Park Ranger Dan McGrew watched the wizard’s Pinto sputter up to the trailhead parking lot and die before he coasted into the parking lot and turned the key. Long-hair, wearing a ‘Vote for Pedro’ T-shirt, the man grabbed his pool stick, a modern-day wizard’s staff as Sheriff Cannon had explained it, and rolled out of the car.
Dan swaggered up and took the man’s hand, a rough and firm shake. “Thank you for coming, Mr. Garbol.”
“Happy to help. What have you got?”
“Uh… hm….” He rocked on his feet. “I guess a man like you won’t think I’m crazy….”
“No promises. Get over it and tell me.”
“Green people are attacking the campers.” Thinking about them twisted Dan’s groin, they were such creepy things. After seeing them knock around several policemen and rangers, facing them seemed like suicide.
“You know what they are?”
“Off of ‘green people,’ are you kidding me? Could be extraterrestrials, swamp gnomes, idiots with full-body tattoos—the list goes on.”
Dan bulged his eyes. “Space aliens are real?”
Garbol chuckled. “No. I just made that up. But I can’t tell a damn thing from just ‘green.’ Tell me about them.”
“Well.” Dan took his cap off, wiped his brow, and replaced it. “They were kinda… branchy? Zat make sense? They had thin arms and legs, but they were uneven and knobbly like.”
Garbol grimaced. “Someone woke up the tree nymphs? How’d that happen?”
Dan winced, “I… I….”
“I was asking myself, not you.”
Dan was relieved, if not relaxed.
“How are they attacking?” asked Garbol.
“They drove some people off, trashed their camp. Others are being held captive.”
“People are captive up there right now?”
“Yes. We’ve got a good number of rangers, police, and volunteers trying to break them out, but they can’t seem to get close.”
“Get me to them immediately.”
“‘Okay. It’s about a twenty minute march for the first scene.”
“How many scenes are there?”
“Twelve that we know of.”
They hiked up the trailhead. “Your descriptions sounds like territorial behavior, which means something disrupted natural boundaries that have been established and stable for hundreds of thousands of years.” He cursed. “It also means the captives are ‘protected’ possessions, and if a rival successfully encroaches, they could tear the people apart like predators in the Serengeti fighting over a maimed gazelle.”
Dan shuddered. He’d already seen the strength of these creatures when one had swiped at an officer sending him thirty feet through the air.
A dozen or so rangers and police appeared ahead.
“Here’s the edge of it,” said Dan.
Captain Galt strolled up to them without introducing himself. “Is this the woo-woo master?”
“This is Garbol,” said Dan. “Garbol, Captain Galt.”
“Sheriff Cannon won’t let us go in ’til you’ve given it a shot.” His voice dripped with disapproval. The captain turned and waved his hand to follow. “Let’s get on with it.” He picked up a .308 rifle leaning against a tree. “We’ve got some fifty caliber stuff coming up, so if you can’t kill ‘em off, we’ll be coming in with those.”
“Kill them off?” Garbol stopped. “Kill them off? Do you have any idea what you’re saying? You’d throw the entire world into pandemonium if you killed them off—even one would take centuries to settle.”
Captain Galt smirked. “I s’pose you’ve got all kinds of nifty computer simulations that tell you all that, ay? Forgive me for not being impressed.”
The wizard started to glow red. He didn’t exactly get bigger, but his eyes were so fierce and his demeanor so dangerous, Dan felt like an armed nuclear bomb with a hair trigger balanced on a pebble. He was impressed how well Galt kept his composure, but for the first time ever the captain seemed to waver.
“I don’t give a damn about computer models built by ignoramuses,” said Garbol. “I work with knowledge and tradition as old as man himself. Have you killed any yet?”
“No. We clipped one in the side, but it didn’t even slow it down.”
“You will not kill any of them. That’s an order. If you need to protect the captives, use small caliber rounds to beat them back, twenty-two if you have it. It won’t kill them.” The wizard stepped closer, leaning in, and Galt winced like he might at a snake dripping venom in his face. “You kill one of these things, and I guarantee you won’t make it out alive. I’ll be lucky if I do.”
“I think you’re a little out of your jur—”
Something flashed from the wizard’s pool stick, and it surrounded the captain’s head, covering his mouth with glinting silver.
“My jurisdiction has no boundaries, captain.” He thrust the cue in the man’s face. It sparkled and snapped at the silvery gag. “My authority supersedes the governor’s. If you don’t respect that, I’m going to incapacitate you and stuff you in a septic tank. Capiche?”
