Piotr rocked anxiously in the sleek cockpit of his tank. Caught in a fugue state, he carefully observed each plume of condensation emanating from his laboured breath. Between half-thoughts and slurred memories, his mind shivered back to earlier in his day: “It was going to get warmer” — that’s what the technician from the Centralised Authority said. Piotr never thought he would complain about a tank being too cold, but here he was. That said, you were typically cramped inside one with a crew, having to brush shoulders with up to three other men while carefully inhaling the hot, acrid air. All that he smelled right now were the pungent sterilising chemicals.

There was no need for a loader since they had integrated mechanisms that discarded the old shells. There was no need for a gunner since aim assist had been built into his display. All that they needed was him. And he was alone.

The first few days of the expedition began with little fanfare. They crossed the Danube through an old stone bridge — even if the tank could handle snorkelling through the greyish water. There was a creaking of the robes and the swinging of stiff bodies above him as the machine ploughed its way through the fortified city. Skeletons of old buildings were reinforced with layers of metal that had themselves been blown off, turning the entirety of what was once Belgrade into a collage of filth; even the old churches had been repossessed by the rebels.

This atrocity was the heart of what the Command called the “Illyrian Special Zone.” Many such zones existed, as there were those stubborn enough to resist the Centralised Authority. More than anything, he just felt sorry for the people — sorry that he would need to level what remained. They were like an old dog yanking on its leash until it asphyxiated. You follow their rules, and they make your life comfortable. Isn’t this how society functioned before the Authority was even conceived?

Nestled in the northern outskirts was the forward operating base. With its modular design, the RCPA technology had integrated with the destroyed buildings like a metallic tumour — walling off what was theirs from what still belonged to the enemy. Illyrians weren’t usually this bold. They spat and kicked and shouted. But this hysteria? This was an armed rebellion. This was a battle with frontlines. This was a war.

“Panzerboys?” One of the men stationed asked with his arms crossed, eyeing up the tank like a new German car. The soldier wore a long black coat with an armband labelling him as a garrison member. Not wearing a helmet, the tanker could see his thinning blonde hair ruffled by the wind.

"Yeah. Just one,” Piotr squeezed out through clenched teeth — poking his head out of the hatch. He despised that nickname more than anything. The isolation of the cockpit almost seemed inviting right now.

“Come on,” his friend insisted, pulling the man away. At least this private had his cap on. “They aren’t that bad.”

Piotr began moving, only to be stopped again. “Wait!” the blonde man shouted, running behind the vehicle. “Careful ahead. Ritual or something going on in the centre.” His tongue twisting over itself, the last word uttered by the blonde man came out like a slur: “Witches.”

“Best not to mess with that dark juju,” the fully dressed private nodded.

“Sure. If they come too close, tell them to watch the mudguard,” the driver threw an empty order into the cold air — already backing into the garage.

“You are not taking this seriously,” the first man frowned while reaching into his jacket to retrieve a lighter. “This is some satanic shit.”

“Eastern or Western?” Piotr asked, leaning against the hatch.


“The Witches — Eastern or Western?” he repeated. And there was silence. “Don’t they teach that during recruitment?”

“Have you ever even seen one?” the other private questioned — not to defend his friend, but out of sheer curiosity.

With an exhausted sigh, he fixed the cap around his ears, chuckling. “No. But hey, if I had to endure the orientation, so should the garrison.”

“Does it matter?” By now, the blonde man just wanted a way to end the conversation, snapping a thin cigarette stick to keep his hands and mouth busy. It was one of those new ashless ones.

With a sly smile, Piotr nodded a decisive no. “Don’t worry. They will send them back.” Turning around, the man let go of the controls to prove that the tank could drive itself — throwing his hands up. “Now, you’ve got a Panzerboy!”

Leaving the tank behind in the garage felt cruel, like abandoning one’s puppy on a leash. Still, Piotr went on, passing through a gate that opened like a metallic flower once he raised his hand. Just as the man had told him, dark figures assembled around the old fountain adorned by a cracked headless angel.

The artillery witches were a weird mockery of the modern and the archaic. Their loose-fitting military ponchos were engraved with thin silver Solomonic patterns cut by computer-guided lasers. He had heard somewhere that most had cybernetics in their throats to produce syllables not meant to be uttered by humans, but it was impossible to tell. After all, their true faces were hidden underneath those huge conical hats which blocked out the world.

