To celebrate the completion of the final edits of Mal Winter and the Last Titan and the completion of the publishing work, I'm sharing the first chapter of my next book.
Do not read if you haven't finished Mal Winter and the Cloud Runners
Excerpt from Mal Winter and the Last Titan:
To say the Dreamscape was more dangerous than the awake world was a gross understatement.
Looking out at the Dreamscape, it would have been easy to assume it was a safe place; the white sky was kind, and the white ground looked gentle. Even the strange white bubbles the size of cars which filled the world like trees in a forest looked soft and inviting. But the Dreamscape was home to something else that the awake world didn’t have:
Nightmares were demons which stalked the Dreamscape, embodying forms that people feared the most. Nightmares made great white sharks look like goldfish, tigers look like kittens, and king cobras look like worms. What made these monsters so dangerous was that they only craved one thing: to devour a human soul.
But the Dreamscape was also protected by the Cloud Runners: dream warriors dedicated to guarding the sleeping world against Nightmares.
Mal Winter wasn’t a Cloud Runner (at least, not yet) but not even the dangers of the Dreamscape could discourage him from his goal to become one. Mal wasn’t sure if he believed in destiny, but he knew he was meant to be a Cloud Runner, just like his father was. Despite the wealth of risk, Mal felt safe in the Dreamscape – probably because he was not only stronger and faster in the ‘Scape, but he could craft powerful weapons with a mere thought. And now, as a student of Sky Academy, Mal was getting stronger, faster, and more powerful every day. Well, every night.
Mal wasn’t the only student of Sky Academy training to be a Cloud Runner; two other students were in his class. One of them was currently on top of him. Mal was close enough to Charli to kiss her, and the thought set off lightning in his brain. Instead, Mal pushed her away. “Get off.” tyres
“Idiot,” Charli mumbled, rolling her eyes as she got to her feet. “You made me fall!”
“Uh…” Mal muttered. “You tripped me!”
Charli smiled, her big eyes lighting up. “It was pretty funny.”
Mal watched as Charli brushed her shoulders. “You know there’s no dust or dirt in here?” Mal said, standing up. “We’re in a literal magical Dreamscape. We don’t even have to breathe.”
“It’s cooties,” Charli replied, straight-faced. “I’m brushing off your cooties.”
“Lion!” Mal called out. “She’s bullying me again!” Mal turned on the spot to face the third student of Sky Academy, but there was no one else around. “Lion?” Mal’s voice echoed through the Dreamscape.
“Maybe he’s on a spirit quest with Timon and Pumbaa,” Charli suggested.
Although his real name was Luciano Lione, Charli had immediately called him Lion, and the nickname stuck.
“Seriously, where did he go?” Mal asked. “Did the Nightmare get him?” Mal called out, his voice echoing through the ‘Scape.
“We would have heard something…anything if it had,” Charli said.
Dreams filled the white world like coral-filled the sea. They were round in shape and looked like bubbles filled with clouds. Dreams were mostly the same size, but all of them were much larger than a person. Each bubble looked like you could fit maybe eight people inside it, but really you could fit many, many more because they were the doorways to whole new worlds. Each dream belonged to a person, and just as every person was different, so was every dream, from classrooms to castles to wild fantasy lands.
Mal turned around again, searching for any dream that looked a little dark. A common sign that a Nightmare was inside a dream was that the white clouds inside turned shades of grey.
Charli dropped onto the ground, looking under the dreams.
“Anything?” Mal asked.
“Just red,” Charli said.
Every dream was tethered to the ground by a thin red root, which glowed rhythmically like a heartbeat.
Charli stood up. “Now who’s going to laugh at your jokes?”
Mal ignored her. “He was right here.”
“Lion’s probably trying to be a hero,” Charli said. “Like his idol, Malcolm Winter.”
“Stop it,” Mal muttered as he crafted a sword in his hand. It glowed yellow, like the soulstone in his chest, which pulsed through his shirt.