The captain nodded his head, more angry than afraid, but he held his peace when the gag disappeared. He borrowed a twenty-two rifle from a deputy, checking it with rough motions.
“Let’s go,” he said.
They marched off the trail. After a few minutes, he stopped Garbol with a hand on the wizard’s shoulder and pointed. The man had a good eye. Dan could just barely see the creature, and it didn’t move.
“It’ll get a bit ugly from here out,” said Galt.
The wizard mumbled a few words, and Dan felt something like a surface of water covering him, but he could breathe and it didn’t impede his motion.
“What’zat?” the ranger asked.
“It just wards us from their sense of territorial threat. We can still piss them off, though, so mind your manners.”
Further in, the woods were thick with nymphs lashing out at other nymphs, guarding a tree, a knoll, or in one case an abandoned bucket. A few vicious fights broke out, their striking blows echoing like cracking and splitting branches. The wizard was right, though. The nymphs didn’t bother them.
They came upon a campground, a man and woman, both in superior shape, maybe climbers, and completely tied up in Virginia Creeper. A big brown nymph crouched on a tree branch above them, rocking and hissing. Two green ones lunged at her, but pulled back before getting within reach.
Dan scratched his stubble. “If they’re just protecting them, why’d they tie them up?”
“She didn’t tie them up,” said the wizard. “Quoits did.”
Galt tested his sight, pointing the rifle at the nymphs. “Quoits?”
“Basically weed nymphs. Nasty little vermin that look like potatoes. The tree nymphs usually control them, but it seems they’ve been preoccupied.” Garbol twirled and whipped his pool stick, and the feeling of a water surface intensified on Dan’s skin.
“Don’t move,” said the wizard. “Either of you got a match?”
Galt pulled out a Zippo and flipped it open, flame flickering.
Garbol slapped it shut and cupped his hand over it. “Not now, you idiot. You want them to freak?” He scoffed and shook his head. “When I say now, you light it. Not before, and not after. Got me?”
A green glow emanated from the pool stick and spread around Garbol completely. He walked easily and deliberately between the feuding nymphs. He pulled out a pocket knife and cut a few roots of the vine, then raised the stick. “Now!”
Galt lit the Zippo, the flame shot from his Zippo to Garbol’s pool stick and burst into a ball, his cue now a formidable torch. The nymphs screeched and jumped from branch to branch like enraged bonobos. With his free hand the wizard grabbed several strands of the vine and pulled toward the others. After a few strands broke loose from the ground, he dragged the couple away. The nymphs kept their distance, but snarled and spat.
Dozens of brown globs emerged from the weeds. Covered in carbuncles, they looked like cancerous beavers without a tail. Several grabbed hold of Garbol’s legs, and a few wrapped vines around his ankles. He yelped and fell, the fire on his stick extinguished.
He pulled out his knife and cut at the vines, batting away the quoits as he went. The brown nymph dropped to the ground and gunfire exploded in Dan’s ears. Galt shot the brown nymph several times and knocked it back. The green ones closed, and Dan shot but missed, but the brown one recovered and attacked, smashing his limbs into theirs, cracking and splintering.
The quoits looped a vine around the wizard’s arms.
Bewildered by the impossibility of it all, Dan holstered his gun, ran to the wizard, and smashed them with his fist to knock them off, but they kept coming.
“Shoot the bastards! Kill them.” said the wizard.
“I thought we couldn’t—”
“The tree nymphs, not the quoits. Kill as many as you like.”
Two of the beasts latched onto Dan’s leg as he drew his pistol and started picking them off. He hit five or six of them before they scattered, then he plucked the ones off his leg and thew them as far away as he could. Dan picked the knife off the ground and cut the vine holding Garbol’s arms, then gave it to him because the quoits emerged again in numbers.
A few more shots, a changed clip, and six or seven more scattered most of the beasts. Garbol finished jabbing the ones clinging to him until they dropped. Dan grabbed them and threw them, then helped the wizard drag the couple out of the area.
Galt stood where they’d left him, weapon pointed at the nymphs, but the creatures continued to fight and didn’t come after them.
When they were out of eyesight from the battling nymphs, they cut the vines away from the couple. Other than a few abrasions from the vines, they were uninjured, able to walk back the rest of the way, thankful to their rescuers and cheered for their freedom.
“Only eleven more sites to go,” said Galt.
“Yeah.” Garbol spat. “Then we have to figure out what caused the turf imbalance and see if it can be repaired.”
Dan spat, trying to imitate the wizard. “Those nasty brown things were from hell.”
Garbol nodded. “Everything’s bigger and grander in mythology—including its varmints.”