Home > The Toll (Arc of a Scythe)

The Toll (Arc of a Scythe)
Author: Neal Shusterman

Part One






It is with abiding humility that I accept the position of High Blade of MidMerica. I wish it were under more joyful circumstances. The tragedy of Endura will long linger in our memories. The many thousands of lives that were ended on that dark day will be remembered for as long as humankind has hearts to endure and eyes to weep. The names of the devoured will forever be on our lips.

I am honored that the last act of the seven Grandslayers was to acknowledge my right to be considered for High Blade – and since the only other candidate perished in the catastrophe, there is no need to open wounds by opening the sealed vote. Scythe Curie and I did not always agree, but she was truly among the best of us and will go down in history as one of the greats. I mourn her loss just as much as, if not more than, anyone else’s.

There has been a great deal of speculation over who was responsible for the disaster, for clearly it was no accident, but an act of malicious intent, carefully planned. I can lay all the rumors and speculation to rest.

I take full responsibility.

Because it was my former apprentice who sank the island. Rowan Damisch, who called himself Scythe Lucifer, was the perpetrator of this unthinkable act. Had I not trained him – had I not taken him under my wing – he would never have had access to Endura, or the skills to carry out this heinous crime. Therefore, the blame falls on me. My only consolation is that he perished as well, and his unforgivable deeds will never surface in our world again.

We are now left with no Grandslayers to look to for guidance, no greater authority to set scythe policy. Therefore, we must – all of us – put aside our differences once and for all. The new order and the old guard must work together to meet the needs of all scythes everywhere.

Toward that end, I have decided to officially rescind the gleaning quota in my region, out of respect for those scythes who feel hard-pressed to meet it. From this moment forth, MidMerican scythes can glean as few people as they see fit, without being punished for failing to meet a quota. It is my hope that other scythedoms will follow suit and abolish their gleaning quotas as well.

Of course, to compensate for those scythes who choose to glean less, the rest of us will need to increase the number of lives we take to make up the difference, but I trust that a natural balance shall be achieved.

—From the inauguration speech of

His Excellency, High Blade Robert Goddard of MidMerica,

April 19th, Year of the Raptor




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?”

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