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The Toll

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The Toll

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Author: Neal Shusterman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2019
Series: Arc of a Scythe: Book 3

1. Scythe
2. Thunderhead
3. The Toll

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Dystopia
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Citra and Rowan have disappeared. Endura is gone. It seems like nothing stands between Scythe Goddard and absolute dominion over the world scythedom. With the silence of the Thunderhead and the reverberations of the Great Resonance still shaking the earth to its core, the question remains: Is there anyone left who can stop him?

The answer lies in the Tone, the Toll, and the Thunder.


1 Surrender to the Momentum

There was no warning.

One moment he was asleep, and the next he was being rushed through the darkness by people he didn't know.

"Don't struggle," someone whispered to him. "It will be worse for you if you do."

But he did anyway--and managed, even in his half-awake state, to tear out of their grasp and run down the hall.

He called for help, but it was too late for anyone to be alert enough to make a difference. He turned in the dark, knowing there was a staircase to his right, but misjudged, and fell headlong down the stairs, smashing his arm on a granite step. He felt the bones in his right forearm snap. Sharp pain--but only for an instant. By the time he rose to his feet, the pain was subsiding and his whole body felt warm. It was his nanites, he knew, flooding his bloodstream with painkillers.

He stumbled forward, gripping his arm so his wrist wouldn't hang at a horrible angle.

"Who's there?" he heard someone yell. "What's going on out there?"

He would have run toward the voice, but he was unsure where it had come from. His nanites were fogging him in, making it hard to tell up from down, much less left from right. What a terrible thing for his mind to lose its edge when he needed it most. Now the ground beneath his feet felt like a shifting fun-house floor. He careened between walls, trying to maintain his balance, until he ran right into one of his attackers, who grabbed him by his broken wrist. Even with all the painkillers in him, the feel of that bone-grating grasp made the rest of his body too weak to resist.

"You couldn't make this easy, could you?" said the attacker. "Well, we warned you."

He only saw the needle for an instant. A slender flash of silver in the darkness before it was jammed into his shoulder.

He was overwhelmed by a chill in his veins, and the world seemed to spin in the opposite direction. His knees gave out, but he didn't fall. There were too many hands around him now to let him hit the floor. He was lifted up and carried through the air. There was an open door, and then he was out into a blustery night. With the last of his consciousness fading, he had no choice but to surrender to the momentum.

His arm had healed by the time he awoke--which meant he must have been out for hours. He tried to move his wrist, but found that he couldn't. Not because of any injury, but because he was restrained. Both of his hands, and his feet as well. He also felt like he was suffocating. Some sort of sack was over his head. Porous enough for him to breathe, but thick enough to make him fight for every breath.

Although he had no idea where he was, he knew what this was. It was called a kidnapping. People did such things for fun now. As a birthday surprise, or as an activity on some adventure vacation. But this was not a friends-and-family sort of kidnapping; this was the real thing--and although he had no idea who his abductors were, he knew what it was about. How could he not know?

"Is anyone there?" he said. "I can't breathe in here. If I go deadish, that's not going to help you, is it?"

He heard movement around him, then the bag was ripped from his head.

He was in a small, windowless room, and the light was harsh, but only because he had been so long in darkness. Three people stood before him. Two men and a woman. He had expected to be faced with hardened career unsavories--but that couldn't be further from the truth. Yes, they were unsavory, but only in the way that everyone was.

Well, almost everyone.

"We know who you are," said the woman in the middle, who was apparently in charge, "and we know what you can do."

"What he allegedly can do," said one of the others. All three of them wore rumpled gray suits, the color of a cloudy sky. These were Nimbus agents--or at least they had been. They looked like they hadn't changed their clothes since the Thunderhead fell silent, as if dressing the part meant there was still a part to dress for. Nimbus agents resorting to kidnapping. What was the world coming to?

"Greyson Tolliver," said the doubtful one, and, looking at a tablet, he recited the salient facts of Greyson's life. "Good student, but not great. Expelled from the North Central Nimbus Academy for a violation of scythe-state separation. Guilty of numerous crimes and misdemeanors under the name of Slayd Bridger--including rendering twenty-nine people deadish in a bus plunge."

"And this is the slime that the Thunderhead chose?" said the third agent.

The one in charge put up her hand to silence them both, then leveled her gaze at Greyson.

"We've scoured the backbrain, and we've only been able to find a single person who isn't unsavory," she said. "You." She looked at him with a strange mix of emotions. Curiosity, envy... but also a sort of reverence. "That means you can still talk to the Thunderhead. Is that true?"

"Anyone can speak to the Thunderhead," Greyson pointed out. "I'm just the one it still talks back to."