“I’m serious, you inspire him. It’s cute.”
With his sword in hand, Mal dropped to the ground like Charli had, looking around.
“What are you doing? Did you not just see me check?”
“I wanted to be sure…”
“This is why I don’t like you, Mal Winter. Trust issues. Let me guess: no feet, no claws, no tentacles?”
After a sigh, Mal stood up. “He’s in a dream.”
“Obviously,” Charli replied.
Charli stepped up to a nearby dream, crouched in front of it. She ran her hand along the skin of the dream, then sniffed her fingers. “Nothing,” Charli said, shaking her head as she looked up at Mal. “Maybe you can check the dreams over there?
Mal nodded, walked towards the cluster of dreams Charli had pointed out and crouched beside a dream. He ran his finger along the surface of the bubble; it looked like a marshmallow but felt like fine sand. When he brought his hand to his nose, he smelled chocolate cake, strawberries, and fresh-cut grass.
Finding a Nightmare was difficult and time-consuming. Although you could usually tell if a Nightmare was in a dream by the colour of the clouds, often it was too late by then to stop them. Smelling a dream was the best way to determine if a Nightmare was in it, or at least if the Nightmare had passed through. A regular dream smelt fresh and sweet and delicious; infected dreams smelt like hot sewerage, cat urine, and other vomit-inducing smells.
Mal moved from dream to dream, searching for a Nightmare or a sign one was nearby. He’d only checked a few dreams when he spotted Charli between two bubbles. She seemed to wander, almost aimlessly. Mal wanted to ask her if she was okay, but Charli turned to him first.
“Mal?” Charli asked.
“Sorry,” Mal apologised, returning to his search. He couldn’t see Charli, but he knew she was in earshot. “First day back tomorrow,” Mal said. “Bummer, huh?”
“Nah, these holidays sucked,” Charli replied. “I’m keen to get back.”
“You couldn’t wait until the holidays started,” Mal reminded Charli. “You teased me when I said I wanted to go back to school!”
“A girl can change her mind, Malcolm. Not all of us spent school holidays living with our best friends in a pool house, playing video games and eating pizza.”
“What do you mean?” Mal asked. “You see me ten times more than Vic and James. Between Cloud Runner training and being grounded forever, there was nowhere near enough pizza or video games. And I invited you to join us all the time!”
Charli didn’t say anything back.
Mal found it tricky to understand people at the best of times, but Charli was a mystery he thought he’d never solve. The more time they spent together and the closer they grew as friends, the more Mal realised he didn’t understand Charli at all.
Mal moved on to another dream, so caught up in his thoughts that he didn’t notice the massive thing until it fell on top of him.
“Ow,” Mal grumbled as he was squashed into the white ground.
“Sorry, amigo.” Lion’s accent sounded stronger when he spoke with Spanish words.
Lion was only a year older than Mal, but he looked much older than sixteen. He was as wide as Mal and Charli standing next to each other, and he was significantly taller. Mal knew Lion was going to look like a superhero by the time he was an adult because he basically looked like one already.
“Sorry, sorry,” Lion kept apologising as he stood up and offered his hand to Mal.
“It’s alright,” Mal said as he was lifted to his feet. “But you can’t just disappear on us.”
“Let’s just find this Nightmare,” Charli suggested, appearing behind Mal and Lion.
“I prefer the big ones,” Lion said, beating his chest like a gorilla. “Nightmares should be big, evil, scared monsters, yes?”
“Scary, not scared,” Charli corrected Lion.
“Scary! Yes, si, si,” Lion nodded enthusiastically. English was Lion’s second language, but you wouldn’t know he’d only moved away from Spain six months ago by how well he spoke. Still, he wanted to get better at English and wanted to be corrected when he made mistakes. Only Charli ever seemed to correct his errors, though. “This hiding is not natural,” Lion said. “Maybe this Nightmare is different?”
