Clora sat and rested her back against the sculpted wall. Jet black eyes blinked slowly as she brushed her face clear of the fine sand from outside. Minerva struggled to see the difference as Clora's skin was pretty much the same colour.
"May I offer you water?"
Clora nodded. "Water would be most welcome. Mistress Minerva." Acknowledging Minerva's status as a witch.
"Rhian! Can you bring out a pitcher of water please and some cups?" The rattle of cupboards and bones came from inside the wagon, before Rhian emerged closely followed by Frankie.
Minerva poured a cup and proffered it.
Minerva stepped back as the figure passed through her barrier to the raging sands outside.
A good six and a half feet tall, the spindly figure, wrapped in sand-worn cloths shook itself briefly before bowing.
"I thank you for allowing me to enter your space. I am Clora." Said a female voice, as she pulled away the wrappings from around her head. "May the sands bless you as you pass by."
Minerva nodded. She knew of the sand dwellers, but had never met one face to face. "You are most welcome here. Take respite from the storm and rest."
Minerva woke to the sound of light tapping against the rock around the entrance to their small cave.
Outside, the wind was a howling, rage filled monster as it whipped across the shield she had erected across the wide opening. Sand rattled and hissed yet the small, light, tapping persisted. Off to one side a sand obscured shadow tapped gently. The shadow's head tipped to one side as she sat up.
Squinting through the sand, she reached out. People who gently knock were not usually the type to cause problems. Her hand wrapped around a thin arm, skin like paper.
The wind howled for two days.
The continuous, rasping, susurration of the sands against the rock walls of the canyon became unendurable. Until they slowly disappeared into the background noise, becoming as white as the sound the sand made.
Rhian and Frankie played around the back of the cave, while Minerva kept a close eye outside. Sometimes there were shadows, other than sand blowing past the cave. Anything that could move freely through these, grinding, winds was something to worry about. Something to watch for.
So, she warded the cave. Etched the arcane into the entrance and fed it power.
The sand hissed constantly around the caravan, as Minerva kept an eye out for caves to park up in for the night.
She finally found one in the side of a swirling, deep-cut, canyon. Above, the towering spires of razor-sharp sandstone cut the darkening sky, casting the shadows of sunset across the range.
The sound of the wind changed slowly from a quiet moan, to a wail of oncoming storms. While she couldn't stop the sound, she could prevent the sand (And maybe water) from entering the cave by weaving a shield spell.
The rain came in haste.
Slowly, the pinnacles of the Needle mountains came into view. Not the sky scraping peaks of the Ganninal Range.
The Needle mountains were a carved nightmare of sandstorms and high velocity winds. Also known as the Hedgehog's Back, the soft rock had been cut by the intense winds coming down from the far larger mountains behind them.
As they left the plain Minerva wrapped the wheels with sand-pads to make the going easier over the grainy yellow sand. The wind, gentle at the moment, moaned quietly amongst the tall spires of sandstone as the caravan wove its way through.
The morning chill of the plains flitted away as the sun rose into the clear clue sky. In the distance, jagged, snow capped peaks turned the horizon into a badly drawn line instead of the usual flat line disappearing into infinity.
The soft coach springs of the caravan absorbed most of the uneven ground, turning it into a softened jolting as the big wheels were dragged over clumps of grass, hardened manure and trampled ant-hills.
The darkness tickled Minerva's senses. She could feel it out there, behind her. Just as she could feel the Shadow lord watching as well.
The sound of blankets rustling came from inside the wagon and a bleary eyed Rhian crept into the chill of the morning, her blanket wrapped around her shoulders.
"Good morning sweety." Said Minerva.
"Morning momma." Rhian yawned, and pecked Minerva's cheek. "Breakfast?"
"I was waiting for Frankie to come back. It's sweet that you had him on watch last night, but you shouldn't leave him running like that. You'll exhaust yourself."
"Gramma said it was good for my stamina."
"Oh, ho! Did she now? Well, me and Gramma are going to have to have words when we get back home."
Minerva sat down on the back step of the caravan with her steaming mug of coffee, plenty of sugar.
From beneath, came the sound of scrabbling claws and rattle of bones as Frankie emerged. He headbutted her leg gently and she absently smoothed out the spectral feathers on his head.
"You been up all night keeping watch?"
Frankie squawked quietly.
"Good boy." She sipped her coffee. "Go have a run. See if you can find a rabbit or something."
The raptor squawked again, happily, and bounced off into the tall grass at speed. Leaving puffs of dust in his wake.
Nothing came near the caravan during the night of note. The general air of menace, and danger, that emanated from Frankie's position underneath was more than enough to convince most denizens to stay away. The bigger hunters were smart enough to know that they shouldn't mess with humans anyway.
Minerva woke first and immediately started crushing beans in a pestle and mortar for a morning coffee. The Quartermaster had made sure that they were well stocked. Even the cold store had milk and fruit juice concentrate cubes for travelling.
She was, she admitted reluctantly, quite impressed with the Quartermaster's management.
