The blackness beneath billowed up, a dark fog that flowed over the forest floor to join the rest, the portal growing larger, more defined. The crab-demon continued to shriek and twitch even as I watched its own black carapace collapse inward with a sickening crunch, its will draining away with its strength. First the spiny legs dissolved and flowed away, and then the shell, inch by inch. The tail stabbed at nothing in the leaves, one last reflexive effort to save itself. The creature’s voice dwindled into a pathetic wail, then into nothingness. The last to go was the giant pincer, clacking to the end, and it finally poofed into an ominous black cloud and flowed into the gaping hole in reality.

The portal itself was a dark mirror, three feet off the ground, as big around as a fifty-gallon drum. It shimmered briefly, the surface going from black to silver to clear in a matter of heartbeats. A faint odor of sulfur tainted the crisp night air, and just out of my range of hearing, something screamed, high enough to make my teeth ache. As always, I tried to get a glimpse through that portal, to see what lay behind. I got no more than a sense of immense heat and terrible soul-killing dread before it vanished with a faint blip and the vague tingle of static electricity. Oh well. I’m probably better off not knowing, anyway-curiosity and the cat and all that.

The only thing left in the battle’s wake was silence. In the distance, some brave night bird sent out a questioning chirp. The breeze was cold enough to sting as I gulped air, trying to will my pulse to slow, to keep my blood from pumping out and down my leg.

You never realize how hurt you are until the adrenaline starts to fade. I flexed my hands until the feeling returned to them. My bruised hip screamed with every beat of my heart and, oddly, hurt worse than the pierced calf. Of course, that could also have been the blood loss talking.

I limped across the clearing to pick up my knife. Though it looked clean, I wiped it on some dead leaves and sheathed it in my boot. That put me close enough to examine my calf. I was pretty sure I could poke my finger through the hole and wiggle it on the other side. I didn’t. Even my stomach wasn’t that strong. I needed bandages and something to stop the bleeding. Beneath the copper scent of my own blood, there was something else, an odd chemical odor. I didn’t know what it was, but it couldn’t bode well.

My body moved on autopilot, bending to collect my katana. I cleaned it as well, though the blade was likewise spotless. There were three new nicks in the edge. Marty was going to have purple kittens when he saw it. You wouldn’t expect a blacksmith to be so damn touchy. I forced myself to stand upright, centering my body a moment before sliding the sword into its scabbard.

Only then did my gaze go to the three men waiting in the tree line. The two on either side, in their identical black suits and earpieces, tensed as I hobbled my way toward them. I couldn’t fault them for that. It was their job. But the part of me that loved inappropriate humor wanted to giggle. Big bad men in black, scared of a scrawny, beat-to-shit samurai. I had to give the guys credit, though. They’d just seen things that weren’t supposed to exist, and it hadn’t even fazed them.

It was the man in the middle I focused on. He had salted hair, the lines of many cares on his face, and a suit that probably cost the taxpayers a pretty chunk of change. He pushed his left sleeve up and stared in unabashed amazement at the unblemished skin on his inner forearm. I thought I even saw him blink tears from his bleary eyes. Finally, he shook himself, reached into the breast pocket of his tailored suit, and produced a long envelope.

I snatched it with no remorse whatsoever. The medical bills on this one were going to be a bitch, and he could more than afford it. “Thank you, Mr. President. Your soul is your own again. Try to take better care of it this time.” My right foot was overly warm. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew my blood was pooling in my boot. I didn’t have time for pleasantries.

“Thank you, Mr. Dawson, for… Well, thank you.”

“Here.” I produced a card from inside one of my leather bracers, trying not to smear blood on it. It’s a simple card. I print them myself-just white card stock and black letters, JESSE DAWSON, CHAMPION, and a private cell phone number. “If you ever find anyone else in your situation, you can tell them I might be able to help them. Make sure they mention your name.”

He took the card, looking it over carefully, then tucked it away. “Will I be seeing you again, Mr. Dawson?”

