by James Schall

Laughter rang through the forest as the three men entered the clearing, their spirits as full as the sacks they carried on their backs. The oldest of the three, his scraggly beard white beard in severe need of grooming, tossed away his hand axe, much more interested with the contents of the bag that he dropped over his shoulder. The other two men caught up and set down a large wooden chest. The youngest of the three, small yet powerfully built, stretched his back after setting down the corner of the trunk.

I don’t see why we always have to carry the heaviest of the load,” he said in mock anger towards the old man.

A snort came through the white beard. “You complain too much Garrett. Do you have any idea how much coin we just made by robbing that wagon?” The old man’s tone remained mirthful as he placed a tantalizingly small wooden box on a tree stump. He set to work prying it open, and a wicked smile quickly crossed his face as he held a golden necklace up to the sunlight.

Sitting cross-legged on the ground, Garrett fumbled at the opening of his heavy satchel. “Just because we had a good haul doesn’t mean I can’t complain, Eric,” he said, abruptly turning the sack upside down and letting its less sparkly contents spew onto the ground. He began to noisily sift through this collection of well made metal tools as he turned to the last member of the trio. “Don’t you think the old man should help more David?”

David, much larger in height and bulk than his fellows, was busy sifting through the large wooden chest as his fellow thieves argued. He was too enthralled in his task to give the banter much mind. “You both talk too much,” was his terse reply.

Tools, jewelry, fine clothing, and even strange pieces of art dotted the clearing as they emptied their containers. The three men took their time going through their stolen goods, imagining how they’d spend their spoils, until they finally laid back, content.

You would think these merchants would stop sending wagons this way if we keep robbing them,” David said, cracking his knuckles and stretching in the grass.

You mean to tell me you want to have to spend time looking for targets again?” Garrett asked.

The big man shook his head. “No, not at all. It just makes no sense. It’s like they want to be robbed.”

Eric laughed. “I think the locals are too stupid to know what is really happening. They are more worried about Monster attacks than us. They have no idea there haven’t been any Monsters in these woods for years.”

From the edge of the clearing a feminine voice with a strange accent rang out with an unexpected reply, “No, is you who is stupid.”

The three men all jumped at the sudden sound, scrambling to grab the hatchets they had previously tossed away as their attention had been taken up with far more seductive items. A figure dressed in dark and heavy fur clothing was etched in shadows at the edge of the clearing, scarcely visible but for the glint of exotic metalwork chains hanging around her neck. As she moved into the light the thieves could see the tail of her braided black hair hung limply over her right shoulder, and also how small, young, and seemingly unarmed the girl was.

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Despite this, she stared fiercely at the three thieves, poised like she was ready to pounce.

Garrett grimaced as he shouted over to the stranger, “You have a lot of nerve to approach three armed men, girl.”

She tilted her head to the side, seemingly unafraid. “Illya thinks is you who has nerve to steal from same people over and over. Or maybe is not nerve; is stupidity,” she replied in accented but clear, unwavering tones.

Garrett, shut the girl up. We can’t afford to leave a witness. David, help me pack up. We need to leave,” Eric ordered as he picked up one piece of art from the ground, a stone mask with a large ruby set in the forehead.

You hear that, girl? I hope you’ve enjoyed your life because it is about to come to an end,” Garrett tightened the grip on his hatchet and grinned maliciously at her.

The girl was unfazed by this development, allowing a single, condescending sigh in respone. “Illya has quite enjoyed her life, because she has had chance to make many friends. Perhaps you would like to meet one of Illya’s friends?” She smiled broadly, extending her hand and snapping her fingers.

Eric’s pained cries echoed through the forest as a gout of fire erupted from the mask he carried, burning his hand and setting his beard ablaze. While he tried to throw it away, the stone façade took on a mind of its own. It hung in the air, a low growl echoing from its lifeless mouth, and a cruel glimmer twinkling from within its eye sockets.

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Garrett and David jumped back, the mysterious young girl momentarily forgotten as they turned to their comrade. David rushed to Eric’s side, standing protectively over him and helping him pat out the flames. “What is that thing?” he asked as he pointed his axe at the Monster.

The mask stopped growling as it hovered towards the stranger, leaving all three men with mouth agape as it came to rest in front of her. She smiled as she reached out and ran her hand over the stone surface, as if petting a cat. “Is called Steinmaske, and is Illya’s partner. You no have this type of Monster here?”

The strange Monster hummed rhythmically at her touch, the pin starlight of its eyes never leaving any of the three men. Illya’s gaze studied each of them as they backed away from the her. “Illya has been watching you for days; you are nothing special. You say you no have Monsters in this forest? You have worse. You have Illya. You have stolen for last time… Illya knows this.”

Garret took a hesitant step forward, focused intently on the floating mask. “That little trick may have surprised us once, but you will need more than a piece of rock to save yourself from us.”

The stranger’s lips parted and to reveal a hint of a grin. “Illya knows this too.”

A loud roar echoed through the forest followed by a crashing sound at the exact opposite end of the clearing. The three men turned to look at a gigantic creature, a grizzly seemingly made of flesh, earth, and solid stone, advanced into the clearing. It roared again to announce its arrival, followed only by the sound of birds flying away in terror.

Eric and David retreated closer to Garrett, keeping their gaze fixed on the giant Monster that was slowly making its way into the clearing. Panic gripped all three men, each unsure of what to do against such a foe. The tension only heightened as Illya laughed again, finding some twisted amusement in the whole situation.

You wonder how Illya gets Monster like that to sneak up on you, yes? Maybe Illya will show you how,” she slipped a finger under the neckline of her fur cloak, fishing through the chains around her neck to grasp a long necklace with three large crystals attached. While all three of these gems reflected the noon sun brightly, the center crystal seemed to begin glowing and giving off a soft blue light. “Now you will see power of Monster binder, now you will see power of drajules.” She took a deep breath, focusing herself as the center crystal of her necklace burst into bright light, “Wombatant, Illya calls you!”

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A brightness engulfed the crystal and quickly erupted around the young girl, each of the bandits shielding their eyes from its radiance. As their vision returned, a third Monster stood in the clearing; a squat and furry thing standing on its hind legs, resting a crude sword over its shoulder. It growled threateningly at the three men as it bounded to their side, blocking a third escape route.

When you rob locals, they look for solution. They find Illya and ask for help. Now, you will face punishment for crimes.” She took a step to the side, giving her Steinmaske room to maneuver, “Friends, is time for justice. Is time for bandits to have their fortune.”

The sounds of three men yelling and running for their lives filled the forest that day, as did the sounds of Illya’s Monsters. No one knows exactly what happened to the thieves, but their story of the foreign girl and her companions quickly spread. The whispers of those that could control Monsters would not be so hushed in the future.

Life had certainly gotten more interesting.