We came to the double doors leading out of the habitat, and I set Elin down so I could wrestle one of the heavy sheets of iron out of the way. I’d made them sturdy enough that it would take siege engines to batter them open, just in case enemies ever got onto the island. Elin smoothed down her skirt and pulled up the hood of her warmth cloak in preparation for venturing outside.
I retrieved a heavy blanket from where I’d left it in the corner, and draped it around both of us. It had a warmth enchantment of its own, which let me put an arm around Elin without worrying about frostbite. Then I pushed the door open, and we stepped out into the teeth of a howling blizzard.
The snow had started to fall a few hours after our victory over the undead army Hel had sent to assist Mara’s attack on the city, and it hadn’t let up in the three days since. I was a bit worried about what that meant for the city, since there hadn’t been time to clean up all the enemy stragglers after we broke their last stand in the Temple District. Even subzero temperatures wouldn’t do much to an animated corpse, and there was no telling what mischief the survivors might have gotten up to with most of the city’s defenders trapped indoors. My own troops couldn’t even get into the city, since I’d been forced to blow up the causeway connecting my island to the mainland in order to keep an army away from my gates.
There wasn’t much I could do about it until the weather broke, so I’d concentrated on my own problems. I couldn’t afford to let a little bad weather completely shut down my operations, especially since this sort of thing was becoming depressingly common. So I’d been forced to spend some time making another round of improvements to the island.
We had to fight against the wind as we crossed the wide gap I’d left between the dryad habitat and the nearest covered walkway. Elin stumbled and leaned against me, her slender faerie form too light to resist the buffeting. I held her up and anchored myself with force magic until we were across, wondering for the hundredth time if I should enclose that route.
But leaving it the way it was ensured that the refugees we’d taken in during the battle on the docks wouldn’t accidentally wander into the building and encounter the dryads, and that was rather important. Word of their presence would get out eventually, but I wanted to be a lot better established before anyone showed up at my gate to ask what they were doing here.
Once we were across the gap the trip was a lot more pleasant. I’d built a roof over the little street that ran between the buildings on the western side of my island, made of conjured iron with large quartz skylights at regular intervals. There were gaps here and there where snow could still get in, but they were small enough that there wasn’t much wind. The self-warming enchantments on the road and buildings actually kept the temperature a bit above freezing, and there was a steady flow of foot traffic along the road.
The buildings were all heavy stone structures, designed to resist being broken into by any monsters that might somehow find their way onto the island. One thing I learned from watching zombie movies is that a shell defense isn’t good enough. If you’re facing a real threat you need multiple lines of defense, so you don’t lose everything to one mistake.
The traffic increased as we approached the tower that had been the first structure on my new island fortress, and passed inside. The keep was built like a lot of smaller office buildings, with a big open atrium in the middle and a skylight in the roof. Six floors of balconies encircled the atrium, with a stairway zig-zagging up one side and an elevator on the other. A few of my braver citizens had started to actually use the elevator, but most of them stuck to the stairs.
We took the elevator, and arrived quickly at the coven’s shared living quarters on the fourth floor. A pair of uniformed maids were waiting at the door to take the blanket, and offer us mugs of hot tea before ushering us back to the dining room where the daily staff meeting was held.
It used to be every other day, but there were too many things going on these days. I made a mental note that I needed to figure out a way to delegate more, but it wasn’t the first time I’d had that thought.
Avilla and Cerise were already there, of course, and the rest of the group wasn’t long in arriving. One amusing side effect of the fact that we met over lunch, and no one wanted to miss out on Avilla’s cooking.
Oskar and Gronir arrived together, already discussing something about sentry schedules. Oskar was a huge man, a blacksmith I’d recruited back in Lanrest after he threw together a spontaneous militia force to resist a goblin attack. He was still the leader of the island’s garrison, which I hoped to turn into a more professional force sometime soon. Gronir was almost as tall, with a runner’s build and a perpetual sly grin. Originally a poacher who’d been with a group of peasants I rescued, these days he was the leader of the little band of refugees who’d used Avilla’s magic to turn themselves into wolf people. The wolfen, as they’d decided to call themselves, had proved themselves amazingly useful in the days since then.
Next was Captain Marcus Rain, the leader of my actual military forces. Which currently amounted to the survivors of his original infantry company, a couple dozen professional soldiers we’d recruited since then, and a hundred or so recruits currently undergoing training. Not the most impressive force around, but the armored vehicles and magic weapons I’d been making gave them a lot more punch than any normal unit.
Elin still wasn’t used to being included in these meetings, but since she was more or less recovered from her recent ordeals I’d offloaded some work by putting her in charge of our people’s medical care. Her healing magic wasn’t quite as universally effective as mine, but there was simply no way I could make time to treat any significant number of people.
“So, Marcus, how are the new guns working out?” I asked as Avilla took her seat.
“Well enough, I suppose. The force blades will come in handy when our lines get overrun, that’s for certain. But I’d advise against adding anything else to the standard model. A trigger, a safety and the bayonet switch makes for about as many complications as some of our recruits can handle.”
“Fair enough,” I allowed. “We can always make anything else I come up with a separate piece of equipment, and that way you can control who gets it.”
Replacing all the guns I’d already issued had been a bit painful, but it was a necessary evil. The old version was powered by an enchantment that converted the matter of the gun’s stock directly to mana, and that wasn’t something I wanted too many people to get a good look at. If all my men carried one it would only be a matter of time before my enemies started getting samples. I wasn’t sure if it was possible to reverse-engineer the enchantment without at least a basic understanding of nuclear physics, but I didn’t want to take chances.
