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One moment there, next moment gone. The golden fire of my sister’s hair lingered in my vision a moment longer, like an after image of a dream, and just as unreal. Amazing, how it happens. One moment in this world, one moment in another—Elizabeth, my golden sister, forever and ever, gone. Just like that, I stepped out. Fifth and Sixth where waiting for me. Dressed formally in dark suits, I was amused by how much they resembled lawyers. In effect, they were more like the police, but police was a childishly simple word for the whole of the matter.
"You've come." their faces where exactly alike and devoid of emotion, so I couldn't tell which one had spoken. Maybe both, maybe neither. For all it mattered, I might as well wonder who tailored their suits for them, too.
"There is no guessing now. Not here." for a fraction of a second I swore I saw Sixth smile icily. But it was gone too fast to be real, and their monolog continued. I had heard it before.
But now, it actually mattered. "This is the plane of complete knowledge. This is the Higher Authority, where there can be no deceit."
"So I’ve heard." my voice was flat, faintly sullen. The grief had not set in yet: I felt only numb, numb to the gold of her hair and numb to the blood, all in grey scale, that covered the truck’s front fender.
"So you have known," Sixth corrected. "You once refused to listen. But I will ask you once again."
"About what?" I was playing dumb, why, I don't know. Old habits die hard, I guess...I know.
"Will you join us," Sixth repeated, "And maintain the Balance?"
"You're sixteen today," Fifth added. He seemed younger somehow, jittery. Sixth glanced stoically at him, and he almost—almost flinched. "It is time to choose."
"I will," I say flatly. Sixth reaches into a pocket. "On condition," I interrupt him, "that my sister is traded."
Fifths eyes sharpen imperceptibly, and his lip twitches as though he is going to burst out laughing. Sixth merely looks at me with an utterly calm expression that, on anyone else, I would have described as reproachful. "Your sister is dead," he tells me bluntly. "You had your chance to save her. Now her pattern is lost—no force in your world or ours can bring her back. You knew this. You let it come."
A cold fist squeezes my heart, the blood on the truck blushing agonizingly red. "You promised an exchange. You spoke of balance. You never said you could not bring her back from death."
"You never asked." The cold look was back, confined to his eyes but real and present. "Either way, it is too late. You have agreed." he withdrew his hand from the pocket and produced a golden watch. "Time is up, Jason." before my eyes, the hands stopped, and without looking I knew that Elizabeth’s body was being born away in a silent ambulance. But she was all in grey now; even her hair was bleached of its fire. And I was tired. My limbs had gone entirely numb: it spread from my fingers to my chest, dragging me down.
"The contract is false," I hissed with the last of my strength. "You can't do this! I haven't agreed!"
"Actually, Jason, we can." the clock glimmer and the hands began to melt. “Your conditions are imposable ones, therefore false. Therefore you are ours.” His voice was rushing away; I barely heard that last part. All I could see was the clock, at the very distant end of the roaring funnel…
“NO!” I howl. The glass on the clock face shatters. In another moment there will be no clock at all. “I WON’T—”