"That's absurd. If you pull your Gangrel back from flying overwatch in the city center, you'll be giving any intruders free reign. What are they going to do if you send them to watch the interstate like you're planning? Bite hubcaps?"
Prince Geoffrey Blaine was not a man accustomed to having his decisions questioned. The owner of a slave plantation in life, his attitudes towards anyone with colored skin had broadened on undeath. Now, he viewed not just Africans, but all who still drew breath as objects to be used and discarded at his whim.
So when the Alastor's ghoul had the temerity to interrupt him, his astonishment was swiftly succeeded by anger.
Most of the small group in the conference room were his own subjects. They fell silent at the ghoul's faux pas. If they'd had any breath, they would have held it.
Good. He liked his inferiors to show him the respect he was due.
"Alastor Moran", he said, smooth and cold as ice, "as a guest in this Domain, you may be unaware of some of our protocols. But I do not expect to be interrupted by a mere ghoul. You will oblige me by exacting an appropriate penalty. Now"
"As a guest in this Domain, Prince, I wouldn't presume to judge what punishment might be appropriate". Moran wasn't in any hurry to defend his servant, it seemed. His eyes were lowered. Meek. Subservient. Again, good. Blaine didn't appreciate having his authority challenged.
He rose to his feet and crossed the room, taking his own good time. Tap, tap, tap, went his boots against the polished floor.
Death might be going a little far. If the ghoul had been his, it would be one thing, but damaging the property of a sect official was another matter. A modicum of discretion was indicated.
Casually, he took hold of the ghoul's hand. "If this hand offend thee, cut it off. Not, perhaps, in the most literal sense, but close enough". He started to close his fingers, intending to crush all the bones of the idiot's hand to powder.
His fingers stopped moving. He looked down in sudden shock. Frost was coating his hand and spreading up his arm, whitening his immaculate dark suit.
"Good idea", the ghoul said, conversationally. "Thanks. Let's try it, shall we?"
Pain stabbed through Blaine's hand, as though someone were plunging a dagger through it repeatedly. Shards of ice started to erupt from it, cutting upwards from inside Blaine's own body. His fingers began to fall off, withering and shattering into dust before they hit the floor.
He tried to call upon his Disciplines, to resist, but the blood was quite literally like ice in his veins, frozen, unusable. He tried to take a step back, but his limbs refused to obey him. The only part of his body that he was able to move was his head.
He turned to look at Moran. "Alastor, your servant will cease these antics at once". He forced all the pain and uncertainty from his voice, determined to keep the psychological advantage.
Moran, still seated, looked up at him, and he didn't look weak or subservient any more. He looked like a very powerful, very dangerous elder who'd walked the Earth for twice as long as Geoffrey Blaine had existed.
"He's not my servant, Blaine. He's my ally. And like I said, I wouldn't presume to judge what punishment would be appropriate". The mockery was undisguised, and Blaine's Beast was making its way closer to the surface. His entire hand had been reduced to a stump now, and the relentless shards of ice were advancing up his arm, shattering him into frozen dust, inch by inch. He started to panic when he felt the cold and jabbing pain start to appear in his other hand as well.
"I am the Prince of this Domain!", he almost shrieked. "When the Inner Circle discovers that you, an Alastor, committed an assault on me..."
"... they'll ask what the hell took me so long". Moran said, his tone hard and unyielding. "The reason I'm here, you posturing idiot, is that you've managed to lose about half your Domain to the Sabbat over the past three years through precisely the sort of mule-headed stupidity that Ranulf here was just remarking on. Ceding to your authority when I first arrived was a courtesy, a matter of formality that the Inner Circle felt should be observed until it was clear you weren't up to the job. Well, it's clear. Consider yourself relieved of command"
Blaine's left hand fell to the floor. His right arm broke off at the elbow. His subjects just sat there, watching. They weren't about to cross an Alastor and whatever this red-haired demon was to save their Prince. He was on his own.
Moran rose to his feet. The force of his presence - and Presence - slammed into everyone present like a ten-ton truck.
"On the authority of the Inner Circle I am assuming command of this Domain until the Sabbat threat is extinguished. At that point, a new Prince will be selected by mutual agreement between myself and the resident elders".
Nothing remained of Blaine's arms but a couple of useless stumps at the shoulders. He felt a sickening sense of inevitability as more stabbing pains erupted. His feet... his kneecaps... his thighs... the vicious frozen stalactites erupted from his skin, shattering bone and muscle in their wake. His legs were no longer able to support him, and he fell on his side on the room's plush carpet.
And then he no longer had legs.
He was half-expecting the tide of ice to continue to flow upwards, shattering his spine and skull and bringing him to Final Death, but it halted with the amputation of his limbs. He lay there, disregarded, helpless, and the ghoul strolled around the table and seated himself in the Prince's own abandoned chair at the head of the table.
If any of the assembled Kindred found the presumption of the move objectionable, a glance at Blaine was enough to dissuade them from mentioning it.
