Aggressive Expansion: A Taldryan Story

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Aggressive Expansion: Chapter I

Bridge
Command Deck, Victory I-class Star Destroyer Sidious
Unknown Location, Caelus System
38 ABY

The bridge of the Imperial-era destroyer was illuminated completely by the interior lighting provided by the ceiling panels, with each of the command deck’s viewports midnight black. The area was not overly bustling with activity, with a skeleton crew running the bridge as operations on the vessel were at a near stand-still for the time being.

Several of the technical officers and essential personnel such as the communications officers and the ship’s captain remained on the bridge of the Sidious, directing the flow of information and ensuring the ship remained ready to launch at a moment’s notice should the order be given. The crew of the ship had yet to fail since the fall of their Lord, and were extremely determined not to let anything stand in their way. Standing at the helm of the bridge structure and staring directly into the black abyss beyond the viewport’s transparisteel was a dark cloaked figure a few inches under six feet tall, a hooded cloak obscuring any distinctive features.

Although there was nothing to look at through the port, the figure meditated on their thoughts and the Force, delving into the future and the Force itself to answer hard-pressed questions. From behind, the life force of the ship’s captain approached.

“My lord,” bowed the captain once he arrived, “The crew just received a report from one of our advance teams. It appears as though a detachment has pinpointed its location, on Ostara. We can begin assessment and excavation of the lower levels immediately.”

The figure was silent for a moment as the vision of the future and their concentration broke free. The well-concealed figure slowly turned to face the vessel’s captain, mouth curling at the edges of a set of dark red lips and two blood-crimson lekku covered in black tattoos draped just over the shoulders. Nearly everything else, including the rest of her face above her nose, was obscured by the cloak.

“Very good, Captain,” she hissed. All was proceeding as she had foreseen thus far.

Consul’s Office
Taldryan Citadel, Taldryan Sector
Chyron, Caelus System

The still rather fresh and newly minted Consul of Clan Taldryan stood in the center of the spacious office that lay at the summit of the Taldryan Citadel, the current headquarters of Clan Taldryan on the moon of Chyron. In front of her fit, black and red-trim covered pink form was the office’s board-room like holo-capable tactical table on which she rested her hands palm open. Nearly seven feet long in length, this custom holo-projection table was recently commissioned by and installed in order to help supplant the Zeltron’s tactical planning shenanigans on behalf of the Clan. As a former Combat Master for the Brotherhood, Seraine “Erinyes” Ténama was rather well oriented in warfare, and determined to forge a new legacy for Taldryan among the rest of the brotherhood.

Displayed across the expansive table in front of her was the red-hued projection of the Caelus System, with each planet and moon’s orbit arranged in proper alignment with the system’s star in the dead center of the table. Also included in the wide projection were the locations and reported statuses of various Taldryan assets within the system. These included everything from the Clan’s military forces and defenses to more scientific assets like research and reconnaissance teams. There were even statuses displayed for production assets like the facility constructed above Perune to process and syphon the giant’s valuable Clouzen-35 gas - a valuable source of revenue for Clan Taldryan.

As an unsteady ground rocked the foundation between the people of the Caelus System and the Clan, Erinyes monitored any and all important movements within the system while she instituted her own reforms to revive a struggling Taldryan once she ascended to the role of Consul upon Rian’s resignation. With everything reporting the all-clear for now, she reached over to her datapad and brought up the latest reports from ongoing events. Some of the developments were not favorable to the Clan’s cause, yet others would prove valuable down the road.

One of the foremost disappointing outcomes as it involved a lost revenue stream for the Clan’s coffers was the failure of the Clan’s TEAD Technologies delegation to conclude a high-profile meeting with BlasTech executives and lawyers, leaving them without a licensing or manufacturing deal to boost TEAD’s slim share of the galactic arms market. The people at TEAD and its new Chief Executive would need to devise a new plan to expand the Clan’s business front.

It also seemed as though the forward team the Summit had dispatched to the moon Ostara to investigate a rogue presence felt by the Mystics had yet to report back in shortly after their craft landed, uncharacteristic of Taldryan servicemen. The Clan’s former Consul, Rian Taldrya, had sent the Zeltron a report just over an hour ago that he had arrived at the planet recently detected at the outermost fringes of the Caelus System. Since the planet, nor any planet had never been observed at that location prior to last week, some special care was due on that front.

There was still a chance the Taldrya could find something less than interesting and locate some rogue signal emanating from the planet’s surface, but his report stated he began with searching the surface for mineral deposits. Still, she keyed into the holo-projection table the Mirialan’s personal contact frequencies and initiated contact between them.

A moment later, the symmetrically tattooed face of her fellow Adept appeared before her, nodding immediately as a sign of respect to his successor. Erinyes nodded back, looking up from her datapad.
“Have your searches yielded anything so far?” the pink-skinned humanoid queried. Rian nodded again affirmatively, transmitting some data that scans to the planet had produced. Ténama switched the projection over to the new information once it had cleared the encryption protocol and processing, the view of an unremarkable and equally unimpressive icy planet taking place of the Caelus System.

Whoever made themselves a home here must have balls of steel, the information from the former Consul specifically commented.

“It’s an icy planet, nothing too special. There are a couple deep mineral veins dotting the planet’s surface” began Rian, “Mostly those used in traditional metals like durasteel, and some titanium. Still, if we did some development here we could extract the resources for manufacture. It wouldn’t yield a massive profit for sale, but would reduce our dependence on others.”