Incense smoke danced around them like coiled silver serpents as they prayed — their chants turning into a singular electronic murmur. Just listening made Piotr sick in the stomach. It was an auditory uncanny valley, sounding almost like prayers he had heard in a church, but just wrong — somehow perverted. A wave of anxious befuddlement hit the private, and for the first time in decades, Piotr’s mind raced back to the confused haze of being a child forced to attend Sunday sermons when he would’ve rather slept in. At least, the precise vigour and the indiscernible purpose of the witches’ pseudo-Latin chants reminded him of this morning delirium.

“Better days,” Piotr resigned under his breath. Yet, the quiet sturmor of the men beside him reminded the Private that there were more important matters.

A loud bleating of the lamb was heard as one of the witches guided the animal towards the fountain. It pathetically wobbled towards the centre, its black rectangular pupils gazing around as if looking for something. Then, a different sound came — the rhythmic metallic clinking of many small blades descending into the sacrifice. The witches slinked out a makeshift coil of tubes and medical devices. They placed the contraction at the lamb’s spine as the slender needles were repeatedly pricked into its flesh until the white fur became soaked with a mixture of blood and spinal fluid. Another witch — fiddling with a system of microvalves — siphoned the collected fluid into a series of repurposed sprinklers. Piotr sat in macabre disassociation as the ritual site was baptised red.

“Panzerboy,” a voice with the texture of a rusty razor beckoned him. It was one of them — one of the witches. “Your machine disrupts the flow of our ceremony. Its golden wires beckon for those we bring forth. Keep a respectful distance.”

“Golden wires? Do you mean the integrated circuit or-” He nudged his head to the right. “Anyways. The tank is in the garage.” Piotr looked down at the woman only to see the top of her hat and nothing else.

“It is too close.” She wasted no time dismissing him, taking a step forward. “You will move it away.”

“No, I will not. Command told me to park it here — I parked it here.” It was the very definition of appeal to authority. “I am not moving it.”

The witch didn’t seem impressed, with the man feeling her stare and wishing he could stare back. As far as he could parse, through the awkward silence, she might have placed her hand on her chin, and she might have been nodding to herself. But, in the end, Piotr saw her headwear bobbing up and down and a glint of something golden around her neck.

It was gauche and artisanal, which belonged more at a mediaeval townhouse than a war zone. Noticing the ugly metal only put more of a wedge between him and the woman — between those who took this engagement seriously and those who played dress up. He felt almost compelled to rip it off and tell her to fuck off back to the enchanted forest.

But he was too out of his element for such an evasive action.

“Something else you want to share?” He mustered to break this stillness.

“Your wife will lay with your neighbour.”

There was silence between them again. Piotr stood in confusion at the witch’s words, with his jaw and brow probably scrunched a little too long for him to continue to pose like this stone-cold soldier.

“Excuse me?”

“She will give birth to a black goat.” Her tone was now completely indifferent — as if reading a fate written by another.

Piotr’s mood, however, was not, and he had enough stresses pulling on him than some state-sanctioned satan-worshipper. “Fine, I will move it!” He threw his hands in the air. “Okay? Okay.” Backing away, the man felt his jaw clenching. “Witches…” For Piotr — just like for the blonde man — it now came out like a slur.

The beast rolled through the desolate streets of the Illyrian Special Zone, its massive treads crunching over debris and shattered remnants of Belgrade. The driver’s gaze focused on the digital display as the view of the outside filtered in through the tank’s processing computer, his eyes trying to ignore the crucifix, which swayed like a pendulum in the dark. Turning the turret to the right, he anticipated the familiar tactile response of the aim assist. He used to hate it but learned to stop resisting the machine with time.

The rest of the army marched behind, occasionally taking a few steps forward as if to say they did not need to hide in his shade. The tank wasn’t really designed for troop transport, but that did not stop them from hopping on from time to time, treating it like a game of “who can cling to the sleek hull the longest.” At least half of his impact on the battlefield was psychological, so he had no issue allowing the infantry to have some fun as long as the barrier between them was maintained.

