"You can let go," Acerbus told Carmen. "The trolls won't follow us past Pickett's Bridge."
He tilted his head toward their entwined hands, and smirked.
Carmen snatched her hand out of his, the diamond key embedded in her palm. She shoved the key into her pocket and strutted ahead of him, raising her voice over the rushing falls.
"Bet you thought you were saving me. Maybe I was protecting you!"
Acerbus snickered. "A mortal coming to the rescue?"
She glanced back and he held up his hand. The outline of the key's openwork, heart-shaped handle pulsated on his palm.
Uh-oh, Carmen thought, I've hurt a guy with razor-sharp teeth and a snarky attitude. She hitched the railroad spike through her belt and kept walking.
"Wait," Acerbus called after her. "That smell ... "
She ignored the choking cough. When she felt a tug on her arm, she whirled around and shrieked.
A see-through Confederate soldier stood facing her. Brass buttons lined the front of his gray jacket. He clutched Carmen close, his scraggly beard raking her ear.
"Can't you hear them screaming?" he wheezed.
The only scream Carmen heard was her own.
"Captain Pickett?" Acerbus gasped. "I thought you were a fairy tale."
The Captain moaned and tightened his grip.
"Way to go, Ace," Carmen said. "Insult a ghost."
She was surprised to see Acerbus doubled over, gagging.
"The Key to Understanding!" Acerbus thrust up his palm, the outline of the heart still visible. "Look through it!"
Carmen struggled to escape the Captain's grasp and fell through him. She scrambled to her feet and grabbed the key from her pocket.
Seen through the key's small handle, thick ash filled the air and Whatcom Creek flowed red.
The Captain smoldered. One of his buttons came loose and hit the water with a hiss.
"All those trees I burned to clear a path," he said. "All those guardians I killed. Another river of blood; another Gettysburg!"
"Carmen! Get it off me!" Acerbus thrashed at his sweatshirt as if it were on fire.
Carmen grabbed it by the hood and flung it into the rusted waters. When she looked through the key again, blistering burns covered Acerbus' exposed flesh.
"Must. Leave. Creek." Acerbus stumbled toward the steps leading up to Grand Avenue.
Carmen slid her shoulder under his armpit and they plodded down the lightening streets of Bellingham, looking like two drunks. Without thinking, Carmen rolled the iron spike over one of the wounds on Acerbus' bare chest. The redness faded.
How did I know to do that? she wondered. And why didn't it protect him in the first place?
With each step away from the creek, and each swipe of the spike, Acerbus' burns grew fainter. The Captain's cries followed them almost to Railroad Avenue.
Acerbus looked pale in the growing light.
"You need to eat something," Carmen told him. "I can't carry you if you faint."
Acerbus flashed a weak grin. "If Pickett's ghost is real, then maybe you're really a knight in shining armor."
"Wait here," she said. She handed him the spike and eased her shoulder from under him. He promptly slumped against the door of the Bagelry.
Carmen sighed. "OK, sit on the sidewalk and I'll get you something." A girl with a pierced nose and a Bagelry T-shirt turned the sign in the window from "Closed" to "Open."
"Soda," Acerbus croaked.
Inside, Carmen realized she didn't know what non-mortals liked to eat. A Seattle-chic woman wedged ahead of her and tossed her sleek bob.
"Early-morning meeting," she explained. She handed the dude behind the counter a list that seemed to unfurl forever.
Hurry up, Carmen shouted in her head. In her frustration, she played with the key in her pocket. The cool edges of the heart calmed her and she drew it out and up to her eye again. The Seattle-chic woman's hair was a corona of snakes.
"And what can I get for you?" The young woman with the nose stud stood staring at her, pen poised over her tattered pad. Her T-shirt now read, "Fire Queen is on the Wrong Track."
Carmen snatched the key from her eye.
"Uhm, two sesame bagels. Oh, and a root beer."
When she got back to Acerbus, he grabbed the soda.
"Thank you?" Carmen nudged his dirty jeaned leg.
"Sure." He shoved the can into his mouth. He chewed with his mouth open, his sharp teeth shredding the thin metal. Sprays of root beer shot everywhere. He gulped.
She handed him a sesame bagel.
Acerbus whooped when he saw it. "You found the seeds that will wake the guardians!"
At Carmen's puzzled look, he gestured toward the key in her hand.
When she raised it to her eye, she saw the top of the bagel covered with pulsing, emerald-green seeds.
Next Monday: Will the seeds help?
ABOUT THIS SERIAL NOVEL
Welcome to "Invitation to the Fire Ball," a six-part serial fantasy written by Whatcom County residents.
The fantasy runs July 16 through Aug. 20, with a new chapter in each Monday's edition of The Bellingham Herald. Other chapters are here.
Next January, we will invite readers to write chapters for our 2013 serial story. For now, we hope you enjoy "Invitation to the Fire Ball." Send any comments to Dean.Kahn@bellinghamherald.com.
Bliss Goldstein is CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Washington and author of the book "Adventures of a Detour Queen: Lessons Learned by Going off My Mother's Map."