“Have you located any settlements, or the source of the signal the SRI traced there?” Erinyes was not nearly as interested in resources - although Rian was right, they could be a valuable asset - as she was confirmation of what was coming from the obscure and unknown planet. This Sith wanted to be ready for anything that came their way.

“No,” the tone of the Obelisk adherent’s voice lowered, “We have not yet located any settlements or come across anyone. The signal is still active, and coming from somewhere. We will locate the source. I’ll report back once we’ve found something.”

“Thanks, Rian. Erinyes out.”

Not too long after her conversation with the former Scholae General Zentru’la, the Adept had already received word that the new outfit Vornskr Battalion was beginning to take shape and recruitment was underway. Ektrosis had been fitted with a new leader at its helm, Vodo Biask Taldrya. Tavros continued to perform clandestine operations. Everything was beginning to come together for Clan Taldryan, and Seraine loved it when a plan came together.

Southern Hemisphere
Unknown Planetary Body
Far-Outer Orbit, Caelus System

It wasn’t long after their conversation ended that Rian’s personal assault ship, the VT-49 Decimator Stormcloud picked up a small signature on their short-range radar. The signal they had been tracking was scrambled, preventing its exact broadcast location from being detected by the former Consul’s personal craft. For this mission, Erinyes’ new military prefecture had assigned him a squad of Taldryan soldiers in case things went south with the signal discovery.

It wasn’t long after their conversation ended that Rian’s personal assault ship, the VT-49 Decimator Stormcloud picked up a small signature on their short-range radar. The signal they had been tracking was scrambled, preventing its exact broadcast location from being detected by the former Consul’s personal craft. For this mission, Erinyes’ new military prefecture had assigned him a squad of Taldryan soldiers in case things went south with the signal discovery.

“Sir, we’ve got something on the short wave radar,” called the man assigned to the sensor suite, “The signal is weak, but we’ve got confirmed lock on the broadcast source.” The Mirialan Elder smiled from almost a meter and a half back, for he had been fully confident in the abilities of his military comrades to procure and determine the proper location of the signal. Although a strong Force-sensitive in his own right and well respected, Rian trusted the instincts of his allies. Dressed in his near-trademark tailored azure armor, the former Consul stepped forward.

“Good, lieutenant. Now we can figure out what’s going on here, and report back to Erinyes with something substantiated. Pilots change our flight path to the signal source and bring us in quietly. I don’t want them to know we’re here. If we can, use the terrain to our advantage.

“Yes sir,” stated the pilot on the left, before the pilot on the right began flipping switches and pulling back the craft’s accelerator. The loud whirl of the sublight engines faded slightly as power was reduced, bringing it to a glide as it slowed and drifted lazily closer to the ground. Several minutes later, the craft was firmly on the ground on top of a large plateau half a kilometer in the air - the signal coming from ground level off the cliff edge. Rian and his team disembarked, taking with them some scanning and observation equipment and approaching the edge.

A couple of the soldiers shifted their body to a prone position, crawling up to the cliff edge to minimize visibility once they peeked over; afterall, who was to say there wasn’t someone or something on watch down there. The two prone troopers from Rian’s detachment placed their macrobinoculars fully against their visors, observing the broadcast location of the strange signal. Five hundred meters below them lay a full flight of Gamma-class ATR-6 Assault Transports surrounding a cave entryway into the base of the plateau, with a small encampment setup amid the spacecraft. Several power generators were running, and squads of red armored troopers filled the immediate area.

Crawling backwards until he was out of sight from the edge of the cliff, the senior of the two troopers approached the former Consul to relay what the two men had just seen. After filling in all the details he had witnessed, the trooper returned to scout duty while the Taldrya pondered their next move.

We could get the drop on them… Literally. We just need to know who they are first.

That line of thinking gave Rian an idea.

Outskirts
Unknown Base Camp, Hidden Temple
Ostara

The view from the Taldryan reconnaissance trooper’s macrobinoculars was certainly unsettling. Inside a collapsed cave with a large skylight that was concealed by both boreal forest and a raging river lay a structure that looked slightly odd to Lieutenant Payton Carson, but would be recognizable by any studier of Sith or Jedi lore to be a temple for worship. It was full of jagged and sharp lines, but was not overly massive as to remain completely hidden by the rock and vegetation above. Her line of sight allowed her to see the two landing craft they had in front of the structure, but not inside a lower entryway she presumed existed underneath due to excessive foot traffic.

There were very few red armored troopers in this location, with the rest of the uninvited, unknown guests to the system wearing a simple black and red robe-like attire. Lieutenant Carson lay as still as an icicle from her prone position on the far outskirts of the base camp, there was a small rustle coming from directly beside her position. Carson sighed lightly, but didn’t move an inch as she continued to observe.

“Stop… moving,” she whispered quietly.

“I have an itch,” replied her scouting partner, an average sized Human male of an unbefitting stature and physique. Payton had been assigned a fellow trooper she didn’t even bother getting to know the name of - probably because he’d be dead soon anyway, as all her former partners were - from her squad leader to scout and do some reconnaissance on the lower-lying boreal areas of Ostara as part of the quest of Taldryan’s Force Mystics to locate the source of power they felt.

