“And then I looked down. I know I shouldn’t have, but I looked down.” The bearded man loosened the neck of his robe. He was sweating and breathing quickly. “It must have been 200 feet to the bottom. All I was thinking was, I don’t want to jump, I don’t want to jump, but I kept getting closer to the edge. I’m supposed to be brave, you know, but this wasn’t like combat.” The barbarian raised his hands to his forehead, and Brandic thought he heard a sobbing sound. A female archer to the man’s left laid a hand on his shoulder.
“And then what happened?” asked another man, clad head to foot in black.
“I- I jumped. Screamed the whole way down.”
“And then?” asked the man in black. The barbarian hesitated and looked around at the dozen or so others gathered in the room. “It’s all right, Trondak. No one here will judge you.”
Trondak cleared his throat and seemed to gain a little strength. “I died. Splattered all over the stones. Resurrected at a graveyard less than a hundred yards away, then I was off to Bluerock Keep. All because it was a little faster than riding three minutes south to the footpath that leads down the cliffs.”
“Damn the Controllers! Damn them all!” shouted an angry looking bard.
Brandic turned to the man at his side. “I’m not sure this is a good idea, Graylock.”
“Dr. Andophilus works wonders. I’ve been coming here for months and wouldn’t miss a session for the world.”
“Alright, I’ll give it a chance.”
As Brandic and Graylock entered the room, all eyes turned toward them, and the dozen or so participants greeted Graylock in unison. Their glances then turned to Brandic with a mixture of suspicion and contempt. Brandic sighed; it was the usual reaction when an expert thief showed up anywhere.
“Relax, everyone. He’s combat specced,” said Graylock. The group settled a bit, although Brandic noticed a few purses clutched a little more tightly.
Dr. Andophilus motioned them toward to two empty chairs, then directed his attention at a man in a long brown robe. “In our last session, Corallo was talking about his issues with intimacy. Would you care to continue, Corallo?”
“Issues? What issues? I’m a priest. Celibate! I don’t have any issues with intimacy. What I want is to be able to have some issues.”
“You’re not missing anything,” said a slim elfin woman. “Have you even seen what happens when we take our clothes off? Undergarments. All the time. Like they’re tattooed on.” The priest slumped back in his chair as the elf continued. “Anyway, I have my own issues.”
“Go on, Telestra,” said the doctor.
“Well, I’m a woman, but my Controller is not, and he has an unhealthy fascination with the female form. So that means that I do, too. It feels so wrong. I leer at other women the whole time I’m under his Control. I could almost handle it if it wasn’t for all the juvenile remarks I end up making. Gods above! Does speech like that work upon women in the world of the Controllers? I pray it doesn’t.”
Some of the others offered words of encouragement, and Telestra seemed to respond. “It gets worse. I’m a warrior, trained to fight with sword and bow. And yet, thanks to my Controller, I am forced to go into battle like this.” She threw back the cloak that had theretofore covered her lithe elfin form. She was clad in chainmail, but the total amount of armor would have barely amounted to a double handful – her skin was mostly bare. Brandic fought back the temptation to stare given the circumstances.
“Do you call this armor? How many times have I had to die just to satisfy the strange urges of my Controller? Gods, what I would not give for a decent cuirass!”
“It could be worse,” said another elfin woman. “At least you can fight. You’re good for something. I exist only to be gawked at. Even my name is a mark of shame!”
“The fault is not yours,” said the doctor. “You did not choose to be called ‘NakedChick’ any more than the rest of us chose our names or our fates.”
“That is easy for you to say. You have a purpose – all of you do. While you’re off slaying dragons, I’m removing my clothing and dancing in front of the tavern in the hopes that passersby will throw a few coins at me. It is more degrading than I can bear.”
“That was you?” asked Telestra. “I think I tipped you five gold pieces last week.” The women stared at each other for a few moments in silence. “This is awkward,” Corallo muttered under his breath.
“OMG!!! Dat is todally teh suxxors 4U boths!! Epix fail,” said a ranger from across the circle.
“What’s wrong with him?” Brandic whispered to Graylock.
“Sad case, that one. He is under Control nearly 20 hours a day. His Controller apparently babbles such nonsense, and it is all he can say now.”
“What is his name?”
“HaxxorBoi.” Graylock shook his head sadly. He motioned towards another man, a thin-faced mage. “That one is practically in worse shape, although for a different reason.”
“Worse than HaxxorBoi? How?”
Graylock waved to the mage. “Hello, Owington. How are you?” he asked.
“Forsooth and Od’s Bodkins, sirrah, prithee referreth by mine own good name and given title, being the 14th Hereditary Earl of the Far Isles, Owington Pence-Chukker of Warble and Fyche. But by mine troth, I doth be well this fine day.”
“What the …” Brandic gasped.
“Beats me. He goes on and on about how this is not his world, and in his true world of ‘Arpeeserver’ all civilized folk talk like he does. He’s been coming here for weeks and we can still barely understand a word he says.”
