Kyy hadn't planned to return, not after the scare he'd suffered in the forest. He contented himself with focusing on his job and busying himself exploring his new home instead. The only problem was that life in Tof'Marole was a constant reminder of the forest, the people talked about it proudly, full of stories about their wild nature reserve. Its long boughs cast a long shadow over the town, and as summer slowly gave way to autumn, leaves rained down on the town when the wind blew just right.
They even spoke about Quinten, the hare Kyy had met after his flight. He was an artist, a master of dying fur, a vision of enigmatic style and grace. Whether living alone on the outskirts of town or gracing the hottest clubs, gigs and events, his body shone as a living advertisement of his art. Turning off the forest road, Kyy pulled his rugged old station wagon into the car park outside the shop, and sat there with the engine idling for a while as he worked up the courage to get out of the car.
Lifting his head, the cheetah looked beyond the building toward the forest. The border wall had an entrance behind the shop, so Kyy could see straight into the woods. The canopy was a riot golden brown, shades of red and orange rustling in the wind, appearing to set the forest ablaze. Even though the tangle of life beneath the trees was wild, it looked positively inviting. Shaking his head and muttering to himself under his breath to not be silly, Kyy got out of the car and headed for the shop. The yellow eyes of that hyena tattoo still haunted him… Something odd was going on and it was all centred around this shop, and the forest, with the hare at the heart of it all.
The shop front was fairly traditional. Mannequins posed in a variety of outfits and accessories, and Kyy found it all surprisingly tasteful. Inside the front room, racks of clothes were on display in a variety of styles, ranging from neoprene or leather to cotton and mesh. A wide variety of tastes and styles were on display, from the loose fitting skater boy rave style to tight fitting latex and neoprene club gear. All the accessories on display were fitting for every type of club, from peaked caps, to collars, to sweatbands. A door to the left lead back into another showroom and beyond that Kyy could make out a discreet closed door for the “adult” area.
The counter stretched across the rear of the first room, glass showing off a variety of piercings for all kinds of ears, as well as other parts of the body, all available in so many different materials that Kyy didn’t know what to make of it. Behind the counter a racoon thumbed idly through a book, standing a good foot shorter than Kyy. Light brown fur danced through the rings of his tail, and the distinctive mask across his eyes had been dyed a light pastel green. He was dressed in a neoprene-mesh vest, and his bare arms were covered with green vine patterns. Oddly, the raccoon had a purple collar on, but on closer inspection Kyy realized that it was just a line of incredibly detailed paint encircling his neck, and the tag was affixed to a piercing attached to his throat. As Kyy approached, he glanced up at Kyy over the top of his book with a curious quirk to his ears.
“Can I help? Anything in particular you are looking for, friend?” his voice was soft and mild, and there was a hint of a smile around his muzzle as he regarded the cheetah.
"I... was actually looking for the hare who runs this place. He said his name was Quinten," Kyy said as he approached the counter. "He said I could come to the shop to talk about visiting the forest?"
The raccoon put down his book and gave the cheetah an appraising look. "Did he, now…? That's unlike the boss."
"Is it?" Kyy asked. "I got lost in there a few weeks back, and he saw me coming out. He said if I came back we could talk about safe access to the forest."
"Oh, you've already been inside, then." the raccoon settled back on his stool, seeming to lose interest, "Well, Quin is busy with a client right now, he'll likely be an hour or so."
"I don't mind waiting," Kyy said, trying not to frown at the raccoon’s dismissive posture. "I'll just have a browse, er… what did you say your name was?"
"I didn't, and you never asked." He leant forward, the tag attached to the painted collar on his throat gleamed, the little silver and black R was impossible to miss and Kyy couldn't look away from it. "But I'm Raymond. I run the shop for the boss, have a look, pick out a new outfit, or if you want some piercings I can run the gun."
"Err, thanks, no piercings for me…" Kyy backed up a step, "I'll go look at the… in the other room…" the cheetah scooted into the main display room, glancing back once to see the raccoon watching him with that knowing grin on his muzzle. Trying to put the shop assistant out of mind, Kyy started to browse the racks for inspiration. He soon found a whole range of vests and shorts that he loved, not too wild or scandalous like some of the gear.
The hour flew by as he nipped in and out of the changing room, trying on new outfits. He picked out a few that met his fancy, and strolled back to the counter to pay,and soon found himself chatting away with Raymond and a few other customers who wandered in. Quin's emergence from his studio in the company of a grey squirrel sporting amazingly detailed autumn themed work on his tail and hair was almost lost to a particularly engaging discussion Kyy found himself in with a chatty labrador.
