[AW] waiting for the change of seasons, waiting for a lucky break
#1
Early March. Branta Stretch, south of the Serpentine Mountains.



The morning had dawned cold and misty. A light haze of rain hung in the air around him and walking through it felt like pressing through a wall of someone's chilled sneeze. He stretched his maw, trying to prevent his frown from settling too long and too deeply into his face, but it always returned in the next moment.

Here was yet another flooded plain. The snow was scattered in patches for as far as he could see, and interspersed between them were wide swaths of mud, shallow pools of melt, and dead or dying grass. Beside him, his horse snorted wearily. Her legs, like his, were still caked with mud and grime from the previous day. She was tired and hungry, and he was too, but there would be no grass for her and no rabbit for him until they found a forest or meadow that wasn't filled to the brim with mud.

Soliloquy didn't know how anyone was supposed to stay motivated in winter. The sky looked the same every day and the silence stretched on forever. Where were they even going?

"Come on," the hybrid mumbled. He hated how loud his voice sounded in the open field.

Carefully, he tested his footing on a patch of tall grass, though all the stalks had been crushed and collapsed on their sides. Grip firm on his horse's halter, he led her slowly across the marshy plain.
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#2
Sometimes, Skeleton liked to look back on his life and reflect what was going right even though he still felt like a directionless acorn. First, he hadn’t been randomly assaulted in months and that really felt like something he should celebrate. Second, someone in the pack had helped him and they hadn’t even been that mean about it. And third, he’d bumped into someone who might one day make their way from acquaintance to friend. All in all, he was feeling ready: today was the day he was going to stop being either afraid of or hungering after horses. He’d kicked the ‘horses are food’ thought to the curb years ago, but they—and Evelyn—still scared the shit out of him and probably with good reason. He’d been kicked by deer, caribou, and all manner of hooved creatures, so he knew what he was going up against. But he’d never really been able to shake the feeling that him and horses didn’t click. Well, that was going to change today because he had decided it. That was it; his mind was made up.

Luckily, Del Cenere Gang was not want for horses, but Skeleton was still a bit embarrassed that he’d have to go to anyone, aged as he was, and admit he still didn’t ‘get’ horses. He couldn’t ride them, he couldn’t dress them up in their horse clothes, and he certainly couldn’t feed one (he didn’t remember where the food was stored), which meant he couldn’t bribe one. No, he needed a beginner horse to ease him into the process.

So, he went scouting. Apparently his aunt Wraith had been a scout in Inferni, so maybe he had inherited her ability to… look around places goodly. He had known he wasn’t destined to be a scout—probably because it was too fucking basic—but he knew the ropes well enough.

As he journeyed west from the packlands, he found himself getting bogged down more and more in the wet, sinking, muddy plains. This was not a place for a creature so delicate and nimble as he; his tiny, twig like legs kept getting slurped right into the earth. Not fair, earth.

Eventually, he decided to take a rest when the earth demanded it. Carefully maneuvering his legs out of their soon-to-be final resting place, Skeleton negotiated himself onto a fallen log to assess the situation. Verdict: not great. He stood up to begin the journey back to Del Cenere Gang when he noticed a scent on the wind: a loner and their horse. What luck! He followed the scent farther north and then heard the hybrid say something to his companion. He watched as the two drew closer, slowly making their way across the plain.

As they came near, Skeleton waved a hand and shouted across the wind: “hey! You need some help with your horse there?” Maybe he could negotiate his way into a horse lesson just be offering to lend a hand.

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#3
The wind came in strange bursts, cutting suddenly through the layer of mist like a blade, then continuing on past him in a rush, leaving behind the same cold haze. His eyes were tired from squinting through it, and from opening and closing and opening again. Leading a horse around patches of mud on a windy winter morning was supremely mundane, and yet it took so much concentration and effort, testing each step and moving forward slowly.

Soliloquy mostly wanted to go back to sleep, but he had already gone to the trouble of getting up and doubted that the conditions would improve any time soon, and so the sooner he made it back into a sheltered forest, the better. He didn't expect to encounter anyone on the open plain though. At the sudden voice, he looked forward, startled.

The stranger was a coyote, unclothed, probably unarmed, apparently alone. Soliloquy slowed his pace as the wind shifted again. Smoke, ash, horses, and other coyotes. It was someone that belonged to a pack. The voice had been cheerful, which struck the mostly white hybrid as odd for some reason. He shook his head and kept his expression as neutral as he could.

"No, I'm all right," he said. "Just figured it was easier to lead her around the mud than to ride through more of it."

He came to stop a few paces from the other. "Do you know how much further it is to dryer land?"
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#4
Skeleton hadn’t realized this until just now, but the fellow and his horse sort of matched. Was that something folks usually tried to do on purpose? Maybe it was a horse owner thing, some sort of well-known secret in their ranks and something that, if asked, would reveal him as a horse newbie. He decided to keep quiet, but couldn’t help but glance between the hybrid and his horse every so often once he spoke up.

“Oh! Hmm, how long have you been walking through this? It’s about… I dunno, a ten minute walk back. After that, it’s smooth sailing though,” Skeleton explained, eager to be helpful and get in the know with Matching Horse Guy.

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#5
In fact, Soliloquy had thought before that it was ridiculous that he and his horse shared a vaguely similar coat pattern and that the visual similarity was strangely embarrassing, though he couldn't say why. The contrast between himself and his previous black gelding had not been something he had ever consider as a benefit. It was obvious, of course, that he was not his horse, and no amount of color matching mattered in that, but still. It looked weird, and he didn't like to catch their reflection in streams.

His overly large ears perked at the estimated time and his relief must have showed in his shoulders. "It's been days," the hybrid said with a short laugh. "Only ten more minutes sounds amazing."