“Honestly, as long as it’s not a spider, I don’t care what kind of Nightmare we’re facing.”
Mal saw a black blur in the corner of his eye, then something attacked. The little Nightmare flung itself at Mal hard enough that he was tossed backwards. He tried to shout, but the Nightmare’s body clamped over his mouth, so only muffled sounds escaped. Mal choked from the taste of the Nightmare against his lips; it tasted how an ashtray smelt, except worse. Mal tried to grab the Nightmare, but his hands slipped on its oily skin. He struggled to think, struggled to breathe, and struggled to stay focused. Then, suddenly remembering that he could, Mal crafted a dagger. He pictured exactly how the dagger would look in his mind, every detail of the hilt, how long the blade was. Mal gripped it tightly in his hand.
Before he could use it, the Nightmare was torn from his face.
Mal gasped for air as if he had surfaced from a deep pool, and he watched as the Nightmare flew away into a nearby dream.
Mal turned and saw Lion standing next to him, pulling his leg back.
“Did you kick it?” Mal asked.
“Uh” Lion muttered, unsure of how to answer.
“You did! You just kicked it! You just kicked it off my face. You could have kicked me! In the face!”
“He’s a big soccer guy,” Charli said. “He’s Italian, they’re all great at soccer.”
“First, it is football, not ‘soccer’. Second, I was not very good…and third, I am from Spain, which means I am Spanish, which you know!”
“Mediterranean, Schmediterranean.” Charli joked, enjoying the reaction she got from Lion, who’s eyes bulged.
Mal stood up. “You could have kicked me in the face! Did you think of that?”
“Sometimes you are mean,” Lion said to Charli.
“My face? Kicking?” Mal asked hopelessly.
Charli smirked at Lion. “Only mostly.”
Lion turned to Mal. “I did not want you to empty your breath.”
“There’s no air in the Dreamscape!” Mal shouted, throwing his hands up, gesturing to everything around them. “We don’t need to breathe. Magical dream world, remember?”
“You can still choke – it’s happened,” Lion said.
“He’s right,” Charli agreed, before jumping into the dream the Nightmare had been kicked into.
“I like her. She is fearless,” Lion proclaimed, running into the dream after Charli.
“Oh, I know,” Mal added as he followed his friends.
Entering a dream was indescribable. It felt blissful, like gentle, warm rain on a cool day. Charli described it as ‘enjoying a warm day and getting unnecessarily wet by some moron splashing around in the pool beside you’; both descriptions worked.
This dream was dark and hot. Mal was standing in and surrounded by sand. Dreams about deserts were surprisingly rare in Australia, Mal had realised, which was strange considering how much of Australia was desert.
“Why dream about the night?” Lion asked, looking at the dark sky of the dream. “Too hard to find Nightmares. Not a fan.”
“Could be worse,” Mal added.
“No singing,” Charli said, catching Lion’s gaze. “Not again.”
“See it?” Mal asked as he looked around for the Nightmare.
Lion smirked, then started to sing. “Arabian niiiiigggghht – there!”
Lion’s warning was too late. The Nightmare flew at Mal’s face again, throwing him from the dream back into the Dreamscape. Mal clamped his mouth closed to keep the revolting taste from his tongue, and grabbed hold of the Nightmare’s arm or tail.
In a bright spark of yellow, Mal’s true craft formed: a one-handed war hammer. The Nightmare tried to jump away as it realised its fate, but Mal’s grip was tight enough to keep hold. Mal pulled the black monster to the white ground and followed it with his glowing hammer. The Nightmare was crushed like a bug under a shoe.
Mal looked down at what remained of the creature; it looked squid-like, and like most Nightmares had no eyes or facial features except for a mouth of razor-sharp teeth. Atop the demon’s head was a shattered, red crystal.
“That’s gross,” Lion said, crouching down beside the Nightmare as its oily skin dried into flakes.
The Nightmare was no bigger than a cat. “I really didn’t think that they came that small,” Charli admitted.
