“Erickson Steel, I have a simple question that I want you all to answer: what do you fear the most?
“We live in a world that’s been overwhelmed by the strange and impossible. Monsters spawn from nothing and threaten us at every waking moment. We now have pretty definitive proof that the average Level of monsters has been slowly increasing. But this is only our current stage of a two-year long litany of crises. Raid Bosses, Dungeons, and now Danger Zones… the multitude of threats against humanity seems to grow every day.
“I know not all of those of you here listening to me was within a Zone to begin with. Some were suspended in the strange edge lands that are slowly opening up around us. But for those of us who were there from the beginning… Don’t you remember that first desperate taste of fear? Don’t you still have nightmares about the sounds of your neighbors dying and the silence of civilization being found wanting before the invasion?
“During those days, no one was safe. As we struggled to understand the rules of our new world, more and more monsters came. People died by the thousands. So much was new, so much was thrown at us at once. But we quickly realized Stats were important, and that Leveling Skills was possible. We trained. When our guns failed us, we reverted to more primitive methods to fight back. And then we started winning those fights.
“We discovered Villages and the powerful Classes that would give humanity an edge. The area of our influence spread outward. Even the threat of monster hordes wasn’t enough to cow the bold spirit of humanity. But that wasn’t all we had to deal with, was it? Villages were not the safe havens they promised to be. They brought on a Tribulation. And almost one-fourth of Villages we are aware of fell to those Tribulations.
“It didn’t stop there, did it? Then we had a Raid Dungeon and Champions. Which brought forth a Nemesis and the Danger Zones.
“All the while, we have been fighting. We are growing stronger every day. We discover Paths, Soulskills, and Skillsets. Knowledge gets passed down to those who don’t yet have Classes, and we slowly perfect the art of growing strong. Some of us even touched upon images as a means to accomplish our goals. Slowly and surely we have stockpiled our power and built up momentum. The monsters around us are beginning to die.
“Does that, then, mean we fear nothing, Erickson Steel?”
Randidly inhaled slowly, savoring the taste and sound of images from the people in front of him. Although they had begun listening with small, secret smiles, those had faded to solemn attention. Now they simply stared and waited for him to continue. It was clear from their faces, however, that these were not people that had nothing to fear.
Even with Randidly Ghosthound himself standing before them, the most powerful man in the world, they could not be without fear. Not any longer. They had seen too much death in the last few years.
Randidly’s fingers tightened on the podium in front of him. Then he increased the pressure further until he felt the soft wood of the object begin to creak and groan. There he stopped. He didn’t apply any further pressure; he simply stood there and felt the tension in his fingers and the weakness in the wood within his hands.
And he looked out over the group of people present in front of him.
No matter what, they need to face it. Our understanding of the System is too shallow for us to ignore our weakness. In this case, blind ignorance of what we are is dangerous.
“Of course we are not fearless,” Randidly kept his voice soft. “We all feel that same fear. The dreadful anxiety as we consider the challenges thrown at us by the System. And now, we slowly wait while a seventh Zone is struggling to complete its Raid Dungeon and join us in New Earth. For that arrival will signal the genesis of a threat that gives us all pause.
“Perhaps then, what we truly fear is change. The System has constantly thrown new threats at us since the beginning, to sharpen us, to force us to grow and change in the way it desires. Currently, we have the impending threat of the First Calamity to scare our children and keep the adults up at night. A threat that could arrive at any time. It could arrive in a week or in ten years. It could never arrive. So we wait, as there is nothing else we can do.
“Does that mean what we truly fear about that threat precisely that it is unknown?”
Again Randidly paused and breathed. His Crown and his core of images hummed. Slowly, the needle was turning as these people listened to him. Which was exactly the point. But if Randidly put names to their fears, would it help?
Or was he making a mistake?
“Perhaps it is not the unknown that torments us, because it has been easy lately to forget these looming threats.” Randidly’s smile turned sharp. “Not just you, Erickson Steel. All of the Zones have grown rapidly in power. To the point that the best of humanity can finally boldly raise a torch in the darkness; the pinnacle of our strength will not be cowed by the System’s current cycle of threats.
“As those fears of monsters, change, and the unknown fade from the foreground of our attention… priorities shift. The Zones are talking about a world capital. There is a struggle for supremacy in arms and in trade. The Orders continue to save people from the constantly expanding edges of our lands, but as their numbers grow the people at the top will inevitably grow fat. They jostle each other, aiming to position themselves for the future rather than helping people now.
“Am I any different…? Some of you are thinking that, I can feel.” Randidly released the tension in his hands. The podium seemed to sag with relief. “No, of course, I’m no different. I’m aiming to position myself for the impending future. I’m as human as every one of you. Powerful I may be, but there is no true escape from humanity. There is no hiding spot from fear. Because fear… emerges from your own mind.
“And since you haven’t had the courage to yet answer me honestly, I’ll tell you one of my fears, Erickson Steel. I fear that while we are all focusing on the future while sacrificing some of the present, the future that I am preparing for… is far from the future that my contemporaries have in mind.”
With a shake, Randidly let his hands drop to his sides. He stepped around the podium, slowly walking to the edge of the hastily erected stage. As he approached, a young boy in the front row stood frozen solid. His eyes widened until Randidly surely thought that the child wouldn’t have the muscles to pull his eyelids open any further, but they kept going.
To the point that Randidly saw the perfectly circular and vulnerable flesh of that boy’s eyeball in haunting clarity.
Randidly stood at the edge of the stage and looked down at the young boy. Then he looked out over the entire crowd and spoke in a voice booming with all the strength of the humming images that swirled around his Crown.
