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         Ileana squeezed his hands. She looked tired, Chess noted, but her mind seemed as clearly focused as ever. She was still bald, too, and maybe always would be, now. But Chess had never met anyone more comfortable in her own skin. “Just come back to us,” she urged.
         “And you make sure to be here when I get back,” he answered, thinking how distressingly close Razor’s compound was, by truck, even over these uncertain roads. “You know… don’t go anywhere.”
         “Even if I wanted to go - which I don’t - I would stay here for Sariel,” Ileana answered.
         But Chess was still thinking nervously about Razor. “What’s it like to love a demon?” he asked.
         Ileana laughed. “Why don’t you tell me?” she teased, with sudden merriment in her eyes.
         Then he laughed, too, albeit somewhat uncomfortably. “Oh… I wasn’t talking about Sar.” Or Gryff, he added silently to himself. “Magical creatures,” he muttered. “I should have said, ‘a dragon.’”
         Then Ileana realized whom he had meant, and her expression turned serious. “It’s terrifying.”

         Chess did not leave right away. He spent some time with Ileana, fleshing out her new plans for samiz transmissions. And he took tolerably good pictures of the wizards’ designs, and of the equipment that they had built at Lodestar.
         He also spent days with Sariel, but the time was so inadequate, for many reasons. She gave him half of the wizards’ seeds, and attempted to explain the papers, full of methods and designs, that he had photographed. “There is so much more that you should know,” she sighed.
         Basic first aid, Chess remembered from his army training, but Sariel gave him a few things from her store of medicines. She tried to familiarize him with the common edible plants, taking him out into the woods and making him choose them. And when he chose something poisonous, which seemed to happen often, even though he had been eating the plants for months now, she tried again.
         Not everything was growing yet, anyway, this early in the season. Sariel drew sketches of many of the plants for him, with notes on significant details to look for or avoid, and he promised to take the drawings with him. He also took the rest of the nutrition bars, which were not very great in number, along with some MRE’s that the artificers had stored.
         “But my survival mostly depends on whether I can be accepted by the villages I find,” he told her. “If I’m self-sufficient, I might just decide to bypass them and stay out on my own. I’m kind of fighting against my own nature, here.”
         “Your nature wars with itself,” Sariel answered softly, “Chess, the Storyteller.”

         Finally, though, the goodbye started feeling much too long. And so, on one sunny morning that held the promise of a warm summer to come, Noah was the one who walked him down the hill to the road. A small crowd of chattering village children accompanied them.
         Chess had already promised to keep up with Ileana’s transmissions, as much as he could, along with all the news from Lodestar. And, also, to send back ideas for the game, and maybe some tales of his adventures out there.
         “I’m only this far away,” Chess said, holding up his link-phone, as toddlers grabbed at his knees. And then he looked down the road, and the sudden feeling of terror must have shown on his face.
         Noah put a hand on his shoulder. “When I decided to leave civ with my family… and then when I decided to leave my family and go with you… I was never certain that what I was doing was the right thing. So far, it has been right for me.” He nodded solemnly. “But remember: just as there are many paths to God, there are so many more paths in life.”
         Chess took a deep breath. “So… how do I know I’m on the right one?”
         Noah made an impatient sound. “Are you really going to make me say something as hackneyed as ‘it’s all about the journey?’ Stop wasting time and find out.” Then he shook his head and called the children back under the archway. And Chess found himself standing alone on the road.

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Thoughts on the Heroic

Venturestein: Please Listen! Time for bloodshed over. Dawn of New Era. Soon new brothers and sisters come.
Dogface: How do you know they’ll come?
Warthog: And where do you expect to put them all?
Dogface: Seriously. Have you thought this through at all? Our capacity to absorb new immigrants?
Warthog: We have zero infrastructure!
- Venture Brothers: Venture Libre, Season 5 Episode 2

         So, who is my hero in the story? Originally it was Ileana, the leader. In its first incarnation, the story was all about her, and Chess developed as sort of a trusted friend and advisor. But I finally realized that, with that version, I was writing someone else’s story.
         My favorite heroes are not the confident ones, and they have no super powers. They are the ones who go on in spite of their fear. In reading the Kushiel’s Dart series by Jacqueline Carey, I didn’t really start to fall in love with the main character, Phaedre, until the middle of the second book. She was always entertaining, of course, but at some point in that story, I realized that her main personality trait is that she just keeps trying, regardless of the obstacles in her way. It’s true that she has considerable skills and knowledge, an almost invincible champion at her side, and the endorsement of several gods -- and most often these elements assist her -- but, whatever happens, she will try her best to accomplish her goal: no matter what she has to do, how much she has to beg, or how much contempt from other people that she has to endure.
         One of my all-time favorite scenes in a story is the test that Richard faces at the end of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. The main character anticipates this “test” to be some big, terrible ordeal -- and it is. It’s a classic modern ordeal, and it’s also as old as humanity: facing self-doubt and persevering despite it.



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