The Broken Incense Censer
rating: +17+x

You have probably seen many apocalypses before, so the scene should be familiar to you. In this world you will find the scattered ruins of reclaimed metal, jagged thrusts of cheap shelter repurposed for the needs of a new age. There are miles and miles of a thinning waste, all frail plants growing meekly in the soil. There are cults of the old world's detritus, cheap plastic toys turned into idols, fuel for new engines of belief. There are people, strung loose, who never knew ease and familiarity and so don't ever miss it.

The kind of apocalypse doesn't matter much either; you'll have seen it somewhere too. A hundred thousand missiles, or gods, or plagues, all seething through the streets with their own kinds of malice. A hundred thousand children, running for their mothers, all caught up in the blast. A hundred thousand eyes that watch this, taking in the scene with the dispassion of those used to ease and familiarity.

After it was all done, and the dead had to be buried, nobody knew what to do. They tried praying, but when the air itself seemed hostile, what use was it? They'd be clawed back to earth by a poisoned sky. Sooner or later other concerns came to mind, so the bodies were left out in the open. Eventually someone shunted them off to the side, to an open pit where they could keep adding more and more when the sight became distracting. The eagles came to pick at them, and beneath the mud and stink the bleached-white scent of bone came crawling up, shining in the noonday sun, defiant in its brightness.


There were more bones that day on the mountain. These ones had been stripped clean by the years and so lay, white and shining, up against the path. The grass was thin here, clinging to a light and dry dirt. The thin winds meant less decomposition, so the bones almost looked like marble.

The pilgrim cocked his head and looked at them. He didn't know their creed. If they had died in the last few decades, then they probably belonged to the Sacrae or the Nafta Cults, and he didn't know their words. If they were older, then it'd be a strict Catholicism; there were still a few left in these parts. He could see a battered church in the distance; maybe someone there would help?

A cloud moved over; the pilgrim could hear crickets chirping. It would rain soon, and he had to find a place to stop by nightfall. He nudged one of the bones with his foot and watched it crumble under his touch. He shuddered. Things weren't quite right in these parts.

He tried not to think about the bone in his backpack. This was a different kind of bone, with its own hue and colour and purpose. Its weight shifted behind him, pushing into the small of his back. He adjusted the strap. He tried not to feel its presence, but he couldn't help it; the hum of it was there. The sweet scent of it would be gone soon, at his hand, and he couldn't afford to get attached.

The bone was buried under a pile of food, bread and fruit from the last town he saw. Whenever he reached into the bag he would root around that same pile, even as the journey saw its contents gradually replaced. Bread by corn. Corn by fish. Fish by fowl, salt beef, peas and rice, tomatoes and cucumber. There was nothing left of that first food, but the pile persisted, that created and transferred energy that bloomed forth, again and again, never losing itself in all its transmutations.


That night by the fire, he ate a meal of rye bread in the methodical way he had become used to. Ignoring the dark and the twitching surroundings, he'd focus all his attention on the flame, the way it swirled and lifted and flattened itself. He'd bite the bread in a gradually contracting circle, a rhythmic and precise spiral. He'd stare into the fire and let the world fall away so it was just him and the light. It never seemed to obey the laws of physics.

The bread became inexorably smaller in a regulated, timed motion. After the first few bites, when the impurities were dealt with, it became the same as every loaf he'd ever eaten. A thin line seemed to connect this fire, this loaf, in a narrative of shared experience that collapsed in time itself. For those few, scattered moments -

"Aagh!"

The vision burst as a figure hopped back from the fire, cursing under its breath. The pilgrim stood up, startled. It was a child, a girl, no older than nine or ten. She was sucking her hand and seemed barely aware that she'd been caught.

"Wait."

The pilgrim reached for his waterskin and opened it, pouring the liquid on the girl's fingers. He got a look at her face - half defiant, half-shy - as she murmured thanks.

"Got any food?"

The pilgrim was a good pilgrim, and remembered the oathes he'd taken before setting out. There was no trace of regret on his face as he passed the bread over. The girl grabbed it with her good hand, eagerly attacking it. He watched as the crumbs fell under her feet.

"What are you doing so far from the village? Your parents will want to know where you are."

The girl shook her head. "Don't got none. The Nafta got 'em."

The pilgrim nodded. He didn't know what to say. He didn't know what to say to children, or how to act around them. They were unpredictable, with a habit of getting themselves dirty. He wished he knew what to say.

The girl shifted around, munching her prize. She glanced at the pilgrim a few times, but he was deep in an apple. He kept staring at the fire, so the girl cocked her head.

"Where you going, anyway?"

"Up." He pointed to the mountain's peak.

"Ain't nothing up there. Just a lot of rocks."

"I have a job to do up there."

This intrigued the girl. Her life was defined by the harvest, the hunt and the winter snows. Was there a boar up there, red and fat and dripping with blood?

"What's in the bag?"

"A bone. I have to bury it on the mountaintop." The pilgrim chewed for a moment before swallowing. "You want a story? I have some stories."

Pilgrims always told stories, and the young were always ready to hear them. But the girl had a weary look on her face. She'd seen many travellers come through the village, and she'd heard too many lies and yarns to be that easily fobbed off.

In a village of mud and deep pits, of pig's meat and old secrets, she wanted a story that gleamed. Every day, as she prepared the hunted boar, she'd imagine the fat yielding up a hundred pounds more of flesh. She'd look at the stars at night, like so many children, and think about the hundred explorations that their forefathers had gone on.

She'd sketch out lines, drawn between the stars, where the boar would dance and dance. This world became more complex and complete. The boar would dance, over and over, hunting and hunted, trying to find the way home. She wanted to hold it, and tell it something new. She wanted a seed to light the world again, to bring colour back to the darkest pits.