“Although each cycle of threats grows increasingly powerful… they don’t realize by just how much the next tier of threats will grow. They don’t understand how far we are from truly facing a Calamity. They don’t understand that beyond the tests and the trials is an endless machine that will suck and suck until humanity has been reduced to a husk of itself and the terrible war machine will move on without a care.”
And as if I were doing its bidding, I have given you images.
Randidly thought sadly.
I am smelting the exact ore it needs to wage war against the mysterious Nether… but I cannot simply let you walk toward that future unarmed, can I?
“For the second time, Erickson Steel, what do you fear?”
Randidly’s voice rang out over the crowd and out further than that, into the winding streets beyond. It echoed past he abandoned and hastily deconstructed stalls that lined the paved streets of the Erickson Steel compound. It even wandered out beyond the walls of Erickson Steel, to the silent Riders who watched their lord marshaling his forces.
Randidly spread his hands. “I have given you images; as some of you are now realizing, these are a great weapon. It is the will to strike with the essence of Skills without relying on the System. It is seizing our own small portion of the vast power that humanity can possibly access. It is a small thing, one entirely dependant on yourself. You, each of you individual people of Erickson Steel… images give you the chance to control your own fate. To pioneer your own Path into the future.
“No matter how great the threats become, with images you possess the capability to surpass the danger. No matter their Levels, monsters become nothing but fodder to fuel your growth. As you sharpen yourself to a point, soon you will be able to cut through the thin walls of the System. You will become more powerful than you can imagine. Even more powerful than I am…
“Suddenly, perhaps someday in the future, you will find that you hold the world in your hands. In the old world, there were limits to individual power. Here, with the System… I am less sure that such limits exist. Aether, the energy of all life and movement, animates us. Images are the raw utilization of that energy. Perhaps even the creator of the Nexus itself is working with the same Aether that we possess. Therefore… it’s clear that we are far from the limit of how that energy can be used.
“We can be so much more than this. Before the sort of power that could create the entire System, what are monsters? What are Levels? What meaning do the blind machinations of the politically corrupt have? All of these small concerns are insubstantial before capability.
“And that’s what scares you, Erickson Steel. Even if you don’t open your mouths to speak, I can read that fear in all of you. I can see it in your stillness.”
Licking his lips, Randidly allowed the crowd to consider that. The resonance in his chest was causing the muscles of his chest to twitch.
. All of you. You fear what I represent: The fact that you could possibly have my strength if only you tried harder.
“It is the oldest and greatest fear: that you aren’t good enough. If you had been stronger, you wouldn’t have to cower in your friend’s blood and sneak away while a monster was devouring someone else. If you would have been smarter, you could Level up a Skill faster and you wouldn’t have to watch your family slowly starve while you struggle to provide food for your children.
“You fear that every death is your own failure. That your lack of growth is due to some inner deficiency. You fear that your potential is great and your performance is subpar. That the reason the world hasn’t been saved is that you haven’t done enough.”
You fear me because… I am you. You fear failing to live up to expectations… because you are me.
The resonance almost took on a life of its own, traveling through the strange capillaries in Randidly’s vast Soulspace, spreading to take up an entire corner of the area. The Crown of Upheaval and Gloom was shaking so hard that Randidly couldn’t help but worry that the Skill was going to be damaged by the process. But he could not stop now.
“This is why I gathered you all here. You are the best and brightest of Earth. You struggle with feelings of inadequacy. You fear failure. And I have to admit, that fear will not leave you. As you grow more powerful… as you walk further down this Path… the abyss of failure only grows more hungry. It will nip at your heels constantly. There is no escaping it; someday you will fail and give credence to those deeply hidden fears.
“But that’s fine. Because to escape fear was never our priority, just like we will not be like the other governments and groups active in the Zone. Because the universality of that same fear is exactly why we toil, Erickson Steel. Everyone fears that they will fail. Because as long as we torture ourselves with these fears and continue to walk forward… others can follow.
“Because every drop of sweat and blood we put into advancing humanity forward, of seeking the limits of our own power, mean its that much easier for the generation that will follow us to seek even higher heights. We will be the beacon of this world’s potential, Erickson Steel. We will be the lighthouse to guide them forward.
“It will be a long and lonely Path. We will not be thanked. As I have been after my own progress, we will be feared and underestimated. We will be vilified and ostracized. We will be treated as strangers and as nuisances. The only gifts we will receive will be threats and rumors.
“But even so. But even so, this is a Path that I have chosen. Despite my fears… I continue forward. That’s my choice. That’s how I deal with my fear.
“It’s time for your choice, people of Erickson Steel. There are three responses to fear. The first is to ignore the fear and pretend like it doesn’t exist. The second is to run from the fear. And the third is to face it.
“What I’m asking of you is harder still than facing your fear. Because you cannot extinguish it. You need to harness it. Make it your fuel and engine. It is the coal and it is the long steel rails toward the horizon. It will be the cold, sharp iron on your throat and the constant companion that whispers from your shadow. It won’t let you sleep. It won’t let you stop. That’s what we need. Your fear will become your compass to rush toward that darkest chasm of impossibility.”
For the final time, Randidly paused in his speech. “Because, Erickson Steel, will we ever escape if we don’t surpass impossible? I believe that the System will always show us higher and higher threats. We cannot escape by following its rules.
“And ultimately, where do your priorities lie? In the comfort of an easy life or in the constant grip of a difficult truth? Which leads to the Earth in which you want to live?
“So, Erickson Steel, one final time, what do you fear most of all… and what are you going to do about it?”