Chapter 9 THUNDER ROLLS The windfish moved as a coherent school. They were packed together into a black anvil that serenely floated north from the charred remains of the Black City. At times, they descended in small groups to engorge themselves on the black oil. Where a murder of crows or a wake of buzzards would have been heard for days, the blimps moved with complete silence that made them inscrutable. Where a soothsayer could tell omens from the shape of the calls, the school of windfish opened their bellies on silent command, dousing swathes of boreal forest in black fire. The ash-heavy smoke reluctantly rose. Stoked and stirred by the roaring flames, the windfish were enveloped and moved in a solid black thundercloud. The cloud folded over itself, like the thickest ink in water, and white lighting stormed many mirages. Anyone who could peer at the Czar's engines of war, as far as the horizon, saw a mixture of portents. Otherwordly. Avian gods who flew too close to the sun and burnt all their feathers. A charging herd of destruction. The situation inside the windfishes was deplorable. The smoke from the fires fouled everything; gears, joints, masks, and lungs. Inside one of them, General Kirtin sat at a viewport, an orderly continuously scrubbing the glass clean. His fur was the colour of soot. "How is the railroad progressing?" "Delayed, General. Clear cutting the burnt forest and leveling the terrain has proven difficult." "That is laziness. Bring up more kresnik, and bring up more furs." Kirtin squinted past the viewport into the smoke and saw nothing. "Who is commanding the 2nd Group detachment?" "Takeda." "Make sure he understands the urgency of the matter. Wait." The desertrat turned at the bulkhead. "How are the men faring?" "Well, General. Spirits are high." "Good. Press on." The Czar's vanguard slowly marched in the shadow of the windfish. So thick was the cloud of leather and canvas above them that a permanent frost followed them, even on the brightest of days. The desertrats shivered and pulled their furs tighter. Those that succumbed were left behind, or fed to the scarabs - they would be useless in Pegulis. The cold had been especially cruel to the Nocturnes. They sat around their pots of boiling blood, drinking the browned, congealing slop for warmth. The long line of black clouds marked the progress of Kaustir's vanguard, and it was here, in front of the tog ' qal'a, the mountain fort, that they halted. Thunder shook the stones of the fort, and a single windfish alighted on the ground, disgorging a small group. In front of them, the pile of stone and masonry rose in the col chersonese, a narrow dip between the east-west Kaikas mountain range, formed as if a giant had kicked a hole through the mountains. It was silent, and no fires showed from the guardhouses, as if the people inside were pretending to be away. "Hail them." A desertrat turned, metal armour screeching in the cold, and sparked an incandescent flare. In response, a light blipped from the alighted windfish, and moments later a cannonball whistled past them, careening into the fortress ... and harmlessly passed through a turret, conjured by the faint shimmer of a mass mirage spell. If that shocked any of them, they certainly showed nothing as they waited for the fortress to respond.