As she heard the larks singing in the old willow trees outside the window of her temporary bedroom, Libby woke up for the second time that morning, dressed herself, and wandered towards the living-room. Her photo portfolio was rather low on snaps of the natural world: being in a new town would give her the opportunity to capture some different scenery, and the early morning sunlight would provide the perfect illumination.
As she carefully closed the bedroom door behind her, she spotted her camera over on the dining table. She could hear Marlon snoring from the room opposite... and was greatly unnerved for a moment when she saw what appeared to be a dead body on the sofa in front of her.
Clasping her hand to her mouth to stifle a scream, she suddenly remembered about Alex, and let herself relax. It was an easy mistake to make - he was extraordinarily pale, and appeared to be a deep sleeper, lying there silent and still.
As stealthily as she could, Libby tiptoed past Alex, approached the table, and picked up her camera as one might examine a Ming vase in an antiques shop. However, her great care proved to be in vain, as the tinny, sharp melody of a ringtone sounded out from her jacket pocket.
It was her father calling. He was always up this early to open the café. Sighing, Libby answered her phone and spoke in hushed tones.
"Hi Dad... look, now really isn't the best time -"
Her eyes fell on the sofa as Alex began to stir.
"No, I'm fine, really - it's just been a long night, OK? No, not like that! With work!"
Alex opened his eyes, rubbing them sleepily. As he saw Libby before him, he sat up, and smiled.
"No, Marlon can't talk right now - he's still in bed. Listen, Dad, I'll call you tonight, OK? Yes, I promise. All right. I love you too. Bye."
She hung up, and put the phone back into her pocket with a groan. Turning towards the now fully awake Alex, she giggled.
"Sorry for waking you," she said softly.
"That's quite all right," Alex replied. "I am much recovered. Pray tell me... who were you talking to?"
"He phoned me."
Alex looked at her quizzically.
"'Phoned'?" he asked, intrigued.
Libby returned his look, equally confused - until suddenly, she realised.
"Oh!" she said brightly. "Of course! Sorry!"
Fishing into her pocket, she picked up her phone again, and showed it to her vampire companion.
"This is called a 'phone'," she explained. "This particular one is a mobile, which you can carry around with you, but you can get others that you keep in the house, too. If someone else you know has one, you can use it to talk to them through it."
"Even if you are not in the same room?" Alex asked, his eyes widening in amazement.
"Even," Libby replied, "if you are not in the same country."
She handed it over to Alex to examine, who turned it over carefully in his hands, his fingertips gently stroking the screen.
"Fascinating," he whispered, stunned. "Utterly fascinating. The years have produced so many weird and wonderful devices. I simply have no clue what they are, or what they do - like that funny box in your hands, for instance."
"This?" Libby said, holding the item up. "This is a camera. It's for taking photos. Photographs."
"That is a camera?" Alex cried, pointing to it. "Surely not! It's far too small. And where are the bellows?"
"It's a digital one," Libby told him. "The latest model. I can show you how it works, if you like."
"Oh - yes, please."
"All right," Libby answered, getting off the sofa. "Stand up here, next to me."
As Alex followed this request, Libby reached the strange little box out at arm's length, placing her other arm around Alex's shoulders. Beneath her hand, she felt him stiffen up, as though he had turned to stone.
"Don't worry," she told him reassuringly. "It doesn't hurt or anything."
"Oh, I know that," Alex replied. "I've been photographed before. I am simply preparing myself. How long do we need to hold the position for?"
Oh. Yes. Of course. Photos had been very different in Alex's time.
"It only takes a second," she replied. "You can relax a little.. and smile! OK, here we go. 1, 2, 3!"
As Libby pressed the button, Alex blinked when a bright flash hit his eyes.
"Oh, sorry!" Libby said, trying not to laugh. "I should have warned you!"
"The fault is mine," Alex replied. "I guess some things never change."
"Come on - let's check the photo."
"Does it not need time to develop?"
"Not anymore. We can see it right away - look."
Turning the camera around, she pressed another button, and an image appeared on a small flat screen on its back - Alex peering at it eagerly. However, something was... odd. It showed Libby, stood there smiling - with her arm wrapped around thin air.
