Prologue

"Dust did not have the chance to settle on the trapdoor before it crashed
open; a wrinkled brown hand emerged from its murky depths, succeeded by a
head wrapped in a dark shawl and a torso that bulged under the crone's
clothing.

The woman strode towards one of the numerous shelves decorating the dark
room and, moving aside many of the bottle in the front row, reached for a
relatively small, oddly shaped flask right at the back.

As her fingers closed around the narrow tube of glass, her
excitement was almost palpable; her clothing rustled as if it had a
life of its own, and wisps of grey hair escaped from underneath the
shawl. She regarded the bottle. The vial contained a viscous liquid
the color of old blood; the crone tilted the glass and the liquid crept
sickeningly in the direction of the gravitational pull.

Holding the glass cylinder, she moved around the first few
shelves, into a hidden clearing in the middle of which some bricks
were arranged to form a square, with an empty space in the middle.
The void was scorched black, and a foul smell emanated from it.

The old woman, mumbling incoherently to herself, lit a fire inside the brick altar and then crouched in front of it, head bowed. Her murmurs transformed into chanting, which gradually grew louder and louder. Finally, at what sounded like the climax of her chants, she threw her head back and cried out something in a foreign language.

She then reached into her voluminous clothing and brought out a small wooden box. She open the box and retrieved a lock of black hair from with in it. She picked up the hair with her old digits and dropped it into the fire. The smell of burning hair paled in comparison to the stench when she emptied the phial of blood-red liquid over the flames.

Finally, the crone lifted her right hand and held out her index finger as if admiring it for the last time. She moved it progressively closer to the white-hot tongues of flame, stopping maybe a millimeter from the ribbons of heat before plunging her finger within..."