Sunday, December 11, 2016

Fiction: Goodbyes

So this story has another story behind it.

Why yes, I do think I'm clever, why do you ask? Moving on.

A little over ten years ago, I started running my first CofD (then called NWoD) tabletop game, a Promethean: The Created chronicle. I had some vague ideas, a starting point spelled out in the back of the first edition Promethean core, and some players. A couple of players dropped out early, but a few more went the distance (for as long as the chronicle lasted, at least). Those players:

Brendan Sherlock played Ander, a Frankenstein created during WWII by a Promethean working with a Nazi mad scientist (who later used their work together to turn himself into a terrifying superhuman, and was the Big Bad of the chronicle).

Nick Shomo played Steve Rogers, a Frankenstein created during WWII by a Promethean working for the government to fight Nazi mad science. (Specifically, the Nazi mad science he helped create, as that same Promethean also created Ander)

(Just for the record: Brendan and Shomo created their characters separately, but I linked their backstories for stupidly-obvious reasons)

Zac Davis played Jack Turner, an Ulgan made from a high school kid who had been sacrificed by a cult.

Greg Gay played Father John, an Ulgan who tried to understand humanity by studying religion and passing himself off as a priest. (He once accidentally inflicted the Disquiet on Evie, and when she had the standard Disquiet-driven reaction it drove him into Torment and... yeah. That leg of the story ended in a bit of a mess.)

Sean Smith played Rudolf, a Tammuz who didn't know how he'd been made or by whom for the longest time, he only thought he was some sort of swamp zombie because of where he first awoke. He later discovered that his creator had regularly been stealing his memories to study humanity vicariously.

The game went on for about a year and a half-ish, and while we didn't get to finish the full story I had planned (though for the sake of continuity with later games, I had my players approve an outline of 'future events'), it remains one of the most satisfying Storytelling experiences I've ever had. If you're curious, you can dig through my old Livejournal updates for the write-ups or the old Promethean playtesting/actual play LJ community (though you'll have to do some actual digging to find the posts there, as I have no way to easily tag them). Anyone who's followed my Chronicles of Darkness fiction will recognize that this is where most of the cast of Child of the Machine came from.

With the second edition of Promethean having just come out, I decided to do something to go back and revisit those old characters. In particular, the new rules for how to handle the Pilgrimage and milestones inspired me to imagine a story in which Alexander finally completed his Pilgrimage and moved on with existence. And then I thought "What if I had a past character show up, having become human," and a few things clicked.

See, at about this time a year ago, Shomo (his friends called him by his last name, it was mostly family and older people who called him Nick) passed away due to complications from pneumonia. The last time I saw him, he helped me move a bunch of furniture into the house I'd just purchased. And I saw the opportunity to do something to honor him in my own particular idiom.

This story contains two scenes with his character, Steve, having successfully become human and earned a happy ending. Specifically, Steve earned the happy ending that Shomo should have gotten. A lot of Shomo has gone into this new human version of Steve.

I saw an opportunity to say goodbye to him as well as providing something of an epilogue for a wonderful game I ran a decade ago, and took it.

Before we get into the story, I want to take a second to thank everyone involved in this game and every other game I've run. You've all been wonderful in your own ways (with only one or two exceptions), and you are all why I do this. Why I write, why I run games. So thank you all for that opportunity. I also thank everyone who worked on Promethean, both editions, for making that chronicle (and thus this story) possible.

(I'm including the text of the story in this blog post, but you can also find it in PDF form over at my DA page.)

