Chapter 3 - A Midwinter Night's Folly

The king doth keep his revels here to-night.
Take heed the queen not come within his sight;
For Oberon is passing fell and wrath,
Because that she, as her attendant, hath
A lovely boy solen from an Indian king,--
She never had so sweet a changeling;
And jealous Oberon would have the child
Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild

-- A Midsummer Night's Dream (Act II, Scene I), William Shakespeare

Integra stood beside a lake of glass, glazed with ice, like everything else around her. Behind her, was a wood of stark black trees dripping with icicles; before her, beyond the lake, was a hill rising out of the waters. It, too, was covered in ice and snow, but the trees here--great cherry trees, wet and black--were in bloom. Their white blossoms rained down, swirled with the snow, and formed piles at their black roots.

She had no way to cross the water and yet she knew she must.

From behind her, there was a crunching noise, as if of a foot on the snowy ground. She spun around, startled, and beheld fantasy--a silver sled for one, drawn by a figure that was half-horse, half-man (centaur, she reminded herself). He was a handsome figure, breathing clouds of steam into the air--all bronzed skin and a head of black hair that hung down his back like a mane.

Where are we going? she found herself asking.

The Menagerie.

Somehow, that sounded right. Then let us go. She entered the sleigh, and they set off with a jolt.

It seemed as if no time had passed, but now Integra was standing in the foyer of a great house. It was the same black, white, and silver of the landscape surrounding it--she beheld chandeliers of gleaming crystal, tile of brilliant white marble, and smooth black stairs arching up to a balcony. All was elegant and yet sparse. The furnishings, however, mattered little to Integra. Her eyes were fixed on the man who stood before her.

He reminded Integra of nothing so much as a crow. He was dressed in a black sport coat and trousers, with a white shirt with no tie beneath. Part of his black hair veiled the corner of his eye, as the wing of a crow would lie at rest at the crow's side. His eyes were green, hazel, green-black; all colors at once, with the translucency of wavy glass. His face had a certain symmetry; looking at him, Integra was certain that the distance from his corvine nose to his forehead was more perfect than on any face she could remember. He was smiling, and holding out a hand with well-manicured, long fingernails. Integra remembered, then, that she had dreamed this before.

"Welcome to the Menagerie, Miss Hellsing. I am Oberon." When Integra did not take his hand, he dropped it discreetly to his side.

The events of the day before had been dim in her head, veiled as if in dream, but now they jumped into sharp contrast. With a sudden realization of her circumstances, she hissed, "Julian Albemarle!"

He nodded, a touch sadly. "I have been known to go by that name, as well."

She looked around frantically, reached for a weapon in a shoulder holster that wasn't there. She was wearing the white pyjamas she had worn to bed, and over them, the green silk dressing gown that she usually wore. She was barefoot, too. She dimly recalled that when she slept, she usually kept a weapon under her pillow. That had seemed defense enough--but then, she hardly expected to be confronted by enemies in her dreams.

Perhaps she should have been.

Albemarle laughed, amused at her unease.

"Where am I?" she asked, futilely. Everything seemed so real, although, logically, she knew this had to be a dream.

"In a vale of dreams that I've carved out in your own mind. Once I know your name, it is a land I can create, and go to, at will." He paused. "The science escapes me, but I've been told that I can manipulate beta waves, the kind of brain waves exhibited during REM sleep. It was an ability I was born with, so far as I can tell." When that elicited no response, he added, "As I have said, if it will put you at ease, you may call this place 'The Menagerie.' It is a meager replica of one of the places I call home."

"You do more than manipulate dreams," she said coldly, perseverating on the first part of his sentence. "I've heard of you, and know what you're capable of. You manipulate the dreamer, too."

"Not precisely," he said, raising a finger pedantically. "Have you ever had a dream so intense that you woke up and knew you had to act on it? A dream that haunted you until you slept again? It is in those places that I exist." He paused. "But there is no need for it to come to that. As of now, I believe we have no reason to war. I think we can come to an agreement amicably."

"Agreement?"

"Yes, Miss Hellsing. Surely you are familiar with the term? I want something from you, and you want something from me, and surely we can reach a place where both are satisfied."

"I want nothing from you," she scoffed. "Except for your destruction."

He chuckled at her brashness. It was an effete laugh, made even more genteel by the delicate hand he lifted to cover his smile. "You are so harsh, Miss Hellsing, and yet you know little of me. Are you referring to the incident in Shrewsbury? There is an explanation for that, and one I am sure you would find sympathetic."

"Would I?" Integra probed. " 'Fairies bite, too', eh? What does that mean?"

