first chapter: Moon Dog Magic (Rune Witch, book 1)

Moon Dog Magic
Rune Witch, book 1
Jennifer Willis

Chapter 1

Sally blinked at the rune stones on the dried rabbit skin she’d spread out in the middle of her bedroom floor. Sitting cross-legged on the carpet in her sweatpants—beneath the elaborate ritual robe she’d made for herself out of hemp and raw silk—the teenager glanced at the alarm clock on the nightstand.

4:52 a.m.

It was already Thursday morning. She had less than 72 hours left. Sally had to get this right, or all hell would break loose. Quite possibly literally.

She blinked hard, trying to bring her tired eyes into focus. This was the third straight night she’d foregone sleep to pursue her carefully crafted rune rituals while her parents snoozed at the other end of the hall. She should have known sleep deprivation would catch up with her sooner or later.

Now she was pretty sure she was seeing things.

She reached for the overweight cat beside her and scratched the fur between his ears.

“Too bad I can’t just chug a Red Bull, Baron.” Her tongue felt heavy and slow in her mouth. She’d given up caffeine and sweeteners—and anything else that might interfere with her magick—two weeks earlier and had barely gotten past the withdrawal headaches. Lulled by the sound of Baron’s steady purring, Sally was tempted to crawl into bed and resume her working at a more reasonable hour. But she didn’t have the luxury of downtime. After the coming New Moon—when her ritual work was complete and she’d permanently and positively altered the course of the Cosmos—then she could sleep.

Sally sighed and stared down at her orange-and-black tabby. “No rest for the renegade witch.”

Baron—technically, Baron Jaspurr Von Pussington, III, of Frisky Mews, Whiskershire, named by Sally’s mother, who had watched one too many televised cat shows immediately before the family went to the SPCA to adopt—stood up, stretched his hind legs and spine in a graceful display of flexibility, then padded closer to Sally’s workspace. He sniffed at the rabbit skin and the silver-colored stones laid out on top of it, and sneezed.

“Baron! No!” Sally shouted in a half-whisper, mindful of waking parents who wouldn’t take kindly to rune magick in the wee hours of the morning, or any other time of day. She pushed the portly cat away and waved frantically at her runes.

“This has to be exactly right. There’s no room for error, or for cats with allergies.”

Unimpressed, Baron started chuffing on a hairball, then swallowed hard and collapsed sideways on the carpet with a muted thunk. The cat rolled over on his back, exposing his impressive belly, and stretched his paws toward Sally’s altar space.

“Mmm.” Sally grunted in agreement. “Let’s get back to it.”

She leaned forward and studied the hand-carved rune stones. Six pieces of polished hematite were arranged in a semicircle above a small square of paper with three interlocking triangles drawn in thick red lines. The remaining eighteen rune stones sat in a pile to the side, waiting to be used. She’d spent months researching and planning in meticulous detail a complicated series of rune spells, with every piece timed down to the minute to coincide with Sleipnir’s Convergence. Odin’s Return, she called the great work. And she’d scarcely completed the first section of it when she could have sworn she saw those rune symbols glowing.

The planets were coming into perfect alignment with the old constellations—Mercury in Durathror, Venus in Thiassi’s Eyes, Mars in Nidhogg, Jupiter in Vedrfolnir, Saturn in Dain, Uranus in Ratatosk, Neptune in Duneyr, poor demoted planetoid Pluto in Dvalin, and the sun itself in Hellewagen. As near as Sally could tell, there had been no such astronomical convergence thus far in recorded history. Not that anybody paid attention to the ancient Viking constellations anymore. She’d taken it upon herself to name the astronomical event after Odin’s strong and swift—and eight-legged—white horse, Sleipnir.

Combined with a rare second New Moon in a single month, the Black Moon, this convergence offered an unprecedented opportunity for power and change.

Though she was only sixteen, this would be the great act of Sally’s life. The world, and the ancient spirits she resurrected, would thank her for it.

