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Osorry, the polished crackler who was polite to a fault, had just done what few had ever dared to attempt. Out of love, he had intentionally thrown himself to the Destroyers, convinced that once he was possessed, he would finally have a strong enough argument (and strong enough muscles) to win his true love's heart. But fate had other plans…

Fate. Ah, fate… Sometimes, it has a disturbing way of focusing all of its anger on a single person… and Osorry was clearly its latest victim. In the end, his courage and resilience hadn't quite paid off. The crackler had gone out of his way to travel to the Atoll of the Possessed, convinced that the Destroyers would make him an unstoppable powerhouse.

Talk about a big mistake…

Although his physique had been completely transformed, his tiny voice had remained unchanged, still as high and reedy as ever… forcing him to slink back to his cave amid the mockery and contempt of his brethren. With Dyam'sse first and foremost among them…

"Holy… Would you look - at - THAT! They really gave you the full treatment, huh?!"

The green mouse had been waiting for him all this time. She looked at him with bulging eyes, a touch of cheese smeared at each corner of her mouth. Osorry swept past without even looking at her… let alone speaking to her. The little rodent was caught off guard.

"So… what's up?! You're making one of your faces… AGAIN! You got what you wanted, didn't you?!"

"Oh, really? You sure about that?"

The mouse clapped her little paws to her mouth.

"Well, I'll be… You poor thing! I take it back… they didn't quite give you the FULL treatment, did they?!"

"Thanks for the comforting words…"

"So what are you going to do?"

"What the heck do you expect me to do? I'll just curl up in the darkest corner of my cave and feel sorry for myself. Just soaking in the miserable fate life's decided to hand me."

"Sheesh… Enough of that nonsense! You know what I think? If even a demon possession ritual didn't change your voice, that's because it's part of your fundamental nature! Think about it, man! The gods made you that way on purpose."

"So… what? What am I supposed to do?"

"Accept it. It's as simple as that. Or better yet: turn it into a strength!"

"Pfft… Don't be ridiculous."

"How many polished cracklers do you suppose there are like you in the world?"

"None, I hope! I wouldn't wish this on anyone…"

"Enough with the woe-is-me crap! I'm telling you, there's plenty of guys who'd love to be like you. You're one of a kind, Osorry. Before, you were… Well, there was room for improvement. Now you're a total hunk, and at the same time, you make people laugh. It's amazing! I'm telling you, man, you need to change your perspective… Anyway, I've gotta go, but promise me you'll think about what I said…"

Osorry found himself alone again. His head was buzzing. Could the mouse be right? In any case, she'd certainly given him plenty to think about… What if he'd been looking at things the wrong way all along? What if the things he'd considered to be a burden were actually a gift?

The crackler stood up and walked out of his cave. A gentle breeze tickled his stony skin, bringing the delicate flowery perfume of the plains along with it. The plains where he'd first come to live a few years before. The plains that had become his new home. The plains that he'd vowed never to leave after he fell in love with Dyam'sse. But now, any chance he might have had with that lovely crackler girl was definitely gone for good. There was nothing keeping him here any more. With a tear in his eye, Osorry walked through his lair one last time, then set out to discover his new destiny.

Over the next few months, the crackler tried more new things than he'd done in all the previous years of his life. First, he tried to toughen up his voice with a Iop coach who promised him all sorts of miracles and wonders.

"Man, every time you say something, it'll be like a rockslide coming down on the other guy's head!"

Needless to say, things didn't quite work out that way. Then he joined a menhir-throwing team in the Krozolympic Games. His performance made the crowds go wild. His voice, not so much… Next, he tried his luck with the Bontarian Guard. But once again, the top commanders didn't want to risk making potential attackers laugh instead of intimidating them.

Despite all his efforts, Osorry hadn't been able to earn the least bit of credibility. He was starting to lose hope.

Tired of hitting his head against the wall without ever breaking through, the crackler had to face the facts. The mouse was right: it was simply his fate to make people laugh. Well… so be it, then! One fine morning, he made his way to the Trool Fair and offered to take part in a show. A bearded Bworkette, a Iop with a giant brain, a two-headed Dopple and other krosmic aberrations performed every night under a big top all their own. They were called the Strange and Bizarre, and they starred in all manner of seriously freaky freak shows for adventurers in search of entertainment. It was here that Osorry finally found his place in a grotesque routine portraying an opera-singing bodybuilder with a voice as annoying and high-pitched as a buzzing moskito. It was an immediate hit. The crackler audiences rocked with laughter and rewarded him with avalanches of applause. For the first time in his life, Osorry was in control of his own fate. At least, that's what he tried to tell himself. To keep hope alive…

The days passed in a blur. It was always the same ritual. In his tiny changing room, Osorry prepared for the show. First he put on an elaborate costume with layers upon layers of wildly mismatched petticoats and frills. He even put on makeup to look like a lady crackler, with a thick coat of lipstick and blush. Finally, the fateful moment arrived. The moment when he had to go on stage. Always the same feelings of anxiety. Always the same apprehension. Always the same desire: to get it over with quickly, then get back to his friends and forget his sad fate.

"By the gods, d'you hear that voice?! Do you think it's really him singing? What a freak!"

"C'mon, speak up, honey! We can't hear you! Bwahahaha!"

"He must really be at the end of his rope to debase himself like that… Poor guy!"

Between the waves of laughter and the taunting whistles, Osorry was subjected to countless comments as gentle as an uppercut to the jaw. But through it all, the crackler patiently accepted his fate. Staying in the Cania Plains was unthinkable, as was returning to Otomai Island: his old friends there wouldn't even recognize him. He didn't want to risk being rejected again. Here, at least, he could blend into the crowd as just one "freak" among many.

