"Hey! Look at this!"
Not being an expert in this field, she passed the volume to Maven for confirmation... who carefully read through the paragraphs of spiralling, flourished handwritten notes, brushing her fingertip gently along the yellowing paper. Everyone in the room stopped to await the outcome - with Cassandra staring at the Empress, both nervous and hopeful.
Suddenly, Maven smiled, and nodded.
She laughed as she examined the page once again.
"It's actually a rather basic brew," she said. "And what's more, I think we have everything we need. Garlic cloves... I'm guessing you have some of those handy, Marlon?"
"They're at the house," Marlon replied, "but I can go and get them - no problem."
"Wolfsbane," Maven continued, "which we've got growing in the gardens here. And finally, a few drops of plasma. There's a vat of the stuff in the kitchen. We'll have this whipped up in no time!"
Half an hour later, Maven started to set up her cauldron on the hearth downstairs. Marlon had nipped home to fetch the garlic, Libby ventured into the garden to gather wolfsbane, and Alex went to collect a few drops of plasma in a silver goblet.
Cassandra sat on the sofa, trembling with excitement. Her eyes were glued to the big, black pot as the three assistants returned one by one, and added their ingredients to Maven's bubbling potion. After a few stirs and incantations, the red-headed sorceress deemed it ready, and allowed it to cool before pouring some into a glass.
The young model cupped it carefully in shaking hands, as she slowly lifted it to her lips, and drank deeply.
A bizarre feeling - like fuzzy bubbles in her blood - raced all through her body, as she felt herself being pulled into the air. Yet, it was a safe, secure movement, as though she was being raised up by the hands of a benevolent god. Golden light broke forth for her, enveloping her in its beautiful warm glow. As her new friends watched in awe, she slowly sank back down towards the ground, planting her feet on the floor - as she drew in a heavy breath and exhaled equally deeply, her hand rushing towards her heart.
She could feel it beating.
As she grinned, it was plain to see that her fangs had vanished, and the warm tones of life had returned to her skin.
"It worked!" she cried, through a mix of relived tears and joyous laughter. "I'm human again!"
After providing her guests with a meal and a chance to get some rest, Maven stood in the foyer - with Alex, her loyal subject, beside her - as the Miskins and Cassandra prepared to return to their homes.
"Thank you both so much for what you have done," she told Marlon and Libby. "The Gods have revealed your futures to me in a vision. For your selfless acts, you both will be greatly blessed, and have wonderful, long lives."
"For a minute there, I thought you'd start talking about some dark, dashing stranger!"
"Oh - there'll be a man in your life, all right," Maven replied. "One who'll love you more than anything on this earth. But I wouldn't describe him quite like that."
Stepping forward, she handed them the golden urn containing Marcel's remains.
"Please... take these with you," she said softly. "I understand the Miskin heirs have been buried together for generations. It is my wish for Marcel to be interred with them. I know it is what he would have wanted. You will, I trust, tell your family the truth about what happened to him?"
"Of course," Marlon answered, "although they may not believe it."
"The world is a strange place, with many wonders," Maven replied knowingly. "After all, was the birth of your aunt Minerva a thing most people would believe?"
Clasping the urn to his chest, Marlon nodded understand.
"Many wonders indeed," he replied.
As Libby began to zip up her jacket, Alex left the side of his Empress, and approached her. The pair stood there together, smiling, but looking at each other in awkward silence - neither one quite sure what to say. In the end, Alex spoke first.
"It... it was truly an honour to meet you," he said. "I... I hope you succeed in the future - although I have no doubt that you will."
"Thank you," Libby replied. "And it was lovely meeting you too. Perhaps... in the holidays, or when my studies are over... I could come and visit you one day?"
"I'd like that very much."
"Will you still be here?"
"Of course I will. Where else in the world could I go?"
Smiling, he moved towards Libby - and gently kissed her on the cheek.
