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Zed and I stood, facing the forest. “Are you sure, Zed?” I asked, turning to him.

His blue eyes flashed as he glanced back at me. “You don’t have to come with me, Reina,” he growled. “But I’m doing this. I will prove to Hans that I’m not a coward.” At that point, I knew it was best not to argue. Zed is my best friend, and he can be very stubborn, but even I didn’t know that his feelings would extend so far, far enough that we were in danger. I should have known it would come to this, when this morning Hans, the butcher’s son, made fun of Zed in front of all of our neighbors. After that Zed swore that he would prove his bravery to all.

Zed began to march toward the thick Yeron Forest. I sighed, straightened the laces on my long blue dress, and followed. “You do have your sword, don’t you?” I called. Zed nodded, distracted by trying to find a way past the wall of trees that bordered Yeron Forest.

Ever since I was little, Mama told me stories of the forest. “Don’t ever go into the Yeron Forest, Reina,” she would tell me. “Dangerous things lurk there. Remember when the baker’s boy went missing, two or three years ago? Vanished. Right into the forest. Lady Ira’s maid saw him go.”

That scared me off from the forest. Rilk, the baker’s boy, was a friend of mine, and I didn’t want the same fate as him. It had scared me off, until today at least. Much as I feared what lurked in the forest, I feared losing Zed more. Therefore, I decided to accompany him.

The Shape Stealers talking in the forest
“I’ve heard there are more terrible monsters, ones that can take the form of any human”

To some it might seem a foolish choice, but to me it was the only choice. I had known Zed since we were two: I would not abandon him now.

When I reached Zed, he was hacking at the unyielding trees with his sword, a present from my father, the blacksmith of our village. The knights of the royal court often had Father make their swords.

Without a sword of my own, I began yanking at different branches, seeing if I could make a hole big enough to fit through. But at my touch, the branches parted! I gasped.

“Zed! Here’s a hole!” I thought it wise not to mention to Zed what the branches had done. Zed hurried to me.

“I could swear I looked there,” he said.

Then he squeezed through the hole. I followed, and my dress ripped on the twigs, leaving a piece of rough dyed fabric flapping in the breeze like a flag. After checking to make sure that you could not see my petticoat peeking through, I followed after Zed.

The forest was dark inside—very dark. No light shone through the thick canopy of twisting, leafless branches. The ground was hard and cold, and very little grass grew. And it was cold, oh so cold. Immediately I drew my wool shawl tighter around my shoulders.

“Zed, do you know where we’re going?”

He shook his head. “Reina, you know we just have to stay in the forest until sunset. Then I’ll show Hans.”

I sighed, settled on the hard ground, and took out a lantern from my pack. I lit it, and its warm beam of light lit up the trees. Then I took out a small loaf of bread from my pack. Mama knew I would be with Zed all day, and so she packed me some food. Guilt tightened in my stomach as I thought that I hadn’t told Mama where we were going specifically. I ripped off a chunk and held it out to Zed. “Bread?” I asked.

Zed looked at me incredulously. “What’re you doing, Reina?” I stared back at him. “If we’re staying right here all day, we might as well get comfortable,” I replied.

Zed shook his head. “We’re not staying here. We have to get as deep in the forest as we can get. I told Marya to tell Father where we were when we were gone for an hour. It’s been about that, and father will come after us. No, we must go deeper.” Marya was Zed’s sister.

I sighed and began packing up my lunch. “Can I at least carry the lantern?” I asked. Zed nodded, and I could see, although he’d never say so, that he, too, was nervous in this forest.

I stood, brushed off my skirts, and said, “Which way?”

Zed rotated, looking at all of the possibilities. He pointed left. “That way.”

As we walked, I told Zed repeatedly how foolish we were. “You know, there are supposed to be wolves and dragons in these woods,” I said, “and I’ve heard that there are fairies and goblins too.”

Zed nodded and glanced around. “I’ve heard there are more terrible monsters, ones that can take the form of any human. They know a few things about the person that they’re imitating, but not everything. They are called Shape Stealers.”

I started to laugh, then realized he was serious.