 

He had a new family now.
 

And then came that night… A real red-pebble night, unlike any that had come before. He saw her, way in the back row, in the shadow of the huge oak that held up one part of the structure.

It was her. Or at least, it looked a whole lot like her. After all, Osorry knew it couldn't actually be her… Something was different about this girl. A certain kindness in her eyes that Dyam'sse didn't have. And something else as well, something in her arms and shoulders maybe, that he couldn't quite make out from a distance.

This "date" would turn out to be the first in a long series. From then on, the mystery girl didn't miss a single one of Osorry's shows. She sat in the audience with an unsettling lack of emotion, never laughing or even smiling in the slightest. Instead, Osorry could see something in her eyes that was totally new to him. He couldn't remember anyone ever looking at him that way. Was it pity? No, no… It was something much sweeter than that… In time, he came to realize that it was compassion. A feeling that he'd never experienced before.

Many times, Osorry told himself he was going to go talk to her. But his courage always failed him in the end… When she discovered that this was his real voice, the crackler girl would presumably react the same way as everyone else: with disdain or even contempt. Even so, he could sense that something was happening. Why did she stay there in the shadows, long after everyone else had left?

"What are you waiting for? Go talk to her, flint-face!" said Izahac, the soft-boned Chafer contortionist.

"So she can reject me like all the others? No thanks!"

"Quit being such a diva… You can see she's just waiting for you to come over!"

"Maybe… But she's not expecting to be disappointed. And believe me, she will be."

"If it's your voice that's the problem, why not go back and see the Destroyers?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well… don't take this the wrong way, but they didn't really do the best job. Haven't you ever wondered if they messed up their possession ritual?"

Come to think of it, that possibility had never occurred to Osorry. And yet… why hadn't he thought of it sooner? It was obvious! This was all just a big mistake! Being possessed by the Destroyers should have turned him into a fearful evil beast if it was done properly! Osorry felt his heart racing. A glimmer of hope shone in the depths of his soul.
 

"You're right, Izahac! It all seems so logical now! I'll go back to the Atoll of the Possessed and get the rest of what they owe me!"

"Um… I wouldn't do that if I were you," said a tiny voice behind him.

It was Ang and Cheng, the two-headed Dopple.

"Huh? Why not?"

"You're going to just waltz in there and tell those bloodthirsty demons they did their jobs wrong? Seriously?"

"You really think they're going to welcome you with open arms?" added Cheng.

His excitement was instantly replaced by uncertainty… The twins had a point. After all, nobody knew anything about these new demons, except that they were a lot smarter than those stupid Shushus… And the smarter someone is, the more sensitive they are to criticism…

"They'll tear you to pieces, no doubt about it!"

"Maybe they'll even give you back your old appearance, is that what you want?!"

"Even if they agree to redo the ritual, who's to say you'll survive it?"

"And plus, if it does work, that'll be the end of your show here!"

"We're telling you, there's no way this'll work!"

All in all, Osorry didn't really feel like his friends had his back on this one.

"STOP! THAT'S ENOUGH! I'm going there, and that's final. I've had enough of playing the clown here! I've tried to tell myself that it doesn't affect me, but it does… And what about you? Aren't you tired of being the freaks of the fair?! Haven't the rest of you ever thought of getting possessed too? Do you really want to spend the rest of your lives here, making those monstrous adventurers laugh? It's true – THEY'RE the real monsters!"

Osorry heard a small rustling noise behind him. He turned around quickly and saw the fabric at the tent's entrance flapping in the breeze. Nearby, in the shadow of the great oak tree, the crackler girl had disappeared. He couldn't say when she had left, and he hoped she hadn't heard him…

"It's nice that you're worried about me, guys, but it's decided. I'm going," said the crackler in a calmer voice.

He left the tent as his friends looked on in concern, and returned to his changing room. His heart beat wildly. He knew that the danger the others had warned him about was real. But just like the first time, he knew it was the right decision. He took a deep breath, took off his ridiculous costume, and lifted the curtain of ivy that opened to the outside, when all of a sudden…

There she was, just a few steps away from him. He'd never seen her from this close. In fact, he'd only ever seen her in the shadows. The first thing he noticed was the ball of lava glowing in the crook of her elbow. Apparently she had taken part in a little ritual of her own. Then his eyes fell on something else. A clay tablet covered with inscriptions that she was holding in her hands. Hands that were surprisingly delicate compared to the rest of her frame. The crackler girl timidly held the tablet out to Osorry, who looked down and read:

"It's time that I told you the truth…"

He felt his heart pounding in his chest as the girl slid the tablet aside to reveal another behind it.

"As far as I'm concerned, your voice is perfect…"

Osorry was hypnotized. A wave of heat passed through his body and his cheeks flushed red.

"And I could listen to you sing for hours, until…" said the next message.

This time, he could literally feel his knees trembling. As the girl prepared to show him the next part of her message, she dropped all of her tablets on the floor. As the two cracklers bent down to pick them up at the same time, they conked their heads together.

"OH… SORRY!"

A deep, almost cavernous voice. It was like… "a rockslide coming down on his head". And it took Osorry's breath away. He understood instantly.

The crackler girl had her own burden to bear. The reason for her silence was this manly voice in total contrast to her feminine appearance. What a strange coincidence: the thing that she seemed so self-conscious about was the one thing Osorry most desired. Against all odds, he was charmed by it. It was an integral part of the the girl for whom he'd been ready to throw himself to the Destroyers… again! And he thought it was beautiful.

It seemed that Osorry had finally found his voice