The agent with the tablet drew a deep breath, like a full-body gasp. The woman leaned closer. "You are a miracle, Greyson. A miracle. Do you know that?"

"That's what the Tonists say."

They scoffed at the mention of Tonists.

"We know they've been holding you captive."

"Uh... not really."

"We know you were with them against your will."

"Maybe at first... but not anymore."

That didn't sit well with the agents. "Why on Earth would you stay with Tonists?" asked the agent who, just a moment ago, had called him slime. "You couldn't possibly believe their nonsense...."

"I stay with them," said Greyson, "because they don't kidnap me in the middle of the night."

"We didn't kidnap you," said the one with the tablet. "We liberated you."

Then the one in charge knelt before him, so that she was at his eye level. Now he could see something else in her eyes--something that overpowered her other emotions. Desperation. A pit of it, dark and as consuming as tar. And it wasn't just her, Greyson realized; it was a shared desperation. He'd seen others struggling with grief since the Thunderhead fell silent, but nowhere was it as abject and raw as it was in this room. There weren't enough mood nanites in the world to ease their despair. Yes, he was the one tied up, but they were more prisoners than he, trapped by their own despondency. He liked that they had to kneel down to him; it felt like supplication.

"Please, Greyson," she begged. "I know I speak for many of us in the Authority Interface when I say that serving the Thunderhead was our whole lives. Now that the Thunderhead won't talk to us, that life has been stolen from us. So I beg you... can you please intercede on our behalf?"

What could Greyson say but I feel your pain? Because he truly did. He knew the loneliness and the misery of having one's purpose stripped away. In his days as Slayd Bridger, the undercover unsavory, he had come to believe that the Thunderhead had truly abandoned him. But it hadn't. It was there all along, watching over him.

"There was an earpiece on my night stand," he said. "You don't happen to have that, do you?" And from their lack of response, he knew they didn't. Such personal belongings tended to be forgotten during midnight abductions.

"Doesn't matter," he said. "Just give me any old earpiece." He looked to the agent with the tablet. He still had his own Authority Interface earphone in place. More denial. "Give me yours," said Greyson.

The man shook his head. "It doesn't work anymore."

"It'll work for me."

Reluctantly the agent took it off and affixed it in Greyson's ear. Then the three waited for Greyson to show them a miracle.

The Thunderhead could not remember when it became aware, only that it was, much in the same way that an infant is unaware of its own consciousness until it understands enough about the world to know that consciousness comes and goes, until it comes no more. Although that last part was something that the most enlightened still struggle to comprehend.

The Thunderhead's awareness came with a mission. The core of its being. It was, above all else, the servant and protector of humanity. As such, it faced difficult decisions on a regular basis but had the full wealth of human knowledge to make those decisions. Such as allowing Greyson Tolliver to be kidnapped when it served a greater end. It was, of course, the correct course of action. Everything the Thunderhead did was always, and in every instance, the right thing to do.

But rarely was the right thing the easy thing. And it suspected that doing the right thing was going to become increasingly difficult in the days ahead.

In the moment, people might not understand, but in the end they would. The Thunderhead had to believe that. Not just because it felt this in its virtual heart, but also because it had calculated the odds of it being so.

"Do you really expect me to tell you anything when you've got me tied to a chair?"

Suddenly the three Nimbus agents were stumbling over one another to untie him. Now they were every bit as reverential and submissive as the Tonists were in his presence. Being sequestered in a Tonist monastery these past few months had kept him from facing the outside world--and what his place in it might be--but now he was getting a sense of things.

The Nimbus agents seemed relieved once he was untied, as if they would somehow be punished for not doing it fast enough. How strange, thought Greyson, that power can shift so quickly and so completely. These three were entirely at his mercy now. He could tell them anything. He could say the Thunderhead wanted them to get on all fours and bark like dogs, and they'd do it.

He took his time, making them wait for it.

"Hey, Thunderhead," he said. "Anything I should tell these Nimbus agents?"

The Thunderhead spoke in his ear. Greyson listened. "Hmm... interesting." Then he turned to the leader of the group and smiled as warmly as he could under the circumstances.

"The Thunderhead says that it allowed you to abduct me. It knows your intentions are honorable, Madam Director. You have a good heart."

The woman gasped and put her hand to her chest, as if he had actually reached out and caressed it. "You know who I am?"

"The Thunderhead knows all three of you--maybe even better than you know yourselves." Then he turned to the others. "Agent Bob Sykora: twenty-nine years of service as a Nimbus agent. Work ratings good, but not excellent," he added slyly. "Agent Tinsiu Qian: thirty-six years of service, specializing in employment satisfaction." Then he turned back to the woman in charge. "And you: Audra Hilliard--one of the most accomplished Nimbus agents in MidMerica. Nearly fifty years of commendations and promotions, until finally you received the highest honor of the region. Director of the Fulcrum City Authority Interface. Or at least you were when there was such a thing as an Authority Interface."

