Chapter 01

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Est autem fides credere quod nondum vides; cuius fidei merces est videre quod credis- Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.

-St. Augustine

Seventeen Years Ago

Dr. Jonathan Marshall Keats stood on the dark corner just a few blocks from his condominium in the Russian Hill district of San Francisco. He peered through the thick mist as he waited for the light to change and fingered his wedding ring, twisting it around and around his finger. Nothing could keep his mind off his family. Not tonight. Not on their anniversary, or what would have been their anniversary, had she still been alive.

He shivered and pulled his jacket close to his chest. The fog had never lifted. The breeze off the bay was the offspring of the Bering Sea and Alaskan ice. Tiny droplets of moisture clung to his face like beads of cold sweat. He crossed his arms in front of him and pressed his hands under his armpits to ward off the chill.

He had no idea what time it was, except it was too late for all but a few random cars to pass his lonely figure. His recent isolation heightened his depression, for hollow is hollow regardless of where one is, who is and isn't around. No amount of fresh air could fill the vast gap in his life.

Only work and sleep kept his mind from self-pitying thoughts. Sleep no longer afforded peace since the nightmares had returned, and the harder he worked, the more he dreamed.

He had been revising a chapter for his coming book on the early life of Joan of Arc when the dreams began. At first, he dreamed about parts of her life. Then, the dreams took on a different nature. They revealed clues to missing sections in his research, as if his unconscious suggested possible solutions. He would wake up with the urge to write and found himself drawing archaic words and symbols for which he had no interpretation. Blue crosses and black wolves, vine covered arbors, and a fountain with a single vine reaching toward a black ceiling, became constant images flashing through his mind. Again, the dreams changed, becoming nightmares filled with bloody battles surrounding Joan of Arc shrouded in fear and doubt. In the most disturbing scene, she burned at the stake. The fire would consume her while the stake turned into a smooth, black tree. He would wake up swimming in his sheets soaked in sweat.

The image of the burning tree stayed with him for days after the nightmare. He sketched it repeatedly on napkins, post-it notes, even in the steam on the bathroom mirror, always in perfect reproduction.

Something unnatural in the city's soundscape caught his attention. In the darkness, he heard a woman's voice crying out, "Monsignor!"

Turning, he spied a nun running up the street with her habit flowing behind her. The street lamp revealed deep wrinkles and salt-and-pepper hair under her gray hood.

"Dr. Keats!" She said, her voice thick with an Italian accent. Wide eyes regarded him, her breath rapid. "Thanks heavens I found you! Dr. Keats, si?"

"Yes," he stammered, caught off guard by her behavior and nearly unintelligible pronunciation. "Can I help you?"

"There's no time! Here, take'z her!" She shoved a bundle in his arms, an infant no more than a few months old.

"Wait. What?" He stepped back.

She wrapped a hand around his neck, pulled him down to her level, and pointed a bony finger in his face. "Please! You must! You must protect Serenity. Evil men a' coming. Infretta! Quickly! He's coming." Her eyes darted up and down the street.

"What are you talking about? Who's almost here?"

Somewhere in the distance, a car horn sounded. A dog barked. He thought he perceived movement behind a car only a half block away.

A flash of light. Gunfire ripped apart the silence.

The nun screamed and fell forward, grasping at his jacket. He struggled to hold on to the baby and catch her at the same time. Her face reflected the horror in her wide eyes. She lay still on the cold concrete.

He lost his own footing as another shot sounded. Something bit his cheek, and he tumbled backward. Twisting and cradling the child to protect her as much as possible, he landed with a grunt. The nun lay next to them. He could see her eyes dimming as death approached. Her mouth moved slowly, her voice nearly inaudible. "You must keep him from her. She is the seed. She is..." Her eyes went glassy, then blank.

Another shot rang out and a window exploded behind him. An alarm sounded from within the house. Bright lights lit up the street, automatically turned on by the home alarm.

A car rounded the corner, its headlights throwing light onto the street.

Jonathan could see the man with a gun a man tall with shoulder-length blond hair pulled into a ponytail. He wore a black turtleneck and a long black leather jacket. He was tall, lean, and athletic. His face appeared twisted, perplexed, as if he were making a difficult decision.

Several more lights appeared in the windows of neighboring houses. Dogs barked through thin curtains.

The blond man thrust his hand inside his jacket, turned, and disappeared around a corner.

Keats found it difficult to breathe. His heart raced as the baby continued to cry. His numb mind couldn't tell which was louder, the baby or his pounding heart.

He knelt before the woman only a few feet away. She stared into nothingness. Blood pooled beneath her and filled cracks in the rough concrete. He realized then she had said his name. She knew him, though he felt certain he had never seen her before.

"Hey!" A voice called out from behind a cracked door. "I've called the police!"

Good he thought. He would make a report, and they could take the child.

The nun's left arm rested on her stomach. In her hand he found a drawing of a tree he knew well. He had seen this sketch in his nightmares.

The child cried, and he shifted her in his arms. Around her neck hung a silver necklace with a blue cross.

"But...how is this possible?"

A siren announced the approaching police car. He knew he should stay, for taking the baby might be considered kidnapping. He should confess his innocence. But, the nun had called him by name. She had asked him to protect the baby. And the tree. The images of his dreams had come to life before him. He had to understand their significance and what they had to do with this infant.

Lights flashed in the distance, rising and falling with the streets, as he realized the seriousness of the situation. His unconscious mind screamed, run! He fled down the street with the child in his arms- the infant the nun had called Serenity.

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