There is absolutely no substance to the rumors of a secret government base. I want to put paid to this crazy notion once and for all. Unauthorized magic users, in particular those practicing prohibited schools of magic, are dealt with according to the provisions clearly laid out in the McGauer-Linden Act, the Geneva Convention, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. We do not cart them off, we do not train them, and there is not, nor has there ever been, a “Shadow Coven.”

— Lieutenant General Alexander Gatanas

Commandant, Supernatural Operations Corps

Press conference responding to an article allegedly exposing

a hidden SOC program trafficking in prohibited magic

Jake nuzzled Britton’s elbow as he leaned against the big animal’s neck, balancing between barrel and dog.

A sixtyish man stood in the entrance, wearing bedroom slippers, dirty denim overalls, and a faded cap. He was paunchy, with a wide, jowly face, small eyes, and a slightly upturned nose. He kept the shotgun leveled at Britton’s chest.

“Come on over here, Jake,” the man called. “You get away from him.”

Jake turned toward his owner, panting. He nosed Britton’s hand, his bulk upsetting the barrel, dark water slopping out. The man rolled his eyes. “Useless goddamn dog,” he muttered.

Jake backed away from Britton, bristling as the magic rose in reaction to the gun, opening a gate between them, the back of it to Britton. He couldn’t see the landscape facing the man, but he could hear the keening of the demon-horses clustered beyond.

The man took a lateral step and raised the shotgun, sighting down the barrel at Britton’s face. “You just put it away, now,” he said. “Whatever it is you’re planning to do, I promise you I can pull this trigger before you can do it.”

Britton struggled against the magic but he still felt its tendrils push into the gate, reaching for the pack beyond. Their keening became frenzied as they resisted, terrified of the flickering portal.

“Come on, you damned fool,” the man said. “Don’t do this. You don’t want to do this.” His finger tensed on the trigger.

“I can’t control it,” Britton rasped. “It’s worse when I’m stressed. I’m hurt and I’m hungry and you’re pointing that damned gun at my face.”

The man looked down at his dog, then up at Britton. Slowly, he lowered the gun. “Okay, son. Gun’s down,” he said. “You get a lid on this, and I’ll get you fed and put some Band-Aids on you. Scout’s honor.”

Britton desperately tired to reel in the magic, but how could he pull on something he couldn’t see or touch? The keening grew louder. The gate wavered as one of the demon-horses began to come through.

The man’s eyes widened. He pointed the gun at the gate. “Come on, son. I’m not going to hurt you. You’ve gotta trust me. I know it’s hard, but you can do it.”

Britton felt the magic recede slightly at the kind words. He concentrated on the calmness of his surroundings — the roof over his head, Jake’s well-meaning slobber on the back of his neck, the man’s voice.

Jake lowered his hackles and woofed softly as the gate shimmered and closed, sending them back into semidarkness.

The man sighed and wiped the back of his neck with a pudgy, callused hand. “Well, that’s a goddamned relief,” he said.

“I’m Oscar,” Britton said. “My name’s Oscar.”

The man tugged the brim of his cap. “You can call me Nelson.”

They stood for an awkward moment, the silence broken only by the sound of Jake’s panting as he nudged under Britton’s hand again.

“Well, let it never be said I’m not a man of my word,” Nelson said. “You sit tight, and I’ll be back with some food and my first-aid kit.” He looked uncomfortably at his feet and turned to go. Britton’s mind screamed at him to run, but he ignored it. There was nowhere for him to run and nothing else to do. He had to eat, to rest. He had to trust Nelson. The man could have easily shot him and hadn’t. That would have to be enough.

The old farmer made it a few steps, then turned, not meeting Britton’s eyes, and whistled for Jake. The big dog thumped his tail happily and didn’t budge. Nelson called him again, then sighed. “Most goddamn useless guard dog in history.”

Britton sagged to the floor, exhaustion mingling with relief to swamp what little strength remained. Jake licked him enthusiastically, and he batted ineffectually at the dog, scratching its ears and trying to duck its darting tongue.

