Take a look at your world.

Take a look at everything you've come to know and grown up knowing. Listen to the wind blow across the valleys. Watch the color drain from a dying evening sky. Realize the emptiness of it all. The impermanence of it. Even mountains crumble in the end. Even oceans dry.

If you could reach out and stop that--stop that slow dying--then such a world it would be....

But that is, eternally, impossible. Like a dark rider upon a pale horse, time goes ever by.

-

Three months ago, the world had come perilously close to ending.

Not that you would know it, looking around. The world was going along quite happily in its seasonal routines, engrossed in the flurry of activity which, every year, preempted winter. Birds sailed through the sky in pursuit of warmer climes, mammals hoarded what food they could find, and hibernating creatures retreated into their dens for the long sleep. Even the monsters were beginning to get ready for the cold months--which meant, of course, that they would be trying to gorge themselves before slinking away into some dark corner to conserve their energy.

Out in the wild, that would hardly be a problem. Monsters tended to go after other monsters, when all the natural wildlife was too quick, too smart, or too small to be targeted and caught. However, this was hardly the wild--and the prey of choice was less than adept at its own self-defense.

Most of them, that was.

Seifer Almasy crouched, peering under the rows of shopping panels at the malnourished Torama growling at him from its nest in the mess of cords and wires. He had briefly entertained the thought of crawling in after it, but given the space allowed and the fact that the Torama looked more than capable of clawing his face off if he went in crawling on his stomach, he had decided against it.

The Torama was burrowed back so far that the Hyperion couldn't touch it, and Seifer didn't look forward to shorting out the mall computers with any sort of elemental magic. It would have been easy if he has some kind of Sleep spell--or, heck, just casting a Break on it and leaving the maintenance workers on the next shift to wonder why there was a particularly lifelike statue in amongst the wiring would do the trick. Of course, that would raise the problem of how he was supposed to get paid--but that was hardly a problem, right at the moment. He had more than enough money, and technically he didn't need to be out here--but it was a matter of principle, now.

When it became clear that there wasn't going to be any easy way to go about finishing the monster off, Seifer resigned himself to the hard way. Hyperion as ready as he could make it, he crawled underneath the panels.

Half an hour later, receiving thirteen stitches in his right cheek, he reflected on how stupid an idea it had been. And how he really, really needed a new day job.

-

Kiros was hanging around the Bounty Claim Office when he finally got there, Torama tail in hand and ready to collect on the 2000 gil reward. As soon as the presidential advisor noticed him he came over, raising an eyebrow at the bandage that covered half of his face. "Message from SeeD came through this morning," he said. "They want to remind you that their offer for re-admittance is still good, but it will expire in December."

"Thanks," Seifer sad, presenting the tail to a sullen woman behind the counter. She looked over it to ensure its validity, and shelled out the payment.

"You planning on taking them up on it, this time?" There was an element of chiding in his voice.

Seifer pocketed the money. "Yeah, maybe," he halfway answered.

Kiros gestured to the bandage. "Don't you think you really ought to let the dedicated monster hunters take over the show?" he asked. "Pickings are getting pretty slim inside the City, anyway, or so I hear."

Seifer shrugged. "Just cleaning up after myself," he deferred. "Anyway, the pay is good."

Kiros eyed the bandage again. "Not that good," he said.

"Enough to live on." Seifer gave him a pointed look, and Kiros dropped the subject wordlessly. "Why are you out here, anyway? Or did you just come to deliver a message?"

Kiros crossed his arms, looking off through the translucent pastels of Esthar. "Well, yeah, there is something else."

"No kidding. What?"

"You'll never guess who's here to see you."