But once she started her workings, she had to complete the cycle of rituals and castings precisely on-schedule—unless she fancied having the entire universe implode. Or she might accidentally turn everything in creation an unpleasant shade of taupe. It was a toss-up.

Sally flicked her strawberry hair over her shoulders and grabbed a fuzzy pair of pink kitten socks to pull onto her bare feet. She bent over the rabbit skin and reached for the silver-gray piece of hematite she had painstakingly engraved with an n-shaped mark.

Hematite to shield against negativity, grounding magick into the Earth itself, Sally’s brain ticked off by rote.

“Uruz,” Sally said aloud while Baron watched her pale, delicate fingers. “This is the rune of primal power and change. Uruz is sacred to Njörd, father of the twins, Freya and Freyr. Its shape is symbolic of a pair of ox horns—AAOW!”

Sally dropped the hot stone. Baron watched it fall onto the white fur.

“Son of a bitch!” she spat, ignoring her own rule to never curse when doing magickal work. She held her burnt thumb to her mouth and sucked on the scorched flesh. Skin sizzled under her tongue.

Sally extended her other hand over the collection of stones on the rabbit skin. Heat radiated off them. The air practically crackled.

Hot runes? This was definitely a first.

As Baron crept forward to sniff at the hot stones, Sally scrambled across the carpet to the adjoining bathroom. She turned on the cold water and stuck her thumb in the stream, ignoring her reflection in the mirror over the sink. She knew what it would show her—dark circles under her tired green eyes, pale and hollow cheeks, and stringy hair. Come Sunday, when her spell-work was done, she’d indulge in some much-needed aromatherapy.

After a three-day-long nap.

She shut off the faucet and studied her singed thumb. The symbol for Uruz—ox horns and all—was seared into her flesh.

“Great.” Sally closed her eyes and wondered just how badly an accidental self-branding might impact her work. Now everything she did would be tinged by Uruz’s energy of creation and wild manifestation.

Sally’s eyes lit up.

“Well, Baron.” Sally glanced across the carpet at the tabby, who lounged half-purring, half-snoring, by the rabbit skin and stones. She waved her branded thumb in the air. “I guess this means it’s working, huh?”

Tugging gently on the smoky quartz pendant around her neck, she stepped out of the bathroom and sat back down in front of her altar space. Swatting away Baron’s paws—the cat had a bad habit of claiming her runes as play toys—Sally pulled the long sleeves of her ritual robe down over her hands to shield her fingers and picked up the still warm rune stones.


Knocked flat on his back by an unseen force, Heimdall stared up at the open sky of waning, pre-dawn stars, and tried to catch his breath.

The son of Odin and guardian of the old Norse gods had been hunting the Tree, moving through the forest as silent as a wolf. The Yggdrasil, the not-so-mythological World Tree, had been reborn somewhere in this Pacific Northwest forest. There was no telling which species of tree it had chosen for itself this time around. Maybe cedar, oak, or even another spruce as it had been in its last incarnation.
Heimdall had checked each young sapling for some sign of the Yggdrasil, hastening his pace through the darkness to the rhythm of hooting owls and chirping cicadas. If he didn’t find the Tree—and soon—the entire Cosmos might pay the price for his failure.

Trying to shake the lingering chill along his spine, he rubbed the back of his neck under his thick mane of blond hair and stared at his mud-encrusted hiking boots. He felt like he’d been punched in the stomach.

“What in Svartálfaheim was that?” Heimdall frowned at the old word for the home of the black elves. He and his kin had been in the New World for centuries now. He was generally better than his father or brother, Thor, at remembering to speak only English, but he had to remind himself every now and again. Even if he were back in the Old World, so many generations had passed since the fall of the Vikings that it was doubtful any modern mortals would understand their ancestral tongue. Besides, he couldn’t remember when he’d last seen a black elf.

Seven nights he had been on this trail, following the path laid by the waning moon. Seven nights he had failed—as he had each New Moon for the previous three years, ever since his mother and the Norns had divined that the old World Tree, recently deceased, had chosen to spring up again in this rainy corner of North America.

