"Oh, but you should go home, young lady. The game is so utterly over."
Carmen felt the Fire Queen's blazing presence before she and Acerbus spun around to face her. She couldn't help but gasp at the beautiful woman before them, composed entirely of fire, from her flickering crown to her flowing smoke cape to her searing blue eyes.
The Queen took a scorching step toward them.
"And who's your little friend, Ace?"
"My mortal helper."
"And nothing more?"
Carmen held her breath for his answer.
"Aren't you late for the Ball?" Acerbus said.
"Ha! A ruse to distract your meddling metallic minions so I could have you all to myself. Did you think I would let your treachery pass?" The Queen waved her arm and a tongue of flame spiraled around Acerbus, setting edges of his clothes on fire.
Carmen swatted the flames out and stepped in front of him. "Keep your creepy pyro tricks to yourself."
"Are you really this brave or just this foolish?" the Fire Queen asked.
"Foolish enough to stand up for those I care about."
Acerbus, still smoldering, stepped beside Carmen.
"Well, that's a lot of loyalty to have for one so disloyal," said the Fire Queen. "But enough. Tonight I'm setting the world on fire. And I'll start with you two." She raised her arm with a whoosh to summon another tongue of flame.
But Carmen slid her railroad spike out of her belt and pointed it at the Queen. The iron forced the Queen to take a step back. She turned to Acerbus.
"What is she?"
"She's fantastic, that's what."
Carmen blushed, but to her relief, if there could be any relief in such a situation, the Queen's blaze masked her reaction.
"And perhaps," Acerbus went on, "a Bridgebeing between mortal and fairy. Carmen, you shouldn't be able to see the Queen the way you do."
"Lately I've been seeing more than I want to see," said Carmen.
"Well you won't have to see much more, my dear," the Fire Queen said. "Flicker! Crackle! Spark!"
The three smoke-and-fire dervishes who had chased Carmen through Fairhaven swept around the corners of Mount Baker Theater and hovered in anticipation of their monarch's command.
Spark chuckled at Carmen and Acerbus' predicament, but then choked on his own smoke. He coughed up embers that showered a tour bus parked at an open theater loading bay.
Carmen noticed the bus' now-singed sign: "Dead Jazz Society Revue." She heard the first notes of a saxophone drift out of the theater and connected them to the rest of the sign's wording: "Starring the late, great John Coltrane!"
At a nod from the Queen, the dervishes swooped down on Acerbus and Carmen.
But before their deadly smoke and heat could overcome them, Carmen summoned the strength to take another step through the flying embers and put the spike to the Queen's scorching heart.
The Queen shuddered.
"Call them off!" Carmen demanded. The spike heated to a glow, but didn't burn her. She began to wonder if Acerbus wasn't indeed right about her.
"Awayawayaway!" the Queen screamed and the dervishes swirled off to glower behind some low clouds.
Acerbus was on his knees coughing.
"Very well," the Queen said, "we'll forgo special attentions. You'll be consumed in the same flames as every other creature. I'm an equal opportunity destroyer."
A louder flurry of saxophone jazz flew out of the theater. Carmen saw the Queen shudder more violently at the notes than she had at the railroad spike. With her newfound powers, she understood that the metallic blasts of the brass instrument struck at the Fire Queen's very being.
Acerbus finally rose to stand beside Carmen.
"We have to get her into the theater," Carmen whispered. With her glowing spike she edged the Queen step by step closer to the loading bay.
The Queen hardly seemed to notice. She reached to the sky with wings of fire and chanted:
"I summon the fuel to feed the fire!
"The fire to free the world!
"Coal-Train ... "
Acerbus whispered hotly to Carmen, "It's the Chant of Six. If she gets to the sixth repetition, it's unbreakable."
"Got it." Carmen joined the Queen in her chant as she pointed out the tour bus sign to Acerbus.
"Col-trane ... "
Acerbus joined in.
The loading bay sucked the Fire Queen into Mount Baker Theater with a whoosh and an endless howl as John Coltrane ramped up to a big blow on "Blue Train." The heavy metal door slammed shut forever.
Carmen dropped the spike and said, "Guess I've got to get home and help my family pack."
"Tell them to unpack," Acerbus told her. "The diamond key is yours."
"You tell them."
Acerbus broke into his snarky, sharky grin and they walked hand in hand toward Carmen's house, with a quick stop for a can of root beer.
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.