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Recently, a new threat appeared in the World of Twelve. Off the coast of Pandala, in the northeastern part of Nolifis Island… That's where they work… there in the shadows. Or more precisely, in the mist… People say that no one returns from their lair unscathed. That those who venture in are… transformed. For some, that's a good enough reason to stay far away. For others, it's a powerful argument for going straight in to meet them…

Stretched taut over the drums, the piglet skins boomed under the rhythmic blows of the clubs, sounding out a primordial and almost hypnotic beat. The stone behemoths gathered in a circle and performed an impeccably choreographed dance. It seemed like a shamanic ritual of some kind, or even a sacrifice.

In fact, it was just another all-night rager for the cracklers of the Cania Plains.

A little fiesta to which Osorry hadn't been invited. Yet again…

Echoes of their wild laughter made their way to the furthest depths of his cave, as though to mock him. The rock around him shook as his brethren danced and reveled outside. And his heart was no less shaken by their rejection…

Osorry was a polished crackler from Otomai Island. And it's fair to say that his name suited him well. Ever since he was a little crackrock, he'd had a habit of apologizing profusely for everything and anything. When someone bumped into him: oh, sorry… When he moved a slug aside to pick some lettuce: oh, sorry… When he accidentally kicked an innocent rock: oh, sorry…

They say that those were his very first words when his mother brought him into the world, and that that's how she decided on his name…
 

Osorry suffered from a complete lack of self-confidence, and was constantly being pushed around by his bo(u)lder companions. It didn't help that he wasn't exactly the shiniest stone in the mine. His frail physique and his high, reedy voice made him the laughingstock of the whole crackler community… He often thought that he'd be better off moving back to his birthplace. But something always held him back. Or more precisely, someone. Dyam'sse…  An unbelievably lovely crackler girl. Dyam'sse had a beautifully smooth, pearly stone surface. The top of her head shone brightly. She looked like a precious stone… When she walked, the ground hardly trembled at all. She was definitely the most crushworthy crackler he knew.

But Dyam'sse also had a heart of stone… Though completely indifferent to Osorry's displays of affection, she gladly took advantage of him to make him her loyal and devoted servant. Once she'd got what she wanted, she totally ignored him and ran back to the rocky arms of Grav Pitt, a legendary crackler who was ten feet tall, a dopple-throwing champion, and adored by all the crackler girls.

"If only I were as big, strong and rocky as a legendary crackler. Dyam'sse would fall in love with me then, I'm sure of it…"

Curled up in a corner of his cave, Osorry lay there feeling oh-so-sorry for himself while everyone else was partying outside.

"What's with all this moping around?!"

"Is… Is someone there?"

"Over here, flint-face."
 

A green mouse was chewing on a hunk of clakoss twice her size with a nauseating series of chomping and slurping sounds. Her fur was nearly indistinguishable from the plants around the cave entrance.

"Hmmph, slurp!"

She swallowed an enormous mouthful whose outline was still visible as it slowly slid down her throat.

"What do you want? Are you going to make fun of me too?"

"Not at all! Why would I do that?"

"Everybody else does…"

"Oh, really? What for?"

Osorry gestured at himself, sweeping his hands from his head to his feet.

"I mean… Do I really need to draw you a picture?"

"All right, I get it… As cracklers go, you're more of a pebble than a boulder."

"And I've got a voice like a baby's rattle. Even your voice is more manly than mine."

"Hmmph, slurp!"

The mouse's stomach instantly doubled in size.

"Have you ever thought of going to a sorcerer? I've got a friend who couldn't stand being a green mouse any more. So this guy dipped her in oil, then in water, and POOF! Turned her into a Snailmet."

"But… I don't want to be turned into a Snailmet! What the heck are you talking about?!"

"Well… what would you like to be turned into?"

"I never said I wanted to be turned into anything! Drop it, will you? I mean… Sure… If I had to choose, the one thing I'd like to be is a legendary crackler. Like that gravel-headed Grav Pitt."

"Ah, I mean, sure, but uh… Unless you've got a direct line to the gods, I don't see how that's possible. Unless… The demons! Of course! Those guys can turn you into a legendary whatever, for sure!"

"Demons? What demons?"

