(1 of 1. Originally posted May 12, 2023 for the prompt “Buried Key”)
Franco peered into the thick brush. “Chex, come here! Where are you?”
A scruffy, black, knee-high furball burst through the undergrowth, covered in twigs and dirt. It ran past Franco and barreled into Jessica, jumping up to smear mud all over her beige pants.
“Down, boy.” Jessica’s commands always sounded more like half-hearted requests. So, of course he ignored her and continued to assault her outfit. She leaned back and pushed him away. “Ew, stinky boy.”
“Yes?” Franco raised his eyebrows at her.
“Not you,” Jessica laughed. “The hyperactive furball. He must have rolled in something dead. Again. He smells so bad, we’ll be lucky if the Guardians don’t spray us down with hoses from behind the walls.”
“We’d be lucky to see them at all,” Franco pushed forward along the ancient trail, ducking under vines and stepping over fallen logs. “I’ve never met anyone who even heard of someone seeing them. I wonder if they even exist. Maybe it’s an empty city.”
“The stories say there’s a key hidden somewhere. If we can find that, we can go in and see for ourselves. Empty or not, I want to see the legendary Guardian City.”
“Well, the stories also say that if they approve of you, one of the Guardians will bring you the key and let you in. It makes no sense.” Franco paused and shook his head. “Why would they have to bring you the key to let you in? Why not tell you where the key is? Better yet, why not just open the gate from the inside to let you in? Why bother hiding a key at all?”
“I don’t know, but I plan to find out.” Jessica gave him a gentle push. “Keep going. We must be almost there.”
Minutes later they stepped out of the trees at the base of a fifty foot wall that stretched out to each side as far as they could see. A door-shaped outline, four feet high and two wide, stood out as the only visible marking. They saw no sign of hinges or handle, only a small star-shaped hole.
Franco knocked. “Hello! Anybody here?”
“Hey, quit that! Come here.” Jessica motioned to Chex, who ignored her and continued digging, spraying them with dirt and small rocks.
Chex dug his nose down into the dirt, and pulled out a stick. He trotted over and dropped it at Franco’s feet, then stepped back and stared at him.
“Okay,” Franco picked up the stick and cocked his arm back to throw. “I doubt we’re getting through that door, so we might as well play.”
“Wait!” Jessica laid a hand on Franco’s arm. “Take a look at that thing. It’s not just a stick.”
Franco wiped all the loose dirt off the stick, and found metal underneath. It had a ninety-degree bend on one end, and a star-shaped knob on the other. He pushed it into the hole in the wall, and twisted.
A chime sounded, and the door swung open. Chex sprinted through the opening, licked the hand of the old man who stood just inside, then ran on to join the pack of twenty or thirty dogs behind the man.
The old man smiled, and motioned for Franco and Jessica to enter. “Welcome, friends. I am Horace, servant to the Guardians and Human Ambassador. Come in. I will show you to the guest rooms.”
“Thank you, sir.” Franco took a timid step forward, then stopped. “Are we going to meet the Guardians?”
The old man’s brown eyes twinkled. “You already have. Guardian Chex Rodentbane brought you here and gave you the key.”