A Chronicles of Darkness story by Christopher Shaffer

Mid-December 2015...
Evie looked up from the table moments before the knock at the door. She set her cards down next to the game board. In her kitchenette, Richard poked his head out while he waited for coffee to brew in the press. Even with the blinds in the window, part of the living room was bathed in alternating red and green light from a lamppost Christmas decoration outside the apartment building.
"It's almost ten. Who shows up this late?" he asked in a near-hiss.
She didn't answer. She opened the door without checking the peephole. Cool air blew in around a man appearing in his mid-twenties with dark hair, wearing a heavy trench coat and boots with a messenger bag slung over one shoulder. His hair had a crooked part, like there should have been a scar there, but none was visible. He didn't look like he'd aged since Evie had last seen him a few years ago. Both of those things were hints at his non-human nature -- which is a reductive way of saying he was literally constructed from a pair of corpses.
Even in the hallway, Evie could feel the winter chill.
"Derek-Hans!" she gasped. "Come on in, it's cold out there."
"It's worse in Chandler, but thank you," he said as he came in. "Richard, good to see you too," he said with a warm smile.
"Good to be seen, I think," Richard said with some concern. "I was just making some coffee. I've got enough for another cup. Would you like some?"
"I wouldn't mind the warm-up, sure." Derek-Hans pulled off his coat to reveal a hooded sweatshirt and sweat pants underneath. He unlaced his boots just enough to step out of them and set them by the door. "Mind if I sit down?"
"Take as much time as you need, by all means," Evie said as she gestured to the couch.
Derek-Hans sat down and rubbed his face and looked around. It was a comfy apartment, with a shared living room and dining area. Judging from the stuff on the table, it looked like he'd interrupted board game night. He also made a mental note that Evie and Richard were apparently having board game night alone. Together.
Misty will be glad to hear that when I get back, he thought with a smile. Then the thought of returning to the cabin caused the smile to fade.
He then became aware of the fact that his hosts were staring at him, and one was offering him a steaming cup of coffee.
"I don't know if you take anything in it," Richard said, holding the mug out like he was afraid it'd explode.
"Right now it's more about the warmth than anything else. I'm still not entirely sure if caffeine does anything for us outside of the placebo effect. Alexander could never develop a taste for coffee so he never bothered to test it properly. Thank you."
He took the mug and sipped. He didn't know how to judge coffee beyond 'better or worse than truck stops.' This was better.
"Are you still studying with Alexander?" Evie asked as she had a seat next to him.
Derek-Hans let out a long sigh as he pondered his next few words.
"That's what I'm here about, actually."
Evie covered her mouth with a hand, stifling a gasp. "Did something...?"
"Not my story to tell," Derek-Hans said as he shook his head. He opened up the messenger bag and handed her an envelope. Her name was written in the most dramatic cursive flourish she'd ever seen. "If you want to read it now, I'd like to be here when you finish. Otherwise, I should probably get back on the road. Other people to see."
"If this begins with 'by the time you read this,' I'm going to be very upset," Evie said, trying and failing to cover worry with sarcasm.
She opened up the envelope, read the first line, and tears shone in her eyes.
* * *
One Week Earlier...
"Rook to queen's bishop four," the smiling man said as he moved the chess piece. "That's your knight, Alexander."
The old man, fully aware of what that move meant, listened to the click and scrape of wooden chess pieces sliding around on the board. Even without eyes, he'd long learned to perceive the world by senses that most humans couldn't have even imagined. But to maintain a certain pretense, he never notified his occasional human companions of that. It would have ruined the experiment.
Alexander had white hair and a beard and wore sunglasses so dark as to be opaque, strapped to his head to prevent accidents. His skin was wrinkled and he projected every image of an old blind librarian or teacher, all sweater vests and khakis. He'd been spending more time in town, down off his mountain, using what he'd learned in his decades of existence (not quite life, not really) to ease his passage among mortals. He'd secreted himself away long enough that it was necessary to reconnect with them.
Thus his regular visits to a coffee shop where he played chess with a man of about thirty years with an easy smile and light brown hair. He had tattoos from his time in the army, when they weren't covered by the long black leather trench coat he wore in the winter weather. He was human, but he hadn't always been. Alexander mused that using his time among humans to keep an eye on a Promethean who'd achieved the New Dawn could be considered cheating.
He knew better. He'd seen what it looked like when someone tried to cheat the Pilgrimage. The man he played chess against had done everything right. And now he was as human as 99% of the coffee shop's patrons, with no recollection of how rough he'd had it. Only patchy memories of his time in Army Special Forces and all he'd done to protect the world. Which was still probably preferable to the truth: wandering decades to complete his last mission, beset by all manner of afflictions and monsters, cursed by the Earth to never rest.
The imagined horrors of a mundane human war, especially for someone fortunate(?) enough to have been 'born' with the name Steve Rogers, was almost certainly preferable to that. Human-Steve was certain that his parents had been comic geeks, blissfully unaware that Promethean-Steve deliberately adopted the name since he was literally a super-soldier created to fight Nazis.
"So whatcha got, Alexander?" Steve asked.
"Pardon me, Steven. Woolgathering," the old Promethean said with a smile. He reached out and smoothly -- but not too smoothly -- moved a bishop to a spot now unreachable by Steve's rook and where it lined up with his king. "Check."
Steve's brow furrowed. He pondered the way the board had lined up as if to work against him.
"You might actually have me," he said, eyes darting over the board.
"There is a way out. That is why it is 'check' and not 'mate.'" Alexander sat up and fidgeted with the cane he'd leaned against the table. "Actually, speaking of getting out of tight spots, how did your wrestling show go?"
"Oh man," Steve said, eyes gleaming with enthusiasm. "It was crazy, the guy I was wrestling botched a move. He was supposed to grab me and miss, but he got a really good hold and he couldn't just let go of me in front of everyone so I just came up with a..." He brought his hands up to pantomime throwing someone off of him, having forgotten that Alexander couldn't see it anyways, bumping the table slightly and moving every piece a half-inch in Alexander's direction. "Whoops, sorry, let me get that." He quickly moved to repair his mistake.
"It is perfectly alright, Steven," Alexander said with a bemused but patient chuckle.
"What?" Steve asked when he noticed the older man chuckling.
"Just mildly amused, no need to worry about it," he said as Steve finished putting everything back.
"There, I didn't put any pieces back wrong," he said with a playful tone to his voice. Alexander knew that Steve wouldn't cheat, but that his old friend liked teasing the idea that he might, just to keep other people on their toes.
