“In Extremis”
by Deborah J. Brannon

They only come in winter or summer. In extremis, by extremes. In summer, my door opens upon Baghdad alleys, in dunes southwest of Mut, upon the infernal wastes of Ifrin and the trackless breadth of Death Valley. In winter, penitents must come through Moscow sewers, walk leagues north of Helsinki, dig through snows in the Ice Queen’s realm, or steer fifth star to the right and straight on till morning toward the Antarctic.

They always know the ordeals, the way. They find the broken-latched door in shadows and water and snows and collapsing waves of heat. Though iron or wood, banded in silver or leather, it always bears my sigil: the staring hollow eye and the insatiable locust splayed across the pupil. The sigil is a chain, burned into my flesh as well, an invisible connection that means the door will always lead to me.

No matter where I run to, in this world or any other, they will always find me with their blazing eyes and their scrabbling hands. So full of burning guilt and freezing desire, they will never let me forget why it must be me.

Abaddon. Title, name, and purpose.

If they come to me with their blood frozen, they must walk down a corridor of fire: walls of flame and floor of coals. If in summer with the heat rising in waves from their skin, they must swim a freezing and unfathomable pool. The corridor is twenty cubits and there are no short cuts. The entrance to my temple abuses flesh beyond endurance, burning with bitter cold or unforgiving heat.

Yet after such rigorous travel, my penitents beg not for release but punishment. For age after age, I have provided. I have flayed skin already cracked beyond recognition. I have broken bodies to match the fractured foundations of their souls. I have done this and more until my fingernails are crimson with blood that will never fully wash away.

And always are they talking: not screaming or praying but pouring forth what has brought them to seek my ministrations, their sins and mistakes, horrors witnessed, dreams undone. At the last, they rattle their gratitude at being remade. Their words do not cease until I have punctured and cracked and peeled away their flesh and forms from them, so slowly: unfolding their bodies to the secret heart, their incessant tongues at last stilling as I regard what our labors have revealed. A delicate creature, small and new, with staring, hollow eyes. Their quiet and glowing beauty emerging from the wreck of blood and bone no longer moves me. I leave it on my doorstep for the Malakhim.

They come to the Lady of Locusts to be made hollow, deconstructed and made new. But I am full, so full, and I am tired of obliging them.

I have played the penitent before, mounted the ladder, wended the long way to Heaven on the heels of the Malakhim. Angels make climbing look effortless, but we earthbound demonkin grow fond of bodies with muscles that bunch and strain and skins that run with effort.

Thus limp and winded, I have thrown myself upon the mercies of my celestial counterparts, begging to be made new. Must I serve, only, and receive no surcease? Could not the tool of absolution be herself briefly absolved? The black eyes of my brothers and sisters have gazed at me, bowed and trembling, with blood-stained hands and feet. Their gaze has swept over my taught skin, sallow by their own sacred glow. Their hands have twitched toward my ravaged wings, feathers tattered and torn through the passion of my calling and finally, with pitiless compassion, they have made me new.

Yet they would never let me speak: my words crowded behind my teeth, stymied by their holy hands that bid my words not profane such a sacred place. Though their hands were gentle and cleansed my skin, clearing away the sweat and blood; though their breath was refreshing, summoning new feathers from my beleaguered wings; though they clothed me in glorious raiment, they denied me further speech. So I learned that Abaddon’s eyes could grow wet as rain-washed rust and still she– I– could not cry.

I have descended the ladder, my skin once more golden, wings burnished, the only grooves in my body the brand of my sigil. I have once more shone as the rising sun and dazzled my penitents in their grief, until such beauty reflected in supplicating eyes has seemed a mockery: so lovely and unmoved a visage is unseemly with such bloated turmoil roiling inside.

When I can take no more, when I have laid more perfect beings on my doorstep and my hands still wash clean, I have taken my keys from the hook in the pantry, stepped over the ravaged body that would dissolve at dawn, and knelt in the center of my inner sanctum. I have inserted the key of brass and bone into smooth stone, opened the door that revealed itself a moment later, and descended into Hell.

Shining and clean, I have thrown myself upon the cruelties of my infernal counterparts, begging to be made broken. Must I serve, only, and receive no surcease? Could not the tool of absolution be herself briefly absolved? I have stared into the yellow eyes of my brothers and sisters, inclined my head at their twisted visages and clenching claws. They have smiled, sadly and terribly and, with passionless pity, they have made me broken.

Yet their ministrations are so severe that I could not speak: my screams burst forth as they execute tortures honed to breathtaking perfection by eons of practice. They begin with finessed and delicate inflictions of pain, moving through their repertoire until blunt and unsophisticated methods are all that’s left to them. I scream until I whisper and still I cannot cry.

At least, in the end, I have been slightly emptier and so I have endured.

I have repeated this cycle many times: each time, there have been less years in between revolutions. Until now. My last penitent found me gasping, gutted and bleeding on my temple floor, the outline of the door to hell still flickering redly as I pulled forth the key and flung it across the temple. I hadn’t expected another so soon, and gazed at him with my wet, red eyes, waiting for my ruptured flesh and broken bones to knit.

“What have you done?” He spoke to me; not at me, not begging, but to me, asking a solicitous question. “I thought… to me.” He finished lamely, incoherently.

“I hurt,” I croak. “Not this, but–” I gesture to my chest, then my eyes, as full as his with horrors witnessed and dreams undone.

He kneels beside me, takes my hand. He gazes at me wordlessly, mindlessly stroking the flesh over my sigil, one of the only places not bleeding. Looking into his eyes, I see room enough for me: something breaks and I begin to speak. My temple, always echoing with the words and deeds of others, echoes at least with mine until, with disbelief, I found myself spent and my penitent touching my face. He pulls his fingers away wet with my tears.

“Now you are hollow, lady.”

“Now I am,” I agreed. I show him how thankful I am in my new understanding: I take him into my arms and lovingly making him hollow.