He wanted to continue straight on, but it seemed impolite to immediately abandon the stranger, who seemed eager -- for conversation? For company? For a chance to swindle a loner? It was unclear. "Are you from around here?" Soliloquy asked after an awkward pause. This was a safe and somewhat boring question, but though there were some conclusions he could draw from the other's scent alone, it didn't hurt to be further educated, he supposed.
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#6
“Days?” Skeleton gasped, shocked that someone could handle such misery for so long. He shook his head and then laughed and added: “and I thought you were gonna say you’d only been walking for a few minutes.”

The fellow seemed eager to continue on, so Skeleton hopped out of the way and then realized that it might be easier to lead the way since he had just walked through the muck and had some recollection of what was solid versus soupy ground.

“Yeah, from the pack just a bit to the east: Del Cenere Gang. It’s full of coyotes and hybrids. Mostly coydogs, some coywolves - you know how it is,” he explained, not even himself really knowing ‘how it was.’ There would always be coywolf hybrids, but it did seem as though coyotes got along with dogs better than wolves and perhaps jackals too.

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#7
Soliloquy had learned very quickly that packs were often very different from one another, and that despite his experience in trading and diplomacy with Shawnee Valley, he wasn't necessarily equipped to deal with packs of other sorts. The casual way the other man indicated the species of his pack was interesting, as if this was information that was useful or important.

Perhaps species prejudice was prominent here? The valley had been full of dogs and coyotes and hybrids thereof. Wolves were rare, and if they were hybridized in with the rest, it was difficult to tell. He wasn't sure if the pack would have been less friendly if he and his family had been more wolfish in appearance.

Species seemed like a largely insignificant detail to him, especially if dogs were so varied in their "native" attributes. It often felt that any characteristic that wasn't natural for wolves or coyotes was due to dog blood -- this was, at least, what his mother had attributed his spots and shaggy fur to, but who decided what was natural for wolves and coyotes anyway? Maybe it was just a size thing, but that difference was largely erased in their two-legged forms. Thinking about the borders between species, or lack thereof, always made his head hurt if he went too long on it though.

"Are there a lot of wolves here?" he asked. He started forward again, leading his mare carefully through the minefield of muddy sinkholes. Thankfully, this made for a relatively conversational pace. "It's probably inevitable that everyone is a hybrid eventually though... I don't think I've met anyone who wasn't mixed in a long time."

Blue eyes glanced forward at the coyote-shaped stranger. "Does that sort of thing matter a lot around here?"
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#8
At the fellow’s question, Skeleton gave a noncommittal shrug and replied: “there are enough. They are definitely the biggest population in these parts and they can sometimes try to make our lives rough,” he explained. Unlike some coyotes, he didn’t hate wolves with a seething rage, but he did understand the power dynamics at work: they were bigger, stronger, and sometimes faster, too, and there were more of them. They could work together to take down bigger prey, so they were necessarily better-fed and had bigger hunting grounds. Some packs had more wolf members than coyote members and ‘wolf’ tended to be the default canine, if not the majority. In comparison, Del Cenere Gang had to create a space where they could be safe because if they didn’t they’d be overrun. That was just how it was; if they wanted to be safe, they had to make their world safe.

“That’s fair, though. Most are mixed these days. It’s hard not to, though some try. I’m probably less so than most. As far as I know, my family’s coyotes all the way down, though, my grandfather was named ‘Hybrid’, so that suggests something to the contrary,” he replied, with a saucy grin. Oh, that dirty bird. Who fucked and made him?

“Overall, it… kind of matters. Sometimes you get into trouble. There are still some wolves out there who fucking hate coyotes. They’ve beat the shit out of me a few times. And I was absolutely annihilated by uh… a coyote? Or a jackal? Or something. Sometimes it matters and sometimes it doesn’t. Dunno if that helps much,” he explained, concluding with a half-hearted wag of his head.

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#9
He had gotten plenty of careful assessment gazes over the years from strangers who were obviously trying to make some sort of judgment call based on his appearance. Invariably, those characters would ask him about his heritage and Soliloquy felt more and more self-satisfied each time he gave the simple truth -- that he had absolutely no idea. This always seemed to annoy the asker, who would then make guesses based on this or that while the obvious hybrid continued to shrug.

The only sure thing was that he was mixed and that there was dog in his blood somewhere, but prejudice against dogs seemed less than that towards wolves or coyotes. He supposed it made sense for there to be an old feud in the days before they came to favour their two-legged forms. Soliloquy didn't have much of an understanding of that time though, and he had no real idea of how many generations ago that had been. While he and his family had always made frequent use of their other forms, a bipedal stature and use of hands nonetheless made up a crucial part of their lifestyle.

Soliloquy took in the information with a vague frown. The tawny coyote spoke of his past violent encounters casually, but maybe he spoke of all things this way?

"Sorry to hear about that," he said after a moment. "My name is Soliloquy Asylum. You are...?"
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#10
The loner fellow seemed a bit concerned about Skeleton’s response which, honestly, was fair. There were some violent as fuck folks around here. Luckily, Skeleton didn’t come across them too often; he was sure there had to be others out there who had worse luck than he did, but it still sucked, y’know? No one was ever on the receiving end of a black eye thinking, as someone beat them so badly that their eyes swelled shut for a week, ‘well, at least this doesn’t happen that often.’

“Ehn, thanks,” he replied with a shrug. “I’m Skeleton Key. It’s good to meet you, Solilquoy,” he replied, then added with a grin: “good to meet someone who’s got a stylish name like me. Most people think my name’s weird, but it’s just fuckin’ cool,” he boasted.

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