"But as long as the wrestling is going well, that is what matters. Still your move."
"Right." He reached up and moved a pawn to block the bishop. "Pawn to king's knight three."
Alexander, without hesitation, reached out and made a show of fumbling over the board. He then used a pawn to take Steve's rook, revealing his carefully-placed queen. "And now that is mate."
"Aw man, that's nuts," Steve said. "Hey, you wanna play again or you gotta go? It's, like, eight."
"It is getting cold out there. I should get back," Alexander said, standing and pulling on his coat and hat. "My niece and her friend should be here in a minute." He turned towards the sound of the ringing bell over the door just as Derek-Hans came in with Misty, a blond woman with slightly-too-perfect skin. They knew to be right on time; when Alexander calculated how long he could interact with someone without infecting them with the Disquiet, they took him seriously.
"Alright, I should probably wash my wrestling mask anyways. You be careful out there," Steve said as he packed up the board.
Derek-Hans stared slightly as Alexander made his way over to the two of them.
"I will never get used to that," he whispered. "Seeing Uncle Steve as a human."
"Get used to it," Alexander said, slightly stern. "Steven is free. He succeeded. Deep down, this is what most of us want. And he gets the happy ending he worked for. He certainly deserves it," the old man said with a sigh, waving in Steve's general direction -- after all, technically he shouldn't know exactly where he stood -- before heading out with Derek-Hans and Misty.
* * *
Alexander sat in the back of Derek-Hans' clunker of a sedan as they drove back to the hill where he lived. Even with the car's heater on, he could still feel the chill through the windows. It wasn't freezing, not yet, but that bitter winter cold was as plain as when the sun shone on his face.
"Derek-Hans, Misty," Alexander began, deep in thought. "I think my time might be coming."
Misty, in the front passenger seat, immediately spun around to face him. Even with the limitations on his ability to see the world around him, he could tell her eyes were widened. She nervously gripped the back of the seat.
"Are you sure?" she asked. "Are you serious?"
"How sure can I be of anything? How sure can any of us be? But... this half-existence of mine has been going on for longer than I care to admit. I have been on and off the Pilgrimage, and I have been on the road long enough that I think I am ready to reach the end. It is in sight."
"So what are you going to do?" Misty asked. "Can we help?"
"Oh, I am certain you can. There are preparations I plan to undertake. There are some things I still need to teach before I leave the classroom," Alexander said, pointedly 'looking' at the back of Derek-Hans' head.
"Is it because of Uncle Steve?" Derek-Hans asked, either unaware of Alexander's implication or just focused on the road. "Or my Uncle Jack? Ander is pretty sure that he pulled it off, but their throng is pretty scattered and they can't be entirely sure that Jack didn't just wander off one day and break the connection."
"They would know if Jack died, I am reasonably sure of that. He always wanted off the ride as soon as possible, so it would not surprise me that he may have achieved the New Dawn without leaving a note." Alexander smirked. "Funny... I remember the Depression and Misty remembers Woodstock. Your grandfather, the Romson, made your father Ander in the late 30's and Steve in the 40's. Their companion Father John has been around for a while as well. Wanting more badly to complete the Pilgrimage rarely translates to accomplishing it faster, and yet... Jack pulled it off in what? A decade?"
"I'm a decade old as of last month. Jack was a couple of years old when I was made, so yeah," Derek-Hans said.
"But Steve is a factor." Alexander sighed. "For the longest time, I enjoyed claiming I was acting as a bodhisattva, forgoing the New Dawn so as to help others. But I think I am ready to admit that I had just grown comfortable. Complacent."
"We never really get 'comfortable,'" Misty said with a frown. "The world won't let us."
"That is just the thing!" Alexander sat up in his seat, invigorated by the conversation topic. "That is exactly my point, that I have reached a state that is at best profoundly unnatural for us." He slumped in his seat. "And even then, it highlights something else... fear."
"Fear?" Derek-Hans asked.
"Fear." Alexander nodded. "I have been alive for a long time. I am one of the Nepri, and we have a unique relationship with death. I have been to the River Styx and drank and come back. But once I become human, that will be it. Once my time comes then, once I die, I will not come back aside from reincarnation."
"You almost sound like Uncle Rudolf," Derek-Hans said. "'Why should I become a weak and fragile human when I can be a badass monster?'"
"Given who made him, are you surprised?" Misty asked, frowning. "Hand did a number on him."
"Hand 'did a number' on us all," Alexander said. "But I have hope for Rudolf. He still passes through town once a year or so."
Misty's eyes widened. "Really? But I haven't seen him in..."
"He does not stay long. Often hours at most. He comes straight to the library, asking about the Pilgrimage's merits and why it is in his best interest to get back on it. I remind him that his current path will make him into the monster that made him, but that alone is not enough to sway him. Unfortunately, I think he hopes that one day I will just have a different, better answer for him than the ones I have offered thus far."
Misty frowned. "Despite everything, a part of me misses him."
"We're Prometheans, Misty, our various parts all want all sorts of different things," Derek-Hans teased from the driver's seat.
"Enough about Rudolf," Alexander said. "At the risk of sounding selfish, I do not wish to get too caught up in figuring out his future for him. Especially when I may need help making my own preparations."
The car grew uneasily quiet, aside from the noise of the road outside.
"What can we do to help?" Derek-Hans asked softly.
* * *
The Next Day...
The cold December breeze threatened to stir the remaining crispy leaves as Alexander and Derek-Hans slowly circled the cabin that served as Alexander's library. The blind Osiran walked with a cane in case he came across uneven ground that his unnatural sight might miss. Every now and again he'd stop and point out some of the runes carved into the wood at irregular intervals. He couldn't see them, but he knew every square inch of the cabin inside and out. Derek-Hans followed along with a notebook, copying down the symbols and taking notes as Alexander gave his first formal lesson in some time.
"The individual runes in this technique will be different with a given Promethean. It is all about finding a shape to channel your own Azoth. Not only channeling and containing the Divine Fire, but venting it properly," he explained. "It takes some trial and error but once you know the technique, you can maintain a place like this more or less indefinitely without destroying it. You can even use it to contain some of your Fire so as to protect the world from it. I wish I'd perfected and finished the technique sooner."
"Does it only work if you build the place yourself?" Derek-Hans asked. "I mean, I know you were here when the cabin was built to begin with."
"The adapted feng shui techniques might be a little trickier, but I am reasonably sure it would still work. At least, I hope so, since I am giving this place to you when I... leave."
"Are you sure about that? I mean, I think we always assumed it'd pass on to me since you don't have any other proteges at the moment, but..."