“I had seen a spider one that small, when I started,” Lion said.
Mal felt a shudder down his spine as his imagination conjured a small, spider-like Nightmare with sharp legs. “Well, this guy was still a nasty little bugger,” Mal said, spitting to rid himself of the gross Nightmare taste that lingered in his mouth.
“Toughen up,” Charli said as she kicked the Nightmare, which exploded into a cloud of black ash.
“Did we pass?” Mal asked.
The three students looked up into the white sky, waiting for an answer.
“You’re welcome,” Miss Pryce said, landing delicately in front of them.
Charli rolled her eyes, then crossed her arms.
“I am confused. Where are we welcome?” Lion asked.
“Not ‘where’ Luciano, but ‘why’? The answer being that, just as I will be held accountable if you fail to become Cloud Runners, so too am I responsible for your successes. Therefore, you are welcome for my training, which has made you victorious this day. Victory!” Miss Pryce exclaimed. “From the Old French victorie, itself from the Latin victoria, and that from the past participle stem of vincere: ‘to conquer, overcome, or defeat.’” Miss Pryce grinned widely, as she did whenever she thought her students had learnt something immeasurably valuable.
“Perhaps you should keep telling us where words come from, so we can better kill the Nightmares destroying humanity? If we start throwing definitions at them, maybe they’ll die of boredom,” Charli said, with her usual dry sarcasm.
“The English language is beautiful,” Miss Pryce insisted.
“Says the English woman,” Lion pointed out. “Español, Miss Pryce – este idioma es muy hermoso.”
“Well, your brother –”
Miss Pryce leapt into the air as a massive Nightmare slithered past her legs, from under a dream.
Charli crafted a spear, Mal crafted himself a sword and shield, and Lion crafted a two-handed axe. All three were battle-ready, but the snake-like Nightmare ignored them. The monster stained the ground black as it slipped past Miss Pryce and her students.
“That one is not normal,” Lion said. “Right?”
“More peculiar than not,” Miss Pryce agreed as she landed, watching the demon as it slithered away.
Nightmares didn’t hunt out Cloud Runners – they wanted the souls of the sleeping – but the creatures were also aggressively territorial, and if there was a Cloud Runner in its way, a Nightmare would always attack.
“RUN!” cried a voice, echoing through the Dreamscape.
“What’s that?” Charli asked.
“Not a good sign,” Mal answered as he looked around for the source of the voice.
Miss Pryce saw the man first and crafted an orange shovel, as bright as any true craft. “Stay behind me,” she ordered.
Mal turned and froze, recognising the figure. It was Mr Green.
Mal felt a pit drop in his stomach as he remembered his previous meetings with Mr Green; he and his brethren were the kind of scary that made Nightmares look like cuddly toys.
“RUN!” Mr Green shouted.
Miss Pryce stood her ground between the quickly approaching Mr Green and her three curious students.
When Mal had first encountered Mr Green, the man was composed and quiet. His hair was pulled into a neat ponytail, and the sides of his head shaved, so the dragon tattooed up his neck and around his ears could be seen easily. Mr Green looked like a bad guy from a Kung Fu movie; sharp, sure, and chillingly calm.
Seeing that same man with a mess of hair and crazed, widened eyes, his voice screaming, made Mal very afraid. But even in his fear, he noticed something.
“He’s not running to us – he’s running from something…”
“I know,” Miss Pryce said. “But stay behind me anyway.”
“Run! RUN!” Mr Green shouted again, his head whipping around to look behind him.
“Do not come closer!” Miss Pryce ordered.
Mr Green ignored Miss Pryce and kept running. His feet dragged, and his breathing sounded more like gasping. After a few more steps, Mr Green collapsed onto the ground, but Miss Pryce didn’t move.
Charli turned to Mal. “I really thought a Whisper would use a more effective battle strategy than to lie down.”
“A Whisper?” Lion turned to Mal. “He’s a bad guy?”
