed between the dumpster and a molding brick wall.

The Sevenfold's operations are far more covert and destructive. I have witnessed it firsthand and I am here to tell the tale—or as here as I can possibly manage in my condition. You see, I'm dead. Deceased. Murdered in cold blood.

I didn't know that the Sevenfold existed. I didn't even have the chance to fight back until it was far too late. All I know is that my first impressions of them will be burned into my memory forever.

I remember so many details of that first day, and yet others are so vague. I don't remember what I ate for breakfast that morning. Yet, I remember the scorching Savannah sun beating down on me as I lay in Noelle's pool soaking up the last of the summer rays. Senior year would be starting in a few days and I intended to make every last bit of free time count. I'd even scored the crocodile floatie that everyone had been fighting over.

"Come on, Kate," Noelle Watts had rolled her eyes, pulling her sun-bleached blonde hair back into a tight ponytail as she spoke. "How are you even going to get a tan in a full swimsuit and a pair of shorts?"

I snickered and kicked off the cement wall, nearly searing my toes. The sun was turning the entire ground into a high powered grill set to scorch. I'd noticed some thick dark clouds billowing in the near distance, but I was sure that we'd have at least an hour of sunshine before we'd have to duck into the house for shelter.

"Booty shorts," I argued, as if the length of my shorts made any difference. I knew they didn't cover much more than the swimsuit did, but at least the cute blue material hid two extra inches of skin at the back of my thighs. I was immensely self-conscious of their striking resemblance to cottage cheese. Apparently I didn't need to be chubby to have some flab at the back of my thighs. Go figure.

"You're just jealous," I added, keeping my insecurities to myself, "because I got the crock and you're stuck with Barbie floatie."

Barbie floatie belonged to Hailey, Noelle's younger sister.

Noelle threw out her arm in an off-handed gesture. "Yeah," her voice was laced with blatant sarcasm, "Because I need to be in the pool to get a tan."

She reclined in the lawn chair next to Trista, who was flipping through a magazine. The petite, rosy-cheeked girl had remained oblivious to the entire scuffle over the crocodile floatie. She pushed her sunglasses back into her chestnut-colored hair with a furrowed look. "Did I miss something?"

"The entire debate on Jefferson's blue spotted cat," I replied with a deadpan expression.

Noelle giggled and turned onto her stomach to let the rays gently golden her back. It wasn't fair really. I loved to be out on the water, but I would have been smarter to turn over the beloved crocodile to Miss I-always-tan-perfectly. The double dose of light from the sky above and the reflection off the water would turn my pale—err, creamy—skin into a mottled overripe tomato. Then my complexion would be just the right color to match with my copper hair, I thought with a self-derisive smirk.

Just then, Adrian slipped out of the changing hut and I had to lift my blue-tinted sunglasses a notch just to make sure I wasn't seeing anything. Adrian strutted up to the pool's edge, her large gray eyes surveying the scene with calculating eyes. She sported a fluorescent pink 'suit characterized by big green dots. The swimsuit was so completely against her tomboy code that I just had to laugh.

A loud snort was ushered in with the sound of my laughter. I slapped my hand to my face as if the very action could delete the past two seconds. Unfortunately, life didn't work that way. If it did, I wouldn't be the queen of embarrassing moments.

"Jeez, Kate," Trista intoned with mock annoyance. From the look on her face, I could tell that she was just raring to get me back for the cat comment. "Could you laugh once without snorting?"

I only hoped my flushed look was hidden beneath the sunburn creeping up my cheeks. It was probably too much to hope for, so I just shrugged my shoulders in an indifferent manner and let out a long deliberate snort for emphasis.

The sound of a screen door squealed back on its rollers.

"I heard that, Kate!" Daven accused from the doorway, pulling a hand through his wheat-colored hair and grinning at me crookedly.

"The only things you heard were the bouncing sounds Trista made when she was dancing the polka just now," I called back.

"Mmm hmm!" Noelle added, going along with my ridiculous train of thought. She propped herself up on her elbows so that she could view Daven—and Jose, who was just behind him, surreptitiously eating from a gallon bucket of ice cream with a spoon. "It was the most scintillating performance I've ever witnessed."

