Breaking the Habit | iv

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The panic had subsided somewhat. Families still huddled together as the vibrations from above reverberated below. Still the roof of the labyrinth held up. Steele prayed that they were far enough below to remain that way—safe. He made his way through the tunnels heading to his own chambers. A few feet from the entrance, he stopped when he heard the muted whispers coming from inside.

Steele walked in to find he had unannounced guests—the entire Hunts Clan Council. Bile was with them. To get their attention he cleared his throat. They all turned to face him. He barely had any room to go fully into the chamber. Steele could feel the tension among them.

Bile was the one who spoke first. "I have men who are willing to fight."

"Against giants?" Steele asked looking at all the faces before him.

"You are the leader of the clans. Give your word and we will fight."

Around him, Steele could see the faces that were not in full agreement with Bile's... bold declarations. He knew to a certain extent what a few of the clan leaders thought of him. Just because Caine was fit to rule, it did not automatically mean that they thought Steele, though the rightful heir, was. Steele tended to agree so he felt no offense at the sideways glances. He had never thought about leadership. About having so many lives in his hands. He never thought that Caine would have died. Forever for his sire had come sooner than Steele had anticipated.

"You are our leader," Bile repeated.

Steele rubbed his eyes. He was not one to shrug off his responsibilities no matter how insurmountable they seemed. "We need a plan."

***

It was a bad plan. An awful plan. One that should have been given more thought. It was about as bad as running a sword through one's body into another. Nerina sat astride the back of the hellhound. Something she had done before but could not remember. To her now it was on a different level of crazy she had never thought she would climb to willingly.

The hounds had somehow understood her. What is worse she had understood them. Not with words. It was as if they were extensions of herself. Some kind of instinct linked them. Broken. She was definitely broken in the head. The king may have fixed her bloodthirsty tendencies but he had left a sizable crack for any of this to be possible. Nerina hoped the break would not be permanent and over time, she would find a way to fix it. Or over time, it would fix itself. Like a broken bone. She wanted to laugh at the thought. Drowning man grasping at straws.

Nerina came back to the Hunts Clan with a plan. Not exactly, but it was close enough. It was workable. She led the pack—that was the only name she could give it. A pack with her as the chosen leader. Her broken edges had fitted perfectly into a mystery of a puzzle.

It was easy enough to follow the paths of the giants. Footprints deep enough to get lost in, buildings that had been trampled in their wake. The city was almost a pile of bricks and stones. There were no signs of casualties. No new signs of casualties, she had to correct herself.

Mapped out and fool proof enough the plan was simple. The birds—that she could not see though she knew their every position—would go for the eyes. Blind the big brutes throwing them off balance. While they stumbled about the things underground that were like plant roots would then go for the legs taking advantage of them already being blinded and off balance. When they went down the hounds would go for the throats. In the process, some of the hounds would die and so would some of the other creatures eerily under her command. Nerina had to admit it was a sound—somewhat—strategic assault.

Agitation from the pack along with her own senses put her on alert. Heartbeats. She signaled the pack to stop. Waited. Steele came around the corner of a building alone. She registered the look of pure shock on his face that he did not bother to mask when he saw her. Astride the hellhound, she knew how it must all look. Considering what had happened the last time she led them into the city.

"Brought your own army," Nerina said.

Steele nodded towards her. "As you did yours."

Nerina jumped off the back of the hound holding up her hand for them to stand their ground as she walked up to Steele. She stopped just far enough so she could see around the corner. His army was more like a small band of men. Then again, who would be willing to face down the sole of a giant? The band, however, would be hopeless and dead in no time. This was a last ditch attempt they had no business trying—no chance of winning. On the other hand, Nerina understood and respected their stance to go down swinging.

"I did things I don't remember. I intend to fix them."

"How do you propose on doing that?" Steele asked, looking over her head.

"I fixed the gates. Now I'm getting rid of your giant problem."

Steele looked down at her puzzled. "You fixed it?"

"Wouldn't make any sense otherwise now would it? More things would just come crawling out." Worst things. She had a feeling the best—or the worst—depending on your perspective would have been left for last. The final stake in all their coffins.

Steele stopped himself short of asking how she had done it.

"Take your men and leave," Nerina said. "Let me handle this."

"You didn't handle it so well the last time."

"Neither did you," Nerina walked back to the hound smoothly getting on his back. At her signal, they started forward again. As the hounds passed their lips trembled with low growls but none of them broke formation.

Steele gave them a wide berth as he watched them going on their way. He was beginning to have even bigger questions about this woman, Nerina. It had been some years but the changes were far more than simply growing a thick layer of skin. There was more going on. More he would have to think about at another time. Now he was forced to make a decision. Risk the handful of men who had been willing to go with him or trust the woman who had put them in this position in the first place.


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