"It means exactly what it says. Surely you aren't so naive. You, too, have creatures that lust for blood in your menagerie."

It dawned on Integra suddenly. "Mauled by animals," she whispered. "Vampires, rather. Is that's what's in your menagerie, Albemarle?"

This time he laughed outright. It was a jolly sound, completely unsuited to the setting. "You are singularly devoted to your calling, Miss Hellsing, that you see the undead where there are none. But let us review the facts of the case, shall we? The children and their teachers were seen taking a stroll into the Quarry, the park that borders on the Severn. Does that not strike you as odd? An entire day school, leaving the school en masse?"

Integra shrugged. She had no accurate barometer any more for what was odd and what was not.

"They were pixy-led. Have you heard the term?"

She shook her head.

"The fay, most especially the pixies, are known for their abilities to obfuscate the correct path, to lead astray. I find it useful in a number of tasks--like leading the lambs to the slaughter." He smiled a thin, bloodless smile. "Like your prince, I have creatures that need to be fed." He crossed the distance between then to grab her hand, turning it over to reveal the mark where a razor had recently parted the flesh. His passed his fingers over it tenderly. His touch, though warm with human blood, made her shudder. "I have a number of creatures in my menagerie, Miss Hellsing. You have already met one of them, the centaur Naxos, when you entered this place. I also have at my disposal many other creatures of myth, of faerie: the pixies, as I mentioned; the puka, the Irish demons, born of fallen angels. The kelpie..." He smiled, lifted an eyebrow. "You've heard of the kelpie."

It was not a question. Integra had. They were water-sprites of Scottish folklore with an insatiable taste for human flesh. In myth, they would take the form of a horse standing by the riverside; ready to lure humans to subaqueous deaths. Now she was beginning to piece together an explanation of what had happened in Shrewsbury. "The children... your pixies led them into the park, and..."

"And then they went for a pony ride," he said plainly. "On the beautiful underwater horses."

Integra was at a loss for words. "You," she said finally, "are a foul, cruel man."

Almost as an innocent side note--but with the note of a veiled threat, he added, "I have more obscure creatures still." He paused, lifting a finger to his lips as if in thought. "I suppose menagerie is really a foul word for it, for they serve me willingly. They share my goals, my visions, my plans. They long for their time to come again, for the banners of faerie to fly over Albion again. A Dominion of the Savage Beasts, they call it. Wouldn't it be nice?" He said "nice" in such a childish voice, that for a brief moment, Integra could not possibly believe that such a polite, urbane man could hurt her.

It was only a moment. Then, she pulled her hand away as if shocked. "And what," she said, "do you want from me?"

He smiled lightly, turning away to look out the great bay windows that opened on the frozen lake below. "In folklore, the changeling child has his eyes anointed with an ointment that allows him to see the marvels of fairy-land. Since I was a boy, I have read the legends and known that they were not legends. Since I was a boy, I have been able to talk to the creatures that no one else can see, and manipulate the dreams of others to serve their purposes. They called me Oberon, and it was a name I took up myself, after a time." He spun on a heel, looked back at her. "Are you familiar with Oberon?"

"I've read A Midsummer Night's Dream, if that's what you mean."

Albemarle chuckled. "Well, yes, of a sort. Shakespeare took his ideas from a happy blend of Spenser and the native folk tales of the British Isles. Spenser's Oberon, however, was drawn straight out of the medieval legend of Huon de Bordeaux. Are you familiar with that tale?"

"I am not."

"A shame. It would tell you a good deal about me, really. That Oberon, in turn, is not an original, but is the dwarf Elberich, the Teutonic Erl-King, by another name. Everything old is new again, eh? Anyway. I'll speak in a language you understand, and if it's the language of the Bard, so be it. You remember the plot of his play?"

Integra had no clue where this was going, and was frankly, a little annoyed by Albemarle's diversion into literature. "Vaguely. Oberon is warring with the Fairy Queen, Titania. Hijinks ensue. Someone gets turned into a donkey."

"Yes, Titania. Proserpina, in Spenser's poem. A noble figure--she is a fairy, I think, because she is so unlike any woman of her day. She is powerful, and undaunted by male power. She is a woman with creatures of great power at her command. Surely that sounds familiar to you."

"I am sure it does not," Integra said, indifferent to his flattery.

Albemarle chuckled. "Oh, you are very coy, Miss Hellsing. But certainly you can't deny that there is one creature you hold in thrall, your changeling prince, the vampire Alucard--or whatever he's calling himself these days."

"What of him?" Integra asked, a touch warily.