“You’d better hope not.” As far as I was concerned, that concluded my business there. I turned to limp toward the paved road, invisible through the trees. Will, my best friend, was out there in a rented car, waiting to take us both home. He was an EMT. He could patch me up until I could get to a hospital. Then they’d call my doc, and she’d fly out to collect my sorry ass. And there would be the lecture. I hated it when she lectured me. Better the doc, though, than my wife. Will should call her, I thought, and let her know I was okay. I was okay, wasn’t I?

Dimly I recognized the rambling of my thoughts as a bad thing. I tried to concentrate, to mentally catalogue the symptoms of blood loss, but anything coherent kept flitting away, just out of reach. I staggered to a halt amidst the trees, disoriented, and wondered whether I was really still walking toward the road or whether I’d gotten turned around somehow. The moon shone on my back, casting my shadow long over the ground. The shadow was a rather handsome fellow, tall and almost too slender, a long braid of hair hanging down past his stooped shoulders. He looked injured. Poor guy. I decided to follow him, since he looked like he knew where he was going.

Okay, maybe a hundred-yard walk through the trees was not one of my more brilliant ideas, but in my defense, I didn’t expect to be bleeding so badly. The chemical smell had invaded my taste buds, and I had nothing left in my dry mouth to spit with. By the time I could see the car, and Will, silhouetted in the moonlight, my body was prepared to go on strike. The moonlight reflected off Will’s glasses, giving him an owl-eyed look. I think he said something then, maybe called my name. Most likely, he said, “Dude?”

The last thing I recall was hitting the dead leaves face-first and wondering idly whether there was any poison ivy about.

Farewell, Camp David. We’ll always have the memories.


Spring in Missouri is wonderful… for about a week. During that week, the sun comes out in all its glory, and the brisk mornings warm up to pleasant afternoons. Most important, there are very few insects out. Then, in the blink of an eye, we have the heat of Death Valley, the humidity of the Everglades, and mosquitoes the size of large poodles come out to carry off small children and family pets. And we have tornadoes. Never forget the tornadoes.

We were still enjoying that blissful week of true spring as I sat meditating in my garden. It wasn’t a large garden, or elaborate. It took up one corner of the backyard, leaving plenty of grassy space open for whatever. Around the small pond, a stone “river” flowed through the landscaping, white pebbles interspersed with cream and black. I had finished moving my bonsai trees, my pride and joy, back out from their winter shelter just a few days prior, and already I could see the rich green of the leaves taking hold in the bright sunlight.

The cheerful trickle of water into the shallow pond (no koi, sadly; we have raccoons) seemed to provide background music for the early-spring birds in the tree branches above me. I toyed with a pair of white river pebbles, turning the smooth stones over and over between my fingers. The soft clicking sound was soothing. Three yards over, I heard a lawn mower start up. It was a comfortable addition to the ambient sounds of the neighborhood. It was the perfect kind of peace, suitable for meditation.

I sat cross-legged in the sun, wearing my favorite pair of sweatpants and no shirt. The sweats, hanging low on my hips, were baggier on me than they had been; I was still regaining the mass I’d lost in my three-week ICU stint. Hospital food sucks, and the weight drops off fast. Building it back up took time, and I was never what you would call bulky to begin with. Some would call me scrawny. I prefer wiry.

The sunlight glowed a cheery red through my closed eyelids, and I smiled to feel it on my face. The mornings were a bit chilly still, and it was interesting to feel the sun chase the cooler shadows across my skin. The hint of warmth was soothing on my aching muscles. They didn’t hurt nearly as much after two months of recovery. I’d even been doing the physical therapy for my leg, like the good doctor told me, in addition to my usual katas and workouts. All right, she didn’t tell me to do it in addition to, but… what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.

I had chosen the works of Tsunetomo Yamamoto for my meditation of the day. In his written works, called Hagakure, he lists four vows that a samurai should recite every day. The fourth of those is “to manifest great

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