BATTLE REPORTS - The Hand of the King - 14 (Confessions)

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A small flame licked the end of a stick of maroon-colored sealing wax. A small blob fell off the end and landed on the paper. The priest quickly pressed his signet into the wax, sealing the message.

There, he was finally done.

Sanario had been very busy during his days on the medical ship. Prayers needed saying, services needed attending, scripture needed reading, the chapel needed cleaning up, and there had been this - thousands of articles of correspondence that needed his personal attention.

In a way, the priest was glad that his attending officer had been wounded. He had never much cared for the mindless drudgery of the myriad of his ecclesiastical duties, but, as a humble servant, he understood that these were part of his duty as a priest to the Emperor. It was often difficult to find time for ritual and bureaucracy while on the front, and this time off gave him the time required to catch up. The priest rubbed his eyes and smoothed out his mustache. He looked up at the chronometer. It wasn't yet time for prayers, but he had run out of busywork. Plus, he doubted that he could get his eviscerator to shine any brighter, even with yet another buffing and waxing.

The priest walked down the hallway to the nearest chapel that he had decided to make his pet project while on board the medical ship. Inside, there were a few guardsmen waiting to confess their sins in the hopes of absolution. After setting up his station, Sanario called the first guardsman forward. He was a man with a mean look and a full beard. He looked genuinely contrite. That was always a good sign.

"Have mercy on me, hieros," the guardsman began, "for I have trespassed against the law of the Emperor."

"Only the Emperor gives mercy to his trespassers," Sanario intoned, finishing the rite in response, "For what sin do you hope for absolution?"

"For the sin of pride, hieros," the guardsman replied.

"What is the cause of your pride, huios?"

"Well, you see," the guardsman began, with shame and contrition throbbing in his voice, "you see, sir, it's just... well, we just kicked so much ass a couple of days ago. Well, it's enough to make myself consider myself a competent soldier."

"I see," Sanario replied, voice filled with pity, "Go on."

"Well, so there we were, not three days ago. We were clearing out a ruined city. The enemy had filled the place with snipers everywhere. It felt like there was one in every window, you know? You were afraid to fart, excuse my language, hieros, or else you'd get filled full of holes. Just that day, three of my friends were taken down.

So there we were, in the ruins, and my sergeant, he tells one squad to stay in a ruined building, while the other squad, including me, would try and get around to flank them. We set up our own snipers and move out."

"And everything was so quiet. It was terrifying. All you could hear was your own footsteps and then CRACK! a shot would fire, and your heart would stop. You dive for cover and look around, and nobody got hit, and you don't even know if it was you getting shot at, or where they was shooting from.

After a bit, the sharpshooters we left behind start getting into a duel with the other snipers, and my sarge figures it's time to go. We start moving in, just as some others from the first squad are running across the street to try and meet up with us."

"I look on as I see sniper fire snap out at the men making their mad dash for cover. A shot burst out right in front of me, and I looked and saw a guardsman take a shot to the head, just as he was about to make the fence. I look up, and I can barely discern the sniper in the second floor window ahead of me. Apparently he wasn't wise to our flanking, and so I'd get a good shot off on him. Then, from across the street, one of our own sharpshooters takes advantage of the sniper shifting targets, and puts a long-las shot right through the sniper's throat. The enemy collapsed down onto the floor right in front of me.

I look back at the sharpshooter, but an enemy sniper had taken advantage of the sharpshooter's shot to fire at him from somewhere else, knocking the beret right off his head, along with a fair bit more, if you catch my meaning.

Meanwhile, my squad mates show up and start unloading with their plasma guns."

"I can't say what damage they did, but it must have made them angry as hell, because before you know it, we're getting charged at! I hear my squadmates opening up with lasgun fire, and I hear sarge up the way shooting off his big gun up into some ruins. I can't see what's going on, though, so I walk up near the window.

Then, from right out in front of me, came the enemy. He was huge! And he was wearing red armor. His voice rattled through his helmet, his eyes glowing dark, piercing into a man's very soul!"

"He burst right through the window like it wasn't there, debris flying everywhere. He took a long, cold look at me, and revved up his chainsaw sword, ready to massacre me where I very stood.

He took a pace towards me, and then another. He began to run straight at me, unstoppable as a freight train. And then the Emperor himself must have touched me then, because from some source I can not otherwise name, I felt a courage well up in me. I got up my bayonet, and I got ready to charge in.

He thought he was so great, but I'd show him! No super-engineered monster of a foe stands any match against the sheer guts and determination of an Imperial Guardsman! I was ready to stick my blade right in his belly, powered armor or no, he was going to get it, and I was going to give it to him. I took a step forward, ready to charge.

And then, well, the Emperor must have touched me again, because from some source I can not otherwise name, I felt a kind of well-reasoned sanity come up from inside me. Instead of charging, I stopped, and leveled my lasgun at his groin and pulled the trigger. My memory goes a bit blank here, but all I know is that I kept pulling my trigger while pointing between his legs until my laspack ran out. I shot him in the groin to death, as best I can figure."

"I see," Sanario replied, in a rather impressed tone.

"Aye, and that's not even it all. Apparently some other enemy literally flew in on his jetpack thing right over the ruins and began to attack everybody with a flame thrower."

"But our other boys beat them off. And the sarge, oh the sarge! He killed off one enemy with his gun, taking him out of his sniper hole, and then took out another one as he charged in at him, same as me!

Well, once that lot came and went, we went in through the ruins and caught a few snipers by surprise. The rest must have retreated, because we weren't bothered by them much after that. Half a line of guardsmen came in after we'd cleared it out.