There’s definitely something going on here.

The Lieutenant had a nagging suspicion, but would need to get much closer to confirm. That was nigh impossible given their current position, and no unseen way into the portonomy. Their only choice was to observe, retreat to a further position - quietly, of course - , and radio in their findings once free of possible communications interception. Carson had no idea what her scouting partner was seeing, but she was taking a lot of mental notes.

There was another rustle directly beside her, the same side as before. Payton Carson was so focused on the structure and scene below that she was unable to determine whether the rustling was further away from her prone position.

He’s going to get us both killed!

She tried to hold it in, but she just couldn’t anymore; her irritation was entirely overwhelming. The Lieutenant shifted her head mouth open to give her partner a load of her mind, but watched in momentary shock - even letting out a gasp - as a vibroblade came down and impaled through the man’s chest cavity. Flipping her body in one smooth motion Carson turned to face her rear position with her rifle raised, eyes falling on several red stormtroopers all with weapons aimed directly at her.

Seemed like she’d survived by the luck of the draw. For now.

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Taldryan Citadel
Chyron, Caelus System
Onset of GJW XIV: Homefront, 38 ABY

One by one, their comlinks and datapads emitted a unique chirp that notified each individual to a red alert-level communication requiring the utmost attention. In their various locations, all four people that received the same communication stopped what they were doing and immediately addressed their devices to read the message. It had been sent from Taldryan’s Proconsul who was away on Arx conducting business for the Regent.


ENTER DECRYPTION KEY…
DECRYPTION KEY: ***********
DECRYPTING FILE…
FILE DECRYPTED.

COLLECTIVE ATTACKED ARX. MATTOCK STATION BEING BOARDED. RESURGENT AT RISK.


At that exact moment, Rian, Erinyes, Appius, and Vodo all looked up. Now was their opportunity to return the favor to the Collective for the seeds of division their cells had sown in Caelus. Now was their opportunity to show not just the Clans, but the Grand Master and Dark Council that Taldryan was not out for the count. Each person immediately made another contact, some to each other and Erinyes to the Taldryan Military’s High Command. Within mere minutes Taldryan was being mobilized, and various assets moved into new formations and positions.

Consul Seraine “Erinyes” Ténama had arranged for the majority of Taldryan’s forces to make formation for hyperspace transit to Arx, while ensuring that adequate vessels like the Penumbra, Retribution, and one of Taldryan’s longest-serving vessels, the Orthanc stayed behind to protect the Caelus System while the rest of the flotilla was away. The Collective had likely calculated that the Dark Council would request assistance from the Brotherhood’s various clans, leaving many of their territories undefended or their defences greatly weakened. Risking the people of Caelus - and more importantly Taldryan’s various assets in the system - was not something the Adept was willing to play ball with.

Having recently shuffled some personnel and vessels inside the Taldryan Military for greater efficiency of their forces, Erinyes had already earned herself a still-growing reputation amongst the Clan’s loyalist forces as a straightforward front-line battle commander with an eye for tactics. The red-haired Zeltron already had it in her mind that she would be leading the Clan’s military response to the Collective assault on Arx - and possibly by extension Taldryan’s flagship in dry-dock for upgrades by ACE - from the forefront of the conflict.

The Taldryan Consul secured the datapad in her hand and put it away as she made for the nearest turbolift nexus, pulling a polished flask from a small, custom made saddle at her belt. She quickly removed the lid, taking a large swig of the amber lid inside before re-securing the lid and flask during her travels.

As she reached the nexus and awaited the next lift, she felt the soft nudge in the back of her mind of a familiar presence approaching. The door to the lift in front of Seraine slid open, revealing the Ektrosis Quaestor already on board. Vodo Biask Taldrya stood with both arms crossed as he tapped the far-right mechanical claw on his right foot into the floor of the lift, denting it slightly in the process.

“Hey,” she entered the lift, glancing down at the damaged floor.

Vodo uncrossed his arms as she had entered, selecting the floor for the main hangar once the hulking metal door had slid closed. “This facility is in need of much bigger maintenance. Maybe you should let the facilities crew know.”

“I’m working on it,” Erinyes retorted, shifting the topic a moment later to the one they both know needed to be discussed, “They had to attack now while the Resurgent is in for repairs, didn’t they?”

“How the Collective even knows about Arx is beyond me. My best guess is a traitor of some calibre,” Vodo shook his head. Clan Taldryan’s resident Spymaster knew quite a bit, but even he had no information on the Collective’s attack at this point. “I’m sure the Resurgent will be fine. Arx is also protected by a shield gate, so our fighters are safe.”

“I have a feeling we’ll find out before long. I’ve mobilized our remaining forces, and we’re preparing to move out. I assume you’re coming with us?”

Biask craned his head and looked down at the current Consul of Clan Taldryan, the only place where his one and only loyalties lied beyond himself, before smiling grimly. Erinyes knew what that meant, the Twi’lek need not answer her; Vodo wouldn’t miss it for the world.

The official, a blue-skinned Twi’lek with two lekku that dropped several inches below his shoulders, had been working sixty-hour weeks for several months now as both the people of Caelus and their parasite - Clan Taldryan - rebuilt from the attacks of Collective cells across Chyron. The people living on there had become targets for cohorting with the ranks of the brotherhood within a Brotherhood, bringing much devastation to several of the city-moon’s sectors and setting back the local economy. Luckily, their export of Clouzon-35 starship fuel could help them quickly rebound.