"I am sure." Alexander turned to face Derek-Hans. "I have no extant progeny of my own, and even if I thought that lineage alone was enough to qualify someone I am certainly not going to try and make someone fresh now. I worry that doing so at this point might take on more sin than my new soul can necessarily handle."
"So does that mean it's no longer the 'Library of Alexander?'" Derek-Hans asked, wistfully.
"Perhaps it is a shred of ego but I do hope you keep the name. Use it as an excuse to tell stories about me and my wisdom." Alexander gave the younger Promethean a smile that was still vague enough that he couldn't quite tell just how serious his mentor was.
"I could change my name, you know," Derek-Hans said. "Go full 'Dread Pirate Roberts' with it."
"That is your decision, but I would rather you did not," he said with a frown. "Our names are one of the few things we really have in this world. Whether it is good for my ego or not, I do not approve of giving away something of yourself."
"Even if it was given to me by my father?"
"It still helps define who you are and where you come from. It is your name to change if you so wish, but if you do so let it not be just for my sake." He paused for a beat. "Consider that a dying wish."
Derek-Hans, much to his own surprise, recoiled slightly at that thought.
"Please don't say it like that," the young Frankenstein said.
"It is something we will have to face," Alexander said, his voice only slightly shaking as he addressed the elephant in the room. "When this is done, assuming I succeed, the Alexander you have known since your creation will cease to be. At best there will be someone different available with my memories. Someone who can interact with normal humans without putting in the effort into making sure they remain sane and rational and unafraid." He suddenly sounded -- and felt -- so very old as he continued. "At worst... At worst I will vanish into the sunrise, never to be seen again."
He grew quiet for several moments, and Derek-Hans just awkwardly cleaned up the rune sketches in his notebook.
"It is one thing to say it... to say that I am going to die. It is another to really talk about it, is it not?" Alexander said, his voice just above a whisper.
Without another word he turned to head back into the cabin, his steps slower now, the hand on his cane shaking slightly.
* * *
Alexander stood in a darker corner of the cabin. Sunlight shone through the windows, letting motes of dust dance in the still air. The Promethean, for all of his tricks and techniques for seeing without eyes, had to trust that the dust was there. Not even he could sense it, but the visual had been described enough times by friends and in books that he just had to take it on faith.
A tarp covered a shape roughly the size and profile of a slightly misshapen coffin. He'd run his hands over the device underneath many times, studied every square inch. He'd read accounts of the obscure machines, and written down everything that he had learned about this one. He was a little dismayed to learn that his own writings literally comprised more material than all of the accounts he'd picked up from various Rambles over the years.
The Flamel Capsule in front of him, one of maybe a half-dozen in existence, was something invented by a Frankenstein he knew as the Romson, someone who had been a member of his throng for some time. He never knew that the Romson had been the inventor of the wondrous devices until long after he'd used one to become human and vanished into an insane asylum. Why an asylum? Why had his New Dawn been so tainted? Because the Romson had cheated. Stories told that Flamel Capsules could be used to help a Promethean cap off their metaphorical journey and finish the final alchemies of the Pilgrimage but the Romson had used his creation to skip a few steps out of desperation.
The Romson was gone now, having sacrificed himself to put right a cosmic balance he'd upset years before. He left things such that resolving it required the assistance of two of his creations, Ander and Steve, and their companions Father John, Jack Turner, and Rudolf. This is what brought them to Chandler a decade ago, what led Evie to take a more active role in the supernatural influences swirling around her. Alexander wasn't there for the entirety of it, but by accounts it was a pretty major clusterfuck.
But on the other hand, it was that quest that brought Derek-Hans into existence and having the young Promethean as a student had stirred loose feelings Alexander thought he had long discarded. He'd created progeny a couple of times but never properly mentored them. He didn't know if they or their descendants lived. He'd just spent most of his last few decades caring for his library and offering wisdom to the Created who came along. Only a handful had stayed with him as a throng, and even then most of those were gone now. But Misty was a true friend and companion and Derek-Hans would surely surpass him as a font of Promethean wisdom, so he considered himself very fortunate.
Alexander prodded the Flamel Capsule through the tarp with his cane a couple of times. Derek-Hans was the 'grandchild' of the Romson, through Ander. And the Romson himself was a direct creation of the famous monster built by Victor Frankenstein himself. Quite the lineage, so to speak.
Alexander pondered this because while he himself had been more interested in studying the Flamel Capsule than tinkering with it, he could see Derek-Hans taking up the work in refining and perfecting it. And for the first time, he realized that by becoming human, there would be a chance he would miss something. He would miss the brilliant alchemist Derek-Hans could one day become.
Alexander almost dropped his cane, lost in that thought and reeling from the implications. He wasn't just leaving something behind, but giving something up. It wasn't just about the past anymore. There was a future he was abandoning, and he couldn't be as sure as he'd like that the future would be kept without him.
He scowled at no one in particular when he realized how egotistical that thought seemed.
The familiar presence of the Divine Fire approached. Someone knocked at the door, and opened it without waiting for a reply.
"Alexander?" Misty asked as she came in with a messenger bag slung over one shoulder.
"Did Derek-Hans send you?" he asked, more curious than judgmental.
"He mentioned you just holed yourself up in here a couple of hours ago but he didn't want to interrupt your thoughts." The blond moved to the table and set the bag down. "I'm here because I found what you're looking for."
She pulled out a small wooden box, big enough to hold a pair of glasses. Alexander, all but wrenched out of his solemn mood, quickly moved to sit at the table. He reached out and ran his fingers over the box.
"That is walnut, is it not?" he asked, more thinking out loud than anything else. "How... how do they look?"
Misty squirmed slightly, uncomfortable.
"They're nice, I guess? I don't really know how to judge."
Alexander opened the box and felt the soft fabric lining under his fingertips as he sought out the two cool glass orbs in appropriately-sized depressions. He picked one up and turned it around in delicate fingers, admittedly not quite sure how to judge the craftsmanship either but he suspected they would do just fine. He put it back.
"Have you considered what I asked, if you will be able to help me with them?"
Misty squirmed. "I'm not sure if I should be trusted to put those in. Maybe I'm better at it than Derek-Hans would be, but I wonder if you should track down someone you know with more medical experience. Maybe Ander?"