Kyy looked over as he caught Raymond pointing at him, and realised the raccoon was talking to Quin. The hare turned to regard Kyy, and the cheetah tried not to stare at the exotic creature languidly lounging against the counter. His neck and the underside of his muzzle was a light natural beige in colour as Kyy had seen a few weeks ago, but the rest of his body was a work of art. His fur was mostly orange, with patches of red across his shoulders, while his dreadlocks had been dyed the same mix of shades that adorned the canopy outside. Shades of red, brown, orange, and greens, all beautifully blended together so that Kyy almost thought it was natural. Even the way he'd tied his dreads together matched the theme, his hair adorned with fallen leaves, acorns, conkers and other detritus from the woods.
His actual outfit was almost drab in contrast: a pair of dark red overalls, with the upper half tied about his waist by the sleeves, and a form fitting amber vest made from some sort of flexible, shiny material covering his torso. Kyy noticed there was no hyena on his arm this time, then realised he was staring and hurriedly tried to look away, but Quin was already walking over so the cheetah lamely raised one hand and waved.
"So, you came back," the hare murmured, his long ears standing tall and turning to focus on Kyy, "It was Kyy, wasn't it? The one who came stumbling out of the forest a couple of weeks ago."
“Yeah… you invited me to come back and maybe this time… show me around?” Kyy rubbed one hand against the back of his head, trying not to sound lame, “Preferably... without me freaking out over some of the wildlife being curious.”
“Well, let’s go then.” Quin started for the door. “It’s quite a forest, and you really should see it right now while it’s in full autumn flourish.”
Startled, Kyy started after the hare, “What, you mean right now? I thought we’d have to set a time, and I don’t have any supplies…”
“No time like the present!” Quin quipped as he opened the door with a flourish. “I don’t have any more appointments today, Raymond can close up the shop, and I was thinking of going anyway. I try to go for a walk at least once a day, twice if I can help it.”
“Uhh… sure,” Kyy hurried after the enigmatic and brightly dyed hare. “I… yeah… let’s go.”
The forest really was as beautiful as Quinten had promised. Kyyanno’s bare feet crunched their way through the fallen blanket of leaves, his yes wide in wonder at the glory of autumn. The still-warm sunlight lancing through the trees spoke of a memory of summer, whilst the shadows were chill with the promise of winter to come. Kyy was in love, it was just the sort of woodland he enjoyed rambling through, and yet… it was off limits.
Glancing sideways at his enigmatic companion, he found himself looking into Quin’s green eyes. Slowing down at the edge of a large clearing heaped with piles of leaves, Kyy glanced around then back at the hare and took a deep breath.“What is this place?” he asked, “Those creatures that were hunting me, what were they?”
“The wildlife that lives here,” Quinten smiled quietly, his ears laying down as he tilted his head back, the breeze tugging at his dreadlocks causing them to shift and sway ever so gently. “They’re part of the natural order of these woods, they guard it from intruders, and watch, learn, and keep it safe.”
“But…” Kyy looked around again, “I mean, I’ve seen squirrels and badgers and such, that's wildlife, but those creatures were huge.” Shaking his head, he turned back to the autumn coloured hare. “It can’t have just been fear that made them seem big, one of them nearly crushed me under its hooves.”
The hare regarded Kyy then moved closer suddenly. Kyy swallowed heavily at the nearness, the hare suddenly looming over him. Maybe it was the way his ears had flicked straight up, or maybe it was the intensity of his stare, but there was something wild about him. Reaching out, he placed a hand on Kyy’s chest and then shook his head and backed up a few steps.
“No, this will not do. Something’s bothering you. I can see it in the way you stand, the way you look around, and it hasn’t got anything to do with one of my… friends popping out of the shrubbery.”
Kyy swallowed then shook his head, “No… there’s nothing. I just want to know more, this place is… something weird is going on here.”
Quinten stared at Kyy and spread his arms wide, green eyes boring into the cheetah’s own. “Not until you tell me.”
Kyy squirmed under that gaze, the leaves crackling as he shuffled his feet . He looked down, then all around, before glancing back at the hare. The sun had slipped behind a cloud, casting Quinten’s autumnal shaded body in shadow, except for those green eyes boring into Kyy’s soul. With a soft meow, he surrendered to his demand.
“I... Ihateclothing, ok?” he said in a rush. “Normally I’d be walking around an empty wood like this with nothing on… see, now you probably think I’m a creep.”
Quinten just laughed, a warm chuckle that turned into a deep throated roar of delight. He moved closer, and suddenly Kyy found himself backed up against the tree, the hare’s arms on either side of his head, orange paws resting on the tree bark.