As a high-level administrator within the Caelus government, even though he was near the top of the ladder, the official was not immune to the mountains and mountains of paperwork that had been thrust upon him. He silently blasted Taldryan as he skipped through file after file on the holo-terminal before him, everything from previous damage reports to repair estimates, from progress reports on infrastructure projects to the government’s public responses.

This never would have happened to us if they hadn’t set up shop here, his inner devil whispered to his consciousness, seething in silence. Although never really the rebellious type to disobey a higher authority, the Twi’lek official had a knack for revenge and retribution, something easily exploited.

A small chirp from his datapad caught his attention, pulling it away from the files displayed across the screen of the terminal on his desk. Checking the screen, it looked as though it was a contact from an unknown source. An odd hesitation gripped the Twi’lek as he considered whether he should answer the communication request. After-all, his personal communication code was encrypted alongside his government codes thanks to his high administrative position, so whoever was contacting him must have had access to that information. The datapad chirped again, reminding him that the communication was awaiting acceptance or denial. The man decided to take a leap; he accepted the call, tying into his handheld holo-projector.

The blue-hued image of a militaristic human man crackled into view. Wearing a dark uniform, the holoprojected man wore a black Imperial-style officer’s cap with no organizational logo or insignia across his well-dressed and groomed image. His hair was jet black with streaks of grey, with a set of bright green irises even the holographic image couldn’t distort. The Caelus official raised an eyebrow at the sight of the man - this was no one he had known of, and his military attire unfamiliar to him - before moving to speak. He did not need to, however, because the projection had beat him to the punch.

“Good evening. My name is Lieutenant Colonel Krati. Who I represent is not important,” the well-dressed officer boldly said with that straight, militaristic face to the surprise of the Twi’leki official, “It is what I plan to offer you that is of importance.”

“Oh, and what would that be?”

“The eradication of Taldryan from the Caelus System, of course,” the officer let a small grin crack the edge of the right side of his lips. Krati couldn’t help it, for the words sounded as sweet as berries coming from his lips. The Caelus official was a little taken aback by such a bold statement out in the open, given they had just communicated for the first time. Undoubtedly, this very well could be a setup by Taldryan’s Office of Secret Intelligence to try and ensnare any people. The very last thing that he wanted to be was maimed by a bunch of maniacs wielding lightsabers, but it wasn’t long before his mind crafted a scenario in his imagination where the people of Caelus - and him specifically - would be free of Taldryan’s damage to the inner workings of the system and its government.

He toyed with the offer for an uncomfortably long time, with the holographic image in front of him about to say something before the words finally escaped his lips, “Even if I did want to see them gone, why would I talk to you about it? For all I know, you could be an agent of Taldryan. And even if you weren’t, what’s to say down the road you wouldn’t just try to eliminate me? How do you think I guarantee my safety in a situation like this?”

While Taldryan had tried to position themselves as a guardian-type order of Force wielders there to protect the Caelus System, they had invited untold amounts of death and ire from Collective forces seeking their own retribution, which the Collective had near successfully reshaped into the image of an entity that would bring ruin upon Caelus. In some people’s minds, like the official, they had succeeded in planting their seeds of discord for later.

“You don’t,” came the smooth reply from Krati. The official tensed up slightly, he was hoping for a better answer.

“Well, what’s in it for you?” the Twi’lek’s curiosity piqued for a moment, but he did not want to replace one scourge of Caelus for another.

“The details of our plan will remain our own. There will be a new level of law and order within this system before long. Taldryan will no longer pose a threat to the well-being of the Caelus System nor its people.”

The official pondered the offer for a moment, but needed more information. He wanted to see Taldryan gone, and the more he talked to the unknown officer the more this desire grew. Of course, he would need something in return for whatever they were asking.

“Well,” the Twi’lek began, taking a momentary pause to reconsider what he was going to say, “What is it you need from me?”

“The question of the conversation, at last,” the human officer noted, the sly grin gone from his face, “We require any intelligence on Taldryan you can gather, and cover with the Administration on our own activities. You will be very well compensated for each piece of information you impart on us, or each act you keep hidden from your government.”

The Twi’lek pondered the offer for a moment, even raising a hand to his chin and idly rubbing it in thought. The offer of Taldryan’s eradication from the system was incredibly tempting, even without the added bonus of credit payout. After a couple moments of immense, well-trained patience from the human officer while the Caelus official finalized his decision, the Twi’lek nodded in agreement with the offer by the uniformed figure.

“Very well, Colonel,” he began as blue-skinned hand dropped from his chin back to his side, staring the projection right in the eyes, “I will provide you with what intelligence I can gather, and do my best to shield your activities here in the Caelus System from the scrutiny of both the Security Council and Taldryan. The most immediate intelligence I can give you is we actually just received word from the Caelus Security Force that Taldryan must pull most of their forces out-of-system to deal with an important threat. No doubt the Collective.”

“Interesting,” came the officer’s intrigued reply, “We’ll be in touch soon.”

Command Tent
Unknown Base Camp, Hidden Temple
Ostara

“Sir, the excavation is proceeding as planned. We believe we’ll reach the target within the next couple hours,” the private noted, reading information off the datapad in his hand to his commanding officer.