Trista must have decided that a bow was more appropriate than total denial.

"Hot," Jose announced around a spoonful of ice cream.

"We very stealthily extracted your chocolate fudge mint from the freezer," Daven announced, stating the obvious. He lifted up his own spoon and delved into the bucket.

"Just save some for us!" I called back.

"After those behemoths have been slobbering in it, you can count me out," Trista remarked, turning the page and pointing something out to Noelle, who shook her head.

Only a resounding splash warned me of Adrian's presence before the girl clambered up onto my crocodile and pushed my legs out of the way so that she could get seated.

"No!" I cried out, pretending to be more offended than I actually was. "The crocodile is mine! Mine, I tell you! Mine!"

"Not for long," Adrian returned with a devious grin and tried to retract my grip from the sides of the floatie.

"Die, infidel!" I crowed. "Die like a dog!"

Adrian chuckled. "Where did that saying even come from?"

My fingers relaxed their hold on the plastic and I leaned forward slightly, cocking my head to the side in thought. It was a good question. I wracked my brain and lifted my hands in sudden triumph. "Radio Land Murders!"

Then I realized my folly as Adrian let out a victory yell. I squealed as she moved to shove me off the floatie. I acted on something instinctual inside of me. I knew I wouldn't be able to get a good grip on the floatie in time. Instead, I decided that if I was going down, she sure as heck was going with me. I gripped her wrists and we both fell into the water with a great splash.

I suspected that the wave spread to spray up onto the deck and lawn chairs if the resounding squeals were any indication. I could hear the noise, even below the surface. Noelle and Trista came out sounding muffled and gargled.

I resurfaced and gripped the side of the down turned floatie instead of treading water. Mr. Crocodile was now breathing H20 with his plastic, pasted-on grin. Adrian's movements were synchronous with mine as we sputtered out the nasty tasting chlorinated water.

"Y'all really shouldn't be in there," Daven announced, his voice so much closer this time.

I glanced to the side to see him crouched at the pool's edge. The first things that entered my vision were a pair of thick, male legs. He must have moved while we were struggling. I nearly jumped to see him standing at such a close proximity.

"Why not?" I questioned.

Daven jutted his chin toward the sky. As if on cue with his movement, a deep rumble belted through the air. "That's why."

I shivered as I glanced up at the sky. The blanket of clouds had come so suddenly. The sun was just beginning to wink out of sight, veiling the scorching rays.

The shiver didn't rest on the surface of my skin, but connected with the nape of my neck and raced down my spine, brought on by the upchurn of old memories mounting in my consciousness. I'd nearly drowned in a resort pool when I was five. And the tall dark man had saved me…

Only he hadn't. My mother insisted that there couldn't have been anyone there. The pool was on our own private property. Somehow I had managed to pull myself free of the dragging water, threatening to envelope my head. But with the memory, the face always resurfaced.

I shook my head to push away the muddled and vague thoughts. I hated thinking about the incident.

I reached out with my left arm first and breast-stroked toward the edge of the pool. Bracing myself, I brought my dripping form out onto the still warm cement. Adrian was only a second behind me, toting along the crocodile floatie I'd discarded in the pool center.

I picked up one of the folded towels and wrapped it around my shivering form. Why was I shivering? I thought confusedly as the sounds of thrashing came from behind me. It wasn't cold out—it never was in August.

"I got you," Daven's voice came from behind me and I glanced over my shoulder. He had gripped Adrian about her waist and was carrying her out of the water like she was made of feathers and not one of the feisty football players that was likely to charge him at practice.

I snorted, expecting her to body check him or something. But she didn't. Daven glanced up and caught my eye for a second. His hands dropped.

I moved to slip my feet into the flip-flops I'd left at the pool's edge and found the cement vacant of any footwear. I glanced up, confused. "Where's my—"

Daven's incriminating grin made me pause accusingly. I pointed at him and demanded. "Give me back my shoes!"

"What shoes?" Daven asked.