Alexander considered that.
"Send out word on the grapevine. But I do not wish to wait too long. I have put this off long enough. If we do not at least hear from him soon, we get on with it." He closed the box and stood up. "Where is Derek-Hans now? I should apologize for being abrupt with him."
"He's in town, getting the other stuff you wanted." She watched as Alexander picked his cane back up and went to get his jacket. "Do you want me to come with you?"
"I appreciate the offer, but I think I would still like a little time alone with my thoughts."
* * *
Alexander walked slowly through downtown Chandler. He swept his cane back and forth in front of him and played up walking with slow steps to keep up the illusion of his blindness. It was one of a few defense mechanisms he'd developed to try and keep normal humans at a far enough distance so they'd be less likely to notice just how unnatural he was.
His sharp senses picked up shouting a block ahead, and dread sat heavy in his gut. He was only a short distance away from the pharmacy, where Derek-Hans would have been getting things from his 'shopping list.' Even from here he could sense Derek-Hans' Azoth, the Divine Fire that fueled the Promethean condition. He resisted the urge to just grab his cane and just run as best he could, but he did pick up the pace.
The shouting grew louder as he approached the pharmacy door and he quietly let himself in. Derek-Hans stood in the aisle, confronted by one of the pharmacists and a pair of other customers. In one hand he held a pair of plastic shopping bags bulging with boxes. Another of the store's employees, the checkout girl, stood back away from what even a blind man could see would be impending violence. Derek-Hans' head turned slightly in Alexander's direction, having sensed him coming in.
"Weirdos like you who keep coming into town from wherever are the reason why business is down," the pharmacist said, holding a broom like cudgel. "What is it you need all this gauze and salt for, any way?"
"Maybe we don't want you here," a customer in flannel and a trucker's hat said. "Maybe you're making things hard on good and decent folks."
Derek-Hans reflexively cringed away, not wanting trouble but even more afraid of lashing out. Alexander wanted to step in, but knew that this wasn't a problem that could be solved by talking. Derek-Hans had been here a little too often lately and it had slowly rubbed off on the locals. Alexander could sense where the Disquiet that dogged Prometheans' existence had infected them. As much as he wanted to help Derek-Hans, he knew that his student would have to learn to do this without him.
"I'm not... I'm not doing anything wrong," Derek-Hans said, his voice wavering between placating and confident. "There aren't a lot of pharmacies in town or else I'd be there instead."
"So what, you're going to drive away my customers and then fuck off to somewhere else?" the pharmacist asked, eyes wide.
Derek-Hans glanced around, trying to gauge his chances of getting to the door if he just made a run for it. He wasn't quite boxed in, but his odds weren't great of getting out without hurting someone. Despite wanting to let Derek-Hans handle this, Alexander was sorely tempted to at least create a distraction.
Before he could do anything, the pharmacist grabbed for Derek-Hans' sweatshirt. He caught the man's wrist and Alexander could feel the power flow through him.
No, please, not here, he quietly, desperately thought.
But his fears were unfounded; Derek-Hans channeled the power into himself rather than release it through his body, like biting his tongue rather than speak. But he also channeled the Disquiet around himself, redirecting it to the pharmacist. He lightly shoved the man back.
"Maybe it's not on me," he said, bolder now, looking the man in the eye as everyone else's glares turned in the pharmacist's direction. "Maybe it's your customer service attitude."
That gave him just enough distraction to make a break for it, as everyone else considered that maybe the pharmacist was the problem in this after all. Derek-Hans tightened his grip on the bags and briskly walked out of the store. Alexander followed close behind.
"Deftly handled, Derek-Hans," he immediately said once they were outside.
The young Frankenstein whirled on him and shoved the plastic bags full of boxes into the old man's chest. "Thanks for the help," he snarled before turning and stomping off.
Alexander sighed. He knew that was somewhat deserved, and it wasn't entirely Derek-Hans talking; that swallowing the effects of his power stoked the Divine Fire and the frustration within. But it still hurt. He looked around the nearly-empty street, properly arranged his grip on the bags, and started shuffling back towards the end of town where 'his' hill was.
I don't feel as bad about 'leaving' now, he thought to himself. I just hope I can pull this off before Derek-Hans is driven off. The sooner I go, the sooner he can wait in the cabin for all this to die down. The sooner I am human, the sooner it will be safe for him there.
* * *
Alexander felt Derek-Hans' Divine Fire through the walls moments before the door opened. Derek-Hans came in to find him standing next to the table, arranging boxes of gauze and containers of salt next to the wooden case that Misty had acquired. Underneath the table was a plastic cooler, a number of gallon jugs of water, and an inflatable raft.
"I am sorry about earlier," Alexander immediately said as Derek-Hans came in, without turning to face him. "I wanted to help, but I... I was afraid that on some level I would be doing all this for you. I wanted to trust you to stand on your own two feet."
"Well, they're someone's feet, at least," Derek said with a forced chuckle. "I guess they're mine now. Alexander, I'm sorry I snapped at you. It was just, what happened..."
"You do not need to apologize," Alexander said as he turned to face his student. "Not in the slightest. I have been where you are, and... I have spent too much time where I was earlier, watching from behind a shelf. I have spent too much time here in the world, with my tricks for avoiding situations like what happened earlier." He opened his mouth like he wanted to say more, but the words just left him.
Derek-Hans offered him a faint, appreciative smile.
"So where are we at?" Alexander asked, changing the subject and rubbing his hands together.
"Well, we've got the salt, the wrappings, the glass eyes and I'm pretty sure the stuff to put them in. I am really hoping that works, by the way."
"And I as well," Alexander said with a nod. "While I have no doubts that my new body will be able to function without sight, it will likely not be as efficient and well..." He shook his head. "I may as well be out with it. It is another concession to my ego, or my ego yet to be. Hoping that the Divine Fire makes the eyes real and part of my new being."
"You think it might?" Derek-Hans asked.
"I have heard of stranger things from the Divine Fire on a regular basis," he answered confidently. "If even a quarter -- a tenth of them -- are true, I would be foolish not to trust in the Principle to make this right. To make me whole."
Derek-Hans grew quiet and nodded. He grabbed a folded map and opened it up on the table.
"I think we found a good place to... leave you when it happens. Misty's out getting you some clothes. You'll want something warm for what you've got planned."
Alexander's brow furrowed and he fidgeted with his beard, a rare tic. "Where is this going to happen?" he asked after a moment's thought.
"Kaw Lake, about two hours north of here. I was thinking we go out right before sunrise, so that by the time the process is finished it you'll be less likely to freeze to death before you fully come to."
