Ranger Dan McGrew found the cave opening and called out. Steady thumps from rock pounding underground echoed in the entrance. The sound completely unnerved him, and it was no wonder the tree nymphs couldn’t stand being around it. It dumbfounded him how a campground’s loud rap music had masked the thumping so that it was too late for the nymphs to control the broog when they awoke, driving them away and causing all kinds of territorial mayhem.
Garbol the wizard, pool stick in hand, trotted up to him, Captain Galt at his heels. A few of the captain’s men fell in behind.
“Remember.” Garbol held up two fingers together. “Speak with a parent’s authority to a child, and no matter what happens, do not… do not… do not mention that I’m a wizard.”
Galt nodded. “I’ll handle it.”
“Thank you, captain, but Ranger McGrew is better suited for this.”
Dan flinched and shook his head. “M-me?”
Garbol placed a hand on his shoulder. “You’ve got the demeanor I think he’ll respond to. Just take charge, show no fear, and get him to stop pounding and talk to us.” Garbol waved him into the entrance. “I’m right behind you.”
The thumps continued.
Dan grabbed an electric lantern, turned it on, and ducked inside. The cavern narrowed so he had to squat into a duck walk for a few feet, but it then opened up so he could stand just short of upright. He crouched and looked back.
Garbol looked toward the entrance with his hand up. “You can come captain, but three is enough. Leave your men behind.” He turned toward Dan, then turned back. “And leave your guns. They’re worthless here.”
Galt nodded at his guys and they turned around as Garbol shimmied through the narrow point and straightened out next to the park ranger. Every thump boxed Dan’s ears.
“Shouldn’t be too far,” said Garbol.
They rounded a bend into a chamber where a large pillar with arms but no legs bent over and smashed his head against the bedrock sending shockwaves through the cave floor and booming into Dan’s head, rattling his teeth. He set down the lantern. Garbol’s hand gripped Dan’s shoulder and guided him forward.
The pillar slowly unbent his body, no features of a face on his head, and straightened up, then let himself drop again, bending over and beating his head on the ground. Garbol’s hand tightened, his voice calm and deliberate. “Tell him to stop.”
Dan took a deep breath and straightened his back. “Broog! You need to stop beating your head on the floor.”
The broog lifted and let fall again.
Dan took a step forward. “Broog. Listen to me. Stop beating your head this instant.”
The broog lifted and turned slightly toward them.
“I mean it, broog. That is inappropriate behavior. No more bashing your head, understand?”
The pillar rocked imperceptibly.
“You’re doing fine,” whispered Garbol.
A groan like the hull of a ship buckling echoed through the cave. The broog raised a stone hand to his featureless face, and a small fissure crumbled open. “I don’t want to stop.” The voice was part whisper, part whistle, and part gears grinding that made Dan visualize his own skull cracking at the forehead.
The ranger’s voice wavered, but he put force behind it. “It doesn’t matter what you want, young ma… young broog. It’s not allowed. Now be a good broog and stay quiet.”
“Because that’s how broogs are supposed to act,” said Dan.
Dan had been down this road with kids before. “Because I said so, and that’s enough of a reason.”
“Crap,” whispered Garbol. “Should have played that out as long as you could.”
“Why?” asked the broog.
Dan shook his finger at the pillar. “Don’t argue with me. Be a good broog and stay still.”
“Aren’t you listening to me?” whispered Garbol. “String him along.”
Dan turned toward the wizard and hissed through his teeth. “If I’m going to stay ‘parental assertive,’ I’m going to have to speak my mind, not play games. So back off.”
Garbol raised his palm and bowed his head, then took a step back.
The broog teetered like a grazed bowling pin. “I don’t want to stay still.” He bent at the middle and started to drop.
“I said stop it!” Dan set his feet, arms akimbo. “Do not do that again, or else!”
Garbol sucked air through his teeth.
The pillar straightened. “Or else what?”
“Or else…” Dan stammered. “Or else everyone will know you’re a bad broog.”
The broog wobbled. “I’m not a bad broog.” His wobbling slowed. “You’re a bad broog.” The pillar swept his arm toward Dan.