"What shoes?" Jose Vasquez added in what would have been a perfect echo if it weren't for the spoon jutting out of his mouth, muffling his speech. Well, almost perfect. Jose still had a hint of a Mexican accent, even though he'd been living here for the past twelve years. Jose put an arm around Noelle as she moved to his side and the two of them moved toward the house, followed by Adrian and Trista. Daven moved as if to follow and I caught a telltale glimpse of a bulge on Daven's back where his t-shirt normally hung loose. Instead, it was tucked into the seat of his pants to make a perfect little sack for a pair of flip-flops to rest in.

I dashed forward, only to be impeded by Daven's grip as he pivoted to meet me. He grinned teasingly, lacing his fingers through mine. "Where do you think you're going?"

I smiled sweetly back, assuming a wide and innocent expression. "I'm just trying to pull out your shirt. You know how unfashionable that is."

"Well, you're going to have to deal with an out-of-style boyfriend, then," he returned, leaning closer as his smiled widened, "Because I've never had a thing for fashion."

I was laughing when he kissed me.

He leaned back and frowned at me as if something was wrong. I created a frown to match his. "What's wrong?"

"You just snorted again," he chuckled.

I slapped him lightly on the shoulder and squeezed my eyes shut with a groan. "Don't remind me!"

"Hey, hey," he voiced, trying to get my attention. An arm wrapped about my waist and I opened my eyes. He smiled reassuringly. "I think it's cute."

I grinned stoutly at that. "You'd better think it's cute," I returned, "because I'm going to keep on snorting like it's going out of style."

It was a good thing that I didn't relax enough to laugh around most people, because that's when my body betrayed me with that awful snort. I knew the sound probably wasn't as bad as I imagined, but to my biased ears it sounded loud and obnoxious, like those dorky nerds on movies.

But I wasn't a nerd; at least, I didn't consider myself one. I had been voted Most Athletic Girl in school last year. That had to count for something—I hoped, anyway. People didn't vote for people that annoyed them—like annoying girls with obnoxious snorts.

I chuckled, remembering what Adrian had been voted as last her: Most Likely to be Charged by an Entire Team of Testosterone Pumped Male Footballers. The committee had created a new category in the "most likely" lists just to accommodate Adrian. I had a feeling that Noelle had had something to do with that.

Adrian was the only girl in Silver Stream High school history to try out for the football team. And she was good, but she was also less than half the size of most of the guys on the team and most of them were so careful around her—to the point where some of the members of the team spent more time protecting her than worrying about the opposition. I think that they'd let her join basically out of fear of a sexist debate.

"What are you thinking about?" Daven asked.

I smiled and began tugging him toward the door, just as the first speckles of rain began to litter the cement pool deck. I took a deep breath of the salty, acid-like smell, letting it filter in through my nostrils. "Nothing important."

Lightening flashed in the distance and I jumped, twirling around. There was a funny feeling zipping between my shoulder blades and setting me on alert. It almost felt like someone's eyes were boring into my back. I lifted my shoulders one at a time to ease the feeling. A quick glance of the empty pool rippling with raindrops and the empty green lawns behind betrayed the uneasiness rising in me.

There was nothing out there.

"Is everything all right, Kate?" Daven was rubbing my shoulders as I viewed the yard—that felt good.

I nodded slowly. If I told him the truth, he'd think I was crazy. "It's fine. I'm fine. I just thought I heard something, that's all."

"I didn't," he returned.

I nodded again and slipped into the house just as Noelle unfolded the twister mat on the floor before moving to apply some more mascara. Jose's eyes followed her like she was the most beautiful creature in the room. People seemed to have this whole mindset that bigger people can't be pretty. But no one who looked at Noelle would suggest that she was anything less than model beautiful. And by big, that didn't mean that Noelle was flabby. She was as well-toned and muscled as she needed to be for her gymnast classes. She was just tall, with a larger bone structure than most girls. If I had my bets on it, she would be prom queen this year. She just had an aura about her that made people like her.

It always made me smile when I thought about how different my friends and I were. Noelle was the big, blonde and beautiful one. Trista was the cute and petite one with hair the color of chestnuts.

If you looked at Adrian from the back or side, you'd think she was just another scrawny tomboy with a face of freckles and a lank of dirty blonde hair and no chest. But she had a pair of wide, mischievous gray eyes and wide, defined cheekbones to match. Her thin-bridged nose came to a cute little upturned finish and she had the best Angelina Jolie look-alike lips that I'd ever seen. She actually had more guys trailing her than the rest of us combined—she just told them all to take a hike because she rather wrestle them than make-out with them.

