Ker Moua | Staff Writer
Ker Moua | Illustrator


Chapter 1: The Black River

Mai woke up to a child standing over her.

“Oh,” the child began, “You finally woke up!”


The girls plan to cross the large snake bridge in the distance.
The girls plan to cross the large snake bridge in the distance.

The child stepped away from Mai. The child looked young, possibly a ten-year-old girl. The girl, with golden locks and bright blue eyes, wore a yellow jacket, a tan shirt, tan pants, and a white scarf. Something about the little girl felt familiar to Mai but she could not put her finger on it. The little girl paced back and forth, waiting for Mai to get up.

When Mai got up, she surveyed her surroundings. The sky was dark with stars lighting the sky. She was on a desolate white beach with what seemed to be a black river in front of her. Small fireflies blinked in colorful Christmas colors.  A long gray thing, which suspiciously looked like a snake body, loomed above over the river.

Mai walked over to the river and peered over the water but saw no reflection. The water was as black as unrefined petroleum and clearly not transparent as she could not see what lay beneath the blackened water.

“You don’t to want get too close,” the girl advised. “Monsters live in this river. They have big teeth and bright yellow eyes. If they see you, they’ll come and gobble you up.”

Mai turned around to look at the little girl. The girl was describing a monster but didn’t seem afraid of it. Mai saw small streaks of yellow light flash across the river. She stepped away from the water’s edge and walked up to the little girl.

“Thanks for the tip,” Mai said to the little girl. “Sorry for the late introductions, but I’m Mai. And you are?”

“TC,” said the little girl.

“Short for?” Mai inquired.

“Just TC,” the little girl beamed. “I’m not supposed to tell you my full name.”

“Fair enough,” Mai tells her. “So, where are your parents? Are they around here?”

TC points across the black river.

“My guardian is that way,” TC pointed her finger out. “I got separated and ended up here.”

“How did you get here?” asked Mai.

“I walked across the river,” TC said. “The water isn’t scary during the day.”

Mai looked across the river. Pure blackness gave no hint to the depths of the water. The child trekked across the river with no fear whatsoever. Mai did not want to find out if there were possible potholes in the river. If anything, using a bridge would be a good idea. Once again, Mai peered above to look at the snake-like bridge.

“I’ll help you find your guardian,” Mai tells TC. “Is your guardian a man or a woman?”

“I don’t know,” TC shrugged. “My guardian tends to change.”

TC explains to Mai what lurks within the black river
TC explains to Mai what lurks within the black river

Apparently TC was not going to be as helpful as Mai had hoped. It sounded like TC has had her share of negligent babysitters. Mai would have to notify the poor girl’s parents, should she ever meet them. Mai pointed to the snake in the sky.

“Let’s see if we can use that snake looking bridge to get across the river,” Mai tells TC.

“It won’t eat us, will it?” TC asked Mai.

“I hope not,” Mai tells TC. “Maybe if we’re quiet, it won’t notice us walking on its back.”

Mai motioned for TC to walk with her but TC was reluctant to move quickly.

“My back hurts,” TC pouts. “Can you carry me? I’m usually very fast, but something hit me in the back recently and I’m still sore.”

Mai stares at the pouting little girl. She kneels and beckons TC to go jump on her back. TC readily climbed onto Mai’s back. TC was awfully heavy for a little girl, and Mai hoped she did not have to piggyback TC all the way across the river.

While Mai and TC followed the river towards the snake bridge, they came upon an old man sitting in a chair. He was drinking coffee and reading a book with a table full of books.

“Hello there, young ones,” said the old man, beckoning them to sit on the empty chairs around him.

TC climbed off Mai and sat on one of the chairs that spun around. Mai sat on another chair. The old man offered them coffee, but TC refused it for them.

“It’s bitter,” TC complained.

Mai didn’t feel hungry or thirsty so she declined the offer as well. TC happily spun around in her chair while Mai engaged the old man in conversation.

“So,” Mai began, “My name is Mai. This is TC, whose guardian I’m helping to find.”

“You may call me Wiseman,” the old man told Mai.

“I’m sorry for being blunt,” Mai apologizes, “but where are we? I’ve never been here before so I have no idea how to get around or go home.”

“I see,” Wiseman began, “you are newcomers to this place. Do you not feel anything familiar about this place?”

“It does feel vaguely familiar,” Mai confesses, “but I’ve never seen this scenery before.”

“Then you are just seeing a familiar place in a different lens,” Wiseman tells Mai.

“In a different lens?” asks Mai.

“That is how someone views this world,” the old man tells Mai. “You gals are just travelers passing by a spirit’s vision of this world.”

“Are we in some spirit world?” Mai replies, “I don’t plan on us staying long.”

“I can offer you some advice,” Wiseman tells Mai. “But first, I must have compensation.”

“Compensation?” asked Mai.

Mai did not have anything on her to give to the old man. She didn’t think TC would have anything worth giving away either.

“I am a man of knowledge,” the old man states. “What I desire is information. Share with me details of your world.”

For what seemed like hours, Mai began to list off everything she knew: all facts, historical, riddles, even jokes that she thought were not funny. Sadly, Wiseman was indeed wise and learned. He knew too much and worthless facts Mai did not even know of.

“That’s all I can think of,” Mai says exhaustingly.

“Alright,” says Wiseman, “I have learned some things. As promised, I will give you guidance.”

: The old man, Wiseman, enjoys reading his books.
: The old man, Wiseman, enjoys reading his books.

Wiseman points across the river.

“Look for a magician named VV,” Wiseman advises. “He can show you the way home. He usually loiters around a certain pond.”

Mai’s shoulders slumped.

“So he’s our wizard at the end of the yellow brick road?” Mai mumbles to herself.

“I’m afraid so,” Wiseman tells Mai.

Mai and TC would still need to cross the black river. Mai did not know how they were going to climb onto the huge snake bridge above them.

“If you continue further south,” Wiseman explains, “you will come across the other side of the bridge. Head east to find the mouth of the large beast you see elevated in the sky.”

“The mouth?” asked TC. “As in, it has sharp teeth?”

“Do not worry,” Wiseman assures Mai, “the beast is asleep at the moment. Do not disturb it if you do not want to be eaten.”

TC and Mai’s eyes widen.

“As I mentioned,” Wiseman reassures them, “do not wake the beast.”