As Derek spoke, Alexander pulled the plastic cooler out from under the table and poured a bunch of the salt into it. He listened carefully to the sound of the grains, measuring it by the sound for several moments before he stopped. He grabbed a jug of water and poured it into the tub, following it with a second. He took a couple of minutes to stir it with his cane.
"We soak the gauze for a couple of days in that," Alexander said. "Normally this takes 70 days to do, but this is just using some of the symbolism of the ritual. After all, I am not certainly going to remove my remaining organs."
Derek-Hans winced at that. "So how much longer, then?"
"Two days. We will wait two days. I have asked Misty to try and track down your father, to get his help with the eyes. But if he cannot make it, then you two will make do. I..." He stopped and shook his head, nervously chewing his lip.
"Alexander, if you want we can wait. We can do this in the spring or summer when it will be war--"
"No!" the bearded man said, thumping the wet tip of his cane down onto the floor. "No. I apologize for snapping, Derek-Hans, but... As scared as I am of where I am going. The new world ahead of me. Of failure. I am more afraid of losing my nerve and remaining like this." He licked his lips. "Two days. No longer, unless Ander can make it with swiftness."
"Okay, okay," Derek-Hans said, holding his hands up placatingly. He didn't want to give up the argument, but he knew better. "Then what do we do in the meantime? Just wait?"
"I will need you to give me a ride into town. There is someone I need to talk to first."
"Wait, talk to? Who?" Derek-Hans asked as if he suspected the answer instinctively. "When?"
"May as well do it now." Alexander picked up Derek-Hans' burner cell phone and handed it to him. "Give Misty a call and have her meet us at the bottom of the hill with the car."
* * *
Alexander's bony knuckles rapped against the apartment door. He held his cane in the other hand and rested it against his hip, hearing someone shuffling around inside. A tall paper shopping bag rested at his feet. The door opened.
"Steve, is that you?" he immediately asked, already knowing the answer but still keeping that pretense.
"Hey, Alexander, what's happening?" Steve asked, more than a little surprised. "Don't normally see you more often than once a week, once every couple of weeks. I didn't even know you knew where I lived. You wanna come in?"
"I am afraid I cannot stay for more than a few minutes, but I wished to speak to you. I know this is highly unusual." Alexander tried his best to keep his voice as even as he could. If he lost it, if he made this sound like it was more than the story he'd rehearsed in his head, he didn't know -- couldn't know -- what he'd do or say.
Steve just gave him an oblivious but friendly smile. If he suspected anything was up, he didn't show it. He just remained quiet to let Alexander talk.
"Steven, I am going to be leaving town for some time. My niece is taking me to get a medical procedure done, something that might be able to restore my sight for whatever time I have left. It is very experimental, and there will be significant aftercare. I do not know when I will be back." The unspoken 'or if' hung in the air between them.
"Oh man, that's crazy. I'll miss you, you should write me." He remembered Alexander was blind. "You know what I mean."
"I did not want to take off without saying goodbye. I could not just do that to you. But I wanted to thank you for your friendship, and your kindness. And that time you helped me with that furniture. For reasons it would take too long to explain, it is a memory I treasure."
"That wasn't a big deal, nothing special," Steve said, trying not to sound too bewildered. "Just a normal day."
Exactly, Alexander thought but didn't say. And I'm proud and a little jealous of you for getting to have that before me.
"I brought you something to thank you for the time we spent together," Alexander said as he fumbled for the shopping bag and handed it over to Steve. "An old friend of mine left that with me some years ago, and I felt you would appreciate it."
The 'old friend' was another Promethean, created in the same WWII-era project that created Steve, also by the Romson. He was simply known as 'The Boy' for a few reasons, and died a decade ago by the same unfinished business that Steve himself tried to complete. Steve and The Boy had been comrades, once upon a time.
Steve pulled an old wooden chess set out of the bag, a board that folded in half to become a case for the pieces. It was more than possible that Steve had played chess against The Boy on this very board. He turned it over in his fingers, and Alexander had to imagine the details of his facial expression. Was he surprised? Confused? Did he know what he had? Was there a gleam of recognition for a life long left behind? Alexander clenched his jaw in mild frustration at not being able to know. His peculiar senses let him read books, with effort, but not faces.
"How... old is this?" Steve asked as he carefully turned the chess set around in his fingers. "This is an antique, I can't take this."
"It belonged to a soldier I knew. He brought it back from Germany in World War II. It felt right to make sure another soldier got to take care of it. You were -- are -- a lot like him." Alexander frowned at his verbal stumbling.
"Thanks a lot, Alexander. I don't know what to say besides that."
"That is enough, Steve. Set that down and give me a hug before I go, okay?" the Promethean asked, leaning his cane against the wall and opening his arms wide.
Steve reached over and set the board down on a table just inside the apartment door and stepped out to wrap his arms around the small old man. Alexander just held him close, glad he didn't have functioning tear ducts.
"Thank you," he said softly as he released the hug. "Thank you f-for everything, Steven. Take... take care of yourself. Have fun with your wrestling." He suddenly stood at attention and gave Steve a stiff salute, and smiled when Steve reflexively returned it, briefly forgetting that he shouldn't be able to see it.
Alexander reached out and reclaimed his cane, not bothering to fumble for it, and turned to go. Steve watched him from the apartment door until he was out of sight, before he went back to that normal, happy life he'd earned.
* * *
Alexander rode in the back of the car as Derek-Hans and Misty drove him out to Kaw Lake. Next to him, a cooler held the salt water solution and the strips of gauze soaking in it. A suitcase sat on the floor in front of it, containing the rest of the supplies that they would need.
"We found a fleabag motel where we can set things up, Alexander," Derek-Hans said as he drove. "We'd love to leave you directly in the lake, but when I looked a little closer it turns out that it's a reservoir with a dam. That'll teach me to skimp on online research. So we're going to release you just south of the dam where there's a current, okay?"
"That should be fine," Alexander said. "The Principle will take care of the rest. I am sure of it."
Derek-Hans gave Misty a look.
"Are you sure, Alexander?" Derek-Hans asked. "I mean... look. I can't help but be a little wary of the cosmic force that keeps us trapped and miserable."
"The Principle also guides us in our Pilgrimage, Derek-Hans," Alexander said with a frown. "It does not always seem like it, but in time you will come to have faith in the brushstrokes of the bigger picture."
