Liu Chao stepped through the portal, left the cold wind behind, and found himself on a beach. The sky was deep twilight blue, but the breeze ruffling his greasy hair was still warm. Clumps of snow clinging to his coat commenced melting. Distant voices rose over the gentle crash of waves. He could make out two figures and a fire near the water’s edge. The scent of fragrant smoke and cooking meat made his empty stomach roar to life.
Chao prodded the sand with his cane and frowned. “I appreciate you sending me someplace warm this time,” he said, “but could you have let me out at the bottom? You did this because I called you a space lizard, didn’t you?”
A low, joyful sound rose out of the wind and vacillated in and out of hearing. Though the Portal Maker did not communicate using human language, Chao had learned to recognize the entity’s laughter. Despite his great and unknowable power, he seemed at times to possess a rather human sense of humor.
This mischief consisted of placing him on a ridge, separated from his target by a rocky slope. He could imagine his boyhood self charging up and down the incline, eager for something more challenging. He did not want to think about what this slope would look like if he lived to be an old man.
After a few minutes of awkward, hunched crawling he made it to level ground. He took off his coat, stuffed it into the bag he carried over his shoulder, and wiped sweat from his brow.
Chao limped onward, half dragging his stiff right leg.
The voices fell silent when he reached the fire’s glow. A man leaned forward in his folding chair and a woman looked up from the hot dogs she was turning. They showed off their youthful, pale-skinned but well tanned bodies with scanty bathing suits.
Chao bowed his head and leaned on his cane. “Hello, I am Liu Chao,” he said. “Are you in any sort of trouble that I could help you with?”
The young man threw an empty beer can at him. “Here’s a couple cents,” he said. “Don’t got anything else on me. Now scram. This is a hobo-free beach!”
Chao rolled his eyes. It was going to be one of those times.
The woman grimaced at her companion. “Bobby!” she said.
“What?” Bobby said, opening another can. “You know how these guys are, Jen. You let ‘em stick around, they think they own the place.”
Jen motioned to an empty folding chair. “Here, sit down,” she said. “Uh, no, we’re not in trouble. Why do you ask?”
Chao sat and crossed his hands over the head of his cane. “I am a sort of ‘wandering monk,’” he said. “I go where I am needed. Either you need my help, or you can show me to the people who do.”
Jen smiled, a polite gesture with an underlying hint of amusement. “Interesting,” she said. “And how did you get into the ‘wandering monk’ business?”
Chao chuckled and grinned, flashing cigarette-stained teeth. “It is a strange story, far stranger than most are used to accepting. But you are pretty and kind, so I will share it with you. Many years ago some stuff fell from the sky and gave those who found it special powers. The soldiers of my homeland gathered up the people and the sky stuff and locked them up. I was selected to ‘volunteer’ as a fresh test subject. The Portal Maker looked down on them and was disappointed with how they were treating his gift, so he took me away. Before this I was a selfish man. I used my injury as an excuse to exploit others. My wanderings, the people I help- that is my penance.”
“What did I tell you, Jen?” Bobby said. “This is what happens when nut houses run out of money and shut down.”
Chao stared into Bobby’s eyes. He did not blink. The fire crackled and the sea murmured. The young man looked down, fidgeted, took a sip of beer. “You would be surprised at the things courtesy can accomplish,” Chao said.
Exhaustion washed over him. He leaned back, closed his eyes, and laid his cane across his lap. He wondered if faking a snore would make them leave him alone so he could rest.
A shrill scream shattered the silence.
Chao leapt to his feet, lost his balance, and tumbled backwards over the chair. A second shriek followed, deeper but just as panicky. He clutched his cane and pushed himself up, trying to see what had become of the others.
A dark form rose, backlit by the fire. He caught a glimpse of bulbous eyes, a large head with a wide mouth, short limbs and webbed paws. It looked like the horrid offspring of a fish and a lizard. A thick-linked, rusty chain hung from the fish-lizard’s neck. It extended a thick tongue and wrapped it around his legs with crushing force.
Chao yelped and brought his cane down as hard as he could between the fish-lizard’s eyes. It scurried backwards, dragging him toward the sea.
He could not put it off any longer. With a grimace in anticipation of the pain he lifted his cane and struck himself over his knee. The old wound throbbed and he felt the Portal Maker’s answering gift spread as a flash of warmth through his body. The warmth surged to his left arm and settled in his hand.
The fire flared and rose, spinning, into the dark sky. A tendril erupted toward him. It broke away and formed a swirling ball of fire in the palm of his left hand. The heat stung his flesh, but it did not burn. His eyes widened; that was a new one!
The fish-lizard released him and flattened against the sand. For a moment he could see his grimy face reflected in those large eyes. Then it turned and dashed toward the water, whipping its long, finned tail behind it.
Chao rose and thrust his hand out, palm facing the retreating creature. He focused on his connection with the fireball and told it what he wanted it to do. It flew from his hand and burst against the fish-lizard’s side, sending it rolling across the sand. Thick ropes of flame arched from the fire and pinned it to the ground. The creature’s thrashing ceased within moments.