Blaine sat alone in his chair - propped up like some ventriloquist's dummy, just a head and a torso. The ghoul - Ranulf? - had picked him up and dumped him there once the meeting had finished.
The lights in the room were low, and he blinked as the door opened, spilling harsh fluorescent light across his armless, legless body.
"Revenge is never as satisfying as you think it'll be", Ranulf said morosely. "Even when it's also justice. You'd think I would have learned that by now". The door clicked shut and he perched himself on the table in a casual gesture, one boot resting on the polished wood, his right knee tucked under his chin. His brilliant green eyes stared down at Blaine. Old, old eyes, the former Prince saw. The kind of eyes he had seen many a time, looking from the faces of vampire elders, but this was no vampire. He breathed. He coughed. He scratched. Everything about him screamed out his mortality.
As those eyes met his, Blaine put everything he had into a single command. "Undo what you have done to me"
It was like trying to punch a wisp of smoke. He couldn't even touch the creature's mind, much less affect it.
"After three years of effort? I don't think so"
After three years of effort?
A terrible realization dawned.
"It was you", Blaine whispered, aghast. "It was you all along. There never were any Sabbat"
In retrospect, it seemed so obvious. What evidence had there ever been for a Sabbat attack on his city? Some ancillae who'd made their homes in the outlying suburbs had been destroyed. Their havens had been ransacked, the sign of the Black Hand left marked on the walls in their own ashes. Coteries had been sent to investigate. Some had returned after finding nothing. Others had vanished without a trace. Then more havens had been attacked, more ancillae destroyed. Then an elder, and another.
But when had they ever seen the Sabbat? When had the enemy ever shown themselves?
Ranulf smiled slightly. "Very good. Too bad for you that the insight came too late"
"Who are you? What are you? Why have you done this?"
The smile became weary and bitter. "I was born a royal bastard. I try to live up to my heritage. As to why... I could give you a list of reasons, any of which would be good enough in themselves. Your support for white supremacist and race-hate groups, your cruelty, your total disregard for human life, or even the well-being of your vampire subjects. But if I were honest, the reason I've spent so much time and effort on you is Clarence Ferrars".
Blaine was quite genuinely at a loss. "Who?"
"You honestly don't remember, do you? He was a good man, kind and honest. A faithful husband and a loving father. A political idealist. And one of the most effective advocates the Underground Railroad ever had. That last one was the reason you murdered him. Whipped him to death. I had to use magic to repair the damage you did to his body before we let his family see him"
The vaguest of recollections stirred in the back of Geoffrey Blaine's mind. "You did all this - threatened my Domain, suborned an Alastor - just became I put down one uppity nigger? A century ago?"
"That's right", Raulf said softly. "And now you get a taste of the helpless victimhood you've imposed on so many others. You've lost the Princeship tonight. Within a few days, a Lady friend of mine will have dismantled the entire financial edifice you built on the profits of your slave plantations. You will have nothing - no money, no power, no protection from the vampires you mistreated for so long. You won't be killed - I'll make very, very sure of that. But I seriously doubt that your existence from now on will be pleasant".
He rose to his feet. "It's been a point of debate amongst rulers down through the ages - is it better to be loved, or feared? You chose fear". He looked down at his victim, cold, implacable. "That was the wrong answer, and it has just lost you all your points".
He started to turn away, then paused. "For the record, though, I didn't actually suborn an Alastor. Sebastian simply knows enough not to ask the questions unless he's quite certain he wants to hear the answers. I rather doubt I've really fooled him. But then, I rather doubt I've really fooled the Inner Circle, either. It's just that like most politicians, they prefer to believe whatever it's most expedient for them to believe. As long as I provide them with a minimum level of plausible deniability, they're willing to sacrifice a nobody like you to keep me happy and retain my services. They don't understand my motives any more than you do, but they won't interfere"
A nobody. That stung worse than the amputation of his limbs. "I'll reveal..."
"No, you won't. You won't tell anyone, and you won't try to commit suicide, and you'll never try to hurt anyone again". And Blaine realized with a sinking feeling that he wouldn't, that somehow, when he'd tried to Dominate the sorcerer, he'd given the bastard the keys to his own mind.
He barely noticed when the door opened and closed, leaving him alone.
"Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?"
Ranulf looked at his wrist, and the long, slim gash there healed up. He handed two tumblers of his own blood to his guests, and took a tumbler of whisky for himself before seating himself opposite them. It was a cold, wet night outside, a fitting counterpoint to his mood.
Chalice leaned back in her chair. Her illusion of beauty had grown more practiced over the centuries, and now not even Ranulf could spot any flaw in her mask, unless he really cared to make the effort.
"Who guards the guards? What prompted that sudden foray into Juvenal?"
"Ah". Chalice settled herself, took a sip of blood, and waited for him to continue.
"Oh, what I did to him was no more than justice. I've no doubts of that. I judged him, and I condemned him. But who sits in judgement over us, Chalice? Who guards the guards?"
"That one's easy"
They both turned to look at Sebastian Moran.
"We guard each other"
The three of them raised their glasses, and drank to that.