Antlers
rating: +14+x

Something started growing out of my face today. It's just a little thing, I told myself as I dressed. A small bone spur, just beneath the right eye. It hasn’t punctured skin yet, and probably won’t.

It’s probably been there for months, I told myself as I slipped into my robes and knocked the ritual sword, double blades and all, from its hiding spot in the ceiling. I felt at it again, that gentle pressure, and felt how it pressed just so lightly into the space beneath my eye and the socket. It was likely nothing at all. I walked out, and my landlord screamed.

It's probably nothing.

The antler people greeted me on the bus. I smiled, and they asked why I was winking. "I am not winking," I told them. "It’s just a little medical condition. I’ll get it looked at tomorrow."

"Promise us?" they asked, and smiled. Their antlers scraped the metal roof. "It looks quite serious."

I felt at my face. My hand came away wet, gleaming, and cold. My blood pumped, red iron under damp skin, and I felt as though my limbs were a spider’s, powered by the hydraulic pressure of crimson liquid inside. As the bus pulled into the stop, I told the antler people, "No, I am quite fine. It won’t amount to anything."

The antler people, if they could have winked, would have done so as I departed.

I walked onto the beach, and the air slid over my skin like I were rubber and the sky was lightning. I pushed aside the wind and cold with my robes. The thing on my face was on both sides now, blotting my vision with spots — the kind you get when rubbing your eyes too hard. Shapeless whorls and vibrant-yet-colourless patterns danced in my vision, ephemeral in the slick night air as I picked my way over tidepools and starfish grazing grounds.

The antler people followed me down the beach. They were not the same as the ones from the bus. They too held ritual swords, some home-hammered brass and others brilliant titanium. Mine gleamed dully in the stars and sea-refracted moonlight: a slotted iron fork, like a tuning tine cut with blades. I twisted it idly in my arms, cradled it as the antler people and I walked into the tide, but did not drop into the water: here at the edge of the sea, a landmass of pines and salt-damp murk rose from the depths like a reborn Atlantis. Our little paradise above the waves, here for one night only.

The things in my eyes were so cold. Vast now, huge and unbecoming. Bone and gristle, slightly furred to the touch. Perhaps they were velveted stag antlers. I did not bow my head to their weight now – the antler people setting up the lanterns, who were not so busy as those pressing bone-sand patterns into the marshy earth, took my hands in theirs. Some had their sockets dry and gnarled from antlers long fused to skin and bone. Others were like me, and still wept chunks of viscera down their pale faces from around the pale breakouts. I did not wonder how I could see this, given that, like them, my globes had been punctured at some point to make way for the incessant flowering of horns, but I did. The antler people setting the lanterns — I was not allowed to do the bone runes yet, I knew — showed me how to guide the jutting growths down the back of my head, across the vertex of my skull and following the nape of my neck. Now I had a gleaming crown of horns, and my vision remained unobscured despite the antlers sweeping back from where I once had eyes.

The bone soil patterns glowed, and when the moon rose to her peak we sliced the air beneath her looming belly. Our swords cut more than just the air, and sapphire blood drooled down from the heavens, not rain and not snow, and pooled and phosphoresced in ultramarine brilliance in our ritual circles. Our runes, dark with moon-blood, glittered beneath our hanging lanterns and string-lights of green chemical candles, and the moon lowed to her sister, the Sun, from the opposite side of the Earth. She was not heard.

The rest of the night passed swiftly, the air we breathed oily and grand. The forest soaked in the blood of the Moon and we quietly congratulated the trees as they straightened, as phoenixes chirruped in hidden burrows, as dire wolves and dragons sang and flourished under our care. Another year, another sacrifice, another way of living. Next year, the moon would be back, and again the forest would be dried of life by the greedy moon. And again, we would slash the belly of the pale radiance above and return balance the world.

Again, we would grow antlers, because nobody enters the woods without changing.

As the sky purpled and pinked with sunrise, the antler people and I donned our cloaks, buried our ritual swords still slick with the blood of the moon under the nesting roots of the trees. The blades would appear by us again in the morning, forever loyal and fiercely faithful to our presence – and trotted out from the sinking forest as the night air began its annual fermentation. We could not be caught in the vanishing forest come the dawn.

I thanked the antler people, on our way back. The beach stones clattered beneath our hooves and shoes. During our procession, an antler person young enough that her sockets were still red and swollen from puncture pulled me aside. The sky lit her horns, twisted and elegant like braids, in hues of purple and red. She told me as we walked, "Tomorrow, your antlers will be gone save for bone buds." Her posture was gentle and knowing. "Next year, if you do not join us, if you stay inside and pretend not to hear the song of the ritual sword and pretend not to feel the longing to join us in the wood, you will remain unchanged. The year after that, the bone buds will be gone."

"And if I keep with you?" I asked.

"If you keep with us," she said with a nod, "you will be forever changed. You will become like me, with no eyes of which to speak. One night a year, you will be compelled, not asked, to join in the slashing of the Moon. Your body will change, and you will not return to form when you awake the next morning. You will remember the woods all year long, instead of slowly recollecting on the night you heed the call, and the absence will hurt you."

She asked me, "Are you willing to make such a sacrifice?"

I looked to her, stopping in the wan light of the blue and bleeding moon. Behind us, the forest strewn with fireflies and phoenixes and dragons whispered and faded into mist, sufficient in its magic to remain unseen, untrodden, and unspoiled for another year. My antlers weighed heavy on my head and rubbed sharp against my clothes, but I smiled so wide my teeth could surround the sky.

"Yes," I said. My heart pumped full and joyful, and my lungs were breathless like they were filled with blooming flowers.

The antler person nodded, her rack of braided antlers breaking the slit moon above, and bowed. We rejoined the procession, and as I made my way from the beach to the bus, my fur broke into mist and my clothes hung loosely against raw skin. As I ascended the stairs in the orange-pink filtered light of sunrise, the digitigrade joints of my legs reasserted themselves as knees and ankles and I stumbled, held onto the railing as the bones in my spine, too, crackled and formed the old long shape I had once been so fond of.

I collapsed into bed and closed my eyes. I dreamed of the wood, and as the Sun pierced my curtains the antlers receded into buds.

In my dreams, I ran free in the woods beneath a forever-bleeding moon. I smiled and imagined I could feel the bone-buds of the eyes growing minutely, freshly broken as they were, to become antlers grander than the moon and sun and stars. I imagined I could feel my ritual-sword in air and mist, resting just above the slats of the ceiling and waiting for the next night.

I couldn’t wait to return.

[long drawn-out belch] Posting before the impulse to put this in the DELete folder hits! Enjoy.

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