About the Author
Neal Shusterman is the New York Times bestselling author of more than thirty award-winning books for children, teens, and adults, including The Unwind Dystology, The Skinjacker trilogy, Downsiders, and Challenger Deep, which won the National Book Award. Scythe, the first book in his newest series Arc of a Scythe, is a Michael L. Printz Honor Book. He also writes screenplays for motion pictures and television shows. The father of four children, Neal lives in California. Visit him at Storyman.com and Facebook.com/NealShusterman.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Thief of Souls 1. THE REPAIR MAN
DILLON’S ARMS HAD GROWN STRONG FROM HIS LABORS.
At first, his back and shoulders had filled with a fiery soreness that grew worse each day as he worked. His biceps would tighten into twisted, gnarled knots—but in time his body had grown accustomed to the work. So had his mind.
He dug the spade in the soft dirt, and flung it easily over his shoulder.
The chill wind of a late-September night filtered through the nearby forest, filling the midnight air with the rich scent of pine. He shivered. With knuckles stiff from gripping the shovel, he struggled to zip his jacket to the very top. Then he resumed digging, planting the spade again and hurling the dirt, beginning to catch the rhythm of it, giving in to the monotony of spade and earth. He made sure not to get any dirt on the blanket he had brought with him.
He realized he should have worn heavy workboots for the job, but his sneakers, though caked with mud, never seemed to wear out. None of his clothes ever wore out. He had just torn his jeans hopping over the wrought-iron fence, but he knew they would be fine. Even now, the shredded threads around the tear were weaving together.
The fact was, Dillon Cole couldn’t have a pair of faded, worn-out jeans if he wanted to. He called it “a fringeless fringe benefit.” A peculiar side-effect of his unique blessing.
The shovel dug down. Dirt flew out.
“I got a scratch.”
The small boy’s voice made Dillon flinch, interrupting the rhythm of his digging.
“Carter,” warned Dillon, “I told you to stay with that family until I got back.”
“But the scratch hurts.”
Dillon sighed, put the shovel down and brushed a lock of his thick red hair out of his eyes. “All right, let me see your hand.”
Carter stretched out his arm to show a scratch across the back of his hand. It wasn’t a bad scratch, just enough to draw the tiniest bit of blood, which glistened in the moonlight.
“How’d you do this?” Dillon asked.
Carter just shrugged. “Don’t know.”
Dillon took a long look at the boy. He couldn’t see the boy’s eyes clearly in the moonlight, but he could tell Carter was lying. I won’t challenge him just yet, Dillon thought. Instead he brought his index finger across Carter’s hand, concentrating his thoughts on the scratch.
The boy breathed wondrously as he watched the tiny wound pull itself closed far more easily than the zipper on Dillon’s jacket. “Oh!”
Dillon let the boy’s hand go. “You made that scratch yourself, didn’t you? You did it on purpose.”
Carter didn’t deny it. “I love to watch you heal.”
“I don’t heal,” reminded Dillon. “I fix things that are broken.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Carter, who had heard it all before. “Reversing Enter-P.”
“Entropy,” Dillon corrected. “Reversing entropy,” and he began to marvel at how something so strange had become so familiar to him.
“Go back to those people,” Dillon scolded Carter gently. He returned to digging. “You’re too young to be here.”
“So are you.”
Dillon smiled. He had to admit that Carter was right. Sixteen was woefully young to be doing what he was doing. But he had to do it anyway. He reasoned that it was his penance; the wage of his sins until every last bit of what he had destroyed was fixed.
The blade of Dillon’s shovel came down hard, with a healthy bang.
Carter jumped. “What was that?”
Dillon shot him a warning glance. “Go back to the house.”
“That woman won’t stop praying,” Carter complained, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, and back again. “It makes me nervous.”
“You go back there and tell them I’ll be back in an hour. And then you sit down and pray with them.”
“Trust me, Carter. You don’t want to see this. Go!”
Carter kicked sullenly at the dirt, then turned to leave. Dillon watched him weave between the polished gravestones and slip through the wrought-iron fence.
When Dillon was sure Carter was gone, he took a long moment to prepare his mind for the task of fixing. Then he brushed away the dirt, and reached for the lip of the coffin.
LITTLE KELLY JESSUP, WRAPPED in a blanket, clung to Dillon Cole, shivering. Dillon braced himself as he carried her through the door of the Jessup home. Mrs. Jessup stood in the hallway, not quite ready to believe what her eyes told her, until the little girl looked up and said, “Mommy?”
