Orangey glared around at the surrounding participants. "Don't let this delusional bitch sway you. The only way for us to make it out is to let someone win. Let me win, and then take turns."
"We could just embrace the challenge of Tarnak," Another participant near Randidly muttered under his breath. Randidly glanced at the frail man, whose arms were already trembling under the strain. Even Randidly was starting to feel it, really feel it, feel the limit of his strength. In a way, that pressure was motivating. When it pressed down, grinding away at his muscles, that huge, monstrous stubbornness inside of Randidly's heart rose up, viciously flailing to resist the force. He refused to be oppressed, to go quietly under the influence of it.
Yet at the same time... he had to suppress that vicious, angry impulse, pressing it further down. Because this was an endurance competition. If he were to expend too much of his strength too quickly...
The muscular female competitor glared at Orangey. "I will never let you be the one to seize the reward for the first completion. Your greed is clear."
Orangey was furious, but there was a chorus of agreement from the other participants. Like Randidly, they did not have a very favorable impression of his words or actions. For his part, Randidly was mildly interested in keeping the outcomes positive for the group, but also, his eyes were locked onto the prize for the individual with the longest endurance.
That was the one compliment that Divvit had given him, that he had the mentality and resiliency to put himself through anything. And god dammit if he wasn't going to earn a reward for it.
He still had plenty of reserves left remaining, and he was only relying on Physical Fitness and the passive boost from his other skills to support the weight. Randidly still had plenty of methods to withstand increased weight if he had to.
Orangey was grinding his teeth. "Well someone has to go first. If it has to be someone-"
"It cannot be you." The woman intoned, to nods of agreement. Had his arms been free, Orangey would likely have torn out his hair. As it was, he simply breathed heavily, glaring at them all.
There was one main drawback to this method, Randidly knew, although he was a little leery about admitting it. The cutoff was 80% failure rate across the groups. If that many people didn't fail, people would continually struggle just to survive, where they would otherwise collapse, relieved at passing the first stage of the preliminaries. This would drag things out for him, who was trying to reach the reward for bearing the weight for the longest.
But perhaps that was wishful thinking. There would no doubt be others with their eyes on the same prize, Randidly knew. And they would always be his true competition.
"We should start with the people who are struggling the most!" The scrawny man near Randidly said. Randidly almost snorted aloud at the foolish man, but he didn't even need to. Orangey gave the man a scathing glance.
"It is too late for that, fool. Can you really increase your strength output by 20%? Just obediently act as the pillar you are."
The muscular woman coughed lightly. "It should be me. I will then direct the rest of the passage of this trial."
Orangey's eyes bulged dangerously, but everyone else seemed to agree, and they calmly nodded their heads. Well, almost everyone.
"No! I need to pass now.... if I don't..." The scrawny man had begun to shake. His eyes were red around the edges, and his whole person reeked of desperation. "If I have to go back to that place-!"
The muscular woman snorted, saying nothing. Slowly, everyone else turned away, looking at the ground rather than at the struggling man. Then the muscular woman gave orders, and most everyone lowered their physical output, making it easier for her. Orangey didn't like it, but seemed to accept that he wouldn't be able to force the issue, so he complied.
Randidly maintained his current level of support, mostly just for consistency of the workout, but he was just one of many, so he didn't think it would affect the outcome overmuch. They were still far below the level where the weight would increase.
"No....no....no...." The scrawny man muttered to himself, his eyes becoming hollow and empty. In a way, Randidly felt sorry for the man. But at the same time... this was due to his own insufficient preparations. Randidly had to imagine that reaching his own level of strength in a short period was much easier with access to the dungeons. It was only due to his own classlessness and Shal's insanity that they had been forced to go through such dire straits.
Then Randidly blinked, because a slight figure seemed to float past. It was the short female attendant, who was walking along the divider between two individuals with an unnatural grace. She hopped lightly, crossing an entire checker square, and arriving at the scrawny man. The muscular woman's face was red and she roared, slowly lifting the weight higher. Her contribution ticked up from +17% to +18%.
The female attendant held out her hand, and the scrawny man's eyes focused. "That is...!"
"Yes, a drop of pure Aether." The attendant whispered, so quietly that Randidly had to strain to hear. If an individual's Perception was below 100, they likely would have missed it. And it seemed everyone nearby was missing it, unable to notice while they looked at the muscular woman with hope. "...to have it, you simply must reach out and take it."
"...but...." The man was hyperventilating, his eyes locked on that small object in the woman's hands. Randidly frowned, but said nothing. It made no difference to him, but it was truly disturbing that this was occurring. It clearly demonstrated these people's desire for them to pass through the preliminaries.
"When has anyone ever bothered to think about how their actions hurt you? Let go."
Almost sobbing, the man did, reaching and taking that small object from the female attendant's hand.
Immediately, the weight increased, just slightly, as the scrawny man forfeited, and his weight was added to the rest of them. Randidly's frown deepened. The muscular woman was bellowing, and her contribution fell from +19% to +16%. She struggled and flexed, and was able to get that number up to +18% again, but was stopped there.
With everything on the line, with all of the fellow participants watching, the muscular woman fell short. With trembling arms, she lowered the weight, no longer pressing with all her might. But it was hard to recover from that expenditure of strength. Her chest was heaving, and her contribution swiftly fell to -7%. Everyone was silent for a long time.
Orangey's anger dissipated. He looked at the scrawny man, who was led out of the area, with a disgusted look. "No matter what prize they offered you... is that enough to overcome the fact you gave up? What hope do you have of strength."
Trembling, the man turned back and looked at them all, struggling under the weight. There were tears in his eyes. "You're right. There isn't much hope. But you know this world. There isn't much other choice, either."
Shal's world was a brutal and martial one, for sure. The weak, and even those that didn't choose the path of the spear, were widely derided and mocked. If you could not accept that weakness, you were forced to struggle desperately, often thanklessly, embarrassingly. But it was better than the alternative.
Everyone began attempting to do the same activity that the woman failed, but Randidly largely ignored it. Closing his eyes, he focused his attention inward. Here, swirling inside of him, were the two green lights.
They had again grown, once more becoming bright lines, burned into Randidly's spiritual retinas as he followed their movement. They were fast and slow and wild and pure. It was oddly soothing to watch them, especially after dealing with the surrounding participants in the trail for 10 minutes.
Randidly grimaced. 10 minutes? It had felt so much longer than that. Maybe he had underestimated this Tarnak character. To bear this kind of weight was not an easy thing.
But for now, he put those feelings aside and just looked at the lights, playing with them as they flitted and danced.
It took a while, but very quickly, one of the lights stopped, trembling. It was actually the second light, the more reserved and hesitant of the two. It trembled, and then split into two very dim wisps. Excitedly, the original light vroomed around them, drawing a halo of emerald light around them. It was almost as if those two new wisps were waking up, cajoled into movement and life by the bright movements of the original emerald wisp.
Randidly smiled and shook his head. At this rate, soon his entire soul was going to be lousy with those things.