There was once a perfect garden, where nobody died. When a berry swelled to ripeness and dropped to the ground, a new berry bloomed in its place, of equal weight and sweetness. This vast garden surrounded a city built of gleaming alabaster. The wall that encircled the garden was constructed from the same material. It stretched higher than the fruit trees, higher than the highest look-out point of the city. It had been a very long time since anyone had seen outside the wall.
The beauty of this perfect city was matched only by its stillness. Almost a century had passed since the last child had been born there. Thus, the celebrations were great when the queen at last gave birth. Her son was perfectly formed, rosy and healthy. He grew into a bright-eyed and sunny boy, romping ceaselessly around the gardens in the shadow of the high wall. Where he stepped, the grass grew even greener; when he sang his joyful nonsense songs, the fruit tasted even sweeter. They named him the Crystal Prince, and he was content.
The Crystal Prince had passed sixteen sun cycles when the new thing happened. He stepped into the garden to find a creature there he didn't recognize. Its face was lean and ravenous, the skin stretched tight over the bones, and dark, ragged hair covered its body.
"Hello," said the Crystal Prince, in a voice like wind chimes meeting. "What are you?"
At the sound of his voice it spun around, its hands extended. The creature had strange hands—three fingers instead of five, red instead of pink, pointed instead of rounded. He waited patiently, wondering if it knew how to speak.
"Hello," it said finally, in a cracked, raspy voice. "You don't seem to have much fear of strangers."
Strangers. The Crystal Prince had never heard that word. He angled his head like a bird as he considered it.
"Is that your name?" he asked. "Strangers?"
Strangers let out a hoarse laugh. "Call me what you want."
"Where do you come from?" asked the Crystal Prince, stepping closer. For, understand, he had never met anyone new in his entire life.
"From the Ash Lands," it said. "Outside your walls."
"Outside," he repeated, breathless. "I didn't know anything lived outside."
He followed the creature through the garden, watching it pluck berries and stuff them down its gullet. After a while he noticed something troubling. Where Strangers plucked a berry, no new berry grew in its place. The tip of the branch remained brown and barren.
"Are you cursed?" he asked the creature.
It swallowed noisily and stared at him. "Cursed?"
The Crystal Prince gently separated a berry from its stem, relieved when the stem instantly flowered and swelled into a new fruit.
"This is how it works."
"Not where I'm from," said Strangers. "So I suppose you could say all of us outside the walls are cursed."
The Crystal Prince pondered this as he watched Strangers eat. "If everyone is like that, wouldn't you run out of fruit?" he asked at last.
Strangers tipped back its head and laughed uproariously. "Why do you think I'm here?"
"Oh," said the Crystal Prince.
At last, Strangers appeared to be satiated. It stretched out lazily on the grass for some time and then said sharply, "I don't suppose you know where they've hidden the Heart of Life."
"The Heart of Life?" repeated the Crystal Prince. "I'm sorry, I don't know what that is." He hesitated. "Are there many like you outside?"
"Many? I don't know. How many are there in your walls?"
It was a good question. The Crystal Prince settled down on the grass and tipped back his head, closing his eyes as he counted.
"One hundred and forty four," he said at last, smiling. Counting was a pleasant way to pass the time.
He opened his eyes to find Strangers staring at him with disquieting turquoise eyes. It plunged a hand into the ground and came up with a handful of dirt.
"How many grains of soil are here?" it asked. When the Crystal Prince came closer to begin counting, it brought up a second handful of dirt and said, "How about here?" Strangers tossed both handfuls in the air, coating them with a dusting of rich, brown dirt. "Now how about in your whole garden? That's how many of us there are outside."
"You must have a big garden," said the Crystal Prince in wonder.
Strangers began to laugh again, a hoarse, jerky laugh. "You must have very little sense," it answered mockingly. After that, it curled itself up and wouldn't say another word. Eventually, the Crystal Prince grew bored and left the garden. He found his mother in the upper tower and asked her about there being people on the outside. But she shook her head.
"That's just a story, my crystal prince. Nothing can survive outside these walls."
He met Strangers again a few days later, skulking in one of the corridors.
"Mother said—" he began, but Strangers hushed him.