"He is a powerful weapon. Coupled, the two of you are a power to be reckoned with. Surely you've had a chance, in the past months, to survey the sheer perfection of the destruction you brought to Millenium, to take some pride in how you saved our homeland."

There was a certain rightness in the duty she had done, and she remembered the immense power she had felt, watching her servant in his truest form, cutting down their enemies. To feel that powerful... it bordered on the erotic.

But this wasn't a thought she was about to share with Albemarle--and thankfully, she seemed to retain some privacy of thought in this dreamworld. "You talk almost like him," she said casually. "Certainly you both seem to have charmed the serpent out of his tongue." She fixed Albemarle with the coldest stare she could manage. "But it doesn't change the fact that my servant would grind you under his heel at my slightest whim."

"Oh, but we mustn't war, Titania," he said smoothly. He was standing at her ear now, purring into it. His voice could have cut through silk. "When Oberon and Titania war, do you know what happens? The very land itself wars. Why war, when we have so much in common?"

Once again, she pushed him away. "I have nothing in common with you. You are a common murderer."

"You would like to believe that. But then, you, too, have killed humans."

"There are a great many things of which I am ashamed, Mr. Albemarle, but I assure you, my institute does not kill innocents or children."

Ignoring her protests, Albemarle fell to one knee. "Be my fairy queen, Miss Hellsing. Be my Titania. You love this country as I love this country, and I would hate to see it come to war again, and so soon. Be my Titania, cede your changeling prince to me, and we shall have what we all desire."

"If it is domination of this nation you wish, then you do not love this country as I love this country," she said firmly.

"Ah, but the promise is so temptingly close..." He stood, and leaned in close to her ear, sliding a hand over her shoulder, in a gesture of taking her into his confidence. "I know how you love power, love to dominate. I know that every time your vampire prince takes another life, you feel a little thrill of pleasure in your gut, and you don't know why. I believe, that given enough time, you can be tempted to anything, Miss Hellsing." He paused. "You asked what it is you want. It is this that you want, though you can't speak it."

Once again she brushed away his filthy touch, although it was much harder this time to do so. "When will you release me from this dream?"

"First you must give me an answer. Yes or no, Miss Hellsing? Will you be my Titania?"

"And if I say no?"

He smiled at her with that sweet smile. " 'Why should Titania cross her Oberon? I do but beg a little changeling boy to be my henchman.' "

"And if I say no?" she insisted.

"You will not say no for long," he said quietly. Already the dreamscape was fading; the vista beyond the window had faded to plain grey, and the stairs, the balcony, the tile floor seemed to be melting away. Only Albemarle remained constant.

"And if I say no?" she screamed into the void.

"Let us just say, keep your changeling prince near, and keep him dear. Well I know the limits of human vigilance." Albemarle slid out of view.

The mirror in the bathroom slid into view, glassy and silent. Integra blinked a few times, wondering how she had gotten here. She looked down at her hands. One of them held the tortoiseshell-handled razor blade. Oh, she said, as if it all suddenly made sense, and went back to what she had been doing--which was carving a bloody point into the flesh of chest with the tip of the razor, directly above her left breast.

In the mirror, the words she carved were gibberish. That startled her a bit, and she looked down, trying to read from above, hoping it would be more successful than reading backwards. You-

The mirror went black, then red, and then her changeling prince appeared before her, shadow forming into substance. His eyes burned with fierce intensity. No, no changeling prince, this, only Alucard.

With no warning, he pinned her to the wall with a grasp on both arms. "What is the meaning of this?" he hissed. His eyes wandered from her eyes, to her chest, clearly distracted by the blood there.

It was all so perfectly logical. She narrowed her eyes at him. "How many times do I have to beg my privacy of you, servant? I was just writing-" She paused. What was she writing? Again she looked down.

You Are Mine.

In a flash, she remembered everything--the dream, Julian Albemarle, his parting words. The razor dropped from fingers struck useless by surprise. Her look of shock melted into one of anger. "He had me in thrall." She pounded a fist uselessly against the wall of the bathroom. "The bastard. He imprisoned me in my own thoughts." Already, she felt her fingers twitching, wanting to reach again for the blade she had dropped. What more did he want? When would he free her? She gritted her teeth against the compulsion. "This- this is what Heinkel was telling me about. This is what he tried to do to Yumiko." Unlike Yumiko, she didn't have another personality to flee to.

Alucard regarded her intently, cocking his head to one side in consideration of her thoughts. She felt momentarily exposed, as if he had peeled away her thoughts as easily as peeling an orange. "Julian Albemarle. A human. He did this to you." He plucked the name so deftly from her thoughts that he might have been plucking it from the air. He snarled. "I will cut him down, Master."