"Huh?" Libby gasped. "That's weird. It's never done that before."
"Oh!" Alex cried, remembering something. "Forgive me. Again, the fault is mine. I forgot that we undead do not show in photographs - just as we do not show in mirrors."
"I see. Sorry about that."
"No need to apologise."
As Libby turned off the screen, a clever idea entered her head. Grinning, she turned towards her new friend.
"Alex," she said kindly, "would you like to help me with something?"
Over the next hour, the pair had immense fun working on some snapshots for Libby's portfolio. The aspiring photographer captured Alex performing various tasks - such as pouring a cup of tea, or breaking eggs into a bowl - and in the resulting images, it seemed as though the objects were moving by themselves. No clever editing required. Libby beamed with pride as she saw the fruits of their labours, whilst Alex, who hadn't met anyone new for several decades, simply enjoyed being in the young woman's company.
After running out of ideas, the pair needed a break, and settled back down onto the sofa. Reaching inside his jacket, Alex pulled out a foil-like packet with a straw attached. As Libby watched him pierce the packet with the straw and bring it to his lips, she steeled her nerves and desperately ignored the queasiness growing in her stomach, as she realised what the contents must be. However, Alex noticed her uneasy expression.
"Animal blood," he said forlornly.
"I thought so."
"My apologies. I do still need to drink. These packets really are a boon - they make the whole dreary affair much more convenient."
Turning aside to stifle a gag, Libby decided now might be a good time to change the subject.
"The photos look great," she told the immortal. "I bet no-one else on the course will have snaps like that."
"Course?" Alex asked.
"At university. I'm about to start a Bachelor's degree in Photography."
"Women may go to universities now?"
"How marvellous! I'm sure you shall impress your tutors."
"Thanks. But I couldn't have got those shots without your help."
"Not at all. It is I who am indebted to you. I would very much like to learn more about this technology you have. Perhaps, if we have time before our attack on Renfield, you could impart more knowledge to me?"
The pair looked up as they heard a door creaking open. Out of the master bedroom stepped Marlon, yawning and reaching his arms as he approached them.
"Morning," he said cheerfully. "You guys OK?"
"Fine, thank you," Alex answered. "So what's the plan for today?"
"Planning is the plan," Marlon told him. "First things first, Alex - you're going to answer some questions..."
Later that afternoon, still locked with his wife in the makeshift cell, Marcel focused his energy deeply once again to reconnect with Alex. As the student told him of the success of Marcel's dream messages, and gave him news about their planning, the Prince of the Damned began to feel a strong sense of hope growing within him. Surely now, it would only be a matter of time until he and Maven were free.
Alas, just as Marcel's heavy heart was beginning to lift, it sank again rapidly when he heard the sound of sinister chuckling coming from across the cellar. Severing the link, Marcel opened his eyes - and felt the hairs sticking up on the back of his neck when he saw Renfield stood before him, also in a meditative state.
At once, Marcel knew Renfield had forced his way into the mind bond, and had been spying on his psychic correspondence. Any thought he had just shared with Alex had been witnessed by him, too - and the Gods only knew what other parts of his brain he may have accessed.
"My, my..." Renfield said, greatly amused. "You have been a busy boy, haven't you, artist? Sending your little student friend to recruit some slayers. Well, your efforts were all for nought! Before they can lay a finger on me, I will hunt them down and destroy them!"
"No!" Marcel roared, throwing himself against the bars. "You wouldn't dare!"
As he relished his prisoner's reaction, a even more wicked thought came to Renfield in a moment of villainous inspiration.
"You're quite right," he told Marcel. "Killing them outright would be far too easy. And I must say... that little granddaughter of yours is quite the beauty. Those bright eyes of hers, that soft skin, that shapely figure."
Marcel shuddered as Renfield released a low, lustful groan.
"Oh yes... what a marvellous bride she would make..."
"No!" Marcel screamed back. "You will not touch her! I forbid you!"
"And how exactly are you going to stop me?" Renfield hissed mockingly. "Your measely, insignificant self is still trapped in my little prison. I've already taken one Liberty from you... so why not take another? I must confess, I am starting to feel glad that I kept you alive... or at least, undead. How I will love seeing you suffer when you witness the moment I claim your precious granddaughter as my own, and make her my wife for all eternity!"
As Renfield assumed his bat form and flapped away, cackling like a demon, Marcel, bitterly angry at his own powerlessness, sank to his knees as Maven threw her arms around him.
Back at the little, ill-kept house across town, the Miskin siblings and their new friend were kept very busy over the next few hours. Together, they leafed through tomes of vampire lore that Marlon picked up from the local library, whilst Alex imparted everything he knew about the Imperial Dark Family and their way of life.
"So," Marlon concluded, snapping one of the many volumes shut. "I think we're agreed. The best way to defeat Renfield once and for all is to destroy him."
"Yes," Alex replied. "It's the one way we can guarantee our victory and safety. If he has even a chance of continuing his existence, Renfield will flee, recuperate in a rat hole somewhere, develop his abilities further, and come back even stronger. He has to be slain."
"But isn't that murder?" Libby said, concerned. "I mean, we'd be killing someone..."
"Any humanity Renfield had left vanished long ago," Alex told her, with great conviction. "Only a power-hungry monster remains. By vanquishing him, you would be saving the lives of many more innocent people."
"The next question is... how do you do it?" asked Marlon.
"Silver bullets, they say, can weaken a vampire greatly, and possibly kill them," Alex informed him. "But, the one fail-proof method is a wooden stake through the heart. The second it is removed, the victim crumbles into dust - never to rise again."
"It's probably more practical, too," Marlon said. "I mean, with a kidnap under investigation, the police will hardly turn a blind eye to someone buying a gun. Timber and tent pegs are less likely to raise eyebrows."
"There's a camping shop on the outskirts of town," Libby added. "We can get everything we need there."
"Might anything else be useful?" Marlon asked.
"I saw something about holy water burning vampires in one of the books," Libby replied. "And garlic. That helps keep them away."
"I'll call by the church and the grocer then, too," Marlon said. "Right - I'll head out now and fetch everything I need. Tomorrow morning, when the sun is up, and Renfield's likely to be weak... I'll sneak into the palace and slay him."
"Why just you?" Libby asked, annoyed.
"If Grandad made sure I was blessed by the Gods," Marlon told her, "then this must be my destiny. That's why he sent the visions. He chose me for the task."
"But I had the nightmare, too!"
"Well, he probably just wanted you in the loop. Look, I'm going now - you stay here with Alex, and don't let anyone in."
"No!" Libby shouted. "I want to go with you!"
"And I want you safe. Do as I tell you, and stay here! I'll be back soon."
As Marlon headed out into the night, Libby groaned, and slammed a fist on the table.
"He treats me as if I'm still a little girl," she grumbled. "Him, and my dad too. It's ridiculous. I'm all grown-up now. I can take care of myself. And I want to show that demon what for just as much as Marlon does."
"I understand your frustration," Alex told her sympathetically, "but it's... it's probably just because he cares about you so much. Him, and your father too. More than you can know. In Marlon's eyes, you'll always be that baby girl he helped nurse and cared for when he was on the verge of adulthood himself. A sister he feels honour-bound to protect. As for Mitch, you came into his life after fifteen long years of solitude and hardship. You are the embodiment of his freedom and love. "
"I... I see what you mean..."
"Seeing you become a young woman is something that's difficult for them to accept - especially since you'll be leaving home in a month or so. You need to be patient with them. Your opportunity to prove yourself will come soon enough."
His cast his eyes downwards sadly.
"And God knows," he whispered, "that if I didn't already know my family all died a long time ago, I'd do anything to protect them, too."
"I understand," Libby replied. "You're right. It might be irritating at times, but... I should be grateful they care so much."
A silence followed, before Alex smiled as an idea came into his head.
"I say," he said brightly, "I rather enjoyed my lesson in modernity earlier. Whilst Marlon is gone, may I continue my education with you?"
Libby giggled - both amused and humbled by his request.
"Sure," she answered. "Where shall we go from?"
"Can you tell me what that thing is?" Alex answered, pointing to the television set.
For the next ten minutes, Libby did so - her eager student asking questions nineteen to the dozen. When she eventually turned it on for him, she desperately held back laughter as Alex settled down on the sofa and watched it agog, completely spellbound. The next lesson was an introduction to Libby's tablet, which Alex concluded was rather like a large "movile", only you couldn't "pheen" anyone. His companion had to agree - even if she had to gently correct him on his pronunciation.
"All of this machinery is wonderful," Alex said afterwards, "but I do wonder if the people from my time and yours have anything left in common."
"Hobbies, for instance. Like... dancing. Back in my mortal life, I used to go to dances quite often. Does that still occur?"
"It's not quite as formal as that now," Libby told him, "but people still dance. Mostly in clubs and at parties."
"And are there set steps?"
"Well... there's certain moves, at least."
"Could you possibly ... demonstrate?" Alex asked.
"What?" Libby gasped. "I don't think so. I'm not that good at dancing -"
"Oh, please! I would so love to see a modern dance!"
"Oh, all right. Since you asked nicely."
Alex watched fascinated as Libby reached for her mobile, tapped the glass a few times, and caused a stream of noise - was that music? - to emerge from the speaker. Sighing, she stood up, moved into a space in the centre of the living room... and to Alex's shock, bent over and began to move her rear up and down rhythmically in the most alarming fashion.
"This move's been popular lately," she explained.
"That is a dance?" Alex cried. "Good Lord - it looks more like an animal presenting to a mate!"
Upset, Libby stopped at once, and straightened herself up.
"I... I did say I wasn't very good..." she stammered.
"Oh no!" Alex replied, mortified at having caused her offence. "I wasn't criticising you personally! If that's the modern way, then so be it, but.. well, the dances I'm used to are rather different. Like... the waltz, for example."
Grinning, Libby picked up her phone, and replaced the electronic cacophony with a softer, more classical melody.
"All right then," she said briskly. "Show me what you can do."
Although it shouldn't have been possible, even more colour drained from Alex's face.
"It... it has been many years -"
"Oh, come on. I showed you my moves. Now it's your turn."
"Well, the waltz requires a partner..."
"You've got one right here," Libby answered, pointing both thumbs to herself. "Just talk me through it."
"As you wish," Alex said, realising the young woman wasn't going to relent. "To begin with, stand and face me, and put your hands in mine."
As the music played on, Alex gently led Libby around the carpeted floor - counting their steps and turning her around in time with the melody, and even attempting a twirl or two.
As Alex began to recall the routine more clearly, and Libby started to get the gist of it all, the confidence of the couple started to grow. As Libby softly placed her hand around Alex's neck to better support herself, her companion asked, ever so politely, if he might place his own arm around her waist - to which his partner consented without hesitation.
For such a formal, structured dance, Libby couldn't deny that it carried an air of... sensuality. She felt like the heroine in a fairytale. It was as if she was in a dark, enchanted castle somewhere, dancing the night away in the arms in a charming vampire prince, for whom she had no fear despite his monstrous state. She could almost feel her clothes dissolving and transforming into an elegant ball gown, like Cinderella. Looking up into Alex's eyes, she couldn't help but notice how stunningly bright and blue they were - like pools of ice atop the purest snow. They took her breath away.
Losing herself in the romance of the moment, Libby brought her head to rest on Alex's shoulder - her hand moving over his heart. Although he knew he was the living dead, Alex could have sworn he felt it beat once more beneath the maiden's warming touch.
As the song faded away into silence, the couple began to pull away from one another - but continued to hold each other by the waist, each looking into their partner's face softly. The smallest points of fangs were on show as Alex nervously bit his lip.
"I... I think..."
Closing his eyes, his head tilted, almost of its own accord, towards Libby's. The young Miskin maiden leaned in closer, her own mouth reaching for his...
... only to be dragged back into harsh reality by a loud wail from outside.
Jumping back, Libby looked about her in a frightened frenzy.
"Did you hear that?" she asked Alex, alarmed.
"Libby!" came the shout again. "Out here! Help me!"
Recognising the sound, Libby sprinted towards the door.
"That's Marlon!" she cried, aghast.
Racing out on the porch, she gasped in horror at the sight before her.
Her brother, wounded and staggering along the street...
... before collapsing in an exhausted heap on the ground.