The raptor clicked quietly across the wooden floor, waited for his mistress to open the door and slipped out into the night.
Mistress liked to let him go off on his own, even though the bigger people didn't. He couldn't go too far though. Maybe the length of two, maybe three, of the giant whip-tales from his multi-million year old memories.
But, that was OK. He snuffled around the caravan for a while, before settling down beneath it. Ruffling his proto-feathers and settling down. Curled up, but ready to strike if needed.
He watched, silently, the stars.
As her mother finally slipped into the deep sleep between dreams and nightmares, Rhian finally settled down in her own cot. Beside her, the bundle of rock bones that constituted the remains of her beloved pet, shivered slightly and the skull looked up.
"I need you to do guard duty Frankie." She whispered. She nodded at the doors. "Keep an eye out for us please."
He nodded. Understanding fully that he needed to protect his pack, just as he had done earlier.
"Good boy." She patted him on the head, and then did his favourite scratch underneath his main jaw.
The night terrors returned that night for Minerva.
Battle Witches, especially wielding foci like Minerva, got to experience the horror that high-level magics could wreak. They didn't just leave scars on skin...
Having held attack magic that day, dredged up memories that had been hard fought to put down. Buried. As deep as she could. Now, they bubbled and burbled through a nightmarish dreamscape of twisted flesh and melted bones.
In the real world she tossed and turned. And a drowsy daughter held out a hand to try and will away the nightmares that gripped her mother so tightly.
Frankie's cold skull made of stone nudged Rhian's side, looking for reassurance from his mistress. He squawked gently and made a rurrling noise with his ghostly tongue as she turned and hugged him.
"You were a good boy! Mummy says so!"
Minerva stroked the faint blue feathers adorning the top of the ancient raptor's head. "Yes. Keep protecting your mistress like that you silly old thing."
He gently squeaked, happy.
"Yes, not bad for bones of stone."
Rhian sat up. "I'm tired mummy, me and Frankie need to sleep now." Minerva picked up her little girl and made her comfortable.
Minerva ran to Rhian, who was hiding beneath the caravan. Frankie was circling it, watchful and still vaguely angry as he scratched and snarled at the bodies he'd carved.
"Mummy!" Minerva wrapped her arms around her little girl and hugged her tightly.
"Are you alright?! He didn't hurt you did he?"
Rhian sobbed into Minerva's chest until she eventually managed to stop. "No. I'm alright. Frankie hurt the man. Was he a good boy?"
"Oh! Oh, darling! Yes, Frankie... He was a very good boy. He protected you from the bad men. He did exactly what he should have done!"
Terror gripped the old brigands insides. His heart beat wildly as the Witch made him turn. Behind him, the burnt remains of his band lay on the ground. Burned and curled in obscenely unnatural ways.
The terror, clamping his insides, also held his mind in its fierce grip. Blinding him, hiding time; granting him brief glimpses of trees passing by as his body ran and his mouth screamed shivering madness.
Finally, body exhausted, Boris collapsed in the arms of an old oak tree where the madness left him. Leaving behind exhaustion that leaked the marrow from his bones, and mind.
Boris was frozen to the spot as the chain lightning leapt from the Witch's right hand. Time seemed slow as it crackled past him and lit up his men with actinic blue light.
They didn't scream.
They didn't have time.
She walked towards him, slowly. Light arced from the bottom of her dress, grounding and burning the grass around her as she approached him.
"I need a survivor. So, tell all those you meet, plains raider. The yellow caravan is off limits. And, if you EVER threaten a child again you will be found. I CURSE you with this knowledge."
As Boris shouted, Frankie leapt. Henry automatically threw up both his hands to defend himself, dropping the little girl in the process. His screams were shrill as he disappeared beneath blood, feathers, claws and teeth as Frankie tore him open like a thin paper bag.
The archer released his arrow as the monster flashed towards Henry; the sudden speed was shocking. The arrow whistled across the air, only to stop five feet from Minerva and drop to the ground.
Minerva was crackling with power now. She was angry, but she waited until Rhian was safely under the caravan.
"Call it off!" Boris shouted at the woman.
"I can't. It's not mine."
Henry started edging in Boris's direction. The things' ghostly eyes were locked onto him and it very slowly started closing the gap between them.
"Call it off! I mean it!"
Minerva stood there. "And what are you going to do?" By now, the ground beneath Minerva was turning to dust as her fist started to crackle with energy.
"Lads!" The rest of the robber band emerged from the woods. One had a bow; an arrow knocked and aimed at her.
"I mean it! Fucking call it off!"
Henry held even tighter onto the little girl as a terrifying creature came round the side of the caravan. Standing on two feet, it appeared to be the skeleton of something. Surrounding the bones, and filling in some of the missing, or broken, ones, was a ghostly blue musculature and the whole thing was covered in ghostly skin and feathers.
It wasn't a chicken.
The thing's lips curled back and it started hissing through rows of blade-sharp teeth as it lowered itself to the ground. Readying an attack, it's clawed arms thrown wide, vibrating the arm feathers noisily, viciously.