Note: This is, in fact, a remake of an earlier work of mine, the incomplete and horribly titled "After the Fall". My aim is the same, but the tales I tell will no doubt end up being very different from those I originally wrote. Somehow, I doubt anybody still remembers my old work, but, you never know.

--

Before the world went to hell, the last thing Strago managed to eye was his young granddaughter. She was falling, screaming, perhaps crying. As she floated away, carried by winds of ill fortune, the old man couldn't tell.

And then he was thrown, darkness taking his sight for a time. The reverberating howl of air, rushing by his aged ears, pushing his spiky crown of hair back against his skull, turning his clothes into a crimson streak, pushed Strago far beyond the bounds of comprehension.

And then he lost all consciousness. The black that enveloped his eyes did the same for his very mind. Dully, subconsciously, his weathered body registered the fact that Strago was deep underwater, and his gnarled hands pulled him above the crashing waves. Beleaguered lungs dragged at air, grasping for life. All around him was a dull, echoing roar.

Time passed.

--

It was not until a small poking sensation jarred Strago's shoulder that his body decided he'd been under for too long. Slowly, swimming through the void of sleep, he sought out for the source of the disturbance – but consciousness remained aloof, elusive. Where was it? Strago called out for it, seeking life, seeking light –

And suddenly, as though slapped heavily, Strago leapt up, crying out in distress the name of his granddaughter. Where was she, why was she gone, where are you Relm? And only several restraining hands managed to drag the old man back down onto a dirt-encrusted cot. He struggled a few moments longer, eyes gazing about wildly, before resuming the still, twitchy motions of fatigue. He collapsed, bereft of strength, and slept.

His overseers feared for him. He'd been asleep for nearly two months now, and this was the first sign of life he'd ever shown; not a good start.

--

Strago's next foray into the world of light would come a scant few hours later. His outburst of emotional power heralded the far more controlled, rational awakening witnessed by his saviour. His eyes, heavy-lidded with despair, rose with great laboriousness. Relm's name came not in screams but whispers, and with his dawning recognition that his beret-studded granddaughter came the glimmers of cognisance.

His dwelling, such as it was, came in the form of a rather dilapidated hut. The roof, made of poorly hewn straw, bore numerous holes through which poured the red light of twilight. Battered utensils of all kinds lay strewn about, some lying on scratched tables, others left carelessly on the grimy floor. The door could hardly be termed as such, for it was little more than an irregularly cut hole. Strago's very resting place was a cloth stretched across what felt like a hard wooden plank: in fact, it was the remains of an old Jidoor style dresser, converted into a cot. But he had no way of knowing that.

Strago drank this all in slowly, hardly rising from his makeshift bed. He hadn't the energy for such things at current. For intermingled in all this was the realization that Strago had failed his little Relm, who, for all he knew, was currently smashed up against a jagged outcropping of rocks. Or sitting amongst the contents of some venomous sea serpent. Or the skin pillow of a jovial madman. A multitude of possibilities flickered amongst the crevices of his aged mind, and the thought of it all threatened to drag Strago back underneath the waves of despair. His wrinkled brow sagged back to the blanketed surface of the cot.

Were it not for the presence of his saviour, whom Strago had not yet even noticed, huddled in the corner of the hut, seated on a damp cushion, the mage probably would've given in then and there. But no. She, small and timid, yet unquestionably bold, leapt up from her hiding place, rushed to his side, and shook him violently. Her strength far outweighed the size of her frame, small and emaciated. Somehow persuaded to rise back to the world, Strago raised an eyelid in response to her entreaties.

Small, tanned, thin, and covered by a long black mane of hair. This was the sight that greeted the old man. She could not have been more than six or seven years of age. Her eyes were intent and curious, full of flame yet equally cautious of the man. Yet she would not allow his hand to slip through hers, and she continued to shake him insistently.

His voice, hoarse and croaking, emerged with some difficulty. "Alright, alright. . ." With a great measure of care, Strago slowly rose from his resting place, drinking in the details of his dwelling once more, as though to confirm the reality of it all. The girl, convinced of his recovery, tentatively dropped Strago's knobbly hand and stepped back. Groaning with equal portions of misery and pain – for a man left to sleep for two months is apt to gain a great deal of knots in his bones – Strago let his legs dangle from one side of the cot. He gazed on the little girl, who had now backed off even further, and calmly wished she'd just left him to expire on what, by all right, should have been his deathbed.

"Where. . . am I?" He queried, careful not to make any sudden movements. The girl looked ready to bolt for the door at any second.