He turned his attention to the sea. Bobby screamed and clawed at the sand. He wouldn’t have many breaths left before the fish-lizard that captured him dragged him under. Jen was nowhere in sight, but Chao didn’t think she could be much further out.
He hurried toward the water, visualizing the fire at his back and commanding it to split into two walls. It whirled overhead, twisting through the air as if caught in a windstorm. The first wall formed a corral around Bobby, separating the creature from open water. The second touched down further out and began creeping inland. He commanded the fire’s heat to sink to the sea floor. The water churned and the fire roared.
Bobby scrambled to his feet, ran a few steps up the beach, and then turned back. “Jen!” he shouted.
The second fish-lizard slapped its tail against the water and hissed at the wall of flames. Chao called another fireball to his hand and flung it at the creature. The fireball knocked it into the air and the wall wrapped around it. It fell, blackened and dead, into the sea.
Jen surfaced near the second wall and began making her way toward shore. Bobby raced in after her.
Chao strained his eyes for any sign of the third creature. With luck it would be pacing along the wall of churning, heated water, too frightened to pass. He willed the wall to close in and herd it to him.
And then everything went dark.
He opened his eyes and saw stars. His head throbbed as if trying to outdo his knee in a pain competition. If only he could declare it the winner so it would have a reason to stop. He wondered what kind of award a headache would like. After muddling his way though a few possibilities he realized that part of the reason he hurt so much was that someone was pulling on his hair. He was being held in the air with his legs spread on the ground. A deep, garbled voice broke through the haze. It was unlike any language he had heard.
The hand holding his hair swung him around and lifted him off the ground. Bobby and Jen huddled together, trembling, looking up at him. Bobby and Jen. The recognition brought on a flood of memory, and he realized something must have gone horribly wrong. The thought of letting them down worried him more than any concern for his own wellbeing. He focused on his connection with the fire. It was weak, but he could feel the strength returning as his head cleared.
His captor shook him. He tried to look around without drawing attention to himself. This new creature appeared mostly human, though covered in fish-like scales. It held a coil of rusty chain in a claw-tipped hand and gestured wildly, waving at the air and pointing at a charred form on the sand. The first creature Chao had killed. The third and hopefully last of the fish-lizards sat beside the body and poked it with its blunt muzzle.
The fish-man’s voice rose and there was no mistaking the rage in those indecipherable words. The creature shook him so hard he felt his brain might scramble. It reminded Chao of the time when he was a boy and his father’s hunting dog got into Mr. Wu’s chickens, so Mr. Wu poisoned it and then they got in a drunken brawl and the neighbors came out to watch. For a moment he was overcome with homesickness.
The fish-man’s ranting dissolved into guttural, chilling laughter. The fish-lizard rose and stalked toward Bobby and Jen, hissing and snapping. The fish-man drew back its arm and the sound of the chain, ready to become a whip, drew Chao’s attention back into focus. He commanded the fire, and it responded. A curtain of flame surrounded them and cut the creatures off from their watery retreat.
The fish-man wailed in terror and flung Chao away. He landed at Bobby and Jen’s feet, and they each took hold of one of his arms and helped him up. He willed an opening to appear in the wall. They carried him through it, and then he collapsed the wall into a swirling ball of flame.
The beach stank of rotten, charred fish.
Bobby had him lean on his shoulder and led him back to the chair. Chao felt he could make it on his own, but he let the young man help.
Jen retrieved his bag and cane. Her voice shook with fatigue and relief. “I don’t know what just happened, but thank you,” she said. “How can we ever repay you?”
“Some food would be appreciated,” Chao said. “Oh, and beer! I do hope you have some of that left. Oh, and smokes! That too.”
They hurried away to find what they could. Chao leaned back in his chair, folded his hands in his lap, and relaxed. The sea murmured and the fire crackled, restored to its low, gentle activity.
Bobby brought three hot dogs and two cans of beer. “Sorry we don’t got any cigarettes,” he said. “Most of the hot dogs fried when the fire exploded, but these aren’t too bad. They were in the sand but I poured beer on ‘em so they’re clean now.”
Chao bowed his head. “Thank you,” he said.
He ate slowly and shared some of his adventures with his new friends. It was the most wonderful meal he’d had in weeks. When he was finished they offered to find him a place to stay, and he got up to leave with them.
A portal appeared. It opened near the extinguished fire, a black crack in reality with smaller rifts radiating from it.
Chao sighed. “Already?” he said. “In case you were not watching, I just had my head bashed in by a fish-man. I never want to see another fish again unless it is on my plate! I hate fish! You had better drop me off somewhere with a warm bed and some good smokes and nowhere near the ocean!”
He turned to Bobby and Jen, who were staring at the portal with fearful curiosity. “I tease,” he said, grinning. “Hard to be mad at the Portal Maker. He is a good… whatever he is.”
“Can you, like, teleport anywhere in the world?” Bobby said.
Chao shrugged. “Sure,” he said. “And some places off of it.”
He bowed his head, said his goodbyes, and limped on to the next destination.
Liu Chao stepped through the portal, left the warm night behind, and found himself in a desert. The heat slammed into him and he grimaced. A group of men riding camels jerked their mounts to a stop and stared with bulging eyes.
“Oh, come on!” Chao said.