In the Time of the Empire: The Vision of Hardimus
General Hardimus rode in the vanguard of the victorious Phoenix Legion, his cloak of gold and scarlet fluttering proudly in the breeze as his chariot approached the Bennu Palace of Emperor Xystus. Cheering throngs threw flowers at the passing soldiers, but their loudest cheers were saved for Hardimus, Hero of the Empire.
The victorious general smiled paternally and waved at the admiring onlookers, struggling not to let his throbbing headache show. It had tormented him all morning, and seemed to be getting worse as the horns and drums of the triumphal celebration reached their climax. Reaching the palace, the general leapt from his chariot. He strode up the marble stairs toward his waiting Emperor, but midway up the gleaming staircase, agonizing pain lanced through his head, driving him to his knees. Strange and heavenly music caused him to look up the broad stairs, where his tear-blurred eyes made out a strange and wonderful being, standing regally beside the Emperor. As he beheld the visitation, his pain instantly vanished!
Appearing much as a lion with the head of a man, wise and serene, the celestial creature radiated a bright aura of purity and nobility. Four wings sprang from the leonine creature’s back, their glistening golden plumage glowing with aureate light. The beautiful feathers fluttered in the breeze as the being moved sinuously down the stairway. As the general stood there, awestruck, the apparition spoke; its words were soft and yet impossible to misunderstand.
“I am Gazius the Ardent, Kherib of the Upper Realms. You, Hardimus, are the greatest champion the land has ever known; the Lord of Battles has chosen your descendants to become His champions! It shall be the privilege of your heirs to seek out the Armor of the Pristine Champion, the Panoply of Holy Virtue! Never has the world seen such an item: Its discovery shall presage the coming of the final days.”
A vision appeared in the air before Hardimus, a suit of armor, yet unlike any armor he had ever seen. Every plate was perfectly shaped, each fluting contributing to an elegant whole. No detail was wasted, nothing distracted from the perfection of its design: Even the legendary armors of the Dwarves could not be compared to it. The gleaming steel plates each bore inscriptions along their edges: Smoothly inlaid in bright gold, each was a holy verse from the sacred texts.
The majestic visitation continued, his tone filled with warning. “Neglect this charge at your peril! Long and weary years shall pass ere these arms shall be found, yet this will be the test of your line’s virtue! Those who neglect their task shall falter and fail in all else, and those who are true shall be judged worthy servants of the Holy One! Farewell, Champion!”
As the vision faded, Hardimus found himself lying on the marble steps, a dozen of the Imperial Guards surrounding him, scanning for hidden enemies or archers. None of them seemed to have noticed the supernatural creature that had stood among them, and the general somehow sensed that he should not reveal what he had seen.
Hardimus’ Legacy: The Brotherhood of the Holy Panoply
Hundreds of years have passed since that day when the first of the Hidden Champions was visited by the celestial being. Over those long centuries, the Great Empire fell and fractious kingdoms rose in its place, the ancient religions of Imperial times were replaced by new churches, and even the languages of the land changed beyond recognition. Despite the hazards of the centuries, the line of Hardimus has endured. Secretly questing for the Armor of the Pristine Champion, what once was a single family has gradually grown to become a secret society with hundreds of members. To this day, the descendants of Hardimus lead the society, but many of the cabal’s hidden membership are no longer related to the group’s founding house.
While they have generally remained hidden, the members of the Brotherhood of the Holy Panoply have followed many paths in their search for the Panoply of Holy Virtue. Some have sought high office, cultivating influence among the mighty and powerful. Others have delved into ancient lore, seeking to rediscover the lost lore of nobler times.
Members of the Brotherhood often seek personal purity, turning from the temptations of an increasingly decadent world. A few have secretly preyed upon the corrupt and venal within the church, men who abuse the trust of the people. Despite their often-conflicting goals and philosophies, all in the Brotherhood have sworn that its internal disagreements will remain hidden from non-members. Few have betrayed that vow, and fewer still have done so without facing the Brotherhood’s vengeance.
From the halls of the land’s rulers to the guilds of humble workmen, the Brotherhood of the Holy Panoply’s members secretly manipulate and conspire, opposing any who would undermine their quest. They are not an all-powerful group, but their members come from all walks of life: Nobles and clergy, guildsmen and scholars, workmen and soldiers. While many of these folk are not very active within the group, having no personal ambition to pursue their brotherhood’s quest, they all know that the leaders of their band must not be denied.
Joining the Brotherhood of the Holy Panoply
No one is permitted to join the Brotherhood of the Holy Panoply without being “sponsored” by a current member, who vouches for the prospective member’s character and behavior. The aspiring member is tested magically, scanned to see whether his stated reasons for desiring to join the group are true and complete. These tests are conducted surreptitiously: As far as the member knows, he (or she) has just met a local noblemen or guild leader who was curious about them. Despite the name, the “Brotherhood” also admits women into its ranks; they account for nearly a quarter of the group’s members.
