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Randidly could only focus forward. If he would allow his mind to waver, his focus to slide to his numerous pains, concerns about the result of this, Tartet’s presence, what he would do after this, when his mana was lost to him, he would lose his edge, and the bugs would collapse into a swarm that would devour everything, probably even him. These bugs seemed to be about double the size of the normal bugs, and quite a lot meaner, with sharp pincers.

So Randidly did not let his focus waver. He was the bugs, and they were a spear, spinning downwards, tighter and tighter, thrusting forward, always advancing. Distantly, he could see Dian, as her eyes widened at the sight of this calamity that descended from the sky, but then the spear, probably as tall as a building, with a small lake of bugs above that continued fueling it, crashed down into that energy that Dian held aloft.

Immediately before the bugs arrived, Randidly did see how the energy flared around her hand and grew wider, the rotation speeding up, but then there was only the bugs, and the humming filled his very bones as Randidly struggled to keep all of the disparate creatures under control.

They were violent, and hungry, and seemingly all with their little spark of intelligence, although it didn’t proceed much past it. Unfortunately, they were much more poorly behaved than his delightful Root Spiders, which so easily followed basic commands.

Of course, Randidly had no doubt that 4 or 5 of these would tear a Root Spider to pieces in less than 10 seconds. So there were trade-offs, but as the pounding in his head grew more sharp, he wondered whether it was worth it.

But he set that thought aside and pressed with every ounce of focus that he had, driving those bugs downward in a tight spiral. He had to keep them there, or they would spread, and he would lose the piercing power of the spear image he forced over their forms. From that, he could feel that even though Dian was able to devour almost all of the bugs, she was slowly getting pushed back, as more and more arrived, faster than her energy could consume.

And Randidly had more.

With burning eyes, he raised his hand and pulled, and several thin tendrils of bugs spiraled downward, joining the huge spear that crashed into the area of Dian’s figure, now completely obscured by the buzzing and droning of Pestilence. They made the spear swell, growing larger and more vicious, and Randidly started to feel some of his insects pelting the ground, beginning to eat the very ground out from under her.

Randidly could have controlled them to a more offensive direction, but it would have taken focus that he wasn’t sure he could spare. So he allowed them to continue their mindless feeding on the stone of the platform.

Sweat trickled down his brow, and he pushed more and more, feeling Dian slowly slip farther and farther back. Randidly grinned viciously. If he could manage to push her off of the stage… although it wouldn’t end her for good, it would likely push them apart. While Randidly would continue onto the Regional Tournament, and training under Shal… a spear user of this level would not have the ability to impact Randidly any longer.

They would not meet again.

To his shock, Randidly hesitated, if just for a split second. Large groups of insects exploded outward, smashing into the ground and into the crowd around the stage, who now drew their spears and threw panicked attacks up at the cloud of hungry death that had escaped their tightly held reins. But what use were spears against insects?

Several people were mauled to death as Randidly struggled to regather large groups of those rogue insects, while keeping up the constant pressure on Dian. Luckily it seemed that some good came of his inattention, and some of the insects had spread behind her and began to gnaw on the ground. It was hard to see it, due to the air being thick with buzzing wings and clicking pincers, but Randidly could feel it through them, just barely. Their hunger, combined with his previous actions with Root Spiders…

Crash!

Randidly smiled darkly. Just like he had predicted, the stage had been hollowed out too much, and part of it collapsed. It was several meters behind Dian, and to the left, but it was a much closer goal.

With this observable goal, Randidly felt some of his determination return, and with a yank, gathered all of the insects back up into a group, throwing more and more down into the spear that smashed into Dian’s energy. He could feel it weakening, but it had stabilized during that time Randidly had lost control of the insects.

With flashing eyes, Randidly set about rectifying that situation.

Carefully and slowly, more and more insects rained down, dragging her slowly backwards. Minutes passed, and Randidly’s jaw was sore from clenching it for so long. But he did not relent, because his was a spear that would only advance.

Dian neared the edge, in spurts and long dragged out periods of inaction. When she had gotten so close that her heel was only a hair away, and although her strange energy continued to devour, it was only ¼ as large as it had been to start, Randidly roared, clenching his hand into a fist, and mirroring it, the group of insects above tightened into a stronger formation. Then he threw that fist, and they descended in a huge, crushing wave, still as many insects remaining as he had thrown already to be devoured. They were seemingly endless, and Randidly marveled at the power of Inspiration.

But Dian too was not without tricks. Her energy surged brighter, a flickering defiance in the face of the numerous bugs. It rapidly sucked up the ones there, and seemed to keen its vicious hunger.

When the fist of insects descended, however, it was smothered.

There was no other logical outcome.

Randidly felt her in the middle of the swarming insects, keeping her energy around her, trying to protect herself. And he felt as she overbalanced, and suddenly tilted backwards, driven over the edge, slowly falling, with only the collapsed stage behind her…

Dongggggg.

A familiar bell rung, and a voice spoke. “The qualifier is over. All contestants cease attacks, so the winners may be determined.”

Randidly almost shrugged helplessly as his huge mass of insects swarmed, but suddenly a coughing man was in front of him, holding a spear. It was a long, ornate thing of brass, and the man simply tapped the spear on the ground, still coughing, and a wave of force flew forward.

The insects cracked and fell, and then disintegrated to dust.

Dian was there, covered in bite marks and scratches, but she was still falling. As Randidly watched, she tumbled off the edge, and out of sight.

The coughing man turned to Randidly, then looked at the spot Dian disappeared. He teleported over to the edge, looked down, then shook his head. Then the man reappeared on the far side, where Tartet stood, panting. After giving Tartet a brief once over, the man nodded, then looked at the sky and spoke.

“Stage 7 will not need overtime. There are only 3 individuals remaining on the stage.”

“...Three…?” Randidly whispered, confused. Apparently the coughing man had very powerful hearing, because he frowned at him for several seconds.

After a while, he seemed to relent. “...yes, three. For, although the stage collapsed, the piece the girl fell onto was still unbroken. It counts.”

Silent and prideful, Dian climbed back over the edge to stand on the stage with the rest of them.

Randidly smiled at her, showing his teeth like a predator would. Their eyes held for several long seconds. Then Dian shrugged, her own smile narrow and sharp. After a moment of consideration, Randidly said nothing further. It would likely be pointless to argue with this strange middle aged man.

And besides… even though this woman clearly had a vendetta against him for some reason, she wasn’t insufferable like some of the other insignificant characters he had been forced to deal with since coming to Shal’s world….

Although it was hard to know whether he only thought that because she was objectively attractive. But Randidly didn’t think that was affecting his decision all that much. Having strong rivals to push you forward was necessary, in his experience. His experience reading martial arts fantasy, anyway. And he wouldn’t be caught unawares by her poison again. Randidly would be much harder to kill going forward.

Another stray thought popped up, as the three of them drifted closer to the middle aged man. Randidly wondered what this world was called. He assumed it would have a name. And it was beginning to get annoying to not be able to think of it as something other than “Shal’s World”.

As his thoughts continued to scatter in the wake of his earlier spell, his brain was hit with the brutal sledgehammer of exhaustion. Randidly winced, recognizing this as a system generated status that represented the fact he had overdrawn himself to control the vast swarm of insects. He had only been under this a few times in the past, during his Root Avatar training, usually after a long night of engraving, and it had never been this painful. There might be a potion that was able to address this issue, but Randidly wasn’t familiar with it.

Besides, some rest would probably do him some good… He had earned it.

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