"You've heard of the Destroyers, haven't you?"

"Yes, a little. I know they prowl around Nolifis Island and possess all these Twelvians who then turn super badass, and… wait a second. Are you saying I should let one of them possess me?

"Yeah, man, of coursh that'sh what I'm shaying! Hmmph, slurp! Ow, that was a big one."

"I… yeah, that's an AWESOME idea!"

Osorry leaped to his feet. The muscles in his face felt sore after all this time without smiling.

"I'll go to the Atoll of the Possessed and hand myself over to the Destroyers! After all, I've got nothing left to lose, right? When I come back, I'll be so strong and so ripped that Dyam'sse won't be able to resist me! I can't wait to see Grav's stupid face when I flex my huge arms on him… Ha ha ha!"

Osorry quickly tossed a bottle of cold water and a rock-hard old sandwich into a bag and rushed out of the cave, nearly trampling the mouse on his way past.

"Oh, sorry!"

"No worriesh. Besht of luck out there, pal! Hmmph, slurp!"

The way to Nolifis Island was long and perilous for a young crackler who'd never rolled his rock more than half a mile from home. Along the way, Osorry apologized a hundred times or more. The bustling streets of Astrub were pure torture for him. Fortunately, Pandala offered a bit of relief. He found it to be a calming, magical and multifaceted place with lots to discover. He thought that one day, he'd come back and make a home here. He'd start a family in this peaceful haven… together with Dyam'sse…

But first, he'd have to show considerable courage. Throwing himself into the boowolf's jaws: easier said than done. Osorry had never seen a Destroyer. But he'd heard plenty about them… The possession ritual a few people had returned to describe was enough to make the lichen stand up on the back of his neck. Osorry felt a knot of anxiety tightening in his throat. The crackler almost turned back several times. After all, if Dyam'sse didn't love him the way that he was, maybe that just meant she didn't deserve him…

"Grrr… Enough nonsense, Osorry! It's too late to change your mind, and it's time to stop being such a wimp!" he said to himself.

The key to a happy life was finally within reach. He had no other choice but to see this through to the end. And really, what was the worst that could happen? Maybe he'd get eaten by demons? At this point, even that didn't seem so bad…

As he continued to push on to the northeast, towards Terrdala, the tension grew so thick you could cut it with a knife. That peaceful haven seemed awfully far away now…

"Hey, you! If you're not afraid of ghosts, I can take you to the cursed island… Guaranteed thrills, guaranteed chills!" cried a husky Pandawa with a bandana covering what was surely a missing eye.

Osorry timidly agreed with a quick nod of his head. And the crossing turned out to be as calm as could be.

"So… once we arrive, how do I get to the Atoll of the Possessed?"

"By the Goddess! We've got a bold one here… The Atoll is over by Mount Tombs. But be careful out there, the natives are a bit… pushy."

The boat thumped heavily against a mist-shrouded shore. Osorry barely had both feet on the island before the Ferryman had pushed off again. He was met by an army of startlingly aggressive Pandalan specters. After apologizing for landing on their island, Osorry ran away, dodging between tombstones and prayer shrines as he went. He was completely out of breath by the time he reached the foot of Mount Tombs. The place where everything would change for him…

"Come on, Osorry, you can do this. Remember: the peaceful haven with you, Dyam'sse, and your future children. It'll all be worth it, right?"

The crackler let out a long sigh to recover his courage, then started the climb. At the summit, the fire of Dark Vlad's curse blazed on the barren ground amid nothing but desolation and death. Far off, through the mist, a monstrous-looking mass caught his attention. He felt himself irresistibly drawn toward it, a ship with razor-sharp fangs all across its bow. He climbed aboard without the least hesitation.

The journey was a quick one, and brought him to a demonic place where monumental black horns rose from the ground. Other ships, similar to the one he was in and with gaping maws on their own prows, were moored to piers of black coral. Looking closer, they seemed to be made of flesh… almost organic. Strange symbols engraved into the very earth caught his eye as well.

He had made it: the Atoll of the Possessed.