Silence reigned supreme. The girl said nothing in response, not making even the slightest indication that she'd heard him.

"Okay. . . well, what's your name, little one?"

She narrowed her eyes but did not move.

Strago closed his own in vexation. "Well, either you're very shy, my dear, or quite deaf. . . I suppose I'll chalk it up to youthful jitters. . ."

A voice, flowing in roughly from a nearby window, supplied his answer. "You'd better follow your second belief, sir; she's as deaf as the dead." Strago, a little unnerved, was soon to witness its owner as he entered the hut. He was a large, bearded man, with darkly golden skin that matched that of the girl. He was bare-chested and burly, reminding Strago rather of his late acquaintance Sabin. Upon taking in the man, however, Strago decided he'd not acquired his girth through fighting, but rather labouring. His movements seemed overly large and clumsy, not at all like the fluidity and grace Sabin matched with his peerless power. "As for me, sir, I'm very able to take any questions. Darren's the name."

Strago nodded, eyes retreating again to the girl. "My name's Strago. And. . . hers?"

The big man shrugged nonchalantly. "Couldn't tell you. Like I said, she's stone deaf. Can't hear a thing. Because o' that, I guess, she won't say a word. Guess she never really learned how to speak anyway. We just call her Gully, since she seems to love seagulls."

Allowing a moment for this new information to process, Strago gazed mutely at little Gully. She was backing away slowly, seemingly taking refuge from both Strago and the broad-shouldered Darren.

"Okay. . . where are we, then?"

Darren sighed, scratching his chin. "That, sir, is gonna take longer to explain."

--

They were, in fact, situated upon a rather desolate island somewhere in the middle of the ocean. Upon the end of the world, or so it had come to be called, the boat Darren had been on – bound for South Figaro – was sent careening into the sea. He'd lost consciousness, but one of the other survivors had managed to witness what had happened. Succinctly put, the water had torn the ship apart, so volatile and vicious had the waves been. On a ferry bearing over seventy people, only twenty-three had managed to survive the destruction. Since then, two had died, bringing the sum total of their tiny colony to twelve women and nine men, Strago included. Their homes, fabricated out of the remains of the ferry that had drifted ashore, were all in equally poor condition, and numbered six in total.

Strago, apparently, had washed up on shore three days after they'd located the island. He'd been given the most comfortable piece of furniture from the boat that they'd managed to recover, the dresser, and had lain completely dormant until his earlier outburst. They'd all feared for the worst, considering the conditions under which he'd awoken, and most of the villagers had pegged Strago for death until Darren had heard him talking to Gully within the hut.

Ever since washing up on shore, the survivors had set about rebuilding their lives – meagre though they now were – and created at least a partially thriving colony. To stave off despair, they'd all agreed to hold nightly dances, creating such revelry that sinking spirits could not hope to set in. Each member of the community was accorded their own task, from fishing to hunting and gathering, to keep the melancholy of idleness from setting in. Even Gully had been given a task, that of keeping watch for passing ships; however, nobody really knew if she actually kept to her task or not. Not a single person expected to be rescued anyway.

All this time, they'd cared for Strago. Fed him. Watered him. Bathed, cleaned, even aided in relieving. Keeping the old man alive had become a preoccupation for every person there, a reason to keep going: his resuscitation, it seemed, was the key to driving off despair. And it had apparently worked. For all those in the village rushed to the old man as he emerged from his hut, treading slowly and with elderly caution. Their faces did not mirror the world that Strago encountered outside the hut, for each was aglow with light and tanned happiness, all cheering him on and gently patting him on the back.

They made him feel no better. For now, Strago was faced with the world. And he knew, looking at that perpetual twilight in the sky, gazing upon the purplish, seemingly spoiled waters, the sparse grass, the total lack of vitality and life. . . he knew, there, that he wanted to die. He should have died.

Collapsing under their false cheer, for false Strago had deemed it, the despairing mage returned to the welcome bliss of oblivion.

--

When next he awoke, Strago was stretched upon the sand. The blackly red sky spread overhead, a few cautionary stars making their first appearances for the night. Though he didn't know it, Strago had been left to rest upon the beach, now that he'd been deemed cured, for it was easily the softest surface available.

He rose groggily for the third time that day. As awareness washed over him, Strago realized that he was not alone. Gully sat to his left, watching him with fiery concern, one of her fingers lazily tracing a path amongst the sloping dunes. Resting on his elbows, Strago ventured a look at what she was drawing.

He was blessed with a sight denied anyone else, for Gully always destroyed her drawings long before anybody noticed.