Prospective members are then put through a series of grueling initiation ordeals, which test their dedication to the ideals of chivalry as well as their faithfulness to the society’s religious views. Those passing are admitted into the Seekers, the Outer Order of the society, but they are not considered full members until an additional series of trials have been passed.
Seekers are privy to very few of the Order’s secrets and are never permitted to have information that could be used to endanger the group as a whole. As far as they know, the group is a secret society of men and women dedicated to spiritual self-improvement, pursuing ideals of chivalry and spirituality. The existence of additional levels within the group is kept secret from these members.
Those considered for membership in the Brotherhoods’ Inner Orders are tested more than they may ever realize. They are secretly given tests of their integrity and character, such as finding an easily-identified purse full of money or meeting an attractive woman, apparently interested in a secret liaison. Those who fail these tests of virtue may never realize that they have been tested and found wanting.
The Oaths of the Brotherhood of the Holy Panoply
These oaths are sworn over an intricately-carven chest containing ancient relics of General Hardimus: His iron short sword, a tattered cloak, and the battered boss of his shield. While the Brotherhood’s leaders believe these artifacts are genuine, few attribute more than symbolic importance to these items. The chest itself radiates a potent sense of goodness and righteousness, along with vague dweomers of preservation and destruction.
I will follow the Quest for the Armor of the Pristine Champion with all my heart and all my industry, seeking always to serve the Holy One in all ways and follow His will.
I will loyally obey my superiors in the Order of the Seekers, protecting the Brotherhood’s secrets, even unto death.
I will seek to understand the path of the Pristine Champion, striving to be pure and noble in all ways.
I shall aid my brothers in their quests, never failing to support them when it is in my power to do so.
It is widely rumored that these oaths are secured by mystical means: Those who have betrayed the organization have generally died mysteriously afterward, lending some credence to these tales.
The Chambers of the Quest
Those seeking the Armor of the Pristine Champion have had several gathering places over the centuries, some elaborately hidden temples, while others were simple back rooms in businesses or mansions. These “Chambers of the Quest”, as they are known, vary wildly. Some have been secret rooms built by powerful nobles, filled with precious art and beautifully-illuminated holy texts. Others have been the catacombs of humble anchorites, hidden rooms roughly hewn from living stone. The only thing these chambers have in common is their hidden purpose.
In times of political upheaval or oppression, when membership in secretive organizations was suspect, the entire group has gone deeply “underground”. More commonly, the majority of their low-ranking members have been half-hearted conspirators, with only cursory efforts made to keep others from discovering their secrets. Fortunately for the society, these members seldom know anything damaging about the group.
When practical, members of the society meet regularly to celebrate the feast days of the Lord of Battles, gathering in their hidden shrines to renew their oaths and to be again shown relics of the group’s founder, General Hardimus. The leaders of the society may appear to oversee these gatherings, each wearing elaborate robes and decorative face paints in imitation of the fallen Empire’s styles.
The Blades of Purity and the Loci of the Pristine: Factions of the Inner Order
Over the centuries, the members of the Inner Order of the Brotherhood have chosen different ways to follow their quest. Some emulate the ancient martial virtues of the group’s founder, seeking to become pure and puissant exemplars of chivalry. Others have chosen more mystical paths, seeking hidden lore and spiritual insight. The group’s structure reflects these divergent views, with twin hierarchies in its membership: The martial adherents are known as the Blades of Purity, while the more mystical members are the Loci of the Pristine.
The Blades of Purity have concluded that they must achieve personal purity and cleanse their land of unrighteousness before the armor will be found. They often model their behavior on the noblest heroes of the old Empire, although the legends and tales upon which they base their behavior have often changed a great deal since they were first told. Very few of the Blades of Purity are female: The traditional chivalric views of the faction’s membership discourage women from following this path.
The Loci of the Pristine have chosen a more spiritual and intellectual model for their quest. They feel that the mystery of the Holy Panoply will be revealed through scholarly and philosophical studies: The Loci of the Pristine hope that through cultivating knowledge of ancient history and magical lore, they can rediscover knowledge held by the ancients, but lost to modern men. This lore will open the path to the Armor of the Pristine Champion; once the armor is achieved, then its holy influence will bring purity to all around it.
The Hidden Champion, Leader of the Brotherhood
The head of the Brotherhood of the Holy Panoply is the man known as the Hidden Champion. This leader is chosen from among the descendants of General Hardimus within the group, elected for life by the society’s members. (If the Hidden Champion fails to “measure up”, he can be removed by the membership, but this is regarded as an extreme measure and has seldom been considered.)
