Acerbus pointed to the bagels. "Shake them."
"The bagels, please," he told Carmen. "I need a mortal for this part. Just dance around and shake the seeds off."
Carmen felt like a dork, but did it anyway.
"Now the magic spell. Ready?" Acerbus smiled. "Open sesame!"
"Seriously?" Carmen rolled her eyes.
"Just kidding. Now we sit by the biggest tree and wait."
Carmen sat next to Acerbus on the roots of a huge cedar. They leaned against each other, glad for the rest.
A bird flew down from one of the trees to peck at the seeds. Within seconds, 50 more had joined the first. Only they weren't really birds, Carmen realized.
"What are they?"
"Guardians." Acerbus flashed a heart-melting grin, shark teeth and all.
Looking more closely, Carmen saw that the "birds" looked just like the bat-fairy that had given her the diamond key.
"So what do they guard, anyway?"
Acerbus' dark eyes clouded for a moment.
"Long story. Suffice it to say, they do their best to guard Bellingham from danger, but they are old and weak. The seeds will only carry them so far. Remember that fire here 13 years ago?"
Though she had only been 4 at the time, Carmen would never forget the boom of the explosion and the massive plume of smoke from the pipeline disaster that erupted just a few yards from where they were sitting.
"How could anyone forget? It was so tragic."
"Well, that was the Fire Queen's last attempt to turn Bellingham into an inferno so she could take over the Earth Realm."
"The Fire Queen will try again."
After finishing the seeds, the guardians filed into formation in front of Acerbus.
"We are ready," they said.
"Your brother retrieved the key," Acerbus told them. "He also brought news of the Fire Queen. She is planning a ball tonight at Depot Market Square downtown. If all goes her way, Bellingham will go up in flames, bringing her plans for a World Fire closer to fruition."
"What are our orders?" the guardians asked.
"Stop the Fire Court snake-heads from doing their jobs any way you can. Carmen and I have the key and will unlock the portal. Let's hope my people are ready to fight."
The guardians flew off in a cloud of wings. Carmen remembered the business lady at the Bagelry with the writhing snakes on her head and knew now that the lady was from the Fire Court.
"Come on," Acerbus said, pulling Carmen to her feet. "We have to get back downtown fast."
He led her through a tangle of woods to Whatcom Creek where the fire had been. Taking her hand, he guided her to the waterfall at Pixie Pond and, to her surprise, walked right through it.
She followed, magically staying dry while also protected from the force of the water. There was a tunnel behind the curtain of falls.
"Whoa," Carmen gasped.
"It's a secret of the Mineral Realm, where I am from. We are matter manipulators, so we can look like humans, and it's why I eat metal. It's also why that iron healed me. Now hurry!"
She followed Acerbus through the tunnel. They finally came out under Pickett Bridge again.
"Why didn't we just go this way the first time?" Carmen asked.
"We didn't have the seeds, and ... I wasn't sure I could trust you."
They walked up the stairs and over to the large rock formation behind Mount Baker Theater.
"Is this the portal?" Carmen had always wondered about the weird rock.
"Yes." Acerbus pointed to a small hole. "Use the key."
The diamond key fit perfectly. She turned it, causing a massive rumbling. Returning the key to her pocket, Carmen jumped back.
The stone rotated with a screech, revealing a crystal stairway down into the Earth. Within seconds, hundreds of shark-toothed teenagers began ascending the stairs. Acerbus held his Fire Ball invitation out and each time a teenager passed him, an invitation appeared in his or her hand.
"You are cordially invited to the Fire Ball!" Acerbus announced. "Go stop the Fire Queen!"
Acerbus' friends ran toward Railroad Avenue, their chain mail transforming into formalwear.
"Carmen," Acerbus said, "you should go home. This is going to get ugly."
"No way. I'm not giving up now!"
Next Monday: What is the Fire Queen's plan?
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.