Loe Krati turned away from his current preoccupation, the Lieutenant Colonel’s bright eyes looking firmly to the officer reading the report. The excavation was already well underway, and they were even doing better than initially predicted by the technicians. The remnants and stone that had collapsed inside the corridors was difficult to clear no doubt, but Krati’s organization had a knack for excavating and pillaging old ruins.

“Excellent. I will inform our master. That’ll be all,” he motioned to the exit with a hand, hinting at the lower-ranked man to take his immediate leave. With a quick salute the similarly black-and-red dressed officer complied, leaving Krati alone. Or almost. The fair-skinned Colonel turned back to his preoccupation, the still-unconscious Taldryan female soldier they had caught spying on their camp. Krati reached over to a nearby table and pulled a small handheld shock-prod from the smooth top surface, activating it with a buzz of electricity and sticking it in the woman’s neck.

“Aaaahhhh!,” she screamed as Lieutenant Carson awoke violently, flailing around aggressively while properly secured in binders to the floor. After a moment or two, the uniformed man pulled the prod away, giving her a moment to catch her breath from the trauma of her mild electrocution.

“Who are you?” Krati queried, pointing the shock prod back towards his prisoner, “And what did you see?” The man was intent on finding out what secrets the scout may have stumbled upon inadvertently, and whether their position had been compromised. Worse, he needed to know whether their operations were compromised by Taldryan.

“No one,” Payton replied with a firm tone and straight face. She was a hardened individual, and had no plans to give up Taldryan or the details of her mission. The Lieutenant Colonel frowned for a moment, before quickly shoving the shock prod back into her neck. Again the Taldryan loyalist soldier let out a violent wail, her body involuntarily writhing from the pain coursing through her nervous system. This time when he released the prod from her neck he did not give her a chance to breathe, again shoving it back into her neck. Once more she writhed and her body twitched from the intense pain and electricity, nearly knocking her unconscious with the nervous system sensory overload. After several moments Loe pulled the tip from her skin, and held it to her neck.

“I don’t think you understand. I’m going to torture you over, and over, and over until you spill what you saw,” he said with an evil grin, breaking his militaristic posture and stance to lean over her, “And if you don’t, you die.”

“Do your worst,” Carson spit on the enemy officer’s shoes, no longer a shiny black in color. “I’ve been tortured before, I doubt this will be my last.”

“Never by a true Sith, no doubt… Very well. Guards!” he called out to the two soldiers he knew were waiting outside. A moment later the entryway to the tent was pushed open from either side each by a red-armored stormtrooper, who proceeded over to the prisoner. With a simple nod from Krati, the two men reached down and scooped up Lieutenant Carson from under her arms and began hauling her out of the tent.

As they did so, the holo-table inside the tent beeped softly. Krati proceeded over and activated the table, accepting the incoming transmission from the Sidious.

“My lord,” the human male saluted as the visage of a hooded female Twi’leki figure crackled into view.

“What news do you bring, Colonel?” she asked.

“We are making great progress on the excavation, and should reach the target within the next few hours. There is a problem, though. We located a pair of scouts at the outer reaches of the camp. One is dead, and we’re working on getting the other one to tell us what she knows.

“Very well,” came the reply from the hooded figure’s soft yet icey voice, before her lips cracked with a devilish grin, “This is what I want you to do…”

Refinery Alpha, Habitable Zone
Perune

Refinery Alpha, the largest of three refineries inside the habitable zone of the gas giant Perune’s toxic gas layers, was a key source of revenue for the people of Caelus and Taldryan in particular following the demise of the Ky’Lian Cartel within the system’s borders. The refinery harvested the ever-increasingly important Clouzon-36 gas, a type of hypermatter fuel. Thanks to the relationship between Taldryan and the Caelus Security Council, it allowed the Brotherhood clan to refuel its starships for free and assisted in saving tons of different operating costs that other units might otherwise incur. While all three facilities were important to Taldryan, Refinery Alpha was the one that delivered the most revenue and assistance.

That is why it was such a prime target. Vastly undefended, the facilities used the hundred-plus kilometers of gaseous material above them to shield their whereabouts and locations from space. Unless searching for them or told about their location, no one would know where to find them. They did, though.

The chief operations officer of Refinery Alpha had been studying refinery reports when he saw it. Out of the corner of his eye, three obscured dagger-shaped silhouettes approach in the distance. One of the shapes was much larger than the two that flanked it, but immediately the man knew; they were starships. Curiosity caused the man to lift an eyebrow. It was incredibly rare for a Taldryan ship to make direct contact with the refinery, with refueling primarily taking place on Chyron once the fuel had been transported off-world. As far as he knew Taldryan was the only force within the system that had such firepower at its disposal, with the Caelus Security Forces operating much smaller vessels. Reaching over to the communicator at his desk, the chief officer paged his receptionist. It took but a moment for a woman’s voice to come over the intercom.

“Yes sir?” she asked in a soft tone.

“I’m reviewing the visitor’s schedule here and I’m not seeing anything in the books. Are we expecting a Taldryan inspection today?” he queried. If anyone would know something about an inspection, it would be his receptionist. She knew everything about Refinery Alpha.

“No sir, the schedule is clear,” she said with a hint of confusion in her voice.