"Goodbye, Liberty," he whispered. "Go out there and live your life to the full... as I, alas, could not."
After a few more final goodbyes, the Miskins and the model headed out of the front door, and back to normality. Alex, choking back a sob, turned and scurried up the stairwell.
His sudden sombre mood didn't go unnoticed by Maven. Originally, she felt it best to let him be - to give him some space to calm down, and to recover from the trauma of everything that had happened. However, an hour or so later, when she heard the sound of weeping coming from her father's former study, she knew she had to do something.
As she entered the small room, Alex hurriedly rose to his feet, bowing respectfully.
"Imperial Dark Majesty!"
Maven gestured dismissively with her hand.
"No need for formalities, Alex."
Smiling kindly, she approached him, reaching for him in a supportive gesture.
"Are you feeling all right?"
"Why, yes - of course. I am quite well."
"But you're missing Liberty. You really care for that girl, don't you?"
"What?! Of course not! I hardly know her!"
"But you'd like to get to know her."
As Alex looked up at Maven, whose eyebrows were raised questioningly, he knew there was no point in lying... and nodded gravely.
"Then why don't you go after her?" Maven asked.
"What would be the point?" Alex said sadly. "Even we did become friends... and then maybe, something more... the only way Libby and I could truly be together is if I were to make her a vampire. And I could never do that. Never. I won't rob her of her dreams. She deserves better than that."
He sighed deeply.
"She deserves better than me."
"Who's to say," Maven continued, "that she'd be the one who'd have to change?"
"What do you mean?" the student asked.
"Alex, my boy," Maven replied in a lighthearted tone, "we have just discovered the cure for vampirism. And there's plenty of the brew left in the cauldron. Just one quick drink, and all of your dreams would have a chance of coming true, too."
Alex's eyes shone as he considered this prospect... but then, his face fell, and he shook his head.
"No," he said firmly. "No... it'd never work. This modern world confuses and frightens me. There's so much I don't understand. I don't belong within it."
"You'll catch up soon enough."
"No - no, my time has passed. Libby, I know, will have a wonderful life without me in it. And, in time... well, I'm bound to... you know... well, hopefully..."
As he continued to mutter excuses, Maven rolled her eyes.
"It's like you told her, anyway," Alex added hurriedly. "The Gods have decreed she will be with a man who'll love her more than anything on this earth."
"They did indeed," Maven replied. "But just who do you think that man is?"
As Alex's eyes widened in realisation, Maven grinned cheekily.
"Come on, Alex," she said firmly. "Be brave. You can either stay undead... or, finally, have a life. Which is it going to be?"
The weeks passed in Willow Creek.
That crisp Saturday afternoon, when Marlon first called him into the living room, Mitch - although relieved to see his children home safe - had a feeling that he was about to hear a long story. However, nothing could have prepared him for just how far back the series of events went. As Marlon spoke of Libby's courageous act and recounted the true fate of Marcel, handing his father the golden urn, the reformed thief, staring at it in utter shock, fell onto his knees as he held it tightly, weeping bitterly.
He insisted that a funeral be held.
A few short days later, all eight of Marcel's children, and various other members of the Miskin family, would gather in the garden to say their goodbyes. They would assemble around the urn and say a few words, before burying it in the family graveyard - a new tombstone designed to replace the fake from so many years ago.
Marlon and Libby could do nothing to ease Mitch's grief. He had lost his father all over again.
The following month, as Mitch was beginning to move on, a day came that was to bring him more sadness, but also great pride.
The day his daughter started university.
Mitch would sit in the back seat of Marlon's car next to Libby all the way to the Halls of Residence - his son driving as Nimue rode in the front. Father and daughter exchanged few words through the journey, but as he held her hand tightly during the entire drive, it became clear none were needed. The love and the fear, on both sides, was obvious.
After their arrival, Libby's family helped her unpack her things, and worked with her to get her rather small room set up into a functional but homely arrangement. The finishing touch would be two photos on the wall: one of the siblings from their summer of journalism, and another of the proud baker stood outside his café.... Nimue's smiling face peeking out through a window.