"No, you mustn't," she whispered, but she wasn't sure if it was really her speaking, or this strange compulsion. She remembered still his words, keep your changeling prince near, and keep him dear. "No. I don't even know where he is." She began to feel now the effect of her own handiwork. The shallow cuts stung in the cold air, and the blood was sliding down her chest, staining the edges of her pyjama top. This was definitely going to be a delight to explain to the laundry staff. "Please- just- the razor-"

With a growl, Alucard kicked the razor out of any possible notion of reach, and it went skittering along the wall, finally disappearing into shadow. The smell of her blood, she could see, was gradually having its effect on him; it was as if he was coming undone at the seams, his body losing substance and turning into shadow at the edges. "If I didn't know your mind, I'd think you'd done this to torment me."

"My intent was not to bait you," she said, barely biting back sharper words. "Release me." Already she felt exposed, standing there, bleeding, with half of her pyjama top undone.

He shifted hazily, clearly disliking her delay. He was a child with poor impulse control, when it came down to it. As a human, he was used to getting his way, and it was no different now that he had fangs and preternatural powers to enforce that will. "Not yet. You're still in that man's thrall. I won't have you going and impaling yourself on a butter knife."

"I have no intention of doing that," she scoffed. Then again, perhaps she did. It was hard to tell. She did awfully miss that razor, though. "You'd rather like that, though, wouldn't you? Vlad."

He growled in response, and closed the distance between the two of them--not that much had remained, anyway--with a knee driven between her legs. "If you're going to call me by that old name," he whispered into her ear, "then I'm at least entitled to being obeyed, like the prince I once was. And right now, it would please the prince greatly to hold you down until you stop wanting to carve that man's initials into your flesh, and glut myself on the blood you've oh-so-kindly spilled." His body, in close proximity, radiated cold like a human body would radiate heat.

Integra pondered how he could be so cold when she had fed him only hours before. "I don't owe you two meals in one night. But," she paused, considering. She remembered her words to Heinkel, about slack on the leash. Relinquishing her control for small moments like this meant greater dominance in the end, in the places that mattered. "I suspect I shall allow it, servant." She hoped that common sense--and not the self-destructive compulsion that clouded her thoughts--that had won out here.

There was no time to consider; Alucard was already burying his face in the folds of her pyjama top, cold tongue licking away the droplets of blood that were already pooling there. His left hand disengaged her wrist--replacing itself with a shackle of shadow--and roughly, he groped at her right breast through the fabric, pushing it up over the pyjamapyjama top enough to reveal the rivulets of blood than had run down its slope. Already cold, he pronounced mentally, with an undertone of dismay, as he cleaned that breast of lines of blood. Integra shivered at his chill and intimate touch. He continued, laving his tongue across the bloody letters that spanned the distance between her breasts, pausing at the end of every letter to savor the blood pooling there, and finally descended on her left breast, where she had most recently cut. Insinuating a hand between the pyjama top and her skin, he lifted the left breast into view, giving it the same treatment as he had given the first. His hand idly played across her nipple as he absorbed every last drop of blood that he could.

A roiling at the base of her spine told Integra that she had taken this too far. "Enough," she said, a little hoarsely. She had been manhandled enough tonight; first the mental violation by Albemarle, and now the liberties that her servant took with her in the name of stealing every drop of her blood that he could. But that; that was a more familiar annoyance; an annoyance that might not even annoy, had he ever known how to choose the proper place and time. "If your plan was distract me, you've succeeded admirably."

She felt him grin, his face pressed to her chest. The slightest blush of color showed on his cheeks. She felt the shackles of shadow release her; as if he was finally convinced that she was free of Albemarle's enchantment. "You know," he said, quite amiably, his voice muted by fabric and flesh, "I have nightmares, too. But unlike you, I can choose whether or not I sleep and let them overcome me."

She blinked, trying to detect motive from the sentence. "What do you mean?"

"What will you do when Albemarle returns? Eventually he will win you to his side, by sheer erosion of will. You can't stay awake forever," he pointed out, adding, "as a human." He lifted his head from her chest, a sly smile playing out across his features.

She stared him down, chilled a little by the implication. "I'm bloody well going to try."

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, the lights in the room flickered and died. Power outage. Integra felt Alucard leave; it was as a whispering of cold air around her. The small bathroom window emitted enough light to indicate that dawn was approaching. She knew her servant's destination, then, and yawned, wishing silently that she could join him in sleep.