“Then why am I seeing…” he started, confused, before the three silhouettes came into a full unobstructed view. Two dark red Raider I-class Corvettes flanked a small dark red star destroyer, likely one of the Victory-classes if the man had to guess. None of these were Taldryan ships. He stared on as both of the Raider I’s started to accelerate, on a direct course with the facility. The larger ship opened fire from several of its turbolasers, the supercharged blasts of green energy slamming into the exterior metal of the refinery. The entire unshielded facility shook with a rumble, the power inside flickering slightly.

“Send a transmission to Chyron, we’re under attack!” the chief officer shouted, rising to his feet in an instant. Moments later, a turbolaser blast collided with his office, destroying any sign it once existed and incinerating the operations officer. It did not take long for Refinery Alpha to succumb to the bombardment from the three ships, the main power generation system soon giving way. Without power to sustain the repulsorlift systems, the station started an uncontrolled descent and crashed into the gas giant’s metal core.

Everyone aboard perished.

High Command
Taldryan Military HQ, Taldryan Sector
Chyron

It was always a nerve-wracking experience whenever Taldryan’s navy left the Caelus System. The vast might of one of the seven clans of the

Brotherhood vanishing into the distance to go fight whatever the current threat may be like little twinkles in the night sky. Taldryan was one of the oldest clans in the Brotherhood, and was no stranger to the acts of conflict or violence. Still, it did nothing to unease the many younger and inexperienced recruits that had yet to taste their first kill, the sweet taste of death at the tip of their blasters. Thankfully, Colonel Dysian was not one of those men. The Rattataki Loyalist was an experienced member of the Taldryan Military and had seen his fair share of combat over his many decades of service. Retirement was just around the corner, and part of him was glad that one of his last assignments was essentially reduced to ‘look after things until we are back’.

The Consul herself gave him this assignment, a sign of respect to be sure. Yet, there was still a part of him deep down that wished he was out there with them, kicking some Collective arse after everything they had done in the Caelus System. One last fight, one last hurrah. Still, spending the few weeks of his career left on his backside drinking caf-stim wasn’t bad either.

He rose from his seat and went about his routine walk of the Taldryan Military’s main headquarters. Status reports, equipment, drills and health checks were all part of the norm whilst he was in charge and it was not an uncommon sight to suddenly find him called for an impromptu inspection. Preparation is the first step to success, that was what he always said. The first part of winning a battle was being more prepared than the enemy and the barracks was his first destination.

“Colonel Dysian.”

A female voice boomed from behind him. Turning on the spot, he smiled fondly at his Lieutenant Colonel.

“Samantha,” he replied, acknowledging her presence. She was his right-hand woman, an orphaned human from some wretched, forsaken rock in the Outer Rim. Dysian took her under his wing and raised her from a recruit to one of the military force’s finest. Intelligent, fierce, and as many of the boys said, incredibly good-looking despite her smaller stature. Samantha’s wavy blonde hair stretched down to her shoulders, he found that she preferred it that way. Less chance of the enemy grabbing it in the thick of battle. She was to take over his position when he finally hung up his boots, and despite her youth, he couldn’t think of anyone better for the job.

“Sir, I have a situation-report for you, from the Arx System.”

“Oh?” he asked. They received regular updates on the situation with the Taldryan Navy should the need of the rest of the forces left behind become necessary. Though judging by the look on the young human’s face, it wasn’t good news.

“Sir, the Resurgent has been destroyed.”

It was like time stopped around them. The climate-controlled, indoor air became cold and their bodies numb. Many personnel heard the news and stopped what they were doing to listen in further on what should have been, for all intents and purposes, a private conversation.

“My office, now,” he stated firmly, immediately retreating on the spot. The old Rattataki returned to his office and allowed the Lieutenant Colonel to follow him inside. He slowly closed the door behind him and took a deep breath as he took in the new information.

“A shame, she was a good ship, and they were an even better crew,” Dysian said solemnly.

He himself served a couple of terms aboard the vessel, so it was understandable that he would feel a sense of loss, like something inside him, had been plucked from his soul. No matter how much experience one gains, you never got used to the loss of life, you just learned to accept it and deal with it.

“When news gets out a lot of our troops will be upset,” Samantha said.

“Understandable,” the Rattataki responded. “Some of them trained together. Had friends, maybe even families on-board. It’s a huge loss for us all.”

“We need to keep them occupied,” The human retorted. “A busy mind helps a wounded heart.”

“I taught you well, Samantha,” Dysian said, smiling at the young woman fondly. “We need to secure a new flagship. We can’t risk having our forces operate without it. It was a huge deterrent to our enemies.”

That was the honest truth. The Resurgent was more than just a ship, it was a symbol of Taldryan’s might and power. Whilst it was far from the case, they would appear weaker without it.

Dysian rubbed his eyes, the wrinkles on his pale face reminding himself that he only had a few weeks of this kark left before he could finally call it a day on his military service. He had to wonder how it would feel to be outside among the general populace. The Colonel spent all his life in service to Taldryan, not having that would take some getting used too. Still, he certainly looked forward to downing gallons of drinks at his local bar and not having to wake up before the sun rose every morning. Sometimes, it’s just the little things.

He returned to his chair and sat down, the leatherwork moulded overtime to fit his frame perfectly. No doubt this was going to take an abusive amount of paperwork and he concluded it was best to get it done now, rather than later.

