Chapter 1

Nira Rachelle Pallard lay in bed, dreaming peacefully when a low sound woke her. She was a dreadfully deep sleeper, but cursed with sensitive ears. She tried to ignore it, deciding it was one of her mother's cats, or maybe even her dog, and attempted to fall back asleep.

Her attempt failed miserably when the sound came again, a little louder and alarming this time. Her eyes shot open and she listened carefully for the anymore noise as she slowly sat up in her bed. Once silence fell on the house again, she slowly pushed her blankets aside and drew her legs from under them, swinging them over the side of her bed and setting them gently on the floor. She grabbed her robe at the end of her bed before she crept from her room and to the top of the stairs at the end of the hall; making sure her every step was steady and silent.

As she took the stairs one at a time, pulling her robe around her as she went, she heard the sound again just as she reached the bottom step. Pausing to see if it would continue or not, Nira became baffled by the fact that nobody else was disturbed by the recurring sound. Then again the rest of her family were even deeper sleepers and had worse hearing than her seventy-six year old grandmother. Nira moved from the bottom of the stairs and farther into the front parlor and looked to her left, into the family room, but only saw the massive form of her Alpine Mastiff whos's head shot up, ears perking at the sight of his mistress. Apparently he had been woken by the sound too, but hadn't bothered to take action. Nira signaled him to stay where he was, in his usual sleeping spot, on front of the fireplace, as she moved in the opposite direction, into the kitchen. When she stepped over the threshold, into the kitchen, Nira looked around, still seeing nothing that could have made the noise. Everything was still in its place and the house seemed to lay in complete peace and quiet until another sound came, much closer and louder this time, making Nira's heart skip a beat. Once it had passed, Nira quickly realized where the sounds had been coming from. The last one had been almost directly below her.

Making sure her steps still made no noises of their own, Nira moved quickly back, through the front parlor and into the family room, to the stone hearth where her father's swords hung just above the mantle. Her hound groaned and rolled over, proclaiming that he wished for her to scratch his belly, but she shook her head at him, making him let out another groan, as she took the sword from its resting place, gripping it firmly and surely.

Nira had been taking fencing and dueling lessons from her grandmother-who had learned from her grandmother and so on back-since she was seven. Both her parents were strongly disapproved of these lessons, being of the mindset that "a young lady, such as herself, taking part in such things that no lady had any business learning or even being around." Even still, she studied the craft everyday and listened to her grandmothers every instruction. Had she been given the chance to prove it, she could easily have bested any of the young lads in town, and possibly throughout the whole country side.

Nira moved quickly, treading carefully but having a clear mission in mind as she stepped through the kitchen again and to the back porch where the entrance to her family's cellar was. Gripping the sword tight with her left hand, she used her right hand to slowly push open the door, making sure to keep it from creaking or moaning and giving her away. Taking a deep breath, she made her way down the stone steps, holding the sword at the ready, slightly raised, out in front of her. When she reached the bottom she stopped and tried to look through the pitch black darkness that engrossed the space, but could hardly see an inch in front of her. She couldn't decide why she hadn't thought to take the oil lamp beside her bed, but it wouldn't do her any good to look back on that now.

Nira stood in the same spot for a moment until her vision improved, then began to look around, but couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. Forcing herself to stay calm, Nira closed her eyes and concentrated, willing her ears to hear something, anything, which could lead her to what-or possibly who-she, was looking for. It didn't take long for her to begin to pick up on some kind of scuffling along with heavy breathing that was coming from her sewing room, down the short hallway to the right of the stairs. When she opened her eyes she seemed to be able to see her surroundings a little more clearly and was suddenly feeling very determined as she made her way to the room. She slowed as she approached the room, seeing that the door-usually closed and locked-had been forced open. As she came to stand in the doorway, she had to strain her eyes only slightly to make out a figure that was standing near the back wall just out of the gleam of moonlight that shone in from the single window, set in the top right hand corner of the room.