"Alexander, I love you, but that metaphor's a bit stretched," Misty said. "But Alexander's right, D.H. If this works, I honestly doubt Alexander would achieve his New Dawn just in time to die from it. And if it doesn't work, he's an Osiran. He'll live."
"If this fails, you two will definitely hear from me one way or another very soon. If it does not... if I succeed... in case I do not get a chance to tell you before we complete this, I want to thank you both. For sticking by me, for helping me... and for being my family."
They all sat for a moment in silence at a red light to let that sink in.
"Is there anything we can do after you're gone that we haven't already gone over?" Misty asked, her voice very small.
"Yes. One more thing. Derek-Hans, I have left a box of letters back at the cabin, next to the old typewriter. Some of them are for Prometheans we know, in case they pass through Chandler or you can find an address for them. Rudolf. Ander. Father John. Some others. Even one for Jack, should he turn up. Not that he will. There are some I wish for you to deliver personally, however."
"Okay..." Derek-Hans said, giving Misty another glance and looking briefly at Alexander in the rearview mirror.
"One is for Evie, and I want you to deliver that first. The others are for fellow Created in other cities, and I have left notes on the envelopes on how to find them. Can you do this?"
"Absolutely," Derek-Hans said without hesitation.
"In case you two are wondering, I did not hide any final goodbyes to you two, because it does not seem necessary. I would like to think we have left nothing unsaid between us, and if we do I am saving it for a dramatically appropriate moment on the shore." He gave them a playful smile that had become more common in recent days, when he wasn't drifting in and out of a maudlin funk.
* * *
The salt in the gauze wrapped around Alexander's eyes itched into the wounds from the improvised surgery. The unfamiliar weight of glass eyes in formerly-empty sockets threw off his balance ever so slightly. The operation itself had gone without a hitch, Derek-Hans and Misty carefully removing the near-invisible stitching that kept his eyelids shut and jamming the eyes into his head. He couldn't see, of course. Not yet. But if this worked, if the Principle did what the stories said it could, they would be flesh and goo by this time tomorrow.
Of course, when it came to the Principle, all there was to go on were the stories. Prometheans' tales of achieving rebirth, making Pandorans, encounters with beings made purely of the Divine Fire... those aren't exactly collected in peer-reviewed trade publications. It added a level of uncertainty to everything one of the Created could do that certainly didn't encourage Alexander to remain part of that cycle any longer.
The salt burning his face and the weight in his head threw off his senses, so for the first time in decades he had Misty lead him through the woods. Up ahead he could hear the water of the Arkansas River, the gushing of the dam off in the distance. Just ahead of them, Derek-Hans carried the cooler. It had been drained, and the salty gauze inside was still damp. Aside from what had been wrapped around his head to keep his new eyes in their sockets.
The Osiran had discarded his usual librarian-chic for something warm and durable. Flannel shirt, jeans. Long underwear underneath. He couldn't recall the last time he'd gone to such trouble. But the other two had been right, doing this in winter was going to be dangerous. But he wished to wait no longer. It had gone on long enough.
Alexander could feel the breeze on his face as they emerged onto the shore. The river ran before them, the sound of the flowing water for some reason reminding him of someone trying to steady their breathing while waiting for something. Derek-Hans set down the cooler.
"This is it," he said as he opened it up to reveal the gauze wrappings and a folded-up, inflatable raft. "We're going to wrap you up, use this to set you floating, and let the rest take care of itself."
"Understood," Alexander said. As Derek-Hans began inflating the raft with a pump, the old Promethean turned to Misty. "Misty..."
"Please, do we have to?" she asked, her voice shaking.
Alexander reached up to brush a tear off of her cheek, correctly deducing the tear's existence.
"There will be no other time," he said, firm but not harsh. "Misty, we have known each other for decades. You have stuck with me through Hand's betrayal, The Boy's death, the others... we have been many things to each other. Confidante, lover, friend. I love you and will miss you, but even moreso I am sorry to rob of you yet another friend."
"Don't... don't apologize for that, Alexander." He could hear her sad smile in her voice. "Principle willing, we'll see each other again one way or another. Maybe with luck, and effort, and who knows what else, I'll be able to join you in the 'Became Human' club."
"Principle willing," Alexander said with a nod, knowing she didn't fully believe but appreciating her at least taking him seriously.
"Anyway, it's not like you're dying. You're winning the lottery and moving on," she said as she choked back a sob. "It's only a matter of time, y'know?"
"Yes, I know."
She wrapped her arms around him in a tight hug, tight enough he couldn't easily get his arms back around her. They stood there quietly for a few moments as Derek-Hans fidgeted with the raft. It wasn't long before he finished what he was doing and tapped Alexander on the shoulder. Misty reluctantly released him.
"I will miss seeing the brilliant alchemist you will become, Derek-Hans," Alexander said as he held still and let his protege wrap him up. "Your father will be very proud, and I wish I could be there for that. But we have been over the fact that I must go. It is time."
Derek-Hans just kept wrapping, feeling more and more like he was participating in some sort of prank, given that he looked like he was wrapping Alexander up like a cartoon mummy. His jaw clenched slightly as he bit back a frustrated remark.
"I have been a terrible bodhisattva. I have taught you well, but I have put so much effort into showing you my path I may have unintentionally obscured yours. I have taught you long enough, I think, and it is time you learn from someone who knows what they are doing. And you will know your path better than anyone else could."
"I always thought you knew what you're doing," Derek-Hans said, the mood robbing the fire from his argument.
"I thought I knew what I was doing, too." Alexander smirked. "First rule of, well, anything: Always assume that people do not know as much as they think they do. That includes yourself."
"Does that mean that you're unaware you're making a huge mistake by doing this in the middle of winter?" Derek-Hans asked with a forced chuckle.
"I will miss this," Alexander said with a sigh. "But it is time to go while I miss it. But what I mean is 'trust yourself.' Consider you may be wrong, but trust your feelings nonetheless. I am sure that as soon as I am gone you will start coming up with..." He cut himself off and shook his head. "We must get this over with."
"We love you, Alexander. We will remember you. You will always be a part of our stories and our Rambles. If Misty and I have anything to say about it, a decade from now your name and the library will still be known to our people. I promise you that," Derek-Hans said, trying so hard to sound brave as he wrapped Alexander in the salty bandages.
"If I am extremely lucky, that thought will somehow carry through to my new life. Thank you," he said as the last of the bandages covered his face.