Every night on the hunt he felt the stars above him—ancient heroes and forgotten gods older than even he was—looking down on him, pushing him forward.

The Tree was everything. And Heimdall was sitting in the dirt.

Dawn was coming. He didn’t have much time before he’d have to head back to the station, change into his uniform, and start his shift as a forest ranger. The last thing he needed was to get waylaid by a prankster pixie, or a set of bruised ribs.

There had been growing unease on the successive, monthly hunts for the Yggdrasil. The young World Tree was vulnerable, as it always was at the beginning of its cycle of rebirth. Heimdall and his family had never failed to find it again and to protect it.

But there was something different in the air this time. If Heimdall failed to find the Yggdrasil before this Black Moon, with the planets perfectly aligned within the ancient constellations—or so he had been told; that was more Frigga’s department—there was no telling what could happen. He’d heard whispers that the remaining members of Odin’s lodge could face anything from a complete loss of their divine powers—already waning with every generation they lived among unbelieving mortals—to the fated arrival of the apocalyptic Ragnarok.

Twilight of the Gods. An all-out battle for control of the Universe, which only few would survive.

Chances were, it wouldn’t be good.

Heimdall shivered, and not from the crisp autumn air.

A twig snapped to his left. Heimdall crawled across damp pine needles and settled into a low crouch beside one of the many evergreen trees. Resting a hand against the rough bark, he slowed his breath and sniffed the air like a true predator. He pressed his other palm flat against the cool earth and listened.

He heard the trees communicating with one other—meandering conversations about rainfall, woodpeckers, air pollution, and nesting squirrels. He heard the rapid heartbeats and shallow breath of rabbits in their burrows and the lumbering gait of a trio of possums.

Below it all was the steady, slow heartbeat of the Earth herself, both a comfort and a reminder of the stakes of his quest.

Heimdall pressed his palm more firmly against the soil and closed his eyes. He frowned, straining to wade through the cacophony of vibrations passing up through his skin, looking for that one familiar beacon.

There it was. His face relaxed. Heimdall filtered out the noise of the other creatures, plants, elementals, and various sprites and faeries—possibly even other neglected deities like himself—that roamed the planet’s few remaining wild places. He homed in on the faint, tenuous pulse of the young sapling.

The Yggdrasil.

He was getting closer.

Dusting his hands off on his blue jeans, Heimdall stood up and said a silent prayer for speedy success to the heavens above.

Odd for a god to pray. Heimdall batted away the thought as he would a mosquito. Nowadays, he was prone to prayer, even to superstition. It had crept up on him over the centuries as his divine strength waned and as his body grew weaker and his senses duller with every passing decade.

These days, his family—Odin, Freya, Thor, and the few others who’d crossed the Atlantic with the Vikings and the first European colonists—disguised themselves as humans. They drove cars, paid taxes, held down jobs. Or tried to.

As the last words of his silent prayer passed his lips, Heimdall stepped deeper into the forest, forgetting everything but the elusive Yggdrasil. He didn’t stop to ponder who or what he might have been praying to.

His path led him into a clearing. Heimdall slowed as he stepped into this sacred place of power, revering the natural temple that today’s humans too often either took for granted or failed to notice at all. He planted his feet and took a deep breath—despite his aching diaphragm—and felt the clean, cool air fill his lungs as a gentle rain kissed his skin. He closed his eyes and a smile tickled the corners of his mouth as he felt the awareness of the tall trees that ringed the circle around him.

There were so few sacred spaces left.

He strode into the center of the tree-lined glade and watched the shadows cast by the light of the not-quite-dark moon overhead, knowing they concealed supernatural beings he no longer had the reliable ability to detect.

He hunched forward, squinting as his eyes darted right and left, trying to track any movement in the shadows. He was certain he’d not been followed, but he wasn’t exactly prone to falling on his butt by himself.

If a god falls alone in the forest, does he make a sound? Heimdall nearly choked on unexpected laughter, and cleared his throat instead.

“Damn straight he does,” he muttered to the dark trees.