A rebel with an armband bearing the symbol of the Maiden pulled himself towards cover — the rough dirt scrubbing against his wounded hands. Taking a few quick steps ahead of the tank, the blonde man sprayed bullets into his back. The first one paralyzed him; the second killed the man. The rest were just for the sake of it.

The blonde man waved at the tank with that stupid grin on his face as if the two were friends, nodding over at the bloodied corpse. Nobody even saw the glint of the scope when — “BAM!” — a bullet carved through his head. Snipers. Caught in the sunlight peeking through the clouds, the gold of his scalp now turned a ruby red. Piotr retreated into his cockpit — the headset array now turning the world into a stream of pure data. He saw the rest of his squadron — their silhouettes now abstracted to polygons clouds of heatmap — scatter around the tank’s hull for cover.

“Command. Contact. Glass.” It was impressive that the Illyrians even got their hands on guns this accurate.

“Acknowledged. Vis-con?” the vaguely feminine voice bellowed into his ear.


“Acknowledged. Fix sightlines. Engage.”

Neither his primary nor secondary gun was designed for this. But sometimes, you need a hammer instead of a scalpel. The turret let out a thunderous roar as the cannon was turned on the apartment complex — one of the very same blocks the RCPA had constructed for Illyrians after the Great War. Ungrateful mutts. The walls cracked like chalk under the cannon's force. The sniper didn’t even have time to scream. After the ballistics, his tendons snapping like old rubber bands were the loudest sound.

“Command. Target blackout.”

“Acknowledged. Clear the path to the church. Grid five, dash nine. Hammer three, closing.“ Command wanted him to move alone, probably for the best: More snipers were ahead, and thick layers of Damascus protected him and him alone.

In the aftermath of the surprise attack, there was silence mixed with the rumbling of the threads. Then, a distant whistle cut through the air. Anti-materiel rifle. The bullet dug its way into the tank, allowing a small slither of sunlight to rush into the previously sterile hull. It then ended its journey by tearing through his abdomen. Like a nurse rushing over to his side, a jet injector pressed into Piotr's Arm, flooding him with relief. The man was barely able to register the burning pain as his dilating pupils looked up at the golden ray.

Expecting him to be either dead or panicked, a spray of machine gun fire followed like a swarm of hornets bumping into glass. The hot lead buzzed and hummed angrily without making progress. Patting himself up and down, Piotr confirmed that he wasn’t dead — not yet. The outer panelling took a hit but kept its shape. He could keep moving. That was until the array begged for attention.

It locked onto a silhouette: a witch — one of his. She darted through the air with the speed of a missile and the grace of a hummingbird. The thought of maybe pulling the trigger entered his mind for just a second. No. It wasn’t worth getting court marshalled — or worse. The Coven did handle these types of cases privately, after all.

The array detected her raising her hands as slender fingers traced symbols in the air. Opening the chamber of her rifle, the witch allowed a small silver spindle integrated into the design to pierce her skin. The anticlotting agent did its thing as thin blood seeped into the cartridge until it was satisfied. Immediately, her body’s supply was replenished by a plastic blood bag strapped to her shoulder.

There was a sound as if a great wooden wheel was turning in the heavens as her iron sight settled on an old church. An explosion reverberated through the air, shaking the tank and making Piotr’s teeth clatter. The stones crumbled, wood burned, gold melted, gems shattered, and dust and debris blacked out the sky. For a while, Piotr just sat there with his mouth agape. He wasn’t alone. A moment of silence fell over the battlefield as the men who used the church’s tower for cover were destroyed completely and utterly in both body and soul.

His chest hurt. A feeling of dread overcame him. He understood its presence as sudden and irrational, yet could not deny its presence — like a phobia. Breathing became difficult. The air gained the texture of thawing ice. Something was messing with his system and his very perception of self. It must have been an interference from her. Surely.

The witch moved to inspect the metal coffin which was once the tank, wanting to see if the man was dead. It would make a good harvest if nothing else. “Panzerboy?” she landed, staring at the tank like a child who had found a particularly interesting insect.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Piotr climbed out of the hatch. The stimulants worked overtime to allow him to move — even if his liver was leaking a little.

“Was that your rendezvous point?” the witch asked a seemingly innocent question, sitting down on the corpse of a car to rest her legs while watching the smoke. “Move up to grid five-ten.”