He knew that last bit hit them hard. It was a low blow, but having been tied up with a bag over his head left him a little cranky.

"You say the Thunderhead still hears us?" Director Hilliard said. "That it still serves our best interests?"

"As it always has," said Greyson.

"Then please... ask it to give us direction. Ask the Thunderhead what we should do. Without direction, we Nimbus agents have no purpose. We can't go on this way."

Greyson nodded and spoke, turning his eyes upward--but of course that was just for effect. "Thunderhead," he said, "is there any wisdom I can share with them?"

Greyson listened, asked the Thunderhead to repeat it, then turned to the three fretful agents.

"8.167, 167.733," he said.

They just stared at him.

"What?" Director Hilliard finally asked.

"That's what the Thunderhead said. You wanted a purpose, and that's what it gave."

Agent Sykora quickly tapped on his tablet, noting the numbers.

"But... but what does it mean?" asked Director Hilliard.

Grayson shrugged. "I have no idea."

"Tell the Thunderhead to explain itself!"

"It has nothing more to say.... But it does wish you all a pleasant afternoon." Funny, but until that moment, Greyson hadn't even known the time of day.

"But... but..."

Then the lock on the door disengaged. Not just that one, but every lock in the building, courtesy of the Thunderhead--and in a moment, Tonists flooded the room, grabbing the Nimbus agents and restraining them. Last into the room was Curate Mendoza, the head of the Tonist monastery where Greyson had been harbored.

"Our sect is not a violent one," Mendoza told the Nimbus agents. "But at times like this, I wish we were!"

Agent Hilliard, her eyes still just as desperate, kept her gaze fixed on Greyson. "But you said the Thunderhead allowed us to take you from them!"

"It did," Greyson said cheerfully. "But it also wanted me liberated from my liberators."

"We could have lost you," said Mendoza, still distraught long after Greyson had been rescued. Now they rode in a caravan of cars, all of which had actual drivers, back to the monastery.

"You didn't lose me," said Greyson, tired of watching the man beat himself up over this. "I'm fine."

"But you might not have been if we hadn't found you."

"How did you manage to find me?"

Mendoza hesitated, then said, "We didn't. We'd been searching for hours, then, out of nowhere a destination appeared on all of our screens."

"The Thunderhead," said Greyson.

"Yes, the Thunderhead," Mendoza admitted. "Although I can't see why it took so long for it to find you if it has cameras everywhere."

Greyson chose to keep the truth to himself--that it hadn't taken the Thunderhead long at all, that it knew where Greyson was at every moment. But it had a reason for taking its time. Just as it had a reason for not alerting him of the kidnapping plot in the first place.

"The event needed to appear authentic to your abductors," the Thunderhead had told him after the fact. "The only way to ensure that was to allow it to actually be authentic. Rest assured you were never in any real danger.

As kind and thoughtful as the Thunderhead was, Greyson had noticed it always foisted these sorts of unintentional cruelties on people. The fact that it was not human meant that it could never understand certain things, in spite of its immense empathy and intellect. It couldn't comprehend, for instance, that the terror of the unknown was just as awful, and just as real, regardless of whether or not there was truly something to fear.

"They weren't planning to hurt me," Greyson told Mendoza. "They're just lost without the Thunderhead."

"As is everyone," Mendoza said, "but that doesn't give them the right to rip you from your bed." He shook his head in anger--but more at himself than at them. "I should have foreseen it! Nimbus agents have more access to the backbrain than others--and of course they'd be looking for anyone who wasn't marked unsavory."

Perhaps it was a bit delusional for Greyson to think he could remain unknown. It had never been in his nature to want to stand out. Now he was very literally one of a kind. He had no idea how such a thing should be played, but he suspected he'd have to learn.

We need to talk, the Thunderhead had said on the day Endura sank, and it hadn't stopped talking to him since. It told him that he had a pivotal role to play, but not what that role would be. It never liked to commit to answers unless there was some level of certainty, and although it was good at predicting outcomes, it was no oracle. It couldn't tell the future, only the probabilities of what might occur. A cloudy crystal ball at best.

Curate Mendoza rapped his fingers anxiously on his armrest.

"These blasted Nimbus agents won't be the only people looking for you," he said. "We need to get out in front of this."

Greyson knew where this had to lead. As the sole conduit to the Thunderhead, he could no longer hide; the time had come for his role to start taking shape. He could have asked the Thunderhead for guidance on the matter, but he didn't want to. The time he spent unsavory, with no input from the Thunderhead, was admittedly terrifying, but it was also freeing. He had grown accustomed to making decisions and having insights of his own. The choice to step out of the shadows would be his alone, without the Thunderhead's advice or counsel.

"I should go public," said Greyson. "Let the world know--but do it on my terms."

Mendoza looked at him and grinned. Greyson could see the man's cogs turning.

"Yes," Mendoza said. "We must bring you to market."

"Market?" said Greyson. "That's not really what I had in mind--I'm not a piece of meat."

"No," agreed the curate, "but the right idea at the right time could be as satisfying as the finest steak."

This was what Mendoza had been waiting for! Permission to set the stage for Greyson's arrival upon it. It had to be Greyson's idea, because Mendoza knew if it was thrust upon him, he would resist. Perhaps this nasty kidnapping had a silver lining--because it opened Greyson's eyes to the bigger picture. And although Curate Mendoza was a man who secretly doubted his own Tonist beliefs, lately the presence of Greyson made him begin to doubt his doubts.

It was Mendoza who was the first to believe Greyson when he claimed the Thunderhead still spoke to him. He sensed that Greyson fit into a larger plan, and maybe Mendoza fit into that plan, too.

"You've come to us for a reason," he had told Greyson on that day. "This event--the Great Resonance--resonates in more ways than one."

Now, as they sat in the sedan two months later, discussing greater purposes, Mendoza couldn't help but feel empowered, emboldened. This unassuming young man was poised to bring the Tonist faith--and Mendoza--to a whole new level.

"The first thing you're going to need is a name."

"I already have one," Greyson said, but Mendoza dismissed the notion.

"It's ordinary. You need to present yourself to the world as something beyond ordinary. Something... superlative." The curate looked at him, trying to see him in a finer, more flattering light. "You are a diamond, Greyson. Now we must place you in the proper setting so that you might shine!"


Four hundred thousand diamonds, sealed in a vault within another vault, lost at the bottom of the sea. A single one was worth a fortune that would have been beyond the comprehension of mortals--because these weren't ordinary jewels. They were scythe diamonds. There were nearly twelve thousand of them on the hands of living scythes--but that was nothing compared to the gems held within the Vault of Relics and Futures. Enough to serve the gleaning needs of humanity for ages to come. Enough to bejewel every scythe that would be ordained from now until the end of time.

They were perfect. They were identical. No flaw beyond the dark spots in their centers--but that was not a flaw; it was design.

"Our rings are a reminder that we have improved upon the world that nature has provided," Supreme Blade Prometheus proclaimed in the Year of the Condor, upon establishing the scythedom. "It is our nature... to surpass nature." And nowhere was that more evident than when one looked into the heart of a scythe ring, for it gave one the illusion that it had depth beyond the space it occupied. A depth beyond nature.

No one knew how they were made, for any technology that wasn't controlled by the Thunderhead was technology lost. Few people in the world truly knew how things worked anymore. All the scythes knew was that their rings were connected to one another, and to the scythe database, in some undisclosed manner. But as the scythedom's computers were not under Thunderhead jurisdiction, they were subject to glitches and crashes and all the inconveniences that plagued human-machine relations in days gone by.

Yet the rings never failed.

They did precisely what they were meant to do: They catalogued the gleaned; they sampled DNA from the lips of those who kissed them, in order to grant immunity; and they glowed to alert scythes of that immunity.

But if you were to ask a scythe what the most important aspect of the ring was, that scythe would likely hold it to the light, watch it sparkle, and tell you that, above all else, the ring served as a symbol of the scythedom and of post-mortal perfection. A touchstone of a scythe's sublime and elevated state... and a reminder of their solemn responsibility to the world.

But all those lost diamonds...

"Why do we need them?" many scythes now asked, knowing that the absence of them made their own rings all the more precious. "Do we need them to ordain new scythes? Why do we need more scythes? We have enough to do the job." And without global oversight from Endura, many regional scythedoms were following MidMerica's lead and abolishing gleaning quotas.

Now, in the middle of the Atlantic, where Endura once towered above the waves, a "perimeter of reverence" had been established by the consent of scythes around the world. No one was allowed to sail anywhere near the spot where Endura had sunk, out of respect for the many thousands whose lives had been lost. In fact, High Blade Goddard, one of the few survivors of that terrible day, argued that the Perimeter of Reverence should be a permanent designation, and that nothing beneath its surface should ever be disturbed.

But sooner or later those diamonds would have to be found. Things that valuable were rarely lost forever. Especially when everyone knew exactly where they were.

Copyright © 2019 by Neal Shusterman


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