Taking only a couple steps further, Nira could tell the figure was a man. He was hunched over and, as she heard before, was breathing, or rather panting, heavily, and he was holding something in his hands. Nira's hand automatically tightened on the hilt of the sword, making the tip just barely graze the stone floor. The sound was enough to make the man hastily turn in surprise to see her standing there. He immediately dropped what he had been holding, which Nira now saw was her mother's favorite cat, both of them momentarily mesmerized, if not shocked by the others presence. He quickly came out of whatever haze the both of them were in and wiped his mouth, but not before she had caught sight of the thick red fluid, smeared around his entire mouth and dripping off his chin, glistening in the dim moonlight. Nira wasn't quite sure whether to feel scared, surprised, or angry, but somewhere in the whirlwind of emotions, her feet decided to take a step back, colliding with something solid behind her. She glanced back for only a second to find the wall on the other side of the hallway at her back before turning back to him just in time to see him practically gliding towards her effortlessly. He had her trapped. She cursed under her breath as the space between them rapidly closed.

"You are aware that there is a whole pastier full of animals that would have been much easier for you to take one or two of." Nira spoke softly, not knowing exactly why she chose those exact words, it just seemed like a reasonable thing to say in that moment. As she spoke, however, she dared look over the man she was dealing with.

He was actually quite handsome, despite the off putting details of him breaking into her house and apparently making a midnight snack out of her mother's cat, and enjoying it as well. He was dressed in fine clothing, making his wealth very evident, yet confused Nira. His eyes appeared to shimmer somehow, even in the lack of any light in the hallway. Looking into them, she realized he was studying her as well, but, unlike her, he had a hungry sort of look in those glowing eyes.

"I can assure you that we can spare a goat or a pig so that you wouldn't have had to chase down that stupid old cat. All I would request is that you stay away from the horses, and my family." Nira added, finding her backbone and standing up a little more straight, which she hoped would have made him back up as she realized he had her boxed in, a hand pressed to the wall behind her, on either side of her waist. He held his ground and stayed firmly in place and she only served to move her body closer to his, but she refused to back off and show and kind of fear. He leaned his head in closer and her hand tightened on the sword again. He lowered his head to her collarbone, moving his head from one side to the other, taking a deep breath each time, seeming to smell her. He drew his head back just far enough to be able to look into Nira's eyes, studying them before he spoke.

"You seem to know the essence, at least of what I am, yet you do not cower or run like most. In fact you seem to want to be closer to me." He said with a chuckle as she started to blush and he glanced down at her body almost pressing up against his. "You are not afraid, quite brave in fact, and that makes me very curious." His voice was very low and steady, and somehow intriguing. Though Nira turned her head away, expecting his breath to stink of blood and rot, but instead it was hot and sweet. It felt like silk sliding over the bare skin of her face and neck, causing her to shiver from the tingling sensation that it left her with. It was these things that distracted her and made her almost forget about where she was and responding to his statements. Nira swallowed hard and tried to move her body away from his without him noticing, which didn't seem successful or possible. He was oddly aware of her every movement.

"I think I know what you are. I have heard many stories and legends of your kind since I was a small child, but I didn't let those stories scare me like many of the other children, or allow them to force me into having the same opinion as everyone else." She explained in the same soft voice, yet with a sort of scolding quality to it.

"And what is your opinion, miss?"

"My opinion is based on firsthand knowledge, unlike the rest of my family, or this town for that matter. They believe anything they hear, but considering you have broken into my house and killed my mother's cat, my opinion of you isn't exactly shining." Nira informed him, seeming to relax and become more comfortable in his presence.

"You claim to not be afraid of me, but then what need would you have for a sword?" He asked, making her remember the sword, still in her right hand, that her grip had suddenly loosened on.