Confident there was no immediate threat, Heimdall planted his feet and stretched his arms up over his head. He prepared to call down the subtle powers of the night, even if it was more a symbolic gesture nowadays than a real divine act. He spread his fingers wide and closed his eyes, reaching out to the sky above, then contorted violently inward as a sudden, dark chill raced across his back and danced on his shoulders.

Crouching low, Heimdall dug his fingers into the damp soil to ground himself. An owl screeched behind him. Heimdall spun to face the noise, his own heart pounding in his ears. At least his body’s fight response was still strong. He closed his eyes and slowed his breath, reaching out with his hearing and ancient intuition. He felt nothing but the night. Whatever had overtaken him, twice now, was gone.

Heimdall relaxed his jaw and pressed his hands into the dirt. He smelled fear on the air and could almost taste a tiny, terrified heartbeat just yards away. His eyes snapped open at the shrill chatter of a surprised chipmunk which should have been in its nest fast asleep.

The cry was interrupted by a burst of movement in the low shrubs. A high-pitched shriek was cut short by the quick snapping of jaws.
Heimdall sighed and sat back on his heels. “Laika.”

The bushes shuddered and the gray-and-white head of a wolf-dog emerged. Her eyes sparkled with a mix of guilt and pride over the small, bloody prey still warm in her mouth.

“Laika,” Heimdall scolded lightly. “Come.”

She stepped into the clearing and cocked her head to study the stern expression on her master’s face. Laika stamped her front paws on the soft earth and tried wooing at him with her mouth full, but Heimdall wasn’t budging. With a labored sigh, she dropped the furry body onto the ground and sank down beside it. Resting her head on her forepaws, Laika looked up at Heimdall with pitiful, liquid blue eyes. A hopeful wag shivered through her tail.

“I told you this was no hunting expedition, not for that kind of prey.”

Laika nosed her kill a few inches toward her master. Her mouth fell open into a silly grin, her tongue lolling out to one side.

Heimdall laughed. It was impossible to be angry with this eerily clever animal who had been the most steadfast mortal companion he’d ever had. He wagged a warning finger at her. “You can have it. But no more.”

She watched him carefully. Heimdall swore the wolf-dog sometimes looked right through him, with an intelligence surpassing even some of the gods’. She dropped her gaze and crawled toward the motionless chipmunk. After one more cautious glance at Heimdall, she snapped up her prey and went to work picking it apart with the patient precision of an experienced sport hunter rather than a hungry predator.

Watching her entertain herself, Heimdall frowned. He didn’t like the luxury and convenience of this so-called modern world, with food and distraction available at the touch of a button. Generations of relative peace had bred complacency. He used to long for the days of testing and survival, of true warriors and blood-soaked battles. Now even that was a wistful memory. He’d gained enlightenment and compassion, but living among these supposedly more evolved humans had softened him.

If Ragnarok were to come soon . . . ?

The cell phone in his pocket chirped. Heimdall knelt on the wet ground, pulled out his phone and checked the display: TXT MSG FROM MAGGIE.

Moisture seeped into his jeans and clung to his skin. He read Maggie’s message: Can U pick up coffee (med mocha latte w/ skim) & muffins 4 brkfst this AM? (& then tell me Y U have 2 work so many nights?)

“Crap.” He’d forgotten about his early morning plans with his mortal girlfriend. Every month as the moon waned, he’d made one excuse after another for why he couldn’t spend his evenings with her.

Telling her he was in the forest hunting for an ancient, mystical tree so he and his immortal kin could save the world wasn’t exactly an option.

He took another look around the circle of trees, gazing as deep into the woods as his senses would allow. Nothing. Whether it was an especially cunning predator or some dark magick, whatever had moved through the forest was now gone. He looked up at the lightening sky, then checked his watch. 7:02 a.m.

He glanced at Laika and patted his thigh. “Let’s go, girl. We’re calling it a night.”

Moon Dog Magic, book 1 of the Rune Witch urban fantasy series, is available on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited.