Slow-burning romance, haunting intrigue, and shimmering magic…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Shveta Thakrar’s The Dream Runners, a lush tapestry of dreams, myth, and magic—publishing June 28th with HarperTeen.
Seven years ago, Tanvi was spirited away to the subterranean realm of Nagalok, where she joined the ranks of the dream runners: human children freed of all memory and emotion, who collect mortal dreams for the entertainment of the serpentine, immortal naga court.
But when one of Tanvi’s dream harvests goes awry, she begins to remember her life on earth. Panicked and confused, she turns to the one mortal in Nagalok who might be able to help: Venkat, the dreamsmith responsible for collecting the dream runners’ wares and shaping them into the kingdom’s most tantalizing commodity. And as they search for answers, a terrifying truth begins to take shape—one that could turn the nagas’ realm of dreams into a land of waking nightmare.
From the author of the Indie Next selection and Andre Norton Award finalist Star Daughter, this stand-alone contemporary fantasy, inspired by the nagas and garudas of Hindu mythology, is full of slow-burning romance, haunting intrigue, and shimmering magic.
Wind whooshed past the rolled-down windows and sprayed Tanvi’s bangs back into wings as she floored the gas pedal. The old Honda Civic’s engine growled in response, underscoring the music blasting from her phone, and the tires gobbled up the curving highway mile by mile. On her left, the mountain glinted in the afternoon light like someone had painted it with honey. “Never gonna stop, never gonna stop, never, never, never gonna stop,” Tanvi belted out, her voice high and breathy, and zoomed around a bend in the road.
Suddenly she stood on a bridge spanning a green-brown lake, the relentless sun glaring down over everything. Too hot. So hot. Tanvi was going to melt.
Wait, where was the car?
She turned to find it idling next to her at the edge of the bridge. No, not idling so much as smashed into a guardrail, the front half folded into a perfect accordion. The pleats in the metal twinkled at her like a taunt.
Acidic horror ate through Tanvi, from the pit of her stomach right down to the tips of her toes. It wasn’t her mom’s Civic—but her stepdad’s precious Maserati GranTurismo. Cherry red and flashy, the car he’d dubbed his baby, the one whose black leather interior he spent hours buffing to prevent cracks. He’d never let Tanvi sit in it, let alone drive it.
He was going to kill her.
Her phone rang from the mangled passenger seat, and Tanvi wrenched it free. Somehow, unlike the car, it was fine. She tilted the screen to see who was calling—
And woke to find herself gasping for air in a stranger’s shadowy bedroom. A phone chirped inches away, half tangled in the actual dreamer’s sheets.
Tanvi yanked back her empty hand from where it hovered above the sleeping girl’s forehead, coaxing out the nightmare’s substance one translucent wisp at a time, and muted the phone. She scowled down at the girl. Who slept with their ringer on?
The scowl turned to a shudder. Though her dream had been interrupted, the girl’s distress still pulsed, slimy and wet, in Tanvi’s chest. It made her small. Terrified. Weak.
She hated this part of harvesting—having to inhabit the dream and become the dreamer. Knowing their innermost thoughts. Wanting what they did. Feeling what they felt, even when it was as banal as this.
Desperate to shove the dream residue away, Tanvi pulled the cork from the waiting amethyst dreamstone vial a little too hard. It came loose with an audible pop.
She swore under her breath, bracing herself to be caught, but the girl only shifted and mumbled.
In the meantime, led by Tanvi’s will, the smokelike wisps she’d reaped floated over to the vial. Now she physically motioned them inside. As if the girl knew her dream had been lured elsewhere, she twisted again, craning her neck at an awkward angle. But as long as she didn’t wake up, Tanvi couldn’t care less if the girl sleep-somersaulted onto the floor.
The instant the final wisp entered the vial, Tanvi jammed the cork back in. Just like that, the glut of emotion dissolved. Tanvi was herself and only herself. Her head clear, she examined the vial. She’d definitely captured the nightmare—the purple dreamstone flickered with a faint inner fire—but it had cut off right as things had gotten interesting.
“Come on,” she muttered into the gloom. She’d made the trek to this upscale apartment complex, staking her night’s take on the people who lived here. She’d let her inner sense tell her, with its bright and dark spots, who dreamed and how deeply. And all she’d gained for her efforts was the sludge at the bottom of the barrel?
At least this one had some meat to it; the scraps she’d harvested from the girl’s neighbors weren’t worth the vials Tanvi had stored them in—running out of toilet bowl cleaner and studying for an exam that got canceled. Junk-drawer dreams.
A last bit of residual fear quivered through her. What if Venkat doesn’t want them?
Dreams were Tanvi’s bread and butter, or in naga terms, her roti and ghee. Without engaging ones, she had no boon. No boon meant no bracelet. She’d have to keep hunting if she wanted to bulk up her skimpy harvest.
Shaking off the fear, she stowed the vial next to the other dreamstones in the pouch at her waist and pulled the drawstring shut.
The bedroom and the hallway past it were silent. Sometimes pets detected her presence and would meow or bark until their owners woke up. Nobody was home to check on this girl, it seemed. Good.
Not bothering to glance back, Tanvi tiptoed to the window, sucked on a lozenge that made her as boneless as liquid, and stole out into the night.
A haze of exhaust shrouded the early autumn sky over Philadelphia. It seared Tanvi’s lungs as she prowled through the city streets, determined to fill her two unused dreamstones.
In the distance, the Ben Franklin Bridge arced over the river, glittering like the sea goddess’s giant tiara it had been in a vision she’d harvested a few months ago.
Now that had been a boon-worthy dream.
Even though it was late, a buffet of potential dreamers drifted around her, from the wealthy people in Rittenhouse Square leaving swanky restaurants to the buskers and tourists on South Street to the office workers heading home from bar crawls in Center City. If only she could follow them all and reap every one of their dreams.
Glass crunched under her shoes, a pair of ballet flats Asha had given her to help her blend in on Prithvi. Tanvi vaguely registered that she’d stepped in the shards from a smashed bottle. She kicked them into a nearby drain.
The smart thing would be to call it a night. She had three dreams, even if two of them were boring.
But Venkat might not want them, and Tanvi knew she could do better than the meager wares she’d pulled in so far. Besides, it wasn’t like she’d be back in Philadelphia anytime soon.
Dream runners circulated around the mortal world, never staying in any one place. That meant they could harvest from the full spectrum of dream flavors without the risk of being recognized. Recently Tanvi had gone to Beijing, Aix-en-Provence, Rio de Janeiro, and a tiny hilltop town in Mongolia where the sheep outnumbered the people—and often starred in their nocturnal rambles. Even there, she’d found the best wares, so how could she accept anything less tonight?
All she had to do was hurry.
Her mouth growing dry with excitement, she quickened her pace. What sorts of dreamers would get her closest to her bracelet?
Something collided with her, all muscle and hard bone. “Watch it!” a voice ordered, as near as a breath—way too near.
Tanvi’s stomach clenched. Dream runners weren’t supposed to let themselves be noticed, never mind getting so caught up in possibilities that they bumped into people. She might as well have been daydreaming.
“Sorry,” she muttered, avoiding the boy’s eyes, and brushed past him. The faster she got away, the faster he would forget her.
She marched toward a crosswalk, her breath coiled, snakelike, in her lungs. Fifteen seconds passed, then thirty. But the boy wasn’t in pursuit, and Tanvi could exhale again.
That had been careless of her. Foolish.
Her whole body still tensed for discovery, Tanvi peeked over her shoulder. No sign of the boy. The traffic light changed. Using the crowd around her as her shield, she stepped into the crosswalk.
“Wait up!” someone else shouted.
Tanvi kept walking. What potential dreamers said to one another outside their dreams wasn’t any of her business.
“Hey! Didn’t you hear me, Nitya?” the voice asked from beside her. “I saw that guy plow right into you. He didn’t even apologize.”
Another step, and Tanvi made it to the other side of the street. So did the speaker, a Hmong girl with a shiny bob. No one Tanvi had ever seen before. But the girl was clearly talking to her.
Her insides swirled. Two people had noticed her? She had to get out of here—now.
“You look kind of out of it. Are you sure he didn’t hurt you?”
Tanvi stared past the girl, gauging the best direction to run.
“Um.” The girl gave a nervous laugh and changed the subject. “God, Mr. Collins is a sadist. Two pop quizzes in a row, like chem’s the only class we have?”
“You’re confused,” Tanvi informed her. “I’m not whoever you think I am.”
“But—” the girl began. Tanvi took off before she could hear the rest.
It’s okay, she told herself, even as her stomach churned harder. So she’d been spotted. The boy would never remember, and the girl had mistaken Tanvi for someone else. She’d just have to be much more careful from here on out.
But the tight feeling wouldn’t leave her chest. She kept checking behind her as if someone might be there.
Tanvi had never been afraid before, had never worried about anything but earning the boon that would get her bracelet. She didn’t like it.
Stupid dream residue. It made you feel, and that was the last thing any dream runner would want. Stupid dreamer and her stupid phone.
Tanvi clutched her pouch close. Soon she would be home, and soon she could buy her bracelet. Nothing else counted.
The thought of the bracelet soothed her, with its dangling charms and alluring gold. Soon.
But first, she had a job to do.
Tanvi ducked into a side street in Queen Village to finish her harvest. She inhaled deeply and felt around for dreamers.
