Thom met us partway.
“Did you hear that?” I asked as my hands closed around his forearms and he gripped my arms at the elbows.
Another howl echoed off the trees. A second howl answered it.
Thom looked back both of us, head tilting slightly toward the trees. “You mean that?”
“Yes, that,” I said, glancing between him and Phelan. I caught my lower lip between my teeth, hands tightening. Wolves—or worse? What kind of monster could be showing up now?
“Could be wolves, right?” I asked hopefully. Please tell me a lie, Thom. Please.
Phelan shook his head. “You people don’t get wolves here.”
“Not this far south, no,” Thom said. “It could be coyotes, couldn’t it?”
I almost shuddered in relief at the suggestion, relief that was promptly dashed.
“Coyotes don’t sound like that,” Phelan said firmly, then took both of us by the arm and dragged us back toward the remaining tent and cooking fire. “If it’s wolves, they’re moving south fast.”
But that’s not what he thinks it is. “And if it’s not wolves?”
“Then we’re either okay or we’re in deep shit.” A shiver wracked him. “Enough to take my mind off worrying about anything else, if that gives you an idea.” He let go of us. “Get Kellin, get Jameson, and get Carolyn, Jacqueline, and Rory. Do it now and meet me by the fire.”
“What are we dealing with?” Thom asked. “You’re not about to tell us that we’ve got werewolves on our hands or something crazy like that, are you?”
“Maybe,” Phelan said evenly, his tone flat and gaze serious. “Just get them and do it fast.”
I squeezed Thom’s arm and dashed off.
• • •
It didn’t take much to gather folks around the fire—the ones Phelan wanted and then some. Everyone had started to hear the howls, even if they still few and far between, they sounded like they were getting closer.
I crossed my arms, half glaring at Phelan as I came back to the fire with Rory trailing in my wake. He’d been the farthest out, checking the foundations on the northernmost edge of the wall. “All right, Phelan. Do we get to know what’s going on now?”
“What’s howling out there?” Rory added as he squatted near the fire, shucking off his gloves and holding his hands out toward the flames.
“Best case scenario is that it’s just wolves that have migrated down here from across the border or something,” Phelan said. He sat cross-legged in front of the fire, his staff across his knees. His gaze was restless, flicking from face to face, though he didn’t betray any trace of the nerves I knew he was feeling.
You can’t fool me, Phelan. You don’t think it’s wolves.
Matt frowned. “It’s not that cold yet, unless they really know something we don’t. What’s the alternative?”
“The alternatives aren’t good,” Phelan said, finally focusing on him. A muscle twitched slightly in his jaw.
“What are they?” Kellin asked, squatting to feed more sticks into the fire, trying to make eye contact with Phelan across the flames. He avoided her gaze for a moment before he sighed and shook his head.
“I’ve encountered about a dozen varieties of skinchangers in my life, and almost all the werewolf-types aren’t the kind I’d want running around anywhere in my neighborhood.”
Wait, what? “Time out, Phelan. Werewolves?”
“Right now I’m laying pretty strong odds on hamrammr—Nordic types. I could see them showing up here to avenge a certain blonde bitch’s death.”
Fuck me, really?
We all just stared at him blankly, as if all of us were trying to process what he’d just said. I’d always known at some point Phelan would say something that would strike one of us—or all of us—as just past the point of credulity. I got a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that he’d just gone tap-dancing over the line. I was proven right a few silent seconds later.
Rory started laughing at him.
That’s when Phelan snapped.