By Julia Skinner
Markus bounced on his heels as he waited in the line leading into the Cursed Gardens. Past the black metal fence, maze-like rows of statues rose in a cacophony of heroism and doom.
“Hey.” Markus tapped the shoulder of the hulking man in front of him. “You see that wyvern over there? With the wings all spread out?” Markus pointed. “That’s Cringefold the Burnt. Lore says he’s named for the terrible jokes he’d tell victims before burning them to a crisp!”
The man scowled.
Shut up! Markus mentally yelled. Stop talking. “Oh!” his mouth rambled on. “And that bulbous creature beside him helped in the battle of—”
“Kid,” the man snapped, “I one hundred percent do not care.”
Markus bit his tongue, then sighed. How could someone come to the Cursed Gardens—a place packed with ancient statues of creatures long passed—and not be interested in the myths behind them?
The line slowly edged forward, and Markus felt ready to burst. The heroes and villains his grandfather had told him about were right there! He’d spent three years delivering pizzas to save up for a ticket. Couldn’t they just hurry!?
Markus took a breath, trying to calm his jittering body. He needed to be patient. Like that quote from his favorite lore piece, The Forgotten Princess: “She awaits the day her True Love will take her hand and free her from the stone. For to those who wait, comes the life they always dreamed.” It was the first story his grandfather had told him, and the Cursed Gardens held her original statue!
He turned to the woman behind him to tell her about it, but she quickly flicked on her phone.
Markus bit his tongue. One day I’ll make myself worth listening to. Worth caring about.
But man, it was hard to even find a job. If only he could ask one of the statues in the garden. They could tell him what to do to be important. To be legendary.
The line finally shuffled forward. With a whoop, Markus shot through the gateway into the awesome maze of statues. Straight before him stood an elegant figure. Her stone hair flared out like gray flames. A green-painted ballgown billowed around her, as if the carvers had captured her mid-twirl.
“The Forgotten Princess!” The statue was better than he’d imagined. She looked real—a princess frozen in time, waiting for her true love to set her free. Maybe some pixie, jealous of her beauty, turned her into stone. Hers was a tragic, bitter-sweet, incomplete tale. And inspiration for the garden’s most beloved tradition.
A gaggle of teens posed beside the Princess, one standing back to photograph them holding her stone hand. When they moved off, Markus flipped his phone camera on and angled it at himself. Grinning, he grabbed the statue’s outstretched hand and snapped a picture. With a very human gasp, the statue crumpled and collapsed on top of him.
He yelped, lost his balance, and hit the ground.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
What the— He struggled upright. A girl sat next to him, the world’s biggest scowl planted on her face.
She glared at him. “You are the guy who freed me?”
“What?” Markus scrunched his forehead and glanced at the empty pedestal. “Wait… you… you’re…”
“Yes! I was the statue. Now shut up.” She stood, wincing.
“Whoa.” That was… this is… how? “Wait! That means—”
“No!” she snapped. “You are not my True Love or whatever nonsense they told you. I don’t know why you freed me. I don’t know anything right now, so don’t ask.”
Markus cocked his head. Now that she was alive, she no longer looked like a tragic princess. Her hair was tangled wildly, her green dress torn. She glared at the other statues as if they’d personally offended her.
“How are you, um… alive?”
The Forgotten Princess folded her arms. “All the statues here are alive, they’re just cursed. Idiot.”
He stared at her for a silent, frozen moment. Then a flood of questions tumbled through his mind. “It was the pixies, wasn’t it! Right? They cursed you. Obviously it—”
“I killed someone,” she said.
Markus paused. “You… what? That’s not in the lore.”
“You shouldn’t trust everything you read.” She jerked her hand toward where Cringefold reared up, wings outstretched. “For example, ole Cringy was a loser. Harmless. Smelled gross. Told the wrong joke to the wrong guy.”
Oh… Markus frowned. The girl rolled her eyes and started toward the garden entrance.
“Wait!” He scrambled after her.
“Look, I’m going to try to find someone with magic who can fully break my curse.” She waved him away.
“Oh! I can help—”
“No. No way. Goodbye.” The girl vanished out the gate.
Markus bit his tongue. He’d just awoken a legend! He couldn’t lose this chance. Raising his chin, Markus slipped through the entrance. Across the way, a statue of a girl posed mid-step.
Ignoring the gawking people, he jogged across the street. What happened? She’s… stone? Again? He hesitated a moment, then took the princess’s hand.
The gray arm paled, softening to a freckled tan. She took a faltering step forward, then glared at him.
He dropped her hand. “Sorry.”
“Bother.” Crossing her arms, she glanced from the Cursed Gardens to him. “Apparently my curse is a Tether spell; I can’t go too far away from you. Unfortunately.”
“Yes!” Markus pumped a fist into the air. This was it! Someone actually needed him, and maybe she could teach him—
“We are not soul mates, or whatever.”
Markus paused. “Agreed.”
“Fine then.” The statue girl huffed and held out her hand. “You help me track down the magic I need to break my spell, and I’ll—”
“Teach me how to become a legend?”
“Sure.” She rolled her eyes. “I’ll teach you how to be unforgettable or heroic or whatever ‘legend’ means to you. Now do we have a deal?”
Markus grinned and grabbed her hand. “Deal!”