The woman’s scream could have woken the dead, if the job had not already been done.
DILLON’S DREAMS THAT NIGHT were interrupted, as they always were, by the green flash of the supernova—a memory that had seared its way deep into his unconscious. It was the first flash of vision that there were five others like him out there . . . and the first inkling of what they truly were; the most powerful and luminous souls on earth. Shards of the fractured soul of the scorpion star, incarnated in human flesh.
From there his dream took a turn into nightmare, and he knew where he would find himself next. The throne room of a crumbling palace, on a ruined mountain, within the red sands of what he could only call “the Unworld.” That non-place that existed between the walls of worlds.
And before him stood the parasitic beast that had leeched onto his soul for so many years, its gray muscles rippling, its veiny wings batting the air, and its face an evil distortion of his own. It was a creature that would never have grown so powerful, had Dillon’s own soul not been so bright.
I will be fed! it told him. You will destroy for me. I will feed on the destruction you bring.
In the dream, Dillon saw himself raising the gun to shoot it, knowing what was about to happen, unable to stop it. He pulled the trigger, the beast stepped aside . . . and there was Deanna.
The bullet struck the chest of the girl Dillon himself would die for.
He ran to her, took her in his arms, while the beast flexed its muscles, absorbing this act of destruction, feeding on Deanna’s dying breaths.
“I’m not afraid,” coughed Deana; “I’m not afraid”—for after she had purged the parasite of fear from her own soul, terror had no hold on her.
Suffer the weight, Dillon, the creature said, as Deanna died in his arms. Suffer the weight of destruction . . . and every moment you suffer is a moment I grow strong . . . .
Dillon was shaken awake by small hands on his shoulders. He opened his eyes to see Carter standing above him. By now this had become a regular routine.
“Dreaming about the monster again?”
Dillon nodded. The thing was still alive out there, Dillon knew. Both his beast and Deanna’s still stalked the sands of the Unworld. The other four shards had killed their parasites, and Dillon suspected that if his were dead too, it wouldn’t invade his dreams with such alarming regularity.
“My dog had worms once,” said Carter. “They got to his heart and ate him from the inside out. Was that what it was like having that thing inside you?”
“Something like that,” said Dillon. He sat up, taking a moment to orient himself. Where was he this time? What had he done here? He was in the Jessups’ home. Yes—that was it. Kelly Jessup had been dead almost a year now, and her parents driven insane. Dillon had undone all that damage.
Dillon looked at his watch. Three in the morning. “Get back to bed,” Dillon told Carter. “We need an early start tomorrow.”
Carter returned to the couch across the guest room. “Who do we see tomorrow?”
“A family called the Bradys. There’ll be more work than here.”
“What about my father?” asked Carter.
Like so many others, Carter’s father had gone insane, and died a nasty death last year. Dillon’s failure to find his grave was something Carter loved to hang over Dillon’s head, and was a constant reminder to Dillon that there were still a million and one things and people screaming to be fixed.
“I’ll find him,” said Dillon. “And I’ll fix him, just like I promised.”
Carter shrugged. “No rush,” he said, far too pleasantly. “I like being called Carter instead of Delbert anyway.”
The thought unsettled Dillon. When the boy had been found, last year, wandering the streets, he had been a mumbling, maddened lunatic, just like everyone else left alive here in Burton, Oregon. He hadn’t even known his own name.
“Carter was the tag on your T-shirt. Do you want to be named after an underwear company?”
“I don’t care.”
And that was the problem. Since Dillon had fixed the boy’s mind, he had latched on to Dillon like a puppy. Dillon didn’t mind the company, but he knew it just wasn’t right. Life with Dillon was a poor substitute for life with his real family.
Dillon, knowing he would not sleep again tonight, turned to leave the room, but Carter stopped him.
“You were calling her name out in your sleep,” Carter said.
Dillon sighed, wishing he could forget the dream. “Was I?”
Carter rolled over on the couch to face him. “You know,” said Carter, “you could bring her back now . . . .”
Dillon grimaced to hear the words spoken aloud. When Deanna had died, Dillon had had no skill in bringing chaos from order, life out of death. All he knew was how to see patterns of destruction and act upon them. But a year had honed his skills. Now it would be so easy to take Deanna’s broken body in his arms and bring her back to life, cell by cell. He imagined that moment when he could gather her life back and see her smile at him again. Hear the gentle forgiveness in her voice.