The current Hidden Champion is a wizened elder, Sir Umberto della Concergo. This grizzled veteran rose slowly through the ranks of the Blades of Purity, and remains a capable warrior, despite his weakening frame. Sir Umberto struggles heroically to keep the fractious members of the society’s two branches working together toward their ultimate goal, working constantly to be an example to his followers. Seeking always to balance wisdom and chivalry, the Sisyphean labors of his office leave him exhausted by day’s end.
The Leaders of the Factions
Aggravating the challenges faced by Sir Umberto, the leaders of the Brotherhood’s two factions are men with conflicting visions of the group’s purpose and goals. Each has a coterie of devoted followers dedicated to supporting their aims, zealots who often work at cross-purposes.
The Loci of the Pristine are led by Father Parkin Philosoph, a slender and ascetic man with an unworldly air about him. Father Parkin sees the whole purpose of his society as a continuing quest for intellectual and mystical perfection. Although many of his faction disagree with him, eagerly seeking new clues to the Holy Panoply’s whereabouts, he fatalistically feels that the world simply isn’t ready for an artifact of true holiness to appear. Once the world has plunged into blackest despair, only then will the Holy Panoply appear and the Pristine Champion arise.
The current head of the Blades of Purity is a strong contrast to the unworldly Parkin. Sir Cherno le Formidable, Baron of Dorrach, is a massively-muscled man, the direct lineal descendant of General Hardimus. He has concluded that the vision of Hardimus was an elaborate spiritual allegory and doesn’t believe that the Armor of the Pristine Champion has a physical existence at all. A warrior of undoubted virtue and chivalry, he has become disillusioned with the seemingly futile quest of his line and now hopes only to seize power when the elderly Sir Umberto finally dies or steps down. He now sees the secret connections of the society only as a means to increase his political power, regarding the quest for “some antiquated armor” as a quixotic distraction to be left in the dustbin of history.
Sir Umberto is aware of Cherno’s cynical view of his beloved society, but fervently hopes that before he dies, he can convince the disillusioned baron to return to the goals he swore to when he first joined the group as a youth. Cherno regards the sincere old man almost as a second father, and hates to disappoint him, but he can’t bring himself to agree with the elderly warrior.
The Shrine of the Helm
Deep beneath what was once the Capitol of the Great Empire, a vault of stone is hidden under what once was the villa of General Hardimus. Within, the greatest treasures of the Brotherhood are hidden: The Journal of the House of Hardimus, the Helm of Purity, and the Plumes of Gazius. The very existence of these relics is the deepest secret of the society: A mystery hidden from nearly all among their number. These relics are not casually shown to the members at large, as the battered sword and shield boss are: They are kept hidden, secret treasures protected from the unworthy.
Sir Umberto has traveled to this hidden shrine, and he has taken a few of the most idealistic of his followers there, but to his disappointment, neither Father Parkin nor Sir Cherno were found to be worthy when they came to the shrine. Umberto hopes that, before he dies, he will help them find understanding.
The Journal of Hardimus, a set of tattered and crumbling scrolls written in the ancient tongue of the Great Empire, details Hardimus’ efforts as he labored to convince his family and most trusted servants of the truth of his vision. He continued to serve his emperor well, but every extra hour was devoted to his secret quest. Struggling to follow every lead, he strove to make himself as pure and righteous, as virtuous and noble as possible. This aged text has inspired the Brotherhood’s leaders for centuries, and copied excerpts can be found in the possession of many of the society’s leaders.
The quest of the Brotherhood has not been as futile as some believe: The Helm of Purity has been found and lies within the society’s hidden shrine: A mystery and a puzzle that tests the belief of all who behold it. Those who truly believe in the Quest of Hardimus will perceive this relic as it truly is: A gleaming barbuta of mirror-bright steel, lined with rich leather, a helm worthy of an emperor. To all others who see it, it appears as a rusted and bent piece of junk, a battered and worn-out scrap of iron with fragments of dry-rotted leather clinging to it. The elderly Sir Umberto beheld its glory, as have some of the others he brought to the shrine, but Father Parkin and Sir Cherno failed the test.
In the busy months following his vision, General Hardimus began to wonder whether he had truly seen a celestial being or whether it was just a delusion. Despite the power of his vision, he began to doubt the truth of what had happened, but when he arrived home one evening, he discovered three golden plumes lying on his bed, each glowing with heavenly light. He soon discovered that these heavenly gifts were more than mere feathers: Only those true to his cause perceived them as they were: Plumes of radiant, unearthly beauty. All others see only a trio of battered goose quills. To this day, only the most faithful followers of Hardimus’ quest can see the truth. The plumes sit upon the altar of the hidden shrine, granting light to all who choose to see, but revealing the darkness within the unfaithful.