"Can't you see I'm busy?" it hissed. "If you don't hinder me, I'll tell you a story later."
That seemed like a fair bargain, so the Crystal Prince nodded his head and went in search of other play. Later that evening, when the moon was high, he spotted Strangers in the garden and rushed down.
Strangers lay splayed out on its back, staring at the moon.
"Hi," said the Crystal Prince. And when Strangers didn't answer, he poked it in the side and said, "You promised me a story."
Strangers scowled. "Here's your story," it said darkly. "They say this land was once blessed with life. Rain fell with regularity, plants sprang up, and the people flourished. But one tribe managed to capture the blessing of life for themselves. Inside their perfect garden there was no want. But outside of that garden the world shrivelled and died."
The Crystal Prince shivered under Stranger's gaze.
"Do you know what it's like, out there? The soil is dry and lifeless. The few plants that grow produce only bitter fruit. We live and die by claw and tooth, because there is only enough for the strong to survive. Can you imagine that?"
"What is a claw?" asked the Crystal Prince.
Instantly, something sharp and hard-edged pressed into his neck. He went still.
"Your people did this to us," Strangers hissed. "What's there to stop me from killing you here and now?"
He didn't know that word either. But it had a heaviness to it, an ugliness, like the barren stem of a fruit tree.
"I can sing you a song," he offered in a meek voice.
It was hard to sing well with the sharp hard thing pressed to his throat, but he tried his best. The song he sang was one he'd made himself about how the swell of the fruit was like the waxing moon. He wondered in the song if beauty came from the ground or from the sky. Or whether beauty came only when the two embraced.
When he had finished, there was a long silence. The claw withdrew from his neck.
"Killing you, even all of you, won't change anything," Strangers mumbled. "I've got to take back the Heart of Life. That's what the Seer said."
The Crystal Prince could see water glistening on its face, like the silvery dew that clung to the trees in the early morning. Strangers was beautiful, the Crystal Prince realized, just like the fruit and the moon. But he kept that thought to himself.
Rumor began to spread through the city that a dark ghoul had been glimpsed skulking in the bedrooms and corridors. Mother told the Crystal Prince that he must be very careful and not let the ghoul get close to him. And whatever you do, don't let it touch your heart, Mother warned, her face drawn tight with worry.
Strangers wasn't happy either.
"I've searched every inch of this place," Strangers complained when they next met in the garden. "And I've found nothing! Not even a trace of the Heart of Life. Are you sure you don't know where they keep it?"
The Crystal Prince was sorry he didn't know, so he sang Strangers another song. He thought that Strangers liked his songs. Its eyes would dip half-shut and it would sway from side to side like a fruit tree in the wind. He thought it would be nice to make a song about Strangers, but when he tried his voice became like a barren stem and, for the first time in his life, no words came out.
"What does your Heart of Life look like?" he asked Strangers another day, as it sat sullenly, etching jagged lines into the tree bark. "Maybe I can help you find it."
Strangers was silent for some time.
"I don't know," it said. "All the Seer could say was that I'd be drawn to it. But there's nothing I like in this place! Except for the fruit, obviously. And you," Strangers added after a begrudging pause.
The Crystal Prince smiled. As he looked at Strangers, he found the courage to ask the thing he'd been wondering since it first arrived.
"Could you show me what's outside the garden?"
Strangers' eyes shot open. "Outside? Why would you want to see that? I've told you—everything here that's beauty is ugliness out there."
"It can't all be ugly," said the Crystal Prince, "because it made you."
Strangers said nothing for a very long time. Then it stood and said, "Follow me."
The Crystal Prince followed Strangers through the endless rows of trees. After several hours, they neared the base of the alabaster walls. The Crystal Prince had never come so far before. This close to the wall, the shade was deep and cool. Strangers pushed aside a bush to reveal a hole in the base of the wall. The alabaster there was black and corroded.
"Through here," said Strangers.
When the Crystal Prince emerged, he saw a vast, lifeless plain. There weren't any trees in sight, nor even any colors except for the brown and black of the earth and rocks. The ground beneath his feet was hard-packed and barren.