“Is that all? Ohhhh, Kyy… you are a delight.” He drew back and turned away, swaying his hips and reaching up above his head with both arms. “Maybe this will help you relax.”
Small tail fluttering from side to side, the hare slid his arms down his torso, and then with one swift movement pulled off his vest, before hooking a finger into his overalls and bending over to pull them off. Kyy gasped, not only at the hare stripping, but at the intricate vine pattern covering his back. Curled up in the middle of the pattern was the same hyena he’d seen on Quin’s arm when they first met. The detail was beautiful, and Kyy found himself stepping forward to look closer.
Quin glanced back at Kyy with a soft smile, muscles rippling as he twisted, his dreadlocks and ears falling back down across his back to obscure the tattoo. “Well?” he asked invitingly.
Casually at first, but with growing eagerness, Kyy stripped off his t-shirt, then kicked off his shorts. He sighed in delight as the autumn breeze tickled his fur, basking in the delight of nature before he glanced shyly at the bun. The cheetah found Quin unashamedly checking him out and he felt the insides of his ears warming up as he blushed at the frank appraisal.
“Well… this surprised me,” Kyy said as he tried not to squirm under the hare’s gaze. “Not many people would invite me to... well, strip down.”
Quin shook his head and ran his hands through his dreadlocks as his hips swayed from side to side. “I live in this forest, Kyy. I usually keep my shorts on myself, but there are times when being one with the forest comes first.”
“It is beautiful…” Kyy looked up at the canopy, “Oh, that tattoo on your back, it’s like the one you had on your arm. Is that a design you use a lot?”
“Shy?” Quin queried naming the creature and turning around again, pulling his hair out of the way with one hand so Kyy could see it, “Oh yes, Shy is Shy, he always looks like this.”
Kyy drew closer and peered at the figure, “How do you make him so… life like? And did Raymond draw him on you or do you have a stencil?”
Quin chuckled and shook his head, “No, Raymond didn’t draw him. I made him…”
Kyy opened his mouth to object to the thought of the hare drawing such an intricate design on his own back, but the words died in the cheetah’s throat as the hyena on Quentin’s back stood up. The painted figure clambered to all fours and stretched, the angle and viewpoint slowly changing as he turned his head to look at him directly. Then the hyena moved out of the bed of vines, the flowers and leaves and vines trailing along beneath his feet, following the hyena. He climbed up to Quin’s shoulder and over it, body oozing, ink flowing from one patch of fur to another.
Quin turned and Kyy shook his head in disbelief, watching as the hyena circled down the hare’s shoulder. The orange furred artist crouched down and Kyy dropped to his knees in front of him, muzzle hanging open in disbelief. Quinten pressed his palm to the ground and watched as the hyena tattoo… as Shys head slid onto the back of the hare’s hand, black liquid starting to well up around it.
Swiftly, it formed a small pool and Kyy stared at the slick, black liquid, watching, frozen in place as the hyena’s head slipped off the back of Quinten’s hand and onto the surface of the pool. The ink spread, and the hyena’s body pooled off the hare’s arm, leaving no trace of vines, flowers, leaves or any part of his body. For a moment, the living image of the hyena floated on the surface, and then the pool started to well up. The hyena’s body flowed across the surface, curling around the emerging shape, growing larger, swelling as more ink seemed to pour out of the ground and feed the expanding beast.
Kyy scrambled back from the pool, eyes widening as he realised the expanding, shifting, oozing ink was taking on the form of the hyena. The ink separated into four thick legs, a long, barrel shaped body, and an expanding head. For a moment the cheetah found himself staring down into a black abyss as the jaw formed and yawned wide. Swirling black liquid oozed and yawned and rolled right before his eyes. It was horrifying, but Kyy couldn’t tear his eyes away from it as it shifted and flowed and bubbled into shape.
A long, thick, shaggy tail wagged from side to side as it emerged from the pool of thick black ink. The beast was huge, the dark ink dripping and oozing and rippling as it contracted and shifted and slipped into shape. The black, inky darkness started to fade as the stretched, tawny coloured hyena shape spread, inky void imprinting its colours and style on the hulking beast of darkness that had risen up out of the ground.
Maybe a minute after it left Quin’s arm, the hyena was the size of a small pony. It still looked like a smooth statue had been painted over, the fur effect etched into their design. They were undeniably solid, though. Their four paws depressed the grass as it moved with a fluid grace around Quin, then sat down and stared at Kyy. Its eyes glowed with a feral yellow light, and the cheetah had no illusions about trying to pet this strange beast of living ink. This was no cuddly pet, but a wild beast, and from the tilt of its head and steady gaze it hadn’t yet decided whether Kyy was a meal.
