By David Canfield
May 17, 2019 at 11:00 AM EDT
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Gaby Gerster

Neal Shusterman is ready to wrap his best-selling and award-winning Arc of a Scythe series.

Introducing The Toll, the long-awaited conclusion to the books currently in development for adaptation at Universal. The series launched with Scythe, which won the Printz Honor and spent multiple weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, and continued last year with Thunderhead. When The Toll kicks off, it’s been three years since Rowan and Citra disappeared; since Scythe Goddard came into power; since the Thunderhead closed itself off to everyone but Grayson Tolliver. And so, in The Toll, constitutions are tested and old friends are brought back from the dead. We can’t reveal much more by way of synopsis but fear not: EW has an exclusive first look for fans.

Here you can check out the finale’s official cover, as well as a juicy first excerpt. Read on below. The Toll publishes Nov. 5 and is available for pre-order.

Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing

Excerpt from The Toll, by Neal Shusterman

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 both bones in his right wrist 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, if he could tell where it came 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 funhouse floor. He careened between walls, trying to maintain his balance, until running 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.

The heat of the painkillers became 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 ground. He was lifted up, and carried through the air. There was an open door before him, 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 some 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 that he might 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, who stood in the middle and 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 recite 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 29 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 they were at 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 has fallen silent, 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 he 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.

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