“You blew up a church! Do you realise — listen, do you realise.”

In her eyes, there was no need to justify it. And yet she did. “Several gunnery positions. Entrenched. A full sweep would have taken hours — I am sorry Panzerboy, but have I done anything wrong? Did I go against the Command? Or would you rather have destroyed it yourself?” She finally broke at the end, getting bothered looking at his miserable face.

“There is a difference between a cheap apartment and a whole church.”

“They were shooting at you.” There was a pause. “But yes, you are right,” she admitted. “The church could have been used as a prayer anchor. We are already behind schedule — and the stars are good today.”

His fist tightened in response. “I don't care what circle you sold your soul to. The Authority is a humanitarian organisation. Start acting like a human.”

Standing up, the witch took a determined step forward. She opened her mouth, wanting to say something just to stop herself, instead repeating “Have I done anything wrong? Because if not, the Astrologers predicted we would capture the eastern city.” Extending her palm, she gave the mudguard a hefty pat. “Start moving.”

Enough. He had had enough. With a flushed face, the man shoved the woman to the ground. The witch fell back onto the rubble, her occult cap tumbling off to reveal short silver hair — cut that way for convenience rather than any semblance of style. She was young, but her eyes were like those of a dead fish, looking up at him with what might have been rage. The golden seal of Paimon swayed before finally coming to a halt, giving Piotr something else to look at, for he could not bear to maintain eye contact.

Was she going to kill him? Taking a step back while quickly going through all the stages of grief, he settled on a mediocre “I guess I will die” as the woman stood up, dusted off her cloak, and lifted her cap. Again, under its safety — under its shade which blocked out the world — she just stood there for a moment. Both of them just stood there. Breathing.

“We will meet at the grid.” Just like before, her voice had a rusty consistency which made it difficult to tell what exactly she wanted to portray with her expressionless words — if anything. Piotr felt an obligation to say something, but she was already airborne.

There was nothing here; only black uniforms and civilian clothing with the Maiden’s symbol around their wrists — torn and soaked with foul-smelling ichor remained. Despite the damage, the domed cathedral remained partially untouched. The blood did not dare to smear against its white walls. Still, the broken doors and bullet casing made it clear that the war forced its way inside.

Piotr shook his head, mumbling something to himself while pressing down the right side of his body. The painkillers were still in effect, turning the burning sensation into a dull ache. But now, realising that there would be no medical help here, a whole different type of pain overcame him: dread. Sure, there was a dressing over his wound, but that only kept the blood inside.

At least, he had this engrained desire to enter — to prove he was here. After what had happened, the tank felt like a fragile cocoon. And so, he left it behind, stumbling through the splintered doors while hugging the portable bag of medical supplies. Feeling his vision blur, the man injected another needle into his other arm. Again, a jolt gave his strained muscles the illusion of peace and his brain the desire to stay focused. Two more left.

As soon as Piotr reached the threshold, a hallowed silence enveloped him like a shroud. The air carried the scent of old wood and incense mixed with rustic hints. There were saints and angels and bodies all around him. He was a stranger — a living amongst the dead. No, not exactly. He wasn’t alone. There was one more.

Her left hand clung to the altar while the right one hung pathetically by the side of her body. So far, she had been silent — her mouth overflowing with a mixture of warm spit and blood. There was no point in shouting if there was nobody to hear her. "Help me!" she screamed, her voice cracking with desperation. "Please, help me!" The witch's cries echoed through the cathedral’s dome, fading into the darkness. That’s all it took: a single bullet going through the head of her humerus. With the blood bag punctured, it was difficult to tell how much of the red fluid was hers — how much blood she still had inside. Still, she screamed, her voice growing even more hoarse. "You! Help me!"

“You wouldn’t be able to make it back on your own. The tank only has room for one.” His words were like the air: heavy and cold. “Make your peace.”

“Make my peace?” Despite being on the verge of death, she tilted her head up in defiance of his suggestion. “And what? Beg for forgiveness?” A painful cough escaped her bloodied lips as she pointed at the fresco above them. “You know I am not going to Heaven, right?” The first time she had said it, her words were clinical. Maybe it was the pain getting worse or the reality of the situation truly setting in, but they now carried bitterness. “I am not going to Heaven.”