And then there was me, the tall willowy one. People seemed to get this idea that I couldn't hold my own because I looked so frail or something. Maybe it was the pale complexion. It couldn't have anything to do with my coppery brown hair or my plain brown eyes.

People didn't keep their 'she's-a-frail-and-helpless' girl opinions of me for long. Somehow they figured out how opinionated and stubborn I am—or so my mother tells me. Personally, I think I'm very amiable and agreeable.

I reached into the bowl on the coffee table and extricated a handful of peanuts, munching slowly until Noelle called us all together.

Daven and Jose ignored the call and ran for the x-box on the other side of the room. Daven untucked his shirt as he moved and tossed my flip-flops aside. They flew across the room to land in Jazzy's litter box.

"Daven!" I cried out.

I located a remote that had been dumped in the empty fishbowl on the coffee table. The little goldfish named Guppie had lived there a couple months ago, but he'd long since been flushed down the toilet by Noelle's devious little sister. But the fishbowl had never left the coffee table. The Watts were notorious for their clutter.

When Daven didn't pay attention immediately, I threw the remote lightly at his exposed back. It bounced off his broad shoulders before skittering across the glossy wood tiles. He paused for a moment to look at me in belligerent confusion before turning back to his game.

I let the air out of the side of my mouth and shook my head. I didn't feel like fishing through cat litter to find my shoes. When I finally did retrieve the flip-flops, I'd have a lovely odor following me around: Eau de cat poop.

Just as Noelle was about to spin the dial, the sound of jingle bells rang through the room. It sounded like it was coming from the folds of the couch. I shook my head in exasperation and amusement. Trust Daven to try and hide my cell phone.

"Jingle bells in the summer?" Trista sent me an incredulous look. Noelle snickered behind a hand, and eyed me from the side of her vision. I threw a peanut in their general direction.

Adrian was the only one who didn't look the slightest bit surprised. We'd been friends forever. It was only recently, within the past couple of years, that we had become close with Noelle and Trista.

I shrugged, flipping open the phone with the explanation. "It's so cheery."

Adrian rolled her eyes. "You need some Eminem theme music."

"Sorry," I replied in a Who-do-you-think-I-am? tone. "I'm not into masochistic rappers. I have better things to do than to promote people that encourage violence and sing about disturbing scenarios."

"There she goes again, off on some rant," Noelle chuckled teasingly.

I ignored the comment and focused on the phone in my hand. I spoke, my voice immediately turning to my friendly telephone tone. "Hello?"

"Thank goodness you answered," my mom's exhausted and harassed voice entered my ear. "I've been trying to call you for the past half hour. Where do you keep your phone?"

"Oh, you know me," I responded in a light tone. "I like to take it swimming with me. I'm a regular little social mermaid, so I keep it strapped to my side with the kelp belts I bead."

"Would you stop taking that flippant tone with me?" Her tone was surprisingly harsh and annoyed. "I have enough to deal with without having to hear your sarcastic fibs all the time! Why can't you just act responsible?"

I didn't expect the sudden outburst from her, so my own reaction came out in an equally annoyed voice. "Sorry! Jeez!"

She just sighed again. "Whatever. Just get down here, okay?"

My eyes widened. "Down there? To Barnes 'N' Nobles?"

"No, to the North Pole. Yes, to Barnes 'N' Nobles!"

I couldn't help but jibe. She was one to talk. "Speaking of sarcastic fibs…"

"That's a very well-known phrase, Katelyn Diana Dupont, and you know it! You just make people confused when you make up random fibs that you think are funny. No one else agrees with you."

I realized that my tone was starting to set on edge, so I moved out into the hall where my friends couldn't hear me. I didn't like arguing with my mom in front of them. I had the feeling it probably made them uncomfortable.

"Mom, this is one of my last days of summer," I argued. "I'm hanging out with my friends. I don't have many days like this. Why do I have to come to Barnes 'N' Nobles now?"

I could practically see her ticking off her fingers with my mind's eye as she spoke. "Because I'm understaffed, it's busy, and we just got a whole new shipment of books in!"