As Libby strengthened them up on the hooks, stepping back to examine them, she wiped away a tear.
"Well," she said, shrugging, "I guess this is it!"
"You all ready for uni life, sis?" Marlon asked.
"Sure thing," Libby answered confidently. "My tutor wants to see me first thing on Monday. He's very interested in looking through my portfolio - especially since I've snapped the famous Cassandra Karahalios!"
That, she knew, was a day that would go on to unlock a lot of doors for her. Cassandra, grateful to Libby for saving her from her hellish fate, had wanted to reward her for her bravery and kindness. With both photographer and model well-aware of how a big name could help you in the industry, posing for a few photos was the least she could do. Marlon, who'd attended the shoot as a guest, had enjoyed the day massively, too: chatting to Cassandra in between sessions in front of the camera.
"Are you sure you'll be OK, honey?" Mitch asked his beloved daughter.
"Oh, yes, Libby, I know," came the reply. "I don't mean to fuss over you. And hey - if you can slay a violent, villainous vampire, you can handle just about anything. I know that too. But, the thing is..."
He rushed over to her, throwing his arms around her in a bear hug.
"... you're still my baby girl. No matter how old you get, you'll always be my baby girl. And I will always love you - so, so much."
"I love you too, Daddy," Libby replied, holding him tightly.
Next, Nimue kissed and embraced her daughter, before Marlon bid her farewell for himself: promising to always be there for his little sister. After one final, jokingly stern warning from Mitch to "behave, hit the books, and no messing around with boys!", Libby said a sad goodbye to her family - closing the door behind them as they left.
As Libby sat down on her bed, she suddenly felt very alone... and, she had to admit, more than a little scared. Her little room seemed so big now. Wrapping her arms around herself for comfort, and shedding a few tears, she jumped in surprise when she heard a knock on the door.
"Hello?" called a male voice. "I'm your neighbour, from the room next door. I've brought a few treats for you, just to help you settle in. Would you mind awfully letting me inside?"
Cautious, but strongly feeling the need for some company, Libby rose, and opened the door: revealing a figure whose face was hidden by a large gift basket stocked with coffee, biscuits, and other groceries. As he lowered the offering and revealed himself, Libby gasped, and grinned from ear to ear.
It was him, undoubtedly - but he looked... different. His formal, old-fashioned suit had been replaced with jeans and a knitted jumper, giving him a geeky yet stylish air. A rosy blush blossomed in his cheeks, which were considerably less pale than they had been in the weeks prior. As he stepped into the room, putting the basket to one side and outstretching his arms, smiling, Libby ran up to him - looking him up and down with a stunned gaze.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
In response, Alex gently took of her hand, and laid it to rest on his chest. Libby's eyes widened as she sensed movement beneath her palm.
"You... you have a pulse! Your heart's beating!"
"It's beating even faster now that I'm here with you," he added, blushing.
"Then... then you're - "
"Human," Alex replied. "Indeed I am. Maven convinced me to drink the elixir of mortality. Meeting you made me realise just how much I've missed out on. Once I was cured, and I'd sorted out everything I'd need to get by in today's society, I decided to enrol here - to finally get my medical degree. And when I found out you were my neighbour in the Halls, well... that was the cherry on the cake."
Libby hung her head, embarrassed - but very touched.
"You... you look good in that outfit," she said timidly.
"Many thanks," Alex replied. "I daresay this modern attire suits me. It's certainly more comfortable. Although, I must confess..."
He reached into his front jean pocket.
"... there are some things that I still have to get used to. This "mobile", for example. I think I'm beginning to understand the "phoning" process, but what are "applications"? I would be very grateful if you could explain it to me sometime."
Smiling, Libby looked into Alex's eyes. They had lost their eerie, unnatural glow, but much to her delight, they were still blue. So bright and beautifully blue.