She was drawing a long, spiralling dragon. Despite her obviously young age, Gully seemed possessed of the soul of an artist, as evidenced through her creation – for, indeed, her dragon was of incredible artistic merit. With her small fingernails, Gully traced intricate details within the confines of its curves, etching thin scales and sweeping feathers. Despite being static, it was filled with motion, its thin whiskers trailing out alongside its body and swishing with lazy grace. Strago could see it roar, over and over again, mighty jaws conveying a toothy laugh. It was winking, as though it knew all of ones secrets and had decided to keep them in confidence.

It was beautiful. And with every motion of her finger, Gully made it ever more intricate and beauteous. She never erred, pausing only briefly at spots in order to continue her work with greater precision.

Any other man would have been aghast. He would have considered Gully a prodigy.

Strago, instead, thought only of Relm, who could perform similar miracles with an equivalent, magical grace.

The old man watched her draw for nearly ten minutes before realizing he was crying silently. And, with this revelation, he buried his face deep into the sand and sobbed hollowly.

Gully left her drawing and clutched the old man in desperation. After a while, he registered her presence, and held her tightly to his heaving chest. She did not struggle to get away, remaining simply silent and emotionally adrift from her elderly companion.

--

Strago was to remain upon the island for a month. His encounter that night with Gully seemed to give him a new life; and though he would forever mourn Relm, Gully had managed to carve a new place for herself in his heart. Perhaps she'd been waiting for him to accept her: for, as Darren informed Strago, she'd spent more time in the comatose mage's company than any other villager, fleeing only when others approached. Where she distrusted others, she latched on to Strago, silently following his every move, mirroring every action, good or bad.

Upon learning of Strago's considerable power, Darren had appointed to the old man the position of guardian. Though few in number, the island still bore a dangerous host of demons and monsters, and encountering with them was a task that nobody enjoyed. Strago, with his magical abilities, made a great ally, and he had no difficulty in dispatching such fiends.

He was filled with renewed vigour. Strago was committed to his position. Alongside his newly adopted charge, he spent his days laughing, building, defending, and watching the seagulls. Gully had adopted her name well, for she truly did love watching those birds in flight: she would trace their flight with her small fingers, face slowly forming into one of her rare smiles. Only the birds and her new grandfather elicited such a response.

Strago was, if not full cheered, then somewhat healed. His sense of humour had returned. He berated the men for being weaker than him. Darren and he became good friends, and would spend their evenings talking long about their homes, their families. Their lives.

All was well again.

But, in such a world as this, things had a way of backsliding. . . and good humour, though well gotten, had a way of vanishing. For there were those who desired ill-intentions upon any who drew breath.

--

Gully, finally completing her assigned task, spotted the boat first.

It was, in a word, monstrous. From bow to stern, every inch of the black hull was decorated in ghoulish spines and crawling unmentionables. Skulls, bodies, and even severed tongues hung from the sides, dangling limply in the sea air. Huge ragged sails, propelled principally by arcane magic, guided the huge grotesque mess towards the island with unbelievable speed: and by the time Gully had dragged Strago over to have a look, her dark tresses swinging wildly, it was too late. The boat, ignoring standard sailing procedure, carved a deep path through both water and sand, careening with the beach at full speed. The epic rumble managed to send both Strago and Gully to the ground, and as the rest of the villagers came rushing to witness the disturbance, all hell broke loose.

Over the sides of the boat catapulted figures clad fully in white and emerald green, their heavy robes belying both their speed and vigour. They resembled the royal guard of the late Emperor down to the slightest detail, save in the shabbiness and colour of their garb. Landing softly upon the sand, they flew forward, diving amongst the gathered villagers and snatching up hidden weaponry from the confines of their clothing. Within ten seconds of their landing, every man save Darren was already dead – and even the big man was being harried, several lethal daggers jutting from his chest. Within a few moments he, too, would succumb. Only Strago remained alive throughout, alongside the women.

Given those precious few seconds, Strago had already entered into battle mode, his cape pushed aside lightly. Under his breath came murmured utterances of mystical lore, and before any of the attackers managed to catch on to the old man's presence, he'd already let fly a powerful fire spell that fried one hapless interloper. His ashes settled in amongst the sand neatly.

They all turned – some clutching weapons, others with women laid over their shoulders – and glared at the old man. He could distinctly hear them sniffing, as though deadly bloodhounds suddenly made aware of a scent.

Strago said nothing; instead, to punctuate his point, he took advantage of their momentary distraction to encase another of their fellows in a huge block of ice. Behind him, greatly awed, Gully buried her head against his leg and watched his handiwork.