And, well, that's what brings me here to you today, hieros," the guardsman concluded, "Well, we did such a good job, that I think our whole squad is guilty of pride. Me worst off, you see, because I was so awesome when I killed a space marine by shooting him in the crotch to death. It's a guilt that weighs heavily on my soul, and I can not find a way to resolve it all."

"Hmm," Sanario muttered, taking a moment to consider his words, "Your guilt is present with you indeed. Pride is indeed a grievous sin. This first sin of sins, indeed. It will require much penance. Firstly, you must spend the next twelve hours in prayer, meditating on just how awesome you were, and how seriously epic was your kill. You should also take into consideration that you must in the future encourage your squadmates to fight just that hard. It will be more difficult for you to feel pride, if your work is merely the equal to that of your peers."

"I see," the guardsman replied.

"I furthermore command you to bring all 3,258 of my pieces of correspondence from my personal quarters to the postmaster, treated with the greatest of care. And I want you to spend the next day completing the right of Sanctification by Filing Records at the ship's scribery. Entering the data of a few tens of thousands of forms should bring you humility."

"Yes, heiros."

"That is all."

"Thank you, heiros," the guardsman got up and bowed, and prepared to leave the chapel.

"Oh, and one more thing," Sanario called out, suddenly aware of the state of his stomach, "I command you to bring me one of those 4-eggroll things from the cafeteria, without which there can be no mercy."

"I understand, good priest, thank you."

The guardsmen walked out the back door of the small chapel. Sanario's stomach growled. He immediately regretted not having the guardsman bring him back TWO of those 4-eggroll things from the cafeteria.

"Next," the priest called out, flatly. Another guardsman approached him meekly. He had a shaved head and an arm in a sling.

"Have mercy on me, hieros," the guardsman began, "for I have trespassed against the law of the Emperor."

"Only the Emperor gives mercy to his trespassers," Sanario replied, "For what sin do you hope for absolution?"

"The sin of survival, my priest," the guardsman replied with a look of shame, "I was the only one to live through the horrors that beset my squad, and I can not bear it."

"Tell me, what happened?" the priest asked, gently.

"Well, you see, we were scouting ahead of the rest of our unit, when we came across a small nest of foul xenos ahead of us."

"We infiltrated closer only to find a Kingsguard agent already monitoring them from afar. As we were only cadets, he took charge of our two squadrons. As the way across to the enemy was sparse in terrain, we were ordered to break into teams and assault the enemy from the flanks.

We did as we told, but there was confusion about the plan. Our sergeant had already gone off, but the different groups weren't put together well, and nobody really knew what we were doing.

The snipers of our group were scanning the field."

"And it was not long before the enemy discovered our trap. They broke out of their positions, and began to attack us."

"I began to advance with my group, when I was met by a pair of plasma gunners. We got into an argument, as I was CERTAIN that they were supposed to be with one of the flanking groups, rather than with my and my comrades on the left. They said that they were ordered to go with us and attack from the front.

While we were arguing, the enemy surprised us from the other side of a bastion."

"They began to shoot at us, and to my ever lasting shame, when the incoming fire came at us, I ducked behind cover. The plasma gunners... they... they did not make it. They took the enemy shooting like men. For me, I ran forward for cover when I could see the horrible sight across the other side of the field."

"The men showed up, but the sergeant, and the plasma gunners, they were nowhere. They shot at the enemy, and they were shot back. In desperation, they charged in and fought the xenos face to face in close combat."

"But the xenos were much, much stronger than we cadets were. Both of them that got into the fight were bludgeoned horribly to death. They were completely overpowered by the enemy's excellent martial prowess. They could never have hoped to win that fight against their foe.

And only then, only after the brave soldiers were bested did the sergeant show up. They shot at the enemy and downed them, but by then it was too late. There were too many still left for just the sergeant and his follower. I looked around in a panic. The enemy were behind me, walking over the corpses of the plasma gunners. The enemy were coming on my right, as they had moved forward to outflank where our snipers were. I looked back at the bastion, and the last of the guardsmen were gunned down from the right just as my sergeant fell.

The xenos moved everywhere around me. I was the only survivor. I told myself that I would not go like this. I would not be the one coward who survived while all of his friends lay slain. No, that would not be me.

I left the ruin then, and found a nearby xeno. They had perhaps assumed that we were all dead, and had let their guard down. I found one who was scanning the area for threats. I snuck up behind him."

"I prepared to thrust my bayonet into his brain, but he turned his head at the last moment, and the dagger glanced from his helmet. We then engaged in a close combat. The foe's armor was absolutely invincible. Every stroke bounced harmlessly off. The surprise, though, had left him unable to attack well, and his counterattacks were much clumsier than that of his own soldiers further up-field.

Sick of his armor, I dropped my lasgun and grabbed his head. I pulled hard and managed to wrench free his helmet. I then saw him. His blue flesh. His aqueous eyes.

I bashed his face in with this helmet then, and he collapsed to the ground. I picked up my lasgun and began to run. I began to run like a coward. Everywhere around me, the enemy shot at me, but none of them hit me. It was fit in the Eyes of the Emperor that I should live to bear my shame.

It was not until later that I made it back to my own lines. There a nervous sentry accidentally opened fire and hit me in the arm. Had it only have been my heart."

The guardsmen looked down sadly.

"It is indeed a great burden you bear, huios," the priest spoke, "Not by the slaying of one xeno can you atone for your dreadful sin."

The priest's stomach growled again.

"To begin your penance, you must start by engaging on a sacred quest."

"I would do anything to gain the Emperor's clemency," the guardsman pleaded.

"Very well," Sanario started, "You quest will begin with a litany of solemn prayer and self-abasement. The first destination on your pilgrimage of absolution must be to go to the cafeteria..."