That was until a sudden vibration broke him from his musings on top of his desk. His personal holoprojector. He let it buzz for a few seconds, it was a direct means of contacting him personally and only to be used in dire circumstances. He didn’t want to, but he turned on the device as the blue-hued image of a male Pantoran came into view. He was battered and bruised, several cuts on his face with the sounds of explosions rupturing nearby.

“Explain, soldier!” Dysian demanded.

“Sir, we have a situation on Perune. There’s…”

The soldier never had the opportunity to finish his sentence before he was disintegrated by turbolaser fire. Dysian rose from his desk, heart pumping and adrenaline coating through his veins. His Rattataki blood sensed the battle and knew it wasn’t too far away. Once more, they would engage the enemy, whoever they were, whatever they were, on their home turf. His second in command stood in complete shock, watching in horror as the holographic image faded out.

It looked like Dysian would get that last hurrah after all.

Taldryan Citadel
Chyron (moon of Perune), Caelus System
38 ABY, several months after GJW XIV

It was the slowest “quick response” Taldryan had ever conducted.

Months had passed since an unknown hostile force arrived on the Clan’s back doorstep and attacked Iosan Fuelling Station, the economic heart of the Caelus System. The meagre defences the Taldryan Navy had left behind to defend Caelus during the Collective’s invasion of Arx had been caught out of position. They had arrived just in time to see the attacking Victory-class Star Destroyer jump to hyperspace, leaving a burning fuel platform in its wake.

Repairing the fuelling station had taken weeks, weeks in which Taldryan’s forces could do little but maintain their starfighter patrols of the system—though even if they’d had the fuel for a strike force, they didn’t have a target. The Clan’s patrols and sensor networks had turned up nothing. Even SRI’s electronic-warfare flagship had found no sign of the mysterious assailant.

Meanwhile, Taldryan’s spy network had been thrown into disarray by Vodo Biask Taldrya’s death. Like any good spymaster, the cagey Twi’lek had been very careful to limit outside knowledge of his intelligence assets… which had made them nearly impossible to contact after Biask’s untimely demise on Arx. Establishing a new network would take time, and the few spies who had remained in contact with Taldryan hadn’t provided any useful leads on where the phantom Star Destroyer might be hiding.

Perhaps most curious—and most worrying—was the fact that the Clan’s attempts to divine their attacker in the Force had been no more successful than their mundane efforts. It was that failure which was on Consul Seraine “Erinyes” Taldrya Ténama’s mind when she looked up from her terminal, sensing a familiar presence outside her office door even before the chime rang. “Come in.”

It was Appius Wight, Archpriest of Taldryan’s Force Mystics and Quaestor of House Ektrosis. Appius had taken to wearing his Mandalorian armour again, sans helmet, and the generous dusting of glitter that covered the metal carapace was a perfect match for the wearied expression on his face. “You wanted to see me, boss?”

“Actually, that answers my question. If the Mystics’ leader can’t sense a glitter bomb, there’s no reason to expect the rest of them to foresee an attack on one of the Clan’s most vital holdings.” Today, the typical light-hearted in Erinyes’ voice rode atop a thick layer of venom.

Appius winced at the rebuke. “We’ve narrowed it down. Kind of. I spoke with Xolarin–” A twitch crossed the Quaestor’s iridescent features. “–and Nihlus, and they agree that the only things that could be interfering with the Mystics’ visions are a powerful Force-user or an equally powerful artifact. We’re trying to track those Force energies back to their source. I have people searching the Elysia Observatory for some artifacts that we think will help.”

“Make sure they do, and tell me when you’ve made some progress. Now, out, Zxyl’s supposed to be here any minute.” The Consul made a shooing motion with her free hand as took a slug from her flask of tsiraki.

“Sure thing, boss.” Appius could already sense his fellow Mandalorian’s presence in the hallway. As the door slid open and the armoured Zabrak appeared, Appius raised his hand for their customary fist-bump of greeting.

By force of habit, Zxyl began to return the motion, but stopped short when he saw the glitter encrusting the Quaestor’s armour. “What the kriff happened to you?”

“Dasha. Again.” Appius sighed and squeezed sideways through the doorway, careful not to brush against Zxyl as he passed.

The Zabrak made a point of stepping over the trail of glitter that Appius left behind and approached the Consul’s desk, arms folded. “You wanted to see me.”

Once the office door had slid shut, Erinyes gestured at a datapad sitting on the desk to draw it to her hand with the Force, then held the device up for Zxyl to see. “What the kriff is this?”

“A resignation letter.” Zxyl shrugged.

“Oh, thanks for clearing that up, Nihlus. I swear, it’s like you’re the same person some days.” Erinyes took another swig of tsiraki. “Why are you resigning?”

“Because Ventus has things going on that are taking up more of my time than I expected, and it’s interfering with my ability to be as prominent a leader as Proconsuls are supposed to be. I’m happy to take another role in the Clan, just not that one.”

Erinyes sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Of course it’s Ventus… You know what? Fine. TEAD’s been limping along without a real CEO for longer than it should’ve been. Since you’re clearly comfortable being a high-level data-pusher for the Brotherhood’s corporate empire, you can take over organising our move to Ostara.” She tapped a brief message into the datapad, ordering the Clan’s administrators to prepare the necessary forms, then tossed it at Zxyl.