“So, if we see each other after being separated while in the woods, we should each ask the other a question only we can know the answer to,” Zed continued.

“What will you ask me?” I asked.

Zed thought for a moment. “I would ask you what we did together last month.”

I chuckled. “Smeared honey on Aunt Rina’s chickens and then on the shedded fur of Olo {Olo was my dog}, and Aunt Rina thought she had wild beasts instead of chickens in her coop!”

Zed grinned. “Correct. What would you ask me?”

I thought about all of the great times we’d had together. “I’d ask you what I wanted to be when I was older.”

We walked and laughed together, and for those moments, the forest’s gloomy hold on us lessened.

Suddenly, we heard noises coming from the forest all around us. We clutched each other. I held the lantern high and shone it around us in a wide arch. I saw eyes. “Zed!” I screamed. “Run! Climb a tree!” Without thinking, we ran, panicked, in opposite directions! I scrambled up a tree and sat there, breathless. I heard howls, and a scream! “Oh, please, don’t let it be Zed!” I wailed.

I sat, shivering, against the trunk of the tree, listening. I pulled my shawl tighter to me. Suddenly, everything was quiet. Tentatively, I climbed down the branches of my tree.

“Zed?” I called softly. “Are you there?” No one answered.

“Zed! Oh, I knew it was a bad idea coming here!” Suddenly, I heard a voice behind me.

“Yes, I know that now.”

“Zed!” I turned, and flew to him. “I thought you’d been eaten!” He cringed, and I saw that he was bleeding from his leg.

I took charge. “Sit,” I said sternly, and ripped a strip from the bottom of my gown. I wrapped it around Zed’s leg and looked around for something to tie it with. There was nothing; no vine or bendy twig, my gown didn’t even have loose threads. With a sigh, I grasped Zed’s sword and sliced off my long brown braid. I unbraided it and re-braided three thin braids. I tied these around the bandage.

Zed gasped. “Reina! Your hair!”

I brushed the short brown locks behind my ear. “It’s nothing. It’ll grow back.”

I stood and said, “Come, Zed. We have to find a way out of here.”

“I don’t think we can, Reina,” Zed snapped. “As you see, I’m bleeding from my leg, and we’re completely lost. No, we’re staying here.”

The Shape Stealers light lantern

I blanched. Zed had never spoken to me like that before. While he snapped at others, he always treated me kindly. “Zed?” I whispered.

He turned his back. As he did so, a thought struck me. “Um… Zed? Can I ask you a question?”

Zed frowned. “If you must.”

“What do I want to be when I grow up?”

He turned to me. “Does it matter?”

I nodded.

“How should I know what you want to be?” Zed replied.

I stood, and backed away from him. “You’re not Zed,” I said. “I don’t know who you are, but you’re not Zed. He told me about you. You- you’re one of those creatures! A Shape Stealer! You took the form of Zed! Get away from me!”

The Zed-thing stood and walked toward me. “Reina,” he said, voice honey smooth, “I’m Zed. You know that. How could you think that I’m not?” For an instant, I believed him. I wanted to go to him. But then I turned, and ran.

I ran as fast as I could. Branches scraped my face and dress, but I ran on. Finally, I stumbled. Covered in mud, I rose. I began to cry. “Zed! Zed, where are you?” I wailed. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. I stood up and whirled around. It was Zed. But it couldn’t be. It was another trick. “Stay away from me!” I cried.

The boy stopped. “Reina?” he said, confused.

I shook my head. “No.” The boy frowned. It came to me that I should ask him a question. “Zed, ask me my question.”

The boy smiled. “What question?”

And I ran. Back through the woods, and out of the woods, and through the gap in the trees and away. I ran to my home in our small village and buried my face in my mother’s lap. “Mama!” I wailed, “I left Zed in the forest!” Mama frowned, and lifted my face so that I looked at her.

“But Zed has been here in the village all day,” she said.

The Shape Stealers Emory MacLaughlin
Emory MacLaughlin, 13
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Shape Stealers Amelia Jiang
Amelia Jiang, 13
Calgary, Alberta, Canada