But he could not get to her. She was sealed away in the Unworld—a place Dillon could not reach. He was trapped in the here-and-now, and the people around him were constant reminders that he didn’t deserve Deanna. All he deserved was the endless, exhausting task of fixing the disasters he had created—because he’d never be able to forgive himself for willfully feeding his parasite—until he had repaired every last bit of his decimation. From the moment the other four surviving shards had left him, he knew what his job was going to be. And one of the first things he bought was a shovel.
“Yes, I know I could bring her back,” he told Carter. “Now go to sleep.”
Carter rolled over, and in a few moments, he was sleeping peacefully. And why not? thought Dillon. He had repaired the boy’s psyche so well, he never had nightmares, in spite of the horrors he had been through.
Dillon slid noiselessly out of the guest room. Downstairs he found Carol Jessup sitting in the family room. The air smelled of sweet cocoa and smoke from the smoldering fireplace. The woman lovingly held her sleeping daughter in her arms, absorbed in stroking the little girl’s hair as she hummed a lullaby. She had been doing this for hours, unable to believe that her daughter was alive again. She stopped humming the moment Dillon stepped into the room. It took her a few moments until she could speak to him.
“I’m afraid to ask who you are,” she said, “or how you did what you did.”
“It’s just patterns, Carol,” Dillon answered. “My mind can see patterns no one else can see, and my soul can repair them. That’s all I can do.”
“That’s all you can do?” she said incredulously. “That’s everything. It’s creation. It’s reversing time!”
“Space,” said Dillon calmly. “Reversing space.”
The woman looked down at her daughter and her eyes became teary. “Maybe I don’t know who you are,” she said to Dillon, looking at him with the sort of holy reverence that made him uncomfortable, “but I know what you are.”
Dillon found himself getting angry. “You don’t know me,” he told her. “You don’t know the things I’ve done.”
But clearly she didn’t care what Dillon had done in the past. All that mattered to her was what he had done here, today. “When the virus came,” she said, “my husband and I got lost in the woods, wandering insane like all the others in town. When we finally came out of it, we were told that Kelly had drowned in the river. I wanted to die along with her.”
“What if I told you there was no virus?” Dillon said to her. “And that they call it a ‘virus’ because they don’t know what else to call it? What if I told you that I destroyed this town last year—shattering everyone’s mind—and that, in a way, I was the one who killed your daughter in the first place?”
Dillon thought back to the time of his rampage. It had taken so little effort for Dillon to shatter the minds of everyone in town. All he had to do was find the weakest point in the pattern, then simply whisper the right words into the right ear to set off a chain reaction, like a ball-peen hammer to a sheet of glass. Just a single whispered phrase, and within a few short hours, every last man, woman, and child in town was driven insane.
“In fact, what if I told you that I was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people . . . including my own parents?”
“If you told me that,” said Carol Jessup, “I wouldn’t believe you. Because I know that a spirit as great as yours isn’t capable of such evil.”
“Bright light casts dark shadows,” he told her, and said no more of it.
Dillon looked around the room. The furniture that had been well worn a day before was now in brand-new condition, and the carpet was thick and lush where it had once showed heavy tracking. Dillon wondered if Carol Jessup and her husband had noticed. He hoped they hadn’t. Lately it wasn’t a matter of him willing these things to happen anymore. Now they happened whether he wanted them to or not. He could sense his power was growing, and now his presence had its own sphere of influence, which affected everything around him. It made him not want to linger anywhere for long.
Little Kelly Jessup’s eyes fluttered open for a moment, then closed again as she snuggled closer to her mother. She had already had a bath, but the child still had the faintest smell of the grave lingering behind the baby shampoo. But that, too, would be gone in a day or two.
“You need to leave here,” Dillon told Carol Jessup. “Before anyone sees your daughter, you have to go somewhere where no one knows you. Where no one will ask you questions. You can never tell anyone what I did here today.” Dillon knew there was still so much confusion in Burton, that one more abandoned house would not raise the questions it might raise elsewhere. It was that confusion which kept Dillon safely hidden from the view of the authorities . . . but the more he repaired, the less disorder there was to hide behind. Dillon knew his corner was getting tight.
“What if we do tell someone?” the woman asked. “What will happen?”
“You don’t want to know.”
The woman shrank back, and paled.
In truth, nothing would happen to them if she told . . . but if word of Dillon’s deeds got out, he didn’t want to think about what would happen to him.
“We’ll pack our things, and leave in the morning,” she told him. “And we won’t tell a soul.”
But it was clear from her tone of voice that she already had.
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