"Mom, I don't even work there! I'm not even on the payroll!" I could hear the telltale whine in my own voice and it sounded childish to my ears.

"Look, I'll buy you a new CD or something—some sort of compensation. Just get your butt down here now before I need to medicate myself to calm down!" She clicked the end button before I could get the chance to argue some more.

I sighed and moved toward Noelle's bedroom, where I'd left my street clothes. I slipped out of the bathing suit and into my jeans and tee-shirt. I had it in my mind to let her deal with the crap and stay right where I was. Why was she always so inconsiderate, thinking her life was more important than mine?

I would normally just think, Screw her. But the problem was that if I didn't come, she'd march right up to Noelle's house and make a big scene about it. She would completely humiliate me, just to make me come to work. And she thought I was stubborn.

One thing was for sure: I would go but I wasn't going to wear the stupid uniform. I would only restock shelves and she could deal with the snotty customers herself.

I moved back into the living room and fished my flip-flops out of the litter box, shaking them vigorously for good measure. I didn't want to think about the microscopic bits of cat feces that were probably lodged in the nooks and crannies.

Noelle glanced up at me with an expectant expression. "Come play twister."

"Can't," I returned with a one word answer. I was still fuming, but I couldn't take it out on my friends. My mother's issues weren't their problem. So I added in a friendlier tone. "My mom wants me to go help out at work. I don't have a choice."

Noelle frowned up at me. "You're going to miss the brownies. They're just about to come out of the oven."

I shrugged. "Sorry," I muttered and moved toward the front door.

I grasped the handle and pulled the door open. The thrum of pattering rain doubled against my ear drums. The moment the door was shut, barring my voice from possible ears, I let out a long and loud sigh. I glanced out at the onrush I had to look forward to the moment I stepped off the porch. Bracing myself, I ran for the car.

We usually didn't get rain like this, unless there was a hurricane coming soon. Usually the rain pattered so softly that I could barely feel it. But there shouldn't be any hurricanes—the news hadn't mentioned any.

I yanked the car door open and slipped into the seat. My keys were still in the ignition. I sat for a moment, breathing shallowly and shaking the rain out of my hair.

I moved to readjust the rearview mirror, which had somehow been knocked awry. As I moved the mirror, the forest on the other side of the road flashed through the mirror. It was a blur of green until I reached a dark flash and then back to green again.

Frowning, I turned my head back to look physically over my shoulder. There, among the trees, was a tall dark man, leaning casually against a tree. He was too far away to see his distinct features, but I knew who he was. He was the man who hadn't saved me from drowning when I was five. He hadn't saved me because he didn't exist.

It's just an illusion, I reminded myself. It's just the trauma that causes you to see him over and over again. He doesn't exist.

I turned the ignition and the car shuddered to life. I took a glance through my rearview mirror to direct myself and gunned the car backward in a wide arc. I refused to look to my left as I got so unbearably close to the spot where the illusion was standing.

"Just an illusion," I coached myself again as the car screeched forward, turning onto the highway. "Just an illusion," I repeated.

I turned on the highway and headed toward Barnes 'N' Nobles.

AN: Don't let this first chapter convince you otherwise: This is a scary story—or, at least it scares the heck out of me. Then again, maybe you have more gumption than I do. If you do, I hold you in the highest respect.

Anywho, just so that everyone knows before hand: This story has religious overtones, biblical references and the like. If you don't like that, you're welcome to check out any of my other stories that aren't so religiously based such as Pierced 1 and 2, Web of Lies, or We Were Taboo.

For those who notice the different doctrinal subjects I raise, I would be curious to know how many of you can guess which subject comes from which religion because I'm using a repertoire of information from dozens of religions. If you're curious about some doctrine, all you have to do is ask and I'll tell you which religion it came from, which book it came from, or if I simply made it up for the purpose of this story.

For all those who are probably groaning about the fact that I started a new story when I'm in the middle of writing two other ones, please keep in mind that I've already written 18 chapters of this story, so it's not likely to impede my ability to work on the others stories. This is my nanowrimo project and I happen to be very proud of it. I'm hoping to finish the entire story by the end of November.

For those who like it, please review! I want to know what people think—it's a different style for me.