Caleb Williford

“CRASH!” Henry awoke from a deep sleep to the sound of glass shattering and a dull thud; an arrow had found its way through the window of the dark, musty room he had paid pocket change for in the inn and was planted in the soft wood wall. A flame accompanied the arrow upon the arrow head and quickly lit the room up violently with orange and yellow flickers as another arrow came through the other window and barely missed Henry’s blonde-tufted head. The flames began to creep up the wooden walls as Henry quickly gathered his belongings and planned his route of escape from the burning inn. Things like this were now a common occurrence for Henry as he traveled from town to town, hiding from the raiders that had attacked him again and again, night after night, inn after inn, as he slept. He threw his pack on his back and crept swiftly over creaky floorboards through the dim candle-lit hallway and out the back door into the dark stables where the smell of horses and damp, rotting wood hung heavy in the air. 

Henry quickly attached his pack to the jet black horse in the far right stall, the horse he inherited from his father before his passing, and rode out the back stable entrance of the inn into the dark gloomy woods. He rode a short distance through the trees and then turned to where he would be able to circle around the city without being seen easily, for he didn’t dare wander into the depths of the woods, especially at night. The forest had an abrupt treeline that opened up into a vast, hilly glade that expanded for miles and contained many small towns and houses, including Henry’s family home that had been burned down so many weeks before. He and his horse flew through the dark night, dodging small hills and rocks spread throughout the glade, until he came up to the opposite side of the small town he had been staying in. The entire inn was now completely engulfed in flames, with townspeople crowding around it,  and he could still make out the burning, charred sign: “Fulk’s Inn.” 

Henry rode for a couple of hours into the night until he couldn’t ride anymore, putting the burning town miles behind him. The sun would peak over the mountains in a matter of hours, so Henry found a small rock outcrop in the glade that had a tiny cave, more of a sunk-in rock face, that he could get some rest in. When day finally broke, Henry was better rested and he began to think to himself. “I would be far better off if I just threw this key away or just gave it to the raiders.” The key Henry would be referring to is a key passed down in his family that is fabled to lead to a large gold mine containing more riches than any one person could hope to spend in their whole lifetime and then some. The dream of finding those riches and setting the family up forever had claimed so many of Henry’s ancestors and was the reason he had never journeyed beyond the comforts and safety of home. Henry sat in the small cave holding the gold-colored brass key and passing it between his fingers, rubbing the weirdly-shaped, foreign runes inscribed all over it. The object seemed to hold an eerie, magical feeling, while also feeling exceptionally ordinary at the same time. 

Henry had heard rumors that the owner of the key couldn’t lose it or forcibly cast it away from themselves or it would “magically reappear.” To Henry these were just rumors and seemed far-fetched, despite the runes and many races who have the ability to enchant objects such as this key. Regardless, Henry slid it back into the safety of his vest pocket like he had done so many times before and clasped the metal button shut. He untied his faded leather pack and unwrapped and ate his quaint breakfast of hard bread before packing his things back onto his horse. Henry’s throat was parched, he hadn’t had a chance to refill his flask since the scuttle the previous night; and springs and ponds were sparse in the glade, causing most civilizations to be built upon discovering a water source. Henry patted his horse’s shining flank before mounting, “You ready to go boy?” The horse exhaled in response, permitting Henry to get on and back to the never-ending journey.  

Henry rode east into the rising sun, towards the snow-capped mountains and harsh terrain that would delay the raiders on his tail and give him time to find a plan. He tried to stray from the wooded north, whose thick forests contained creatures of unimaginable horrors and size and unknown mystery beyond that. The south was filled with more glade that eventually turned into marshy territory that belonged to the orcs and other human-like forms that lived in tribes and would kill any creature, human or not, on sight. To the west lay Henry’s whole past; his family home burned to ash, the countless inns and towns up in flames and plumes of black smoke from raiders, and of course, the raiders; who were after the strangely-marked brass key in Henry’s right vest pocket. Henry and his horse rode from sun up to sun down across the glades, a black mass among expansive seas of green. The tall, rocky mountains were very near now, the grassy plains now sprinkled with small and large rocks as well as some medium-sized boulders. There was also a considerable change in temperature and wind speed, Henry shivered as the sun set far off behind him and he prepared for nightfall. 

As night approached, Henry and his horse settled down next to the large orange fire Henry had started to protect from the blistering cold and laid up against a boulder that protected him from the harsh mountain wind. Now protected from the cold and wind, Henry started to nod off and soon fell asleep after the very long day of riding. Once again, Henry woke up in the dead of night. Everything was pitch black, save the stars sprinkled throughout the sky and the bright yellow moon, his fire long burned out. Henry couldn’t see anything, and he realized his horse was nowhere to be found amongst the darkness. He heard a neigh far off in the distance and instantly knew it must’ve been his horse, as the nearest town was miles upon miles away and across the torturous mountains. It wasn’t a neigh of excitement or anger, it was a neigh of fear, as if the horse was in immediate danger and someone or something was causing that danger. Henry knew that he would not stand a chance to anyone crazy enough to take on a horse as mighty as his own, and he began to run into the inky darkness toward the mountains as four fiery, yellow torches appeared in the distance, casting light on a silhouetted, rearing back horse.

Henry quickly stumbled through the darkness in an effort to put as much distance as possible between whoever had gotten hold of his horse and himself. The ground beneath him soon went from rocks sprinkled in grass to large stone slabs and bedrock peeking out of the ground, indicating the mountains were near. Henry staggered over rocks and pebbles until the ground began to slope upwards; the beginning of a massive mountain range. He knew this was not the way through the mountains and any effort to go straight up the slope would eventually force him back down or to find another path, so he began to look for a hiding spot among the many caves and crevices scattered at the base of the mountain. In his search for a spot, he heard hushed voices coming from behind him among the black of night and he ducked behind a boulder and sneakily peered over it. In the distance, about 20 yards away, were the raiders; tall, mysterious men hidden within black cloaks who destroyed anything in their way from getting what they wanted, and they were headed straight for him. He began to creep around the boulder, finding a path that led to safety when he slipped over a smooth stone on the ground and made a crunching noise that rang out through the silence. 

The four hushed voices got louder as they gained on Henry, now knowing his location and being able to hunt him down using the faint light cast by their torches. Henry’s creeping turned into running to escape the mysterious hooded figures and he could see they were now very close to him, seemingly slithering through the darkness to get to his position. He thought he was gone for sure, when all of a sudden, “AGH,” he had fallen into a shallow crevice in the mountainside. Henry quickly got up and took notes of the crevice; it was shallow, but well hidden and gave protection from the raiders. The hooded beings passed the crevice without notice, their torches casting light slightly on Henry’s face and lighting up the shallow cave. As they passed, he noticed a peculiar-shaped hole on the wall that was soon covered by the veil of darkness, and he made his way to the wall to feel for the small hole. In his search, the gray pocket of his vest faintly lit up and he took the weirdly-marked key out of his pocket to see the engravings were now glowing, and the wall where the hole was located now also had engravings in the same alien language glowing as well. He tried his best to unravel what the markings meant, but they were of another race whom he could not identify. Henry took the key in his hand and put it closer to the cracked stone wall, he could now see the oddly-shaped hole crystal-clear; a small hole the perfect size for a small, gold-colored brass key…