But when he stepped forward, a curious thing happened. The soil shifted under his feet, becoming dark and loose. Before his eyes, a sprout peeked its head up from the dirt, its green brighter than any gem. The Crystal Prince bent down with a smile to examine the sprout. He watched its roots spread out hungrily into the new soil.
"It's you." He looked up to find Strangers staring at him, its turquoise eyes gone wide. "All this time, it's been inside you."
What's inside me? he meant to ask, but the words had no time to leave his mouth.
Strangers said, "I'm sorry."
And that was the last thing he heard before the world went dark.
The Crystal Prince woke to a high, painful buzzing in his head. His body felt sore all over. When he tried to shift, he realized his hands and legs were bound together by coarse vines. He was somewhere dark and cold. Smoke wafted in from outside.
When they dragged him out of the cave, it took a moment for his eyes to adjust. He was encircled by creatures of all shapes and sizes. Some had claws like Strangers; others had wings. What they shared was a lean, hungry look. He found Strangers standing off to the side.
The Crystal Prince tried to call out, but something foul was shoved into his mouth.
"Long ago." The speaker was hard to make out through the growing smoke. Her voice was deep and gnarled. "Long ago, all beings lived and died together. But one clan was not satisfied with this existence. They poured their time into star-gazing, mathematics, the makings of beauty. Through their art, they so impressed the Great Life-Giver, that she granted them a wonderful boon. She offered them her heart."
Hisses filled the air. The smoke was thickening, making the Crystal Prince cough.
"She offered them her heart. Did she know the fate she consigned us to with this gesture? For that clan took her heart into themselves and kept it from us. Life drained from the world outside their walls. We were abandoned to this ugly place of stone and claw, to struggle on in darkness, unhelped, unheeded.
"At long last, a gift was born to us. A child blessed with the Ender's mark. She surmounted those taunting walls and has brought us the Heart of Life. All that remains now is for us to take back what was stolen."
The Crystal Prince was led to the edge of a vast pyre. The flames licked out, making him flinch back, only to be shoved forward again. He understood, then, that they meant to feed him to the fire.
"Let me," he heard a voice say. When he blinked, Strangers was there, solemn and blank-faced. She pulled the foul-tasting fungus from his mouth and said, "Please sing."
This time, the Crystal Prince sang about life and death. He sang about the sprout that had grown for him outside the walls. He wondered what it meant for a living thing to end.
His song faltered as he looked into Strangers' face. If this was his time for ending, he was glad that he had met Strangers first. As he thought that, the song changed. Now he sang of Strangers, of her hard claws and bright eyes, and the beauty she had brought into his garden. The words he had never found before bloomed like a full orchard in his voice.
Strangers stared at him, blinking rapidly. She extended her claw slowly and laid it over his heart.
And that was when the second curious thing happened. As they embraced, the Crystal Prince's mouth dropped open and pure white light ran out. Strangers' skin flashed red and a stream of darkness gushed forth from her mouth. Their mortal shells collapsed to the ground, and the beams of energy spiraled around each other, as if contemplating an embrace. It seemed to the people below that the darkness had wings and the light a spreading crown.
When the two beams met, there was a flash, and then a sound that has no description. But you can think of it as the sound a seedling makes, splitting open beneath the earth. In the distance, there was a loud crack, as the alabaster walls of the eternal city began to crumble. And around that once-perfect garden, the lifeless earth grew at once dotted with bursts of fledgling green.
That is the story of how the heart of Xerneas, Life-Giver, was taken from us and selfishly guarded. And of how the avatar of Yveltal restored balance to the world.
Do not fear the dark-spreading wings of Yveltal. Each living thing has an end, and to extend that cycle beyond its limit is to bring ruin upon us all. Without Yveltal, we would not be gathered here today, with full bellies and wondering minds. We would still be consigned to gaze jealously upon the alabaster walls of that perfect garden.
When I was young, this story seemed to me one of love. Later, I thought it a story of revolution. I see some of you nodding your heads. Perhaps you still see alabaster walls in the distance and wonder what wrongs must be set right to bring them down. But in my dotage now, I have come to think about beauty. There is beauty in beginnings, in children and in sprouts, but the Crystal Prince learned that there is also beauty in endings.
And with that, I too must bring this story to its end . . .
a/n: This story was written for the Thousand Roads myth and legend contest, and won third place.