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Slowly but surely, Randidly found himself achieving an equilibrium with the weight. It wasn't something that he could handle for long, but for now-

Again, the weight increased. Then it increased again. Growling, Randidly opened his eyes, looking around

Of the beginning 40 or so participants, only about 24 remained. The others were gone, and as Randidly opened his eyes, he saw one particularly unwilling individual struggle furiously against two attendants, swearing. But of course, the struggles were rather feeble in the grand scheme of things. If that individual had had the stamina to continue to struggle, they wouldn't have failed the challenge of Tarnak.

Randidly allowed himself a smile that was all teeth. Well, perhaps that wasn't true. In a perfect world the only cause of failure would be the fact that a participant had reached their limit. But this wasn't a perfect world.

Sore muscles, itching legs, tingling numbness in the legs... all of these things could lead to a person deciding to give up before he or she reached the limit of his/her physical ability.

To Randidly's surprise, Orangey still remained, the veins in his neck bulging in a very dangerous looking way. A stroke seemed just around the corner. Randidly evened his breathing as best he could and began to vary the way that he was resisting the force that weighed down on him. As of now, Mana Strengthening alone supplemented by Golden Roots of Yggdrasil wasn't enough.

So Randidly began using Empower in brief spurts to burn some of his rapidly returning stamina to supplement his much more concerning mana consumption. Then, Randidly grinned, and burned more stamina, using two minutes of pure Empowered lifting to get it below 50%, where Second Wind began to kick in.

It made him sweat slightly to see how short a time period he could exert that level of effort and become only halfway full on stamina, but it definitely recovered quickly. Then he basically began alternating between Mana Strengthening and Empower as a way to continue to support the weight.

But that wasn’t enough. This was all just buying time, because Randidly knew the worst was yet to come. As more people failed out, the weight that he personally had to bear was much greater than it had been in the past. And he had seen multiple Skills level up, so he was slowly gaining an edge, but it obviously wouldn’t be enough against this huge weight. So he began to experiment with other methods.

One of those was to use Rejection to directly reject the weight that was pressing down on him, or reject his tiredness. Very quickly, Randidly could feel the edges of his mind becoming foggy and frayed, and he slowed his use of it. It did seem that he could mitigate the effects of the wariness somewhat, but he couldn’t overuse it, or it would slowly erode his consciousness until he collapsed. But it helped a little.

Another way was to use Absolute Control: Freeze, to stop moving for a second, allowing him a brief period where the skill was in effect, and he could allow his muscles a break. It wasn’t much, and there was a rather large Stamina cost, but it was enough to break up the monotony of simply holding the weight.

And it was good to know that it was possible, because as the weight increased, these would become absolutely necessary.

Randidly also thought about the rules, and had some other ideas about the things he could do to win, but decided against it for now. It was ultimately an endurance exercise, better to wait as long as possible before revealing his cards. He needed to win in the long term, and there was very little more he could do right now.

But the weight began rising rapidly. A few people finally gave up, and then several more collapsed in a cascading series, where for several seconds it seemed like the weight on them was constantly increasing. Their group was quickly knocked down to 15 remaining, with all of them showing obvious signs of strain.

With glowing eyes, Randidly looked around at the surrounding people. Then he closed them. His Aether was slowly growing more restless, it's pulsing icy-hot tendrils thick and winding through his body. In a way, as the Aether became more active, Randidly could also peer deep into it, seeing a giant, endlessly deep well. There were wild currents and eddies deep within that pool of Aether, but Randidly did not fear them. Because he knew instinctively they were his.

Again, the weight rose, and again, Randidly gritted his teeth and resisted it. As he did so, those movements in the Aether became more frantic. The swirling was more wild and dangerous, and as that happened, the Aether seemed to settle and become thin. As it was lazy, it was a thick heavy thing, but the more Randidly struggled, the more violent and translucent the Aether became.

His inward focus became locked on it, even as the weight grew more demanding. But he couldn’t look away, because as Randidly looked, he could see something. Infinitely deep, infinitely far away, through a vast distance that seemed to be clear, but it took a small period of time before the swirling Aether shifted out of the way to reveal the core of this manifestation inside himself.

It was… a hole. But it was pulsing slowly, stretching and contracting. Like it was…. breathing. Like it was a mouth.

As Randidly watched it he noticed that it really was producing Aether when it contracted, exhaling, but as it slowly swelled, there was no change in the Aether. It only produced. So Randidly narrowed his eyes, confused. Almost instinctively, he activated Eyes of the Spear Phantom. His gaze focused.

It was faint, but he could see it, floating slowly downward to that sucking mouth. Little motes of light. Some of them were blue, some were red, some were golden, and some were glistening black, but the vast majority, almost 75% of them, were emerald in color, glowing brilliantly.

Randidly chilled inwardly. Because although it was in a polluted and rough state, Randidly recognized those glistening motes. It was definitely related to those flitting wisps of energy that were dancing in his chest.

But then a dull ringing made Randidly lose his concentration and return to his body; he glanced up and looked around. People were collapsing left and right, but the weight didn’t increase. He frowned, and saw that the female attendant was shaking her head sadly, as if disappointed.

“Well, some of you passed. If you choose, you may continue to chase the ultimate reward for the Challenge of Tarnak, but all of you have already passed.”

Then the female attendant paused, as she glanced over towards Randidly. “Ah… but if you choose to continue… know that it will be considered a failure if you do not last a full 24 hours, even if you end up winning the reward. Are you willing to gamble with your lives? The weight shall remain at the level it was prior to the passage.”

“I am.”

Randidly turned, surprised, to find that Orangey was glaring at the female attendant, still maintaining his firm stance. His limbs had a definite tremble to them, but he had a determined look in his eyes that made Randidly suspect that Orangey’s body would give out before his will would.

In a way, it made Randidly much more fired up about it, and he too nodded. He wasn’t sure how much longer it was until 24 hours, but he did not choose this path because it was easy; in fact, it was exactly the opposite. It was only because it was difficult that he chose this path.

The people who accepted that the trial was over left, chatting happily. Meanwhile, Randidly turned towards Orangey, who also turned to face him. There wasn’t any recognition in Orangey’s eyes, but there was a respect. After all, they both were aware about how difficult this was. They nodded to each other simultaneously, and then settled into their concentrations.

For his part, Randidly was tired of playing fair: he opened up his status screen.

He had gained 3 Skill Levels in Physical Fitness, 6 in Golden Roots of Yggdrasil, 4 in Mana Strengthening, 2 in Empower and Mental Fortitude, 4 in Rejection and Second Wind, 5 in Struggle, and 3 in Absolute Control: Freeze. It was a small amount of PP in the grand scheme of things, especially for his training experiences.

He funnelled them all into his path, earning himself 2 Willpower and Resistance, which Randidly believed would be useful for this. In addition, his Soul Skill also gave him 2 points in Vitality, 2 points in Strength and 3 in Control, 15 health, 15 mana, and +1 to all regeneration. The Strength was probably the biggest direct boost, but the Vitality helped his stamina regeneration, and the flat regeneration helped across the board.

What was most disturbing to Randidly was that this put him at a single point away from finishing his Path. He didn’t have anymore PP right now, but he would likely get one at some point in this contest. And when he did…

He knew something would happen. So, although this boost was nice, Randidly swore to himself he wouldn’t do it again. When he obtained this piece, Randidly expected that he would need to make a decision, and he wasn’t sure if he would be able to do that while supporting a weight.

The fucker that put these locks on his soul would have to wait. First was to crush the competition here.

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