Carmen stared at Acerbus' teeth, deciding whether she should scream.
She settled for taking a step away from him. In her shock, her hand tightened on the diamond key.
"So, who sent you?" Acerbus asked, casually chewing on the string of his sweatshirt.
Carmen had seen the boys at school do that all the time. Typical 17- and 18-year-old boys made the action seem ridiculous, even juvenile. Acerbus made it seem menacing, in a joking sort of way.
With his black hair and his sharply intelligent eyes, he reminded Carmen of Raven in Native American mythology. From what she remembered, Raven was a trickster god. But he also helped humans.
"I ... I don't know," Carmen said.
Acerbus raised his eyebrows condescendingly. "You don't know?" he repeated.
He took a purposeful step toward her. "Didn't your parents teach you not to talk to strangers?"
Carmen swallowed. As Acerbus advanced, his eyes darkened and deepened. Suddenly, Carmen had the impression that his teeth weren't the only worrisome thing about him.
"The fairy said she was coming." Carmen couldn't keep the words in, no matter how much her brain was telling her to run away.
"And that the guardians were asleep. It gave me this."
As if on autopilot, her hand opened to reveal the key. It sparkled in the moonlight.
Acerbus' eyes flicked from the key to Carmen and back a few times rapidly. The darkness in his eyes dimmed.
"This ... isn't good," Acerbus concluded.
Carmen thought back to the incandescent teeth and the sparking flames of the things that had followed her to the tracks. She considered telling Acerbus that he was stating the obvious, but didn't think he'd take it well.
"What Court do you belong to?" he asked.
"Court?" Carmen asked. The only courts she knew of were District Court and the Supreme Court, and she definitely didn't belong to either of them.
Acerbus looked her over again and sighed, as though the world was out to get him.
"You're mortal. Of course, you're mortal," he said, sounding like he was seconds away from a nervous breakdown. "That's just ..."
He cut himself off and bent down. Carmen tried to see what he was doing. With the sound of wrenching metal, he straightened up and handed Carmen a rusted object.
"You'll want this," he said.
Carmen held it gingerly in her left hand, the one not holding the diamond key.
"This is a railroad spike," she said, wondering if she'd actually gone crazy.
First a bat-fairy had given her a diamond key and sent her off, and now a shark-toothed guy was giving her a railroad spike.
"It's iron, and we can't stay on the tracks where we're going," Acerbus said, setting off at a brisk pace.
Carmen couldn't believe what was happening, but Acerbus seemed to know something. She jogged to catch up with him.
"Where exactly are we going?" she asked.
"You've got the diamond key," he said. "That means it's time to wake the guardians."
Acerbus led the way from the bridge along the edge of Whatcom Creek. Carmen stared at Maritime Heritage Park in wonder. It felt like she was seeing clearly for the first time. Twinkling, otherworldly lights sparkled in the trees. The falls practically glowed in the moonlight.
"Where are the guardians?" Carmen asked when Acerbus stopped just before Pickett Bridge.
He gave her a look that made Carmen feel like she was particularly unintelligent. When he saw her bewildered expression, his face softened.
"The guardians are in Whatcom Falls Park," he said. "And if the Fire Queen is coming, that's where we need to be."
Carmen wondered if there was some way she could bargain with the guardians; maybe offer them the key in exchange for her parents keeping their house.
"We're going to have to run," Acerbus said. "Why?" Carmen asked.
Before Acerbus could begin to answer, a grumbling laugh sounded from under the bridge. Carmen stared at the shadows with trepidation.
"Bridge trolls," Acerbus said shortly, grabbing Carmen's hand. "Run!" He sprinted forward under the bridge, almost pulling Carmen's arm out of its socket.
The moment they were in the shadows under the bridge, the grumbling laugh grew louder. Gnarled hands that felt like tree roots began grabbing at Carmen's skin, hair, clothes and limbs.
Carmen tried not to scream, but as soon as it started, it was over. They were on the other side of the bridge. The grumbling sounded disappointed now.
"The trolls are better than the Fire Court," Acerbus said, "so we'll stick by the creek as long as you keep your railroad spike."
Carmen glanced down at it, realizing as she did that Acerbus was still holding her hand.
Next Monday: Will Carmen and Acerbus reach the guardians?
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.