There was no moon in the sky that night. To Gwyn, this was a bad omen. To Gwyn, of course, most things were a bad omen. That was her life, now. It was difficult to remember it ever having been different, even though she knew it had been, Before. That was how she measured time these days - Before, and After. The two were separated by a distinct boundary that could no longer be breached.
The carriage glided through the darkness like a ship upon a gloomy sea. Gwyn had never seen a ship, or indeed the sea, so this was a description that never crossed her mind.
She sat in silence on the red leather seat, surrounded by her burgundy skirts that overflowed onto the floor. The curtains were drawn - they had been since the coach had passed Rookporte - and inside, all was lit only by a single lantern that stuttered and threatened to fail. Gwyn tried not to think about what would happen then. The night seemed to press against the windows like a living thing, scratching at the dust-coated panes, scrambling to get in. It had weight, like dark water upon the glass, like ink seeping through the curtains, staining them black. Perhaps she had fallen into the sky, floundering in the space between moments. Or perhaps she was riding on the edge of a cliff - a cliff on the edge of eternity, that fell away into nothing.
Gripped by a sudden coldness, she drew back the curtain and peered out into the night. There was rock all around, grey and crumbling like old bones. Beyond the tall spires of stone, and far below, she could perceive a wide plain, flat and featureless as the surface of the moons, and inexplicably threatening. Her heart beat fast. Before her eyes it seemed to grow, stretching out to become impossibly vast, widening until it touched the sky on all sides. She was filled with an obscure sense of menace. In her mind, she stood alone on a high, windswept peak, ringed by fire and beating wings, fixed with the blind stares of a million pairs of eyes. Sick to the stomach, she yanked the curtains closed.
What is wrong with me? By the flickering half-light, her hands seemed red with blood. She squeezed her eyes shut. In the sudden darkness, her world was again reduced to the space between four walls. It was not an unfamiliar sensation.
The carriage jerked to a halt. She opened her eyes, only to find that nothing had changed. A single, pale puff of smoke wafted from the snuffed-out lantern. She fought down the panic that fluttered in her throat.
Sudden footsteps, and then the carriage door was pulled open. Blessed light streamed in, and Gwyn shielded her eyes from the sudden brilliance. The coachman stood in the doorway, wrapped in a heavy black cloak, lantern in hand. The light illuminated his face from below, giving it an oddly sunken quality, like a toothless, grinning skull.
He handed her the lamp. It was metal, tin, she thought, with six roughly-cut panes of glass surrounding the central flame, and a rusty handle that left stains the colour of old blood on her glove. Right now, it was her only defence, a talisman against the pervasive dark that seemed intent on swallowing her up.
"Go to the main doors," said the driver, "and knock." His voice had a rasping quality, like a knife being sharpened on an emery stone. His face was hard and unreadable. Gwyn wondered if he knew the significance of this particular passenger. It seemed unlikely. No sane coachman would carry her knowingly.
"Up the hill," he continued, gesturing to the overgrown path that wound away into deeper shadow. "Can't miss it." He seemed oddly agitated, and she noticed he avoided meeting her gaze. The horses snorted and stamped their feet, the whites of their eyes shining in the lamplight.
Gwyn inclined her head wordlessly and drew her cloak closer around her shoulders. The driver stood for a moment, then, turning, hoisted himself up into the carriage and, with a click of the reins, sent it rumbling away down the hill. She watched it go, illuminated at the front by the faint glow of the coachman's lantern, until shadow enveloped it. The muted sound of hooves lingered in the air for the span of a few heartbeats, like distant thunder, and then silence.
She was alone.
She stood in the centre of a dim circle of yellow light. Darkness played around the edges, as if probing, testing for a weakness to exploit. For the first time, she became aware of the cold. It was a deep cold, blown straight from the desolate and mysterious Pole, that permeated cloth, flesh, and bone. In that way, it was like fear.
Gwyn gripped the lantern tighter, took a deep breath, and took one step up the path. Nothing happened. She took another step. The light flickered, but continued to hold the night at bay. Encouraged, she stepped again.
She must have looked like a ghost, winding her way so slowly up the barren hillside. The lamplight shone against her skin, fair as the mist that filled these craggy vales on pale autumnal mornings. She made no sound as she traversed the rock-strewn ground, one deliberate step after the next.
Sixty-three steps later, she stood before the heavy oak doors of the Order.
It was, she thought, aptly named. The symmetry, the order of it was so precise as to be forbidding. It looked unnatural, and Gwyn felt a chill that had nothing to do with the night air. A huge, square building, it seemed to be carved out of the living rock. It was grey, like the surrounding stone, with a flat façade, and windows that were thin, secretive slits. Five towers rose into the charcoal-coloured sky, their domed roofs tapering into skeletal spires that looked as though they might snap in the next strong wind. But there was no wind, just a heavy blanket of silence and cold like the air of a mausoleum.
Gwyn placed her hand on the doorknocker. It was shaped like a demon of the ancient world, and so cold that she drew her hand back at the first touch. The knocker itself sat in the creature's ghastly, gaping mouth, which seemed to drip fire in the light of the lantern. Fighting revulsion, she lifted the brass ring, and let it fall.
The sound rang hollow in the still air. There was no answering cry, no sound of footsteps on stone. All was silent. The demon's belligerent eyes followed her as she took a step back, and waited.
Time passed, and there was no movement from within the Order. Gwyn began to grow agitated. She raised her hand a second time to the doorknocker.
A gust of warm air blew across her fingers. For one irrational moment, she thought it was the creature's hot breath. A foolish notion, to be sure.
And then the light died.
She stood in total darkness, blacker than the deepest pitch. Instantly, every sound was magnified, every hair on her body alive and tingling. Panic locked its fingers around her heart and would not let go. A scream bubbled to the surface and split the frozen air.
She pounded on the unresponsive door, again and again, tears streaming down her ashen cheeks. She beat at the oak until her hands wept blood from between her clenched fingers, driven by a primal, animalistic terror that was unrelenting. The malevolent dark was all around her, on top of her, pressing down, layer upon layer. She was sinking in it, being buried alive, and she could not breathe. She swooned, and fell onto the stone step, folding like a string of paper dolls.
She barely even registered when the door, hinges crying, swung open. A pale, cadaverous woman stood in the entranceway, holding a single, bare candle. She looked at Gwyn, crumpled in the doorway like a wilted flower, with barely-concealed contempt.
The woman took her by the arm, and pulled her roughly across the threshold, into the cold, hungry mouth of the Order that gaped menacingly in the darkness. The doors swung shut behind her.