“Come on.” It may have been cruel, but watching her just felt pathetic. “You are going to be fine.”

“Like you’ve said. I’ve sold it. I am not going to Heaven,” she repeated the mantra while shutting her eyes so tightly it hurt.

Clenching his teeth, the man kneeled in front of her. “Do you want me to shoot you? Because you know what the rebels will do when they get here, right?” The bodies of the RCPA soldiers were displayed on the streets. The bodies of the witches were brutalised. “Get up,” Piotr ordered, handing her a stimulant. For a while, she just stared at it.

“I am not going to Heaven.” That was a yes. The needle descended deep into her arm. Never having taken a combat stim before, her hands began shaking. Making sure it was unloaded, the man handed her an old Great War-era rifle to use as a makeshift walking stick.

“The Astrologers…” The drug was doing its thing, with the witch even losing the ability to sense the position of her facial muscles.

“Don’t talk,” Piotr snapped as the two left the church. But she was stubborn.

“The Astrologers told us that we would make it to the Sava.”

“Don’t talk,” he repeated, turning back to face her. “And besides, the Astrologers aren’t always correct.”

“They are. They really are.” Above them, the remaining witches levitated far up in the sky like a flock of ravens, glancing down at their watches and waiting for the signal.“I tried to make their will happen. But I could not. Now, the rest are here to finish it.”

“Command is going to shell the eastern bank?” Piotr pouted in disbelief. “But we have troops waiting at breakout positions.”

“The Astrologers told us that we would reach the riverline. We can’t make them appear like fools,” she squeezed out, her leg shaking.

He was silent as they reached the tank. There was space for only one person inside. No matter how hard he stared at the seat, that didn’t change.

“Don’t leave me.” Some men are able to maintain their dignity in the face of death through uncertainty. But she knew exactly what would happen if she lost that battle. She had seen it before. “Whatever you do, don’t leave me here. The Coven knows who you are. They will think you’ve killed me — don’t leave me.“

“Can you get in?” Trying to ignore her rumbling mixed with threats, Piotr extended his hand, pulling her up. The chair was much too large, yet her hat remained cumbersome — brushing against the controls. All the different displays and panels were enough to make her head spin more than the injury ever could.

“Go,” Piotr patted the side of the tank, preparing to close the hatch. “It will drive itself. Don’t touch anything.”

“You will die,” she mumbled while handing the hat over to him, maybe hoping that he somehow wouldn’t hear it.

“I will figure something out,” he lied.

The tank's engine roared to life. And he was alone.

It was time. One of the witches above blew her whistle, sending a sharp noise across the river — like the fall of a guillotine. The sky flickered with the distant glow of approaching shells, and the rhythmic thuds grew louder. Many fiery blossoms formed a line on the river, separating that which was theirs from that which belonged to the rebels.

He thought about trying to move, but his side began aching again. Looking down at the last of the needles, Piotr hurled it into the street, sitting down on the stairs leading up to the church while looking up at the orange sky.

“Our Father, Who art in heaven,

Hallowed be Thy Name.

Thy Kingdom come.

Thy Will be done,

on earth as it is in Heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive-”

He could no longer speak. Closing his eyes, the man felt warmth on his skin as the air was sucked out of his lungs. Shrapnel. Debris. Glass. It all came down onto him as the steel which made up his dog tag became illegible from the heat.

And yet, his prayers did not go unnoticed: Thirty-odd miles away from the heat of the monolith sat a series of once-forested hills. A series of small cabins, shelled in the early days of the conflict, were slumped against its rockslide curve. Their foundation was now being rattled. As distant tank treads thundered forward, splintered pillars of dead oak shook in place as if to greet its unwelcome visitor through the fog. A wandering beast had pulled forward, struggling to pull its weight — fighting against both trench mud, half-buried barbed wire, and all of the dead servicemen that unceremoniously crunched beneath its hulking mass. Otherworldly shockwaves echoed behind the war machine, snaking out of the tangle of adobe brick streets and shelled houses and into the muddied countryside of the city.

The cabin reeked of blood mixed with sweat, with even the smell of chlorine not masking it well. The air had the consistency of thawed ice, which was almost painful to breathe. All the witch could do was sit tilted with her head to the side, staring up at a crucifix — its beige wood bright against the blackness.

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