There were ten of them left. Clearly, considered Strago, they came for the women; but to hell with that, I say. As they began to close in – slowly, and with extreme caution – Strago could hear them talking amongst one another, whispering as they went, those bearing female loads running their hands along the bodies of their squirming cargoes.

"He can use magic, he must be brought back" "Yes, the master will demand it" "Yes, all magic must serve the master" "Yes, we owe our souls to him, and will bear for him a new generation of slaves" – this last line elicited incredible horror amongst the women, and they redoubled their efforts, to little avail – "We must have this one" "Yes, take him, and the girl too" and then they were on him.

Watching through half-lidded eyes, propped up against the side of a hut, his blood seeping out in gallons upon the sand, Darren watched as the entire pack – for he could not liken them to humans – converged on Strago and Gully. Five strong hands, one of which was burnt to a crisp soon after the assault began, pulled the cagey mage down, casting powerful spells of unconsciousness to lighten the burden. The wounded man groaned and let his eyes droop, suddenly far too tired to allow such a burden upon himself.

For his part, Strago never took his eyes off of Gully, who had been dragged down and pinned by her captors. She was screaming, the first noise Strago could ever recall her making. He wanted to summon his rage, to destroy them all, and save her – but he couldn't. The magicy wove over his body was too strong. Instead of rage, there was only the pang of failure, as Strago realized, once again, that he had failed his granddaughter.

God, did he want to die.

--

When next Strago became aware, he knew that there was nobody left to him. Relm was gone, Gully was gone; everything was a haze, a. . . nothingness. He simply wanted to die. Nothing could ever fill that void. Left in the recesses of his mind, Strago curled up into a ball and wept loudly.

But a voice interjected. It was soft, almost willowy.

I'm here for you.

Strago did not respond. He simply rocked back and forth on his heels. Nobody was there for him. He felt as helpless as a child.

I'm here for you, always.

"No, you aren't. Leave me alone." Strago tucked himself into a ball ever more tightly.

Yes, I am. You need only give yourself over, and I'll fill you. I'll fill the gap. You just need to let me.

Strago was silent. The voice was lying, and he knew it.

Strago. Let me.

The voice was changing. Softer, lighter, more. . . feminine. It sounded distinctly familiar.

Strago could not help but look up.

And there, amidst the darkness, was Relm. And Gully. Yet only one person, for they were one and the same: both lay within the other, overlapping and wavering, a single being yet divided in twain. Both incredulous and hopeful, Strago allowed his arms to fall away, gazing upon the two girls who were one.

Strago. Let me. Let. . . us. We can fill you again.

"Is this. . . is this real? Is this possible?" Strago could hardly choke back the tears. His feet remained firmly rooted to a floor that did not exist.

Yes, it is. . . it has been granted us by a higher power. . . we can fill you, Strago. You need only to let us.

Two voices. Relm and Gully. But was it Gully? How could it be, when she was utterly mute? For her scream at the last had allowed for no inflections of voice: how could she be speaking like this? Was it her soul conveying all that she wished to say, but could not? Did these two, these artists of a single being, really want to make him feel whole again. . .?

Embrace us, Strago. You know you must, for we need you, too: we wish to become one with you. We need you, and you need us. Our souls shall fit together, a trinity of happiness. You need only to let us. Embrace us, Strago. . .

And before he could respond, Strago was rooted no more; he stumbled blindly across the void, his motions drunken and desperate, a man searching frantically for purpose and sustenance. His life had been a desert, and now, these two, his granddaughters, were the oasis. His salvation.

How could it be? a part of him screamed. But such resistance was quashed by pure instinct. He wanted, he needed. . . and then, his arms outstretched, he embraced his granddaughters.

And then he realized the truth of it.

"Relm doesn't speak like that. And Gully doesn't speak at all."

But it was too late, and he knew it. His soul was now being filled by the creature he held, made whole and complete. But who was it? What had clutched its arms around this wizened old man?

He looked. There was no Gully, no Relm.

But there was a smile to greet him. A huge, rosy, malevolent smile.

And laughter. Oh, such laughter.

--

End Note: I sure as HELL didn't think that would be as long as it was. And yet, I think it flawed; certainly, I imagine expanding on Strago's village life, and his relationship with Gully, would have been prudent. But, eh. Judging by what I recall, it's certainly an improvement from the original.

Both times that I did this story, I found it somewhat of a dreary prospect, as I already know what has to happen to Strago. There can't be a happy ending to this story if I'm to do it right. With any luck, however, I'll manage to inject my usual doses of good humour into the other stories.