Her mind lit up like a radar screen. Almost everyone on the street was dreaming, and like a bonus, two of the row houses blazed with especially promising options. If she hustled, maybe she could nab both.
She slipped inside the first house and followed the beacon to the couch. The man she was after lay before his blaring TV, drunk enough to have blacked out. Perfect. Without much effort, Tanvi harvested his vision about a ship that sailed through sweet meringue oceans to a land of salted caramel almond bark trees. Sweet and quirky, with the flavor and texture of candy.
One down, one to go, and the boon was hers.
The second house had a pineapple knocker. Annoyed, Tanvi filtered it out. Details were only relevant if they had to do with her harvest. Every runner knew that. She homed in on the source of the dream instead, a teen boy located on the third floor.
Tanvi crept inside and up the stairs, her awareness pinned on the dream above her. As she reached the second floor, a woman shuffled out of a bathroom, yawning. Tanvi pressed herself back against the wall, a lozenge at her lips, while she waited for the woman to pass.
Then, fueled by adrenaline, she streaked up the last flight of stairs and toward the boy’s bed. After swapping the lozenge for a dreamstone, she swooped right into his dream—the boy and his friend had broken into an abandoned mansion at twilight to film their documentary. It was scary and silly both, with giant spiders that attacked from the ceiling before turning into plush toys.
The boy didn’t move while she was harvesting except to grunt when she corked the vial.
There. Tanvi had done it—and had two awesome dreams to show for it, dreams Venkat would be begging to buy. She coasted back down to street level.
No one burst out of the night to misidentify her as she raced toward the river. No one talked to her at all.
That, Tanvi thought, was more like it.
At Penn’s Landing, Tanvi leaned out over the railing and studied the murky water. The Delaware River wasn’t something she wanted to dive into at any time, but it was almost dawn. She’d stayed out too long as it was.
Tanvi fingered her pendant, a writhing black-and-gold serpent, and tapped it between its round emerald eyes. The river below immediately rose up, forming a sapphire doorway with shimmering arches. She leaped through it and landed on a sloping liquid platform that funneled her downward. The watery walls surrounding her merged back into the water as she descended.
When she reached the bottom, no other runner was reporting to the guards flanking the cramped side entrance to the palace. Tanvi shivered. She’d never been this late before.
A younger naga beckoned her forward. Keeping her head lowered, she gripped her necklace.
“Name?” the guard barked, his voice oddly loud and grating.
Any other night, he would have faded into the background. Now, though, she could feel his smirk boring into her. He didn’t expect a reaction, and she didn’t give him one. Still, her hand trembled as she flashed her pendant at him.
“Tanvi,” she said, without inflection.
“Cutting it close, are we, Tanvi? I doubt Lord Nayan would like that.”
The mention of Nayan made her lapse sting all over again: If she’d been paying attention, that boy wouldn’t have run into her. That girl with the bob wouldn’t have seen her. Tanvi had already forgotten the girl’s face. Too bad she couldn’t erase their conversation so easily.
She’d been reckless. There was no denying it.
Her muscles stiffened with something new and awful. It took her a few seconds to name the feeling.
Never again, she vowed, praying the guard couldn’t tell.
The guard waved her through without another word, unlike some of his colleagues, who inevitably demanded to see the wares. They couldn’t afford what Nayan and Venkat charged for a dream, so they tried to steal brief glimpses of what lay within the jewels the runners brought back with them.
Tanvi stalked through the hidden passage to the dream runners’ s quarters and then her own door. A jerk of the knob, and she rushed into the room. She wouldn’t be able to sleep until she’d reassured herself that it was still there, exactly as she’d left it.
With the same fluttering in her belly she always got, Tanvi went straight to the closet.
The wooden shelves sat empty except for a lone gold-lidded enamel box. Her panic ebbing, she undid the lid. The lush pink velvet setting greeted her, ready for the bracelet she would soon earn with her boon.
Tanvi drew in a relieved breath. An image of her bracelet appeared in her thoughts, its golden links and charms untarnished and glossy like naga scales. She would never wear it, of course, never risk losing or scratching her treasure. It would be enough to spend endless hours here in this closet, gazing at the bracelet’s perfect beauty.
The ghost of Tanvi’s extinguished heart twinged with contentment. She didn’t get why humans wanted anything else. The promise of her bracelet was all she needed.
For the chance to win it, she would gladly harvest dreams. Even if that meant going into the humans’ world and dealing with their messy, irrational behavior.
Like that girl. Anger flared in Tanvi again, galling but remote. She would never endanger her bracelet like that again. Not ever.
Next time, Tanvi promised her bracelet as much as herself. Next time I’ll get it right.
Excerpted from the book THE DREAM RUNNERS by Shveta Thakrar. Copyright © 2022 by Shveta Thakrar. Reprinted with permission of HarperCollins Children’s Books