"I would rather overcompensate than be completely ignorant, which I'm not. I was simply preparing for the worst when I heard your ruckus and came down stairs to find out what was going on. Besides, it seems it's my responsibility to protect the rest of my family who are still asleep."

"Seems an awfully large responsibility to fall on the shoulders of just one girl." He replied.

"You don't know anything about me." She shot back, clenching her fist around the sword hilt and not letting it loosen for anything as she stepped forward, forcing him back.

"I'm sorry if I insulted you or made you upset, but I am only telling you what I see." He explained.

"It takes a lot more than that to upset me, sir." Nira said with a sarcastic jab on the last word.

"Well, in any case, you should really be careful with that thing. A girl like you could get herself hurt if you're not careful." He warned with a sly smile before he made a leap for the stairs, but Nira was just quick enough to beat him there, raising the sword to block his path.

"A girl like me could really hurt someone else with this, if I am careful." The man gave another smile, this time at Nira's sudden confidence burst, but he backed away a few paces only to unsheathe his own rapier-one that seemed to come from nowhere as Nira had not seen any kind of weapon on him before this-and raised it to meat hers.

"Is that so?"

"Yes, it is." Nira assured him, but swiped her blade to hit his own and knock him off kilter just enough to let him know she was serious. The man was unfazed by Nira's action and repositioned his sword, pointing it towards her as he took an offensive stance. Nira wasn't sure how to react at first, but quickly decided that if it was a fight he wanted, it was a fight he was going to get. With that, she stepped down off the bottom step and took a few steps back, raising her own sword to take a stance that mirrored his.

Both stood, almost statuesque, for a few moments before the man decided to make the first move. He lunged at Nira, giving a swift whip of his rapier in an attempt to hit her both high and low. Nira easily blocked this attack, and he somehow seemed to know that she could and most definitely would. It was becoming clear that he was testing her, seeing just how much she knew and was capable of.

"May I ask you a question, miss?" He asked as both stood at a momentary stand still, weapons still at the ready as they circled like vultures, each holding the other's stare with their own.

"I don't see how now is at all the appropriate time, but I suppose you may." Nira allowed, taking a quick shot at him, which he blocked, forcing Nira back into her previous stance.

"Why are you not more upset by the death of your cat? From my experience, humans are extremely attached to their pets." The way he said humans, as if the word did not apply to him, caught her attention, especially with the condescending tone of it. As if by being one, she was somehow less than him. Seeing as she appeared distracted, he took the opportunity to strike again, aiming the blade straight at her torso, and take her by surprise, but she was more aware of his intentions and was able to step out of the way just in time to avoid her own death.

"It seems that you have only served to prove what I said earlier." Nira told him as she recovered from a slightly clumsy dodge.

"But there was so much that you said."

"That you know nothing about me!" She immediately responded, her words blades of their own being thrown at him. Nira closed the short distance between her and this mysterious, yet handsome, man, swinging her sword and engaging him in a good spar for a minute or so. That was before he caught her sword with his own, spinning her around as he pulled her into him and crisscrossed his arms with her, locking her in place.

"What exactly is that supposed to mean?" He whispered in her ear, almost making her forget about their duel and that he was actually starting to get on her nerves.

"I hate cats!" She answered him, forcing an elbow into his gut and pulling free of his embrace. "More of a dog lover really." She said, holding her sword at his throat as he was doubled over. An unusual grin appeared on his face as she said this, which confused Nira. He didn't bother to explain, though he knew what she was wondering, instead, he struck her blade to move it out of the way so that he could stand up straight and deliver his next blow.

"I must say, you are quite the opponent."

"I told you so." Nira only took the greatest pleasure in saying to him as they both closed the distance between them once more to engage in an actual duel. Both blades connected as both pushed against the other with all their strength in order to move forward. Eventually the man shoved her off, making her stubble backwards a considerable distance, and almost lose her footing and fall. Fortunately, she had exceptional balance and was able correct her footing in order to remain on her feet as the man wasted no time in charging at her again. Nira prepared to block whatever he planned and then immediately strike at him afterwards, however, as they moved closer to each other they were so focused on their individual attacks that they weren't paying attention to what the other was doing.