"Head to the Pandamonium. You'll find a whole mess of Destroyers there, ready to possess anything that moves! But be careful! To get inside, first you'll have to defeat one of them and take a cabalistic sign off its body…"

The Ferryman's words echoed in his mind. Luckily, Osorry wouldn't have to fight a Destroyer after all. There, at his feet, a cabalistic sign was just lying there, waiting to be picked up. Was it really a coincidence? Or a sign that this was his destiny?

Before him stood a monumental building that seemed to emerge from the depths of the earth. Osorry gathered up his courage and stepped inside, entering what looked like an amphitheater. The Ferryman had been right. There were a number of Destroyers there, in the middle of an official meeting. As he hesitantly cleared his throat, all eyes were immediately on him.

"Uhh… Excuse me… Is this the Possessions department?"

The Destroyers burst out laughing in unison.

"Ha, that's a good one!" exclaimed the largest of the group. "Never heard that one before!"

With mechanical movements, the Destroyers formed a circle around the symbol carved into the floor and invited Osorry to take his place in the center.

A demon began wailing strangely, with the palms of both slender-fingered hands raised to the sky. His eyes glowed red. The other demons joined in, whispering at first, then raising their voices louder and louder…

A reddish mist emerged from the ground and enveloped Osorry like a shroud. The crackler couldn't see a thing now, and all he could hear was the lamentations of the demons around him. He felt something burning deep inside of him. A kind of animal rage. A feeling he had often experienced when the others bullied him, but far more extreme this time. A searing pain shot through his right arm, and he fell to his knees in shock. Osorry felt as though dozens of daggers were piercing his body from all sides. He suddenly noticed a strange sound… like a bag of gravel being poured out onto the floor. He touched his belly with his hand, and felt the rock crumbling away under his fingers.

His transformation had begun.

For several long minutes, his cries of pain mingled with the chanting of the demons. Then, all of a sudden, it was completely silent. The crimson mist that had blinded him seemed to be absorbed back into the floor. Osorry remained immobile, his eyes still closed.

"Open your eyes, ya big rock!" ordered one of the Destroyers.

Osorry obeyed and was stunned to discover his new appearance. His right arm had tripled in size, and what looked like a ball of lava was lodged in the inside of his elbow. A crest of sharp spikes ran from shoulder to shoulder across the back of his neck. He felt significantly bigger, taller, more solidly built.

Like a rock.

On the way back, Osorry felt pumped. What was this strange feeling? It was nice. It made him stick out his chest, hold his head high and stride along boldly. What this what it felt like to have confidence? To believe in himself? What a thrilling sensation! Passers-by stepped out of his way, and some were even so afraid of him that they tried to hide. Osorry was bursting with pride. His slouching posture and cowering, whipped bow-wow attitude were nothing but a distant memory.

For the first time in his life, he had the upper hand.

After several days of walking, the sound of his fellow cracklers' talking and singing told him he was finally back home. It wasn't uncommon for crackler parties to continue for days on end. As he reached them, he saw that they were all gathered around a campfire. Grav Pitt was playing the latest Jon Lemon tune on the ukulele as Dyam'sse looked on with a smitten expression.

"We scuff our knees and elbows, and we rattle our poor bones…"SPROING!!

Grav was so surprised that he broke a string. All the cracklers turned to face Osorry with a variety of stunned looks.

"Osorry?! Wh… What happened?" cried one plain crackler.

"Dude, you're freakin' cut!" added another.

"I've never seen such rock-hard abs…" said Dyam'sse, batting her long eyelashes.

It was working. Osorry felt as if he could fly. He stepped into the middle of the crowd, intentionally flexing his muscles with each step. As he came close to Dyam'sse, he felt his heart pounding in his chest. As though it had doubled in size too.

He held out a flower to her. A beautiful rose he'd picked along the way, with flaming red petals. As she reached out to take it, Dyam'sse pricked her finger on a thorn.

"Oh! Sorry!"

 

High-pitched and barely audible, Osorry's voice was in sharp contrast to his monstrous physique. The ritual had had no effect on his voice… Dyam'sse, Grav and the others roared with laughter. The poor crackler felt like his entire body was crumbling away, along with all the confidence he'd just started to feel.

What had he done to deserve this? Would no one ever respect him or love him?

Opardon was ready to resign himself to that fate.

 

 

To be continued…