On a routine walk through the countryside around Orkanger, Sven Hagge discovers the bodies of four teenagers at the foot of an ancient rune stone. The bodies show no signs of injury or struggle – what catches Sven's eye is the stone itself.
Blood is seeping from the runes.
After assuring himself that the stone is otherwise unharmed, Sven reports the deaths to Isak Larson, the head of the local police. Isak sets his team to work; they haven't handled anything like this before, but Isak has to set any doubts about their (or his) abilities aside.
While the Orkanger team opens their investigation, Isak's sister arrives in town. Kit Larson has spent the last six years in Oslo, training as a police officer herself. She made detective and was assigned to homicide. Kit has more than pulled her weight in the big city, but the last case she worked was disturbing and exhausting enough that Kit's captain sent her on a forced vacation after it finally closed.
Kit infers from her mother's conversation with Isak that something has happened in Orkanger, but between her mother's concern for her mental well-being and Isak's stubborn pride, she can't learn much more. But then she meets Sven Hagge.
Kit and Sven both find themselves at the run-down police office the morning after the teenagers were found, Kit just hoping to distract herself with a small-town case and Sven appearing to make a formal statement about what he saw at the Sikkeland stone. Kit strikes up a conversation Sven, who she recognizes as the only son of the most prominent family in Orkanger. Sven's repuation proceeds him, but the rumors turn out to be closer to the truth than Kit would have guessed: Sven describes the dead teenagers with hardly any emotion and then suggests that nattmara or huldra might be the culprits.
Isak tries to shoo his meddling sister away from his witness, but Kit follows Sven to the Havsvale Coffee House to find out what else he knows. The Havsvale has only been open for a few months, and isn't entirely welcome among the older locals. To Kit's dismay, the Havsvale is run by Ingrid Koss, the girl who broke Kit's heart when she was nineteen. Despite her best efforts – and a curious conversation with Sven about bleeding stones and forest spirits – Kit finds herself all but alone with Ingrid in the quiet cafe. They talk briefly; Kit manages to draw Ingrid out of her initial coolness and they part as something near to friends.
More importantly, Kit now has a trump card to play in order to convince Isak to let her consult on the case: Sven has given her a scrap of the medical gauze he used to wipe the runestone. As soon as she can, she'll send it back to Oslo for analysis. Even her grumbling, bull-headed brother couldn't refuse to let Kit in on the investigation in exchange for that kind of information.