He flipped his sword over to hold it backhanded, then swung it in an upwards slash. At the same time, Nira did a sort of half rotation, attempting a spinning stab type maneuver, but it was in mid-turn that the man's sword slashed through her robe and nightgown, slicing her back completely open from her left hip to her right shoulder.

Nira's back arched as the man drew his sword back, realizing what he had done. Her legs buckled almost immediately and she fell to the floor. He caught her just before she hit the floor, shocked by the outcome of their duel. His intentions never were to hurt her, only to have a bit of fun. She perked his interest, which was unusual, but he never saw this being the ending to their unexpected meeting.

Nira let out a whimper that was indistinguishable as either a cry or a laugh, or possibly both. She looked up into the man's face as tears began to wash over her cheeks, and he looked sympathetically back down at her.

"Well, I suppose congratulations are in order. It seems I was too confident in my swordsmanship and," She began, but choked on the last words.

"Shh, shh. Don't waste your strength." He whispered to her, brushing the hair around her face aside and tucking it behind her ear.

"All I ask is that no harm comes to my family, please." Nira struggled with the words, as she disregarded his warning. "Take anything else you want, but please leave them alone." She pleaded, her tears flowing heavier as she tried to continue. "Please," Was all she could manage before her voice faded into a mumble and then was gone as her eyes slowly closed and she went limp in his arms.

He braced himself for the extra weight as he hesitated for only a few moments before making his decision. He freed one of his hands and grabbed the blade of her sword tightly till blood flowed from his hand. He cradled her head as he propped open her mouth and covered it with his bleeding hand before turning her on her side, smearing his hand and blood across the open wound on her back.

Nira woke slowly, sprawled on the floor, sword in hand. She was quite dazed as she let her eyes wonder and tried to decide what had taken place. All of a sudden, she heard the cellar door creak open with urgency and several pairs of feet hit the stairs, hurrying down into the cellar where she lay. These noises intruded upon Nira's wondering thoughts, forcing her to completely come to as her mother, father, sister, and two brothers came to hover around her. Nira picked up her head, realizing where she was, but not exactly clear on why she was there, or even how she came to be there either.

Her mother knelt at her side as questions began to flow, everyone talking at the same time. Although Nira clearly heard, "are you alright?" several times, but wasn't quite sure who the source, or sources, were and therefore couldn't decide who to respond to. Instead she addressed the whole group.

"Yes, yes, I'm fine." She assured them, even though she was still trying to convince herself of that as she began to sit up. Several pairs of hands flew to her back, shoulders, and arms as she made this move.

"Dear, what happened to you, and your gown?" Her mother gasped when Nira fully stood up.

Nira instantly put a hand to her back and was able to feel her bare back, a rather large tear having ripped through both her robe and nightgown.

"I…I don't know." Nira admitted. "I must have caught it on a sharp stone or nail when I fell." She assumed, beginning to look around the room to see if her assumption could be correct.

"Fell?" Her mother's voice sounded drastically more worried than a few seconds before.

"I think so. I'm almost sure that's what happened, but I don't really know…"

"Why do you have my sword?" Her father interrupted her thought process, just catching sight of the blade that Nira gripped firmly in her right hand.

"I don't know." She repeated, still trying to figure everything out as her father removed the sword from her hand and examined it before letting it fall to his side. "I think…I think I heard a noise coming from down here. It woke me up." She searched her memory relentlessly, trying to remember what happened and find a suitable explanation for all everything-and everyone, including herself, but all she found was a throbbing that over took her whole head.

"Well, let's get you back to bed. We can discuss this further in the morning." Her mother strongly suggested, placing a hand on Nira's back to move her towards the stairs, seeing that everyone else apparently agreed with her.

"Yeah," Nira agreed, walking towards the stairs, the rest of her family trailing her. Her grandmother was waiting at the top of the stairs, accompanied by her caretaker, Rebecca.

"Nira, dear, are you alright?" Her grandmother's voice shook slightly with worry, even though she knew better than anyone how capable Nira was of taking care of herself.

"Yes, Nana. Just had a nasty fall, but I am alright." Nira said with a reassuring smile, trying to force a small laugh to lighten the somber mood that surrounded the household. Just as Nira reached the very top of the stairs, and was embraced by her grandmother, her sister's voice came from the cellar hallway.

"Mama, you might want to come look at this." She called their mother at the bottom of the stairs now. Their mother pushed past their father and two younger brothers, rushing back down the stairs and into Nira's sewing room.

There was a periodic silence as every waited, followed by a chilling shriek that came from the room. Nira's mother appeared again, sobbing, and holding something. Nira had to squint to recognize what the limp dark figure in her mother's arms was. It was her favorite Birman black cat, Georgie, which seemed to strike something with Nira, but she couldn't quite figure out why.

"Dear," Nira's grandmother said, placing her hand around Nira's arm. "You should really get back to bed, you clearly need rest. The rest of us will deal with this. I'm sure you've had more than enough excitement for one night." She coaxed.

"Alright," Nira was almost too happy to agree. "I'm sorry for causing such an ordeal." She apologized to her grandmother, then looked back over her shoulder at the rest of her family who were currently absorbed in the death of the cat.

"Don't be ridiculous, none of this is your fault. It's not like you killed Georgie yourself. Things happen as they are meant to every day." Her grandmother assured her, something more seeming to be behind her words, but Nira was in no condition to search for hidden meanings. "Now off you go." She ordered, interrupting Nira's thoughts as she shooed her away. As she left, Rebecca gave her a sweet smile that seemed rather weak. Nira didn't think much of it and continued on her way, back upstairs, to her room. Once inside, a thousand thoughts made her head swim.

Nira removed her robe and nightgown, now ruined, and set them aside before thinking of something. She didn't quite know what compelled her, but she went to the mirror and turned her back to face it, looking over her shoulder to examine herself. Looking closely, she could just see a thin, fading pink line that ran diagonally from hip to shoulder. She touched it with her fingertips and ran them along a short piece of it, making the area tingle, but it strangely didn't trigger anything. Nira let out an exhausted sigh before stepping away from the mirror and taking another nightgown from her dresser and slipped it on over her head. She slowly made her way to her bed and sat down on the edge, holding her head in her hands for a moment before pulling back the covers and slipping into the security of them.

As she sank into her bed, she tried to search her head for what happened and why she couldn't remember, but sleep overwhelmed her as soon as she laid her head down on her pillow and she soon fell into a deep sleep. Once she was deep in slumber, however, her memory seemed to come back to her but slowly, and in bits and pieces. At first it was all the things she already remembered for the most part, then little things that she didn't. Taking the sword from above the mantle because she heard something down in the cellar, searching the cellar for something, or someone maybe. Finding her mother's cat dead in her sewing room, except she didn't find him dead, something killed him. Suddenly a figure appeared in the memory.

It was at that moment that it all came rushing back to Nira. The stranger in the cellar. A young man, handsome, twenty-four or twenty-five years of age maybe, dressed in the finery of a noble perhaps, and somehow intriguing her, even though his presence should have scared her, or at least angered her. Though she was still dreaming, Nira couldn't help thinking to herself, that he was much more appealing than her alternative. She remembered talking to him, dueling with him. Then she remembered the end to that duel. He had hit her with his sword, slashing her back as his final blow. How could that be possible. She wouldn't be alive if that had all been real.

The young man kept passing through her mind-just glimpses mostly-and with each pass he grew more tempting, more intriguing, and more irresistible until he drew his sword and stabbed her in the back, driving his blade straight through her heart.