Derek-Hans and Misty leaned Alexander back and picked him up, setting him on the raft and carrying him on it like a stretcher to the water. The river flowed quickly, ready to carry him away. They set the raft in the water and watched it start to drift off as Alexander silently squirmed and tried to get comfortable. Derek-Hans looked up to the gray sky.
"If you're listening," he began. "You fucking take care of him. This better work. He better be fine. Or I don't care what or where you are, I will find you and show you what lightning is."
"Who are you talking to? The Principle?" Misty asked. "God?"
"Doesn't matter what's listening, as long as it is," Derek-Hans said as he looked back at her.
They turned back to the river, watching as the raft approached a bend. Alexander had stopped moving, and just as the raft started to turn the flow of water threw off its balance or something and they watched Alexander tumble into the river. They immediately moved as if to run and help, but then they saw it...
A light, beneath the water. Something glowing brightly, continuing to move downstream. Something human-sized.
* * *
By the time you read this, I will be human.
Even as I type those words, it seems surreal. I have been known to see the future more clearly than the present for a number of reasons, and even then seeing a future in which I have become mortal is a blurry and confusing time.
I have experienced a great deal of this world, and to share even a summary of everything I have learned with someone would take at least a week of continuous speaking with breaks for rest. But for everyone, there reaches a time to step away from what you know into a new and frightening and glorious unknown. Do not weep, because the only difference between me becoming human and you leaving Chandler are a matter of scale and perhaps time.
I do not yet know if I will recall my history. I do not yet know if I will remember you should we meet again. I do not know where I will end up once my process has completed. I do hope, though, that if we see each other you will know me and I will be kind.
Our friendship over the years has been difficult. Our ability to safely interact has waxed and waned with time, as the circumstances of your unique birth have made themselves known. But I want you to know that I have treasured our interactions, if for no other reason than the fact that for periods of your life you were a human I could speak with without having to fear for your safety. And maybe, some day, we will meet again in my new life and things will be new and different and interesting in a way the world has not been for some time.
I just ask you to do a few things after I'm gone. First, take care of your friend Richard. Having connections like that is one of the biggest things driving me and those like me to achieve the New Dawn. Second, try to find the time to revisit Chandler. Misty would love to see you, and I think it would be good for you to meet with Steve Rogers. He has become human and remembers nothing of his old life but seeing him freed of the burdens of Azoth is striking and even a little inspirational.
Third, I know you still have nightmares of what you experienced when Steve's throng came through Chandler. If you have not yet found it in your heart to forgive Father John for the scare he gave you, please do so.
I have long held a jealousy of humanity. For having and often squandering what so many of us wished to achieve. But I am no longer jealous, as I will get to experience it all for the first time even if I do not realize I am doing so. What I am saying is that perhaps you should be jealous of me? It is difficult to say.
All that is behind me. For me, there is no past, only stories. There is no present, only possibilities. The sky is the limit, and in that sky I can see the New Dawn as it creeps up over the horizon. Forgive the tortured metaphor.
Thank you. And take care.
* * *
Evie lowered the letter, holding it unsteadily into one hand and quietly weeping into the other. The enormity of it overwhelmed her. Richard was torn between moving to comfort her and keeping an unsure eye on Derek-Hans. He grew less and less comfortable with the Frankenstein's presence, and the stress was starting to show.
Derek-Hans recognized that the situation was provoking Disquiet, and he debated whether to take his leave or make a suggestion to Richard. He knew the latter was what Alexander would do, but then he'd seen Alexander try that and have to render Richard unconscious anyways. Of course, Alexander had decades to master Disquiet-management techniques, and--
"Derek-Hans, thank you," Evie said softly, snapping him out of his analysis. She folded up the letter and set it aside. She leaned in and gave Derek-Hans a hug. A brief one, but a hug nonetheless.
He felt a warmth inside him, a bit of human contact that reminded him why he was on the Pilgrimage himself. It reminded him of what Alexander had worked for, and hopefully accomplished. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath and etched that moment into his memory.
Elsewhere, he could hear Richard tensing up at the hug. There wasn't any particular audio cue, not even Richard's breathing changed, but it was like his teeth were rattling from a noise that was too high-pitched to hear. He gently disengaged the hug, for all of their safeties.
"I should be going," Derek-Hans said. "But thank you for the time and the coffee and the hug." He stood up.
"I don't want to send you back out into the cold night," Evie said with a frown as she also stood.
"I appreciate the thought, but I can handle it. We're a hardy lot. I've got the light of my own internal fire to guide me, and such." He made a show of thumping his chest once. Then he stopped. "Wait a minute. Phosphorum. Alexander wouldn't teach that one, he thought it was..."
"Derek-Hans?" Evie asked.
"Nothing, I..." He gave her a big grin. "I just figured out how to help Rudolf. I gotta run, so I can deliver the rest of these and get home."
He quickly pulled his boots and coat back on, lacing and zipping everything up. There was a palpable excitement in his eyes and if she didn't know any better Evie would be sure she saw them glowing with his eagerness. Of course, they might have been glowing anyways. It was tough to tell at times.
Richard already had the door open for Derek-Hans by the time he was fully ready to go.
"Be careful, okay? Even as 'hardy' as you are," Evie said. "And please, when you get a chance, write a letter and tell me more about what happened with Alexander? His letter was light on details. Just, y'know..." She glanced at Richard. "Mail it this time."
"Will do," the Frankenstein said, giving her a thumbs-up as he ducked out into the hall. He didn't bother looking back when the door closed, ready to feel the winter wind on his face once more.
* * *
Elsewhere, a few days earlier...
Alex Binder opened his eyes and immediately winced at the bright morning sun. Why did he think it was a good idea to sleep on the shore of the lake the night before? God, his eyes hurt. He must have come out and tied one on. And in the middle of winter, no less.
He sat up, able to feel where his clothes had been damp but since dried by, presumably, the sun. Flannel shirt, jeans, boots. He got up with a stretch and looked around. Nobody else was nearby, and the only other thing that stood out were scraps of what looked like charred gauze scattered along the shore.
What had happened the night before? Did he get blackout drunk and burn something?
Didn't matter. He just wished he wore a watch or something so he'd know what time it was. He was supposed to have a job interview today at a local library. Having that ahead of him put a spring in his step as he began a jog back into town proper. It was a new day, after all.

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