"Tell me about the war. You're old enough. You must remember it."

The pilgrim did remember it -


- but did he? It came back to him in bits and pieces. He had been barely twelve, so he didn't really understand. When it started, it was all heroes and villains, tin soldiers and lead paint marching into battle. A final, regretted option, but one which brave men would stand for.

When the city began to burn, and he saw people running in a way they never ran, he felt a shiver of uncertainty. His parents had been members of a secret church, with hidden instruments of faith locked in obscure rooms, but they didn't have any answers - they just ran around in a different way, crying to their god to save them. Nobody seemed to make any sense, the old habits were all broken, and the new ones seemed to involve a lot of screaming.

So he wiped his tears and ran outside, following people yelling names as they headed towards the shelters. The smog was black around him, and he began to cough and choke. He could hear words behind him, words in a language he didn't know. He should be feeling the things the books told him about - the wartime loss of innocence, the destruction of old myths - but it all still felt like part of the same narrative. The air itself had turned against him, and a real hero would battle through it. He wanted so badly to be a hero.

The blast of a shell knocked him over. That harsh language crept closer and closer, and all he could hear was the wail of guns, and all he felt was the harsh black of smoke.

Then something shone through, piercing the smoke. It was a light, a beam through the clouds, and before him stood a shining woman. He knew immediately that she was a hero. Anyone wearing that outfit, with its interlinked scales of gold, had to be a hero. But there was something else - an inner fire that twisted and was perfect, reflecting the soul itself as it strained against a human form.

That was the day he joined his parents' religion. That was the day that his world was made, solidified, secured for a single purpose. That was the day he ceased to see the smoke and only saw the fire itself, its waves and ebbs and flows that danced and danced and danced.


When he woke, the girl was holding the bone. He jumped up, blinking at the midday sun, and snatched it from her hands. He glared at her, but she only grinned.

"That ain't a bone."

He checked it. It was fine. He felt its lines and they were all intact.

"It's made of metal. Bones ain't made of metal."

The surface of the bone glinted in the sunlight. There were no breaks, no discolourations. He thrust it back into the bottom of his pack and breathed out.

"Did you hear me?"

He started stalking off, crunching gravel under foot. The girl kept piping up around him, but he ignored her chatter. After a while, she grew silent, and he could enjoy the journey upwards. The air was thinner here, but not so thin that his lungs would burn. It was a light and free world, poised between the sea and the sky.

He stopped for a snack, and the girl was still there, looking at him. He sighed. "It's a bone of a god."

"Really?"

"Yes." He munched for a while - no spirals today. "A long, long time ago, there was a god who walked the earth and lifted humanity up from itself. But that god was broken into little pieces, and for centuries we tried to piece him back together again."

"So is that why you have his bone? To put him together again?"

The girl was squinting. She was doing a good job of restraining herself. He liked that. "One day they did put him back together again, but they didn't get it right. Then they did it again, and he came back wrong again. And a third time, and a fourth. So eventually we stopped trying to build him and decided to scatter him instead. His bones are spread across the world, where nobody can find them."

He stood up. The girl was frowning. He tossed her a piece of food, which she ate greedily. She skipped alongside him as they ascended the peak.


And then they were at the top, and he'd dug the hole in the earth. The girl sat on a rock, still frowning. He ignored her. He felt his muscles give themselves to the work, the strain and motion of action. The sun burnt his back. He didn't relish it.

When the work was done, he reached into the bag and took out the bone. He stared at the ground for a long time. Part of him didn't want to let it go.

"You shouldn't bury it."

The girl's voice was hard and firm. It sounded like something collected, a kind of determination he hadn't heard in her before. He sighed, and made to drop it into the ground.

The girl jumped across and snatched the bone out of his hand. He screamed. She scrambled back, startled, as he advanced on her.

"You shouldn't bury it! Gods shouldn't be broken! Ma starves in the hole-"

"Humans can't put him back together. " The pilgrim advanced, snarling. "That's why we scatter him, that's why we hide him. Flesh can't make him, so he just keeps coming back wrong. He'll come back by himself at the end of days, when the rivers run and the time is right. Who are you to say otherwise? Give me the bone."

"No!" The girl turned and tried to run, but he caught her. His hand was covered in sweat. He reached over and wrenched it off her.

The girl yelped. It was a soft sound, like she couldn't believe she'd have to use it. She fell to her knees, nursing her arm. He stood there, staring, and wished he knew what to say.

Her eyes welled with tears, and she fled down the hill. He stood there, holding a lump of metal.


On the way back down, he stopped at the church. It was ancient and Catholic, ivy-covered and half-ruined. It was an old world church, but it had been rebuilt hurriedly and wrong. He shuddered to look at it, but it was cold and he wanted to rest. He approached the oak-beam doors and pushed.

It was quiet and almost empty. The sun was setting, but a few faint beams shone through the cracks in the stonework. The light was red and heavy, and thick incense wafted through the air. It made him blink and almost cough.

A woman was sitting in one of the pews near the front. She was rocking back and forth, chanting the same quiet prayer with long, yearning syllables. Her hair was grey, and she was round and plump.

There was a rosary in her hands, which she kept twisting in her hands. He could make out each individual bead, the smoothness of their surface and the perfection of their form. She moved them round and round the string, pushing them through her wrinkled fingers like a spiral, one interspersed with age and care and all kinds of stress. He felt faint. His nostrils were saturated with the strange red smoke.

He remembered that day in the smog, and the way it made him feel. It was black then, and it had stayed like that all day. He'd heard his mother's voice in the smoke, thin and frail, but he hadn't run to it. There was a hero in front of him, after all, a hero in untarnished gold.

He wanted to sink into the earth, but he didn't. He ran, stumbling, down the mountain.

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