This is a tale of the ending of one such replacement.
The figure dressed in black over pale white skin walked silently down the darkened corridor, passing the nurses' station with its one lone occupant engrossed in reading a cheap romance novel. The nurse did not look up as the figure walked by.
The figure stopped before a particular door, reading the name written on the report in the holder by the door and nodding. The door swung silently open before the figure, who stepped inside and closed the door equally as silently. Inside a television set stood on a stool at the foot of a single metal bed, its pallid light playing on the man lying there; a dry voice from the television was saying "... and the pair were returned to their cells in Gotham City Penitentiary today. Meanwhile, on the international scene, in Londinium ..."
The figure spoke in a hollow, ringing voice that echoed from every corner of the room "Professor René Michaelsson?"
The man on the bed touched the remote control and muted the television, then rolled over and raised his silver-haired head to stare at the indistinct figure in the darkness of the doorway. "Who are you?" he stated impatiently in a resonant baritone only barely touched by age. "There are no visiting hours at night."
"The Night has always been my traditional visiting hours," replied the pale figure.
The man on the bed sat up, started to speak, then coughed several times; the sound of his mortality in his throat. Finally he said "Black night doth take away, Death's second self, that seals up all rest."
The figure moved into the light, revealing a man with long black hair and a pale face featuring eyes of infinite night. He tilted his head, smiling faintly. "No, I am not Death, although I expect her presence soon. I am her brother Dream, known sometimes to mortals as the Sandman."
"Ah; Care-charming Sleep, thou easer of woes, brother to Death." The man on the bed paused a moment for breath. "I was once known as the Sandman myself."
Dream nodded and smiled. "You took that name, and that of Doctor Somnambula, to hide your true identity during your career of crime."
The man on the bed shook his head as he stared into the depths of memory. "There is no need to hide now, even in this place; no one remembers those days or crimes, lost amidst the ages. Many brave men live before Agamemnon's time, but they are all, unmourned and unknown, covered by the long night, because they lack their sacred poet."
Dream stepped forward to stand beside the bed. "Not so: ofttimes memories of those days appear in the Dreaming; a time of bright colors and extravagant action when the border between Good and Evil was never more sharply defined or detailed.
"And then a dream appeared in which you were featured prominently, a dream of attempted robbery and murder which had a seed of reality in it, and I grew curious; now, I have found you."
The Sandman turned his head and glared at Dream. "I was a thief, Dream," he responded indignantly, "never a brutish robber, nor a murderer. Not like the others, like that black-clad feline minx I associated with, or," he paused, pointing at the television with the hand clutching the remote control, "or that fat waddling little man and that giggling conundrum who were returned to their imprisonment here today. It took little skill to murder, but, ah, true artistry to steal!"
He paused a long moment, staring at the Endless. "Why have you come, now?" he said finally.
Dream looked away. "To make amends. Many years ago I was imprisoned. That created a void that the universe attempted to fill." Dream returned his infinite gaze to the Sandman. "You were one attempt, a recreation of a darker aspect of myself: the thief of men's treasured hours.
"If I had not been captured, you would have remained untouched by the Universe's need, the crimes that lay upon your soul would never have been. That, at least, I can remedy."
The Sandman looked at Dream carefully. "Are you then offering me absolution, sir?"
The Sandman laughed harshly. "I long ago divorced from myself feelings of the afterlife. Absolution means nothing to me; I recognize now only death, and oblivion."
From the shadows of the doorway behind Dream a woman's voice answered "Is someone calling me?"
The sister to Dream that is Death walked from the doorway to stand with her brother beside the bed.
The Sandman looked up into the face of Death, took her hand, and kissed her fingertips. "Pale Death, the grand physician, cures all pain. I have been calling you, dear lady, to end the misery that I have not had the courage to end myself." He broke off, coughing deep in his throat. Death offered him a kleenex, and the Sandman coughed a gob of dark phlegm in it.
"And now I'm here," she replied, glancing momentarily back towards Dream, "but it seems you have a previous appointment."
"Your brother has offered me absolution in compensation for his complicity in my sins, yet I have refused him," he answered gently.
Death tilted her head and looked aside at her brother, her hand on her hip.
Dream sighed. "If you will not accept absolution, Professor, then I offer restitution." Dream drew himself erect. "It is given to all mortals who die in Dreams to reside there for as long as they desire."
"To do what, then?"
"To wander the dream countries before continuing on to their destiny, and perhaps to enter my service."
The Sandman paused a moment. "To know Dreams?" he whispered, eyes pleading.
Dream nodded. "As much as any mortal may," he replied somberly.
The Sandman leaned back onto his bed. "To know dreams," he said wistfully. "Sir, you awaken passions in me I thought long dead. Once the passion to know, to understand was the greatest thing in my life, until the passion to steal, to flaunt that knowledge became paramount."
Dream leaned over the bed. "Do you accept?"
The Sandman sighed. "I cannot but accept it, sir. Even without the presence of your sister I feel my end approaching; old age and death which are the lot of mortals is at my side even now, and I would make one last, unexpected theft from Oblivion's grasp."
"Then rest, Professor René Michaelsson; sleep, and dream."
The Sandman folded his arms across his chest. "Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas, Ease after war, death after life does greatly please."
Dream withdrew a pinch of sand from the pouch at his waist and sprinkled it on the head of the Sandman. Smiling, he closed his eyes for the final time. After a few moments, Death reached up and touched the mortal brow, and the Sandman sighed once in death.
Dream turned to go. Death punched her brother on the arm, lightly. He turned to face her. "You're learning a little responsibility, brother," she said, grinning; "‘bout time."
Dream smiled gravely and nodded.
Death winked. "Gotta go, little brother. See ya later."
She left the room as she had entered it, leaving the two who had carried the name of the Sandman alone.
Dream pulled the blanket over the head of the Sandman. "I, too, must go," he said as he pulled his cloak about his shoulders. "Fare well in the lands of Dream, Professor. We, too, will see each other, later." He turned and left the room as he had entered.