“Yeah, you know the Brotherhood of the Night Priests?” Mal asked. “They’re like dark, evil Cloud Runners. We just call them ‘Whispers’.”
“I know,” Lion said, looking offended.
“I didn’t know if they had a Spanish name or something…” Mal admitted.
“If they did, it would be el Susurros.”
“That sounds way cooler,” Mal smiled at Lion.
“Quiet, please,” Miss Pryce instructed. “And stay here.”
Miss Pryce approached Mr Green cautiously, then crouched beside him. Ignoring Miss Pryce’s instruction, Charli went forward and crouched next to her.
“Remember when I said ‘stay here’?” Miss Pryce asked wryly.
Charli nodded. “Sure, it was just then.”
Mal and Lion stood behind Charli but stayed standing, looking down at Mr Green.
“Is he dead?” Lion asked.
“I swear if you kids listen to me just once, I will fall over dead with shock.”
“What’s that?” Mal asked, pointing to his back.
“I don’t know,” Miss Pryce said. “But there’s also one by his side, and one in his leg.”
There were three bolts stabbed into Mr Green. Each was as thin as a pencil, but much longer, and made of a shimmering silver substance that Mal thought looked like electricity.
“Is he dead?” Lion asked again.
“Do you have any idea what they are?” Mal asked, leaning in to look at the bolts.
“I can say with absolute certainty that I have never seen anything like this,” Miss Pryce replied. She raised a hand near the bolts but didn’t touch them.
“It has to be something,” Mal insisted.
“If we are left only with the illogical, however improbable, it must be true,” Miss Pryce whispered.
“You know something,” Charli prodded.
“There is no dream warrior that can attack at long range,” Miss Pryce said.
“So?” Mal asked.
“So,” Miss Pryce continued, “how is it that our friend here has three arrows in his back?”
Charli, who usually had something to say, didn’t say a word.
In the silence, Mr Green moved.
“Shot…” he mustered.
“He’s alive!” Lion proclaimed.
Miss Pryce rolled Mr Green onto his side. “What happened?” she asked.
“Who? Who didn’t you see? What did they want?”
“Death…” Mr Green whispered.
Miss Pryce placed her hand on Mr Green’s chest. “If you find me in the awake world and answer my questions, I will save you here and now.”
Mr Green sneered. Even battered and broken, he was full of rage and hate. Mal gripped his sword as tight as he could.
“You will die here,” Miss Pryce stated. “If you die here, you will die in the awake world. You know this. I can send you back before it is too late.”
Mr Green remained silent.
“I do not seek information about your Brotherhood, but I will have questions about what caused this. Your life for that information?”
Mr Green clenched his teeth, then nodded.
“Swear on your Night Prince,” Miss Pryce said.
“I swear,” Mr Green muttered, wincing in pain.
Miss Pryce closed her eyes and placed her hands on Mr Green’s chest. In an instant he fell through the white ground, disappearing from the Dreamscape.
Mal knew what Miss Pryce had done; he remembered it happening to himself. It was a memory that for so long had been blurry, but seeing it happen now brought the memory back: a memory from the night his father had died. His father had placed his hands on Mal, and sent him through the ground, away from the Dreamscape.
“What was that?” Lion asked excitedly.
Miss Pryce fell backwards, drained of all her energy.
“I’ve never seen that before,” Charli said.
“It’s an advanced technique; a lesson I’ll teach you if you pass your Trials.”
“You okay?” Mal asked.
Miss Pryce shook her head. “Help me up, please.”
Lion and Mal got on either side of Miss Pryce and helped prop her up.
“What now?” Charli asked.
“We get out,” Miss Pryce said, taking in a deep breath.
“We can handle any other Nightmares if they come to us,” Lion said, his ever-present smile taking in his friends.
Miss Pryce looked at her students, and then beyond them to the Dreamscape, her gaze pained and piercing.
“There are worse things out tonight than Nightmares.”