Besides which, it was also very difficult to build. I’d been experimenting with enchantments that made magic items recently, but that sort of thing worked best for low-powered items. Doing it with the matter to mana effect was only barely possible, and it resulted in a temperamental enchantment factory that needed constant maintenance to function. My prototype could turn out a few dozen guns in an afternoon, but only if I was there to run it.
To improve on that I’d taken the opportunity of being snowed in to sit down and work out a better process for making power sources. It turned out that iron was actually about the worst possible material to put the matter conversion enchantment on, which made sense when I thought about it. Iron atoms have the highest binding energy per nucleon of any atom, so of course they’d have the lowest energy yield. My new standard was to put the enchantment on a sixty-pound cylinder of granite, which produce five times as much energy as the same mass of iron. Not only was this a superior energy source, it was also big enough to be hard to steal.
Then I’d built an enchantment factory with a socket for the power source, and designed it to link the guns it made to the power source that was slotted into it instead of making them self-powered. The power links would stretch for several miles, which ought to be more than enough for operations in and around the island. So I could keep the power source under lock and key most of the time, and if I ever needed to send troops into the field we could load their power source into one of the armored skimmers to keep it nearby. While I was reworking the enchantments I’d also added a force bayonet to the design of the guns, with a switch to turn the blade on and off. Unlike my own force constructs I’d designed the blade to glow slightly, so that it would be obvious if it was turned on.
As a result, the new guns ended up with a complex but low-energy set of enchantments that could be replicated without any particular wear and tear on the factory enchantment. So I could now just turn it on and leave it to run for hours at a time, creating about fifteen weapons an hour indefinitely. In the last couple of days I’d produced two hundred guns, enough to equip everyone on the island who had even a vague idea of how to use one. Yay for mass production.
“Well, the farming program is off to a decent start,” I announced. “We should have a better idea of what the crop yields are going to look like in a couple of weeks. But as soon as the storm breaks Hrodir is going to need an escort into town to look for more recruits.”
“Does that mean you’ve decided to repair the causeway?” Oskar asked.
“Yes, that’s probably going to be my next project. I’m thinking I’ll elevate it to the same level as the gates, put walls and a roof on it, and then build a watchtower down on the shore with a heavy gate and portcullis. That way the next time there’s trouble in town we can maintain a secure line of retreat without endangering the keep.”
“It’s a start,” Cerise said. “But I’ve been thinking about this, and I’m not happy with our setup. Hel’s troops almost followed us right into the keep, and if they’d made it inside there was nothing between them and Avilla but a few flights of stairs. Not to mention that if we’d gotten back twenty minutes later they would have overrun Captain Rain’s position and stormed the gates in force. We need to do a better job of protecting our people than that.”
“That’s a fair point,” I admitted. “You’re right, that was a problem. How do we fix it?”
“We move all our noncombatants onto the island,” she answered. “Use the keep just for soldiers, and redesign the lower levels so an attacking force has more trouble getting through from the outer gate to the inner one.”
Avilla frowned. “But Cerise, I’ve only just gotten my kitchen properly set up and sanctified. You want me to move again?”
“I want you living right in the middle of the island, with at least two big walls and three or four sets of heavy gates between you and the monsters,” Cerise replied. “Do you realize how easy it would be for something like an ungol or a shade to get into the tower? The wards we’ve started on will help, but you know you’re supposed to put your residence at the center of your warding scheme. Not out here on the edge. I know it’s a pain, sweetie, but I don’t want to come home from a fight someday and find out you were killed in a surprise attack.”
“I suppose you have a point,” Avilla admitted. “The keep isn’t really designed to keep things private, either. I’m a little worried where we’re going to put dangerous things that we need to keep people away from. But still, that’s going to hurt. Unless we can come up with some way to move my claim, instead of abandoning it and building another one.”
“That would be tricky,” I mused. I’d never spent much time studying the web of magic that infused her kitchen, but it was pretty complicated. Although, come to think of it, maybe there was a better way to tackle that one.
“Well, I share Cerise’s concern,” Marcus put in. “Although I’ll also say that we don’t have nearly enough manpower to properly defend the island. We need at least two hundred men just to maintain solid watches and put reserve squads where they might be needed. If you want a good defense in depth with ample reserves you can double that.”
I winced. “I don’t know where we’d find that many men we can trust. Cerise, I don’t suppose you’ve had any word on what other groups we should expect?”
She shook her head. “I won’t get that kind of information unless we really need the advance warning for some reason. Although… hey, is it just me, or has the wind stopped?”
“No, you’re right,” Gronir said. “Maybe this storm is finally over.”
I stood, and opened the wooden shutters on the room’s only window. Sure enough the wind had died down, and the air was clearing. There was still a light dusting of snow falling, but even that was rapidly thinning out.
“That was awfully abrupt. You know, I’m pretty sure the enemy has been controlling these storms ever since the Conclave’s weather circle was killed. Why would they arrange for us to be snowed in for three days, and then suddenly clear away the storm?”
There were frowns all around the table now.
“I don’t know,” Oskar said slowly. “But I don’t like it.”
Elin rose from her seat, and peered out the window. “Nor do I. Look, Daniel, they didn’t just let the storm fade. There’s a stiff wind from the east blowing the clouds away, and the sky in that direction is completely clear. You can actually see the edge of the storm receding to the west.”
“That army of ape men was assembling to the east,” Marcus pointed out. “Perhaps-”
A horn blew in the distance. Then another, and another.
“Enemy at the gates,” Marcus translated the signal. “Damn it all. They used the storm to blind us, so they could approach unseen and catch us napping.”