He was so engrossed in the dog’s affections that he barely noticed Nelson swing the barn doors shut.

Britton started as a light thud from the opposite side indicated that a crossbar had been put in place.

“Nelson?” Britton called, getting slowly to his feet and pushing Jake behind him.

Silence. Sudden panic bullied exhaustion aside. He raced to the doors and pushed.

They gave a few inches, then held fast.

Britton banged on the doors, the grayed wood rattled under his fists. “Damn it, Nelson! You said you’d help me!”

Even through the barn’s walls, the farmer’s voice sounded sheepish. “You just sit tight now, Oscar. I’ve called the SOC, and they’re on their way.”

Britton looked frantically over his shoulder, scanning the barn’s interior in the pale glare of his chem-light. Jake sat, panting patiently, where Britton had left him. Shadows swam across clapboard walls that showed no other exit.

“You fucking lied to me!” Britton shouted. “Let me out of here!”

“Well, I’m no fan of lyin’,” Nelson’s voice came back, “but I reckon I got a wife and a home and a life here. And if a bit of lyin’ is what’s gonna keep it all from burnin’ up, well, the Lord’ll forgive me my trespasses. Now I got a bead on this door here, Oscar. Don’t do nothin’ stupid, or I’ll punch you full of holes.”

Britton turned and raced around the barn’s interior, running his fingertips over the boards, desperately looking for an exit. In his mind, he could already hear the squealing of the white van’s tires, Harlequin crouching inside. Jake padded along behind him, barking enthusiastically.

“I’ve got your fucking dog!” Britton cried. Nelson didn’t respond. Britton looked back down at Jake, who sat and emitted a long stream of barks that almost ran together into a howl. What was he going to do, hurt the animal? He shook his head. “Sorry, buddy,” he muttered to the dog, trying to master his panic.

He looked up in the loft and saw no exit that way either, and the panic surged, bringing his magic with it. Jake backed away from him, growling low in his throat, hair bristling and ears flat against the ridge of his skull. A gate flashed open just before the dog, sending him whining and running for the wall. It rolled shut and reopened in the middle of the tractor, slicing the machine neatly in half, collapsing it in a cascade of grinding metal.

“Damn it, Oscar!” Nelson bellowed from outside. “I told you to just sit tight! Don’t do nothin’ stupid!”

The gate flashed away from the tractor and appeared lodged diagonally in the barn wall.

When it vanished, it left a clean, angled slash in the wood, the splintered edges clipped as neatly as if they’d been burned by a laser. Through it, Britton could see the light of the stars and feel the cold blast of the air. Without thinking, he launched himself at the rent.

The impact knocked the breath out of him, his shoulder singing out in pain. His head whipped backward, and, for a moment, he thought he had just made the dumbest move of his life. But then the weakened wall exploded, the jagged edges of wood ripping into his skin and sending him spinning into the darkness, feeling as if he had been set alight as the chill air trilled in the rents in his skin.

He staggered, fell to one knee, skidding across the frost-kissed grass of the field, arms pinwheeling for balance. He could hear Jake barking in the background and Nelson panting as he ran from the front of the barn to the side. The lights were on in the house by then, and a small figure, probably a woman, stood on the front porch, a cell phone clutched in her hand.

“Now you just get down, Oscar!” the farmer shouted. “Get right down and keep your hands where I can see them!”

Britton staggered, got to his feet, met the farmer’s eyes levelly.

Nelson leveled the shotgun at Britton’s chest. “You just stop right there. Don’t be a damned fool.”

But the magic had other ideas. It flowed through Britton, borne on his sense of betrayal and desperation.

A gate snapped open in front of Nelson. The farmer stepped around it and thrust the gun’s muzzle forward. “Damn it, son, I warned you.”

The shotgun boomed, and Britton’s chest erupted in agony, followed quickly by merciful darkness.