Time slowed as the crushing blow approached him, but an invisible net yanked the ranger out of the way of the stone hand. As he slowed and came to rest on his feet at the back of the cavern, the tip of the wizard’s cue stick pointed at him, shining like Rudolf’s nose, then went dark as the invisible net pulled away.
The broog held perfectly still, then wagged his head with a trumpeting roar. He rocked forward and lifted a fist over the wizard. Garbol leapt to the side as it smashed the floor where he’d stood. From the floor, the wizard sat up and twirled his pool stick, a double stream flowed out of its tip, one blue, one gold.
The streaks curled and flicked, reaching out toward the pillar. They wrapped around the arms of the broog. The broog thrashed and wobbled toward the wizard, who rolled away as the monster punched, chipping the wall behind where he’d sat. The blue and gold threads rolled up with the wizard and tangled up in his arms and legs. The broog rocked and twisted toward the wizard and reached for him.
Dan jumped and waved his arms. “Broog!”
The broog turned and huffed. As he reached for the wizard again, gunfire echoed through the cavern. Galt aimed a forty-five H&K at the pillar and emptied his ten rounds. The broog made a grinding quack, leaned at an impossible angle and flicked his hand, crashing into Galt’s upper body and propelling him to the back of the cavern where he collided with the wall and slumped to the ground.
“No, broog. Please!”
Garbol struggled to untangle.
The pillar wobbled back up, and when he regained his equilibrium, he bent over and grabbed the wizard with both hands, picking him up. The wizard muttered inaudibly and glowed in brilliant blue and gold. The broog squeezed and the wizard screamed, the light fluctuating bright and dim.
Ranger Dan ran in front of the pillar, pointed his finger at his head and roared. “Broog. Put down that wizard right now! I am so disappointed in you. I can’t believe you would behave this way. You should be ashamed of yourself. Put him down.”
The broog held still. The light around Garbol brightened and the wizard sucked in a deep breath.
Dan took another step and glared at the featureless head. “You heard me. Put him down right this moment.”
The broog’s voice crumbled. “But he’s a wizard.”
“Put him down and say you’re sorry.” Dan stared and pointed, immovable as stone.
The broog lowered Garbol to the floor, still clutching him.
“Let him go.”
Galt groaned from the back wall.
“Right now, broog. Let him go and say you’re sorry.”
The broog wobbled. “You’re holding me in a spell.”
“It’s no spell,” said Dan. “Let him go.”
“Are you a wizard, too? You can’t hold me forever.” He lifted Garbol again and squeezed.
Garbol erupted with a raspy laugh. “He doesn’t have to hold you forever.” He coughed and gasped. “Only just long enough.”
Dan couldn’t help himself. “Long enough for what?”
“Long enough to prevent his thumping and allow the nymphs to come back.”
Knobby green figures and a few brown came into the cavern, first a few, a tone coming out of their mouths, then many more, all of them calling out the same sound like a chorus of flutes holding a note.
The broog’s arms fell, letting the wizard flop to the ground. Garbol yelped and groaned.
The nymphs surrounded the broog, who rocked lightly and worked his way deeper into the cave.
Dan knelt next to the wizard. “Are you okay?”
“No. But I’ll live. Help me up.”
Dan wrapped his arm around Garbol’s shoulders and helped him up.
The wizard gritted his teeth and grunted. “We’ve got to check on Galt.”
“I’m good,” said Galt. He sidled between some nymphs and grabbed Garbol’s arm to wrap it around his neck and support him for the walk out.
They dragged him by his armpits through the narrow part and let him rest on the ground outside.
“What now?” asked Ranger Dan.
“Now everybody heals,” said Garbol. “Including the forest.”
“What about the tree nymphs?” asked Galt.
“They’ll settle down,” said Garbol. “There might be a few skirmishes yet, and it may take a week or two, but they’ve recovered the territory the broog drove them out of. They’ll adjust and go back to sleep.”
“I’m posting a new rule,” said Dan. “No rap music in the national park.”
“You needed something like this to prohibit rap?” asked Galt.
Garbol chuckled, then winced and grabbed his ribs. “Ooh. Please don’t make me laugh.”