Ranger Dan McGrew helped wizard Garbol and Captain Galt rescue twenty-some people from the crazed wood nymphs, and they investigated sixteen more camps that had been trashed. One thing about Dan, he was obsessed with the time. He could tell you precisely when Garbol drove up in his Pinto and the exact time they pulled each captive away from the nymphs. When he took part interrogating all the witnesses, he requested and marked down the time for each event.
While Garbol played with his pool stick and talked to the trees, Dan marked each site on a map. When he finished, he whooped for the wizard to come over so he could show him the curved pattern of the attacks.
“Sure looks like it’s spreading northeast,” said Galt.
“No, no.” Dan ran his finger along the inner side of the curve. “I’ve color-coded the times. See how the inner curve scenes are marked in green? Those were early yesterday. The yellow ones were late yesterday, and the red ones all happened this morning. See?”
“Ah, yeah,” said the captain. “They’re radiating outward.”
“Hah.” Garbol patted him on the back. “You’ve found the nexus.” He put a finger on each end of the curve and brought them together. “Something happened right around here. Take me there.”
They trekked deep into the woods toward the foothills, far off the established trail, the underbrush growing thick. A few hours in, they heard the steady thump of base, which they followed and gradually discerned to be rap music. They came upon a large settlement of homeless campers, almost fifty of them, all tangled up in several kinds of vines, poison ivy clustering around some of them. Groans, whimpers, and snores arose from the mass of vegetation, and the smell of feces and urine. The rap music screamed from loudspeakers with an oppressive sound, an artist Dan didn’t know.
“Hurry,” said the wizard. “Cut as many as you can free. Give a quick shout if you see any quoits, and be ready with that lighter, captain. I don’t want them catching me off guard again.”
After some time, the rap song they heard when they’d arrived started again, and Dan realized it must be on repeat.
They cut loose fifteen people or so when a hysterical voice came from beneath a mass of brambles. “Turn off the godforsaken music. Turn it off. It’s Benny’s horrible rap CD that started it all.”
Garbol stood and wrinkled his brow. “Seriously?”
“Yes! Yes! We started the music and the trees crackled, first around us and then further away. That’s when those horrid creatures came out and overtook us, tying us up. We’ve been here for days.”
Dan and Galt cut furiously at the foliage to get to the man, and Garbol followed the sound of the music. He cleared away some weeds covering a table, found a boombox, and hit a button.
The music stopped, and Dan felt a great relief. The wizard raised his chin as if listening.
Galt stripped away a blanket of vines. “Could the rap music have disturbed the nymphs and pushed them away?”
Garbol scanned the trees, concentration on his face. “I find the notion a hundred percent plausible. However, it didn’t this time. It’s what the rap music masked.”
Finally able to see the man underneath, gray beard, mustache, and lots of cuts and bruises on his bald head.
Dan listened for whatever the wizard meant, but heard nothing.
Garbol joined them again. “Hurry! Get them all out.” He cut like mad, spurring the others to work with the same fervor. “You!” He pointed to the gray-bearded man who’d just been released. “Make an accounting of everyone as we cut them loose.”
Hours later, dusk threatening, the man gave the word. “That’s everyone.”
“All of you together,” said Garbol. “Over hear behind me.” He stood next to the table with the radio. The crowd did as he instructed. “Silence. Everyone. Complete silence.”
Birds chirped. Insects and rodents rustled. A light breeze whispered through the trees. Then Dan heard it.
Thump. He thought he felt the ground vibrate.
Thump. A steady and firm beat came from the earth.
“What is it?” asked Dan.
“It’s a broog,” said the wizard. He pronounced it like ‘crook.’ “A creature of stone. The kids call them elementals these days.”
“It drove away the nymphs?” asked Galt.
Garbol nodded. “They’d normally hex him quiet before he got too loud for them to stand it, but the rap music made them withdraw deeper into sleep. By the time the broog’s pounding woke them, it was too much for them to get close enough and stop him.”
“What do we do know?” asked Dan.
“You’ve heard of a will of stone?” asked Garbol.
“Naruto!” said Dan.
Garbol raised an eyebrow. “These beings are like toddlers, and facing one is a battle of wills. We find the entrance to his underground lair, and we confront it by shear show of will.”
Galt scoffed. “Can’t the thing crush you into pulp?”
Garbol nodded. “Of course. The trick is to keep him from realizing that.”
“We’re going to bluff a rock,” said Galt.
“Essentially,” said Garbol. “But that’s not the worst of it.”
“No? What is?”
“They despise wizards.”