Long treks through the snow were no stranger to Azure, as she had hiked for many miles through snow-covered bush as a child. Her mother often chided her when she returned from her outdoor adventures with her skirt completely soaked from the melted snow. This time, however, she would not return as a child; she would return as a woman.
The loud crackle of a branch breaking somewhere in the distance made Azure's sharp, blue eyes dart quickly in the direction of the noise. While she could not immediately see any cause for concern, she had to stop herself from instinctively raising her Frost Aura, as doing so would have completely ruined her chances of completing her trial. One of the things she had been told several times before being sent out into the wilderness was that wolves would not come near her if they could sense an active Aura. In this case, that was exactly the opposite of what she wanted.
For a moment, Azure considered changing her direction and heading towards the source of the sound, but her instincts told her to keep moving forward. She didn't quite understand why that was, but she felt very strongly about it and she reasoned with herself that the branch breaking was probably just from the snow and not a wolf at all. Having made up her mind, she took a few steps forward and then stopped suddenly.
Just a few yards in front of her stood a wolf, looking straight at her.
***He had been tracking her progress through the forest for quite some time. While it would have been much easier to use his magicka sensor had she kept an Aura active, the hunter would not have been able to shoot her properly if she had. Fortunately for him, the coming of age ceremony that the witches forced on their 16-year old daughters practically required them to venture out without an Aura, which still worked to his advantage.
The hunter trained his cross-hairs on the young witch-girl as she plodded her way through the snow, making her way closer and closer to his concealed position. While the small hill he was on afforded him a much better vantage point than simply being on the ground, it did little to improve his line of sight through the trees. He waited patiently for her to leave the cover of the trees and give him a clean shot. Just as she appeared from behind one of the trees, her chest exposed for a heart shot, she stopped suddenly as if she knew he was there. The hunter hesitated briefly, then squeezed the trigger.
A small gust of wind came out of nowhere, as if the gods themselves had decided to intervene, the moment the rifle fired. The witch-girl stumbled backwards against the tree, careening off of it, then fell on the other side and out of the hunter's view. He worked the bolt-action and quickly chambered a fresh round, peering through the scope to see whether or not he had managed to kill the girl. All that was visible from behind the tree was her arm, which looked like it was still moving.
"Shit!" the hunter cursed to himself.
He lowered his rifle, climbed to his feet, then began making his way down the hill toward the witch-girl. He had to finish her off one way or another.
***Searing pain like Azure had never experienced before burned throughout the entire right side of her chest. Hot tears rolled down her cheeks as she struggled to control the torrent of emotions wracking her mind. She knew she had to calm down if she was going to make it out of her situation alive, but the pain was overwhelming.
Is he still there? she wondered.
It hurt to move. It hurt to breathe. But Azure forced herself to peek around the corner of the tree to see if anyone was coming. She had to know.
Fragments of tree bark splintered everywhere as a bullet hammered into the tree with a solid thwack, as if someone had struck it with an axe, not far from where Azure's head had been. She screamed in surprise before she could stop herself, which irritated her greatly. Now was not the time to be weak. She had to think. Think.
The wolf, she thought to herself.
Azure knew there wasn't much time before the killer would be upon her, but she knew she didn't have many options. Using the meditation techniques her mother had taught her, she quieted her mind as best as she could and tried to sense the presence of the wolf. He was still there. She channelled her pain and desperation towards the wolf as well as she could in an empathic message.
Please, help me. Please...
The sound of approaching footsteps crunching through the snow suddenly became clearer to Azure. She could hear her killer getting closer by the second and panic threatened to overwhelm her. With a painful, trembling breath she did her best to calm herself, then used her magic to freeze her wound shut. It hurt her nearly as much as being shot had, which made her grit her teeth and half-scream, half-squeal at the pain. As the footsteps grew closer, she quickly tried to activate her Frost Aura.
It didn't work.
She tried to activate her Frost Aura a second time, but it still yielded no results. It felt as if something was somehow blocking her connection to magicka, like a cork or plug of some kind. This had never happened to her before.
"Anti-magicka rounds, honey," came an unfamiliar voice from Azure's left. A man's voice. She had never heard a man's voice before.
It was the killer.
Terror washed over Azure was she finally came face-to-face with her attacker, a huge, broad-shouldered man with a black strip of hair across his upper lip. She tried to squirm away, but he grabbed her by the hair roughly and pulled her head back hard, smacking it against the tree and pinning her in place. A very large knife appeared in his other hand, which he held close to her throat and then he sneered.
"You've gotta be the prettiest one I've killed so far," said the man, "It's a damn shame, really."
Suddenly a grayish-white blur appeared out of nowhere and tackled the man before he had the chance to slit Azure's throat. It took her a second to realize that the blur was actually the wolf she had called for help and it was now attacking the man who tried to kill her. The wolf had its jaws around the man's knife-hand, trying to pry it from his grasp, but the man would not let go and tried to punch the wolf in the head with his free hand. Azure knew she had to do something.
With as much strength as she could muster, Azure forced herself to get up, ignoring the excruciating pain that seemed to affect her entire body. She scanned the ground for anything that might be useful and found a large, semi-straight tree branch that was about an inch in diameter and four feet in length lying in the snow. With the branch in hand, she shambled towards the scuffle that was still happening a few feet away until the man noticed her standing nearby.
"Argggh! Get it off me!" he shouted at Azure.
Azure grasped the base of the branch with two hands and held it downwards as if it were a sword or spear. She raised the make-shift weapon over her head and stalked closer to the angry commotion of flesh and fur on the ground.
"Do it! Do it!" the man shouted at Azure.
Putting all of her weight into the blow, Azure drove the branch straight down into the man's throat, practically falling on top of him as she did so. With a loud snap, the branch broke in the middle as it punctured his trachea, sending him into a fit of anguished gurgling. He fumbled desperately at the piece of wood lodged in his throat, but before he had the chance to remove it, Azure stabbed the remaining half of the branch into the soft flesh of his right eyeball. After a few minutes had passed, the man finally stopped moving.
The wolf looked at Azure as if it had something to say which she could feel, rather than hear. She was still on her knees from killing the hunter and was eye level with the wolf.
"Thank you, Blackheart," she said as she hugged the wolf, then slowly lost consciousness.