Stan Nicholls

Army of Shadows

Of Omens, revolts and legendary heroes

After escaping Maras-Dantia, their chaotic birthplace, the survivors of the orc warband the Wolverines settled in Ceragan, a world populated solely by their own kind. Stryke, the band's leader, took native female Thirzarr as his mate, siring two male hatchlings. But by the time the oldest of Stryke's offspring was four, the band had grown restless with their bucolic life.

While hunting, Stryke and Wolverine sergeant Haskeer found themselves near the cave where the warband had arrived in Ceragan, and were shocked when an unknown human emerged. But the man was mortally wounded, a dagger jutting from his back.

A search of the corpse turned up an amulet bearing strange markings, and a gemstone.

The magical stone issued a message from Tentarr Arngrim, known to the Wolverines as Serapheim, the wizard who had made possible their escape from Maras-Dantia. It included images of orcs in another world being cruelly subjugated by humans, and to Stryke's and Haskeer's dismay they appeared not to be fighting back. Even more shocking, the architect of their oppression was shown to be Serapheim's malevolent daughter, sorceress queen Jennesta, the warband's old enemy and once their ruler.

Arngrim's likeness asserted that it was in the Wolverines' power to help these fellow orcs and exact revenge on Jennesta. To do so they would have to use the five mysterious artefacts called instrumentalities — known to the orcs as stars — which Serapheim had created and the warband still possessed. The instrumentalities allowed dimension-hopping, and perhaps more, and were the means by which the Wolverines had been transported to Ceragan. Had someone not murdered him, Serapheim's messenger would have acted as the band's guide.

Wanting to accept the challenge, despite his suspicion of Arngrim's motives, Stryke guessed that the symbols on the amulet showed how the stars should be fitted together in order to enable travel to other worlds. Gathering the scattered members of the Wolverines, he found they were as keen on the mission as he was.

Stryke stood at the warband's head, as captain. Below him were two sergeants, one of whom was Haskeer. The other would have been the band's only dwarf, Jup, had he not elected to stay in Maras-Dantia. Under them came two corporals. Again, one was missing; but it was death, not the gulf between worlds, that had separated Alfray from the Wolverines. The other corporal was Coilla, the sole female member, and their mistress of strategy. Beneath the officers were thirty privates. Or would have been if six hadn't fallen along the way.

To make up the strength, Stryke enlisted half a dozen native warriors, all tyros; and to replace Alfray as second corporal he chose an ageing orc called Dallog. None of which pleased Haskeer, who was even less happy when local chieftain Quoll forced Stryke to include his foppish offspring, Wheam, on the mission. Stryke decided that the band would go back to Maras-Dantia to try to find Jup, in hope of his resuming his role as sergeant. If he was still alive.

After an alarming transference, they found Maras-Dantia in an even worse state than when they had left. The magical energy that coursed through the land had grown much weaker, and what remained was corrupted and malign.

Almost as soon as the Wolverines arrived they were attacked by human marauders. One new recruit, and Liffin, a seasoned member, were killed. As Liffin died defending Wheam, Haskeer's contempt for the youth increased. Stryke pushed the band onward to Quatt, the dwarfs' homeland, a journey fraught with peril.

An unknown number of instrumentalities exist, spread across the infinity of dimensions. Activation of the warband's set was detected by a covert group called the Gateway Corps. A multiracial assemblage of great antiquity, dedicated to the task of keeping the portals between worlds sealed off, the Corps hunted down instrumentalities. Corps leader Karrell Rivers, a human, ordered his second-in-command, elf female Pelli Madayar, to recover the instrumentalities held by the Wolverines. Her unit armed with potent magical weaponry, Pelli's brief was to stop at nothing to achieve her mission.

The Wolverines battled their way to Quatt and found Jup, and were surprised to discover he had acquired a mate, Spurral. Wearied by Maras-Dantia's increasing deterioration, Jup agreed to rejoin the band, but insisted that Spurral go along too.

Before they could leave, the Wolverines encountered humans Micalor Standeven and Jode Pepperdyne, who warned them of an imminent raid by religious fanatics. Despite their loathing and distrust of humans, the orcs heeded them, and with the dwarfs beat off the attack. During the fight Pepperdyne, a superb warrior, saved Coilla's life. Standeven proved less heroic.

The Wolverines weren't aware that Pepperdyne was little more than Standeven's slave. Nor did they know that the pair were on the run from a despot called Kantor Hammrik, to whom Standeven was in debt. Standeven and Pepperdyne had avoided being executed by Hammrik only because Pepperdyne played on the tyrant's desire to possess the fabled instrumentalities. Convincing him that they could locate a set in the so-called barbarous lands of Maras-Dantia, Standeven and Pepperdyne were dispatched there by Hammrik under armed escort, but overcame their guards. The tale they told the Wolverines was that they were merchants wronged by Jennesta, and were seeking revenge on her. In reality, Standeven coveted the instrumentalities the Wolverines held, intending to use them as a bargaining chip with Hammrik.

Irate that the Wolverines had brought trouble to their settlement, the dwarfs turned on them. The band, along with Jup, Spurral and the two humans, found themselves cornered in a blazing longhouse. Realising the only way to escape was by using the stars, Stryke aligned them for what he hoped was the world of their mission.

The warband materialised in the verdant terrain of Acurial, whose indigenous population of orcs had lost their martial instincts. Exploiting this weakness, the human Peczan empire had invaded under the pretext that Acurial possessed destructive magical weapons, and their occupation was brutal.

The Wolverines soon tangled with the invaders in Taress, the capital, and were startled to discover that the humans, a race with no talent for sorcery in Maras-Dantia, commanded powerful magic in Acurial. They had another jolt on learning that not all the orcs of Acurial were docile. Facing overwhelming odds, they were rescued by a group of orc resistance fighters and spirited away by them.

Outbreaks of native opposition were a thorn in the side of Kapple Hacher, general of the occupying army and governor of what the Peczan empire considered a province. He shouldered the burden alongside Brother Grentor, the high cleric of the Order of the Helix, custodians and practitioners of magic.

The resistance group was headed by twins Brelan and his sister Chillder. The movement's leader in hiding was their mother, Sylandya, who before the invasion had been Acurial's ruler, bearing the title of primary. Stryke persuaded them that he and his band had come from the wilderness of the far North, where some humans allied themselves with orcs, to explain Pepperdyne and Standeven, and where dwarfs, unknown in Acurial proper, were commonplace. The mythical Northern orcs, he told them, had never lost their taste for combat. Sceptical of Stryke's story, the resistance decided that the Wolverines could join them if they proved their mettle. Their task was to free resistance prisoners awaiting execution. With half the band held as hostages under penalty of death for failure, Stryke liberated the prisoners.

The Wolverines set about helping to train and organise the rebels; and Coilla persuaded Brelan and Chillder to agree to her forming an all-female fighting unit dubbed the Vixens.

When the occupiers of Acurial sent a feared envoy to Taress to oversee the suppression of resistance, it turned out to be Jennesta. Having somehow survived her fate in Maras-Dantia, she had risen to a position of power and influence in the Peczan empire, and was also titular head of the Order of the Helix. The Gateway Corps secretly arrived in Taress, too, and prepared to retrieve the instrumentalities, whatever the cost.

More than a century before, two chieftains had vied for leadership of Acurial. At the height of the crisis a comet appeared. It was taken as a portent, and the two agreed to rule in harness; it was a reign that proved beneficial. From old records the resistance discovered that the comet, named Grilan-Zeat in the chieftains' honour, returned at precise intervals, and that it was due back imminently. The resistance's hope was that the comet would be seen as an augury, and that it, along with a rallying call from Sylandya, would inspire the populace to rise up. A prophecy connected to the comet stated that its arrival would be accompanied by a heroic band of liberators. To the

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