"You know," she said warmly, "I think I'm going to enjoy this student life."
Entwining her arms around Alex, she drew him in for a caring embrace.
As she retired to her room in the early hours, Maven Mortan-Murdac - Her Dark Imperial Majesty, Beauty Immortal, Daughter of Audric, and Empress of the Damned - closed and locked the door behind her. She knew Renfield was never coming back, and yet, she still felt... vulnerable. Afraid. Alone.
She'd done good deeds. The Miskins had been given a chance to say goodbye to their loved one. She'd made up a false prophecy to encourage Alex to pursue his own happy ending. But instead of being rewarded for these actions, an unjust punishment now lay ahead of her. An eternity of loneliness. Long, cold slumbers night after night in a vast, empty bed - deprived of the husband she had loved so dearly.
No. That would not be her fate. If being an Empress granted her any power at all, it was the right to choose her own destiny.
In her hands, Maven held one final glass of the mortality elixir. Muttering a few words, she added lily petals - crushed in her fingers - to the already strange concoction. As she drank, she felt the rush of bubbles and the breath of life refilling her body... only for it be followed by aches in her joints, sagging skin, and her flame-red locks fading to the colour of ash.
By her own volition, she had given up both her immortality and her youth. The sheer thought of decades of forced solitude terrified her more than any of Renfield's wicked plots had. Now, it would only be a few short years - maybe even months - before she was reunited with her mother, father, and her dear Marcel... if the Gods were to show her any mercy.
As she cautiously lowered herself into bed, feeling the heaviness of her aged form pulling her down onto the soft mattress, she tucked herself in under her satin sheets, and lay her head upon the pillow - her lengthy locks spreading out like silver ribbons.
"See you soon, my love," she whispered towards the heavens, as she closed her eyes and entered a blissful world of dreams.
In his office, Marlon typed away madly on his computer keyboard. He was just putting the finishing touches on his latest article: an amusing little piece about a local puppy that had been trained to ride a tricycle. True, it wasn't the gripping, hard-hitting crime investigation he had become known for, but after his own "ruff ride" with Renfield, he wanted to take things easy for a while.
Hearing a knock on the door, he looked up - and smiled when he recognised his unexpected visitor.
"Hi, Marlon," came the reply. "Can I come in?"
"You're not a vampire anymore, are you?"
"Then you don't need my permission," Marlon said - his face beaming as he gestured toward a seat.
"I'm sorry that you felt the story of what happened couldn't be printed," Cassandra continued, settling herself down. "I was prepared to offer you an exclusive."
"Old Joe and Jane Public would never have believed it," Marlon answered sadly. "I think we both know that. Besides, your clever little solution must have brought you a bit of attention."
Cassandra giggled, remembering the front-page spread. "MODEL SKIPS FASHION BASH FOR MASSIVE BENDER - FOUND DAYS LATER WITH AMNESIA".
"Any publicity is good publicity, right?" Marlon said cheerily.
"Tell that to my agent," Cassandra replied. "She went completely mad. Made me promise to clean my act up. No more going for drinks with men I hardly know."
As Marlon laughed and continued typing, Cassandra smirked, and leaned forward onto his desk.
"Speaking of which," she whispered, in slow, alluring tones, "do you fancy a coffee?"
Marlon's head shot up like a meerkat's. As he looked at Cassandra, and realised she was being serious, he stared at her quizzically.
"Coffee?" he asked. "With... with me? Are... are you sure?"
"Of course. If I can't give you the exclusive, the least I can do is treat you to a latte. What do you say?"
With a few clicks of the mouse, Marlon saved his article, and then shut the computer down, hastily rising to his feet.
"That sounds great," he replied. "I know a nice little café nearby. Perhaps I'll introduce you to the owner..."
The next chapter, like this one, will be more summative than the previous instalments. This is to wrap things up in preparation for Generation Nine, so please bear with me!