Looking up at Quin who was lounging back opposite him, the cheetah shook his head and pointed at the hyena. “H… how!”
“It is a gift of the forest. It provides me with all my dye and ink,” he swirled his fingers around in the pool of ink that was still oozing beneath his fingers, “ and in return, I provide the designs to create my friends like Shy here.”
He placed one hand on Shy’s flank, and the surface rippled, Quin’s fingers dipping beneath the surface. “I am the guardian of this forest. It owns me, not the other way around, Kyy. Everything else--the shop, the tattoos, the art--is just a hobby to keep me sane, and in touch with the rest of society. Keeping this forest safe is my work.”
Shaking his head in disbelief, Kyy looked from the hare to the hulkingly huge hyena and swallowed heavily. “Why tell me this?”
“Because you trespassed,” Quin replied bluntly, “But even as you trespassed, you were respectful of the woods. And you came back.”
Quin stood up and stretched, “You’ve seen what I can do with my body. It’s not just my own body I can make a canvas, I can offer this to others, as well.”
Kyy looked the naked hare up and down and licked his lips, “It does look amazing… and the dreadlocks are impressive... but you could have sold me on some body art without showing me your… well..” he gestured lamely at the hyena, “I am still not convinced I am not dreaming.”
Laughing, Quinten stood up and stretched, blank ink dripping from his fingers, “You can pinch yourself if you like, or Shy could do it for you, but he might take a little extra with him. As for the dreadlocks… I will admit to getting help with my hair. Dreadlocks like these are not easy to craft.”
“Heh, yeah, I imagine that'd be a bit tricky to do by yourself,” Kyy purred softly, relaxing back from his crouching position to sit on the grass, “It’s amazing… you really are some sort of forest guardian?”
“Oh yes,” Quin crouched back down so he was at eye level with Kyy, “There are many things I can do, but few know of it. As nice as it is to share and as easy as the ink makes it to add new designs, I can’t exactly share this with just anyone.”
“Yeah, I can imagine,” Kyy gestured at the hyena, “Doing that would freak your customers out.”
“Yes, wiggling my fingers to make a wave of ink wash over and engulf them would freak out my customers just a bit.”
“Challenge accepted!” the cat chuckled and spread his arms, “I bet you could make me look amazing with your ink.”
“Of course,” Quin tapped his fuzzy chin and smirked, “What would you say to… Black fur… white spots, then afterwards I could hide UV reactive paint, so that under the right light your body comes alive with constellations.”
“Oooh,” Kyy perked up, “That does sound amazing… but… there has to be a draw back? Using your ink on me like that?”
Quinten chuckled, “Well, it would make painting you a lot faster but ... direct contact with my magic ink like that can have side effects.”
“...Ah. And I presume they'd be ...not good?” Kyy laughed nervously, his bravado starting to fade a bit.
“Oh no, the ink won't harm you... but there is no way of telling just what it would do to you,” Quinten demurred with a soft smile, his green eyes roving up and down Kyy’s body.
“Yikes... well, maybe challenge not accepted then,” laughed nervously, “You can paint me in a more conventional way.”
Quinten opened his mouth to reply, but the hyena beast suddenly let out a soft grunt and turned its head to stare across the clearing. Quinten’s ears came up and he turned to follow his paint creature’s gaze and frowned, then suddenly he was standing up and pulling his overalls back on.
“Have a think about it, Kyy... no need to make a decision straight away. If you will excuse me, I need to take care of something.”
“I… er… ok,” Kyy said, confused by the sudden change in direction. “What…”
“Good,” Quinten smiled at the cheetah as he scooped up his vest and tucked it into his waistband. “Drop by the shop once you've made your decision. Consider it my gift to you for being so considerate of my forest: a free makeover and a night out in a club with me.”
“But… is that all you brought me out here for?” Kyy asked but Quin was already moving across the clearing, clearly distracted by something.
“The forest will open an exit for you Kyy,” Quinten vanished into the trees, the hyena trailing close behind, leaving the confused cheetah alone in the woods.
Feeling confused, Kyy slowly stood up and picked up his shorts and t-shirt from the forest floor. hHe absently pulled them back on, brushing bits of loam and leaf from his knees. He glanced back the way they had come, blinking as he saw a clear path back through the trees. But… well… he hadn’t come all this way to be sent on his way like a good little school boy. Quin… well, he hadn’t explained anything, not properly, just left Kyy with more and more questions. Taking a deep breath, Kyy crossed the clearing and started to walk in the direction the hare had taken through the woods, determined to see if he could keep up and find out what had pulled the enigmatic hare away so.