“Zounds, man, what the barbarian sayeth doth be the soul of truth. This lookest to be the spirit and image of mine home, and many faces be familiar, but thine words be uncouth, as the screeching from an untun’d viol plucked upon by an insolent child.”
Graylock shrugged. Brandic noticed that the rest of the group was listening intently to their exchange while Dr. Andophilus stayed silent. Graylock had mentioned something about this being “free-form therapy,” whatever that meant.
“They did something to Owington, man. The Controllers.” It was the angry bard again. “They messed him up, did something to his head. They’ll do all of us like that sooner or later.”
“Aw, come on, Tychin. They aren’t all that bad. Owington must have just gotten hit with a few too many Curses of Confundment,” spoke another mage. This one looked truly powerful. His clothing was of the finest weave, and mystic runes danced across the fabric in glowing patterns; there for a moment, then gone the next. Lightning crackled faintly around the hem of his robes. Tucked into the crook of his arm was a carved staff, topped by a blue crystal that pulsed like a primordial heartbeat.
“‘Not that bad?’ You’re fooling yourself, man!”
“Now Tychin,” the doctor gently admonished, “is that how we validate each others’ feelings in this room?”
Tychin looked towards the floor, mumbled something inaudible, then swallowed hard and looked at the mage. “I have some problems with what you said just now, Glomerulus. How do you feel that the Controllers are not all that bad?”
“Well, I did get this staff.” As he held it aloft, Brandic could feel the hairs on his arms stand up. “I’m more powerful than ever before.”
“Oh, sure,” said Tychin. “Last week you hated the Controllers as much as I do. You get one stinking equipment upgrade, and now they aren’t so bad?” He pointed an accusatory finger at the staff and asked, “Exactly how many times did you die to get that?”
Glomerulus lowered the glowing wood and stared toward the ground. “Seventeen.” He forced a smile and glanced from person to person. “I got better, though.”
“Yeah, right,” said Tychin. “And next week, you’ll be back in the same cave, killing the same monsters that won’t stay dead. And maybe you’ll only die 14 times and get a new hat. And then you’ll do the same thing again the next week, and the next. Where does it all end, man, where does it-“
Tychin went rigid. “Aw, not now, son of a-” His expression turned blank.
“Tychin has entered the realm!” boomed a ghostly voice. The bard looked around the room, seeming not to recognize anyone sitting there. Then he turned and ran out the door. Everyone sat in uncomfortable silence for a few moments, knowing full well they, too, could be Controlled at any moment.
Graylock broke the silence. “It’s not being Controlled that I mind so much. I mean, it’s like I’m not even in my own body. I’m numb to it. It’s the other times. There is something just not right about the world.”
“Tell me more about that,” said the doctor.
“Well, I always get dropped off in the same inn, the Greentree. Every five minutes, the same guardsman comes in and has the same conversation with the innkeeper. Word for word. Identical. Every five minutes. I can recite it along with them. And these two act like they’ve never heard it before. And there’s a farmer that offers five silver pieces to anyone who will kill the giant boar that attacked his farm. There must have been ten thousand people that have come through and claimed that reward. How much money does this farmer have? Why doesn’t he just buy a safer farm, or hire a guard?”
“Hey, I remember that farmer,” said Telestra. “I think I killed that boar once.”
“So did I,” said Glomerulus.
“I pwned hiz azz 2,” said HaxxorBoi.
“Okay, this is good,” said Dr. Andophilus. “We have a substrate to build on. Graylock is experiencing feelings of alienation from his environment and is lacking a foundation for the walls of his mental tower.”
“Excuse me,” said Brandic. “‘His mental tower?'”
“Yes,” said the doctor. “We must all build towers to defend our psyches. Our bricks are positive thoughts, and our mortar is energizing emotions.”
“What a load of horse apples,” said Brandic as he stood up. “Look, the world is what it is. We didn’t make it, we didn’t set its rules and we certainly can’t change it. And that means that you’re going to have to dive off that cliff, or charge into the demon’s lair for the 17th time, or talk strangely. There’s not much use complaining, and organizing a group to complain is even worse.”
“Therapy can be a true voyage of self-discovery for those willing to commit the time and effort,” said the doctor.
“How? The elf there is still going to leer at women when she is Controlled, because she’s being Controlled. How is she going to talk her way out of that one?” Dr. Andophilus started to reply but Brandic cut him short. “And what makes you the expert anyway?”
“Well, I’m a doctor.”
“You’re the bandage trainer. I did your quests about a year ago. I remember now.”
Brandic turned to leave the room, then stopped. “You know, I came here to talk about my issues with violence and how I feel compelled to fight all the time. But somehow I don’t see it as a problem anymore.”
“Where are you going?” asked Graylock.
“To upgrade my dagger.” Brandic grinned.
“ROFLCOPTOR!” said HaxxorBoi.
Richard Hehemann is a science fiction/fantasy author and unrepentant PvE healer.