“Sure.” The Zabrak caught the datapad after it bounced off his chestplate. “I expected a stronger reaction.”

One of the Consul’s eyebrows arched sharply upward. “If you’re still standing there the next time my schedule opens up, you’ll get one.”

Zxyl needed no further encouragement to make himself scarce, though he still took care to avoid the glitter trail on the way out of the office. Erinyes reached for her flask again, but on realising by the weight that it was empty, she retrieved a half-full tsiraki bottle from a desk drawer instead. The Consul pulled the cork out with her teeth and spat it on to the desk as she jabbed at a button on her desk terminal. “Get me Zentru’la.” The communications officer who answered Erinyes’ call gave a brisk acknowledgement, and the insignia of the Vornskr Battalion splashed across the Consul’s screen in short order.

A single electronic chime later, a massive green chin appeared, followed by the rest of the Twi’lek general’s face. Erinyes set her bottle aside with a clunk, still uncorked. “Rise and shine, Super Chin.”

“It’s fourteen-thirty, Consul.” Zentru’la’s features opened slightly in what passed for a brow-raise.

Erinyes shrugged. “I know, but that was the first greeting that came to mind. Anyway, I take it you read the briefing SRI issued about the Ostara Temple incursion a few months back.”

“I have.” The general wasn’t much of a talker.

“In about eighteen hours, I’m going to be ordering our special missions units to begin sweeps of the likely locations of the enemy staging point in Caelus,” the Consul said.

Zentru’la’s expression opened again, this time to a fully-realised raised eyebrow. “You don’t normally advise me of your unit taskings.”

“No, I don’t. I just thought I’d give you a head start on collecting bonus pay for being the first to find it.”

“Ah. In that case, I’ll get Tavros underway.” When Erinyes didn’t move to stop him, Zentru’la cut the transmission.

The Consul helped herself to another glug of tsiraki before finally corking the bottle, then slouched back in her chair. Even with her eyes closed, she saw the seemingly endless roll of meetings that filled her calendar, and silently prayed that whatever nemesis that had befallen Taldryan was something she could hit with a lightsaber.

Unknown Location
38 ABY

In her chambers aboard the Star Destroyer Freedon Nadd, Sazita Krea laughed atop her throne.

“So they’ve finally stumbled into discovering our presence in their home system… the destruction of the fuel station kept them occupied even longer than I’d hoped.” Yellowed teeth, the same shade as her eyes, flashed like a predator discovering wounded prey. “What else did we retrieve from the Observatory?”

“Not nearly enough,” the man in front of the throne said, his face twisted into a sour grimace. “Trebin’s carelessness didn’t just cost him his life. Most of the artifacts had to be left behind, as were the rest of Lord Sidious’ notes.”

“Patience, Lord Flaq. You’ll have every opportunity to get your hands on your trinkets once the Taldryanites have been dealt with—and once we’ve mapped Lord Sidious’ database of Force presences to our astrogation charts, many more trinkets beyond those,” Krea cooed.

Flaq snorted, and Krea felt the grating touch of indignation rolling through the Force. “One of those ‘trinkets’ kept our presence hidden for long enough to recover your precious database after Trebin’s efforts failed. Don’t be so quick to dismiss them.”

“It was no dismissal.” Krea smiled, a gesture she hoped would mollify her counterpart. “Trebin promised more than he could deliver, and he paid the price. At least the knowledge that Taldryan’s Force-users are both competent and attuned to the Dark Side made my apprentice more useful in death than he was in life.”

“High praise for our enemies.” Flaq was silent for a moment, then narrowed his eyes. “Don’t tell me you’re thinking of recruiting them to our cause. If they’d been worth the trouble, Lord Sidious would’ve done that decades ago,” he protested.

Krea shook her head, steepling her fingers as she gazed past Flaq, into middle distance. “As disappointing as Trebin was, he was a trained Sith, and there are few enough of those in our ranks after Exegol. Their followers may also be of use in our military and scientific efforts, to restore this ship’s full capabilities.” Military might—even the ability to destroy a planet—may have been insignificant next to the power of the Force, but that hadn’t stopped many Sith Emperors from putting it to use over the millennia.

“At least Scoryx’s—excuse me, Lady Scoryx’s—dog will have a good meal if they refuse,” Flaq sighed and scratched his head through his hood. “I should return to the Satal and tend to my experiments.”

“I will inform you when the next phase of our plan is ready.” Krea nodded at Flaq’s perfunctory half-bow, then reached for the controls built into her throne as he left. Within minutes, a message went out across every HoloNet frequency in the Varada Sector.

We are the Unchained. After thousands of years of Darth Bane’s tyranny, we have cast off the Rule of Two. We will restore the greatness of the Sith Empire, and this system will be the first stepping stone on our path. You, citizens of Caelus, have been chosen to lead the galaxy into a new era of power and supremacy. Join us, and we will welcome you with open arms. Oppose us, and you will be brought to our heel—or crushed beneath it.

To the so-called Dark Jedi of Clan Taldryan: you are apostates against the True Sith, ensnared by false prophets. Renounce their teachings, and you and your followers may claim your place in the reborn Sith Empire. Refuse, and be destroyed.

Taldryan Citadel
Chyron (moon of Perune), Caelus System
38 ABY

Strolling down the nearly empty corridors of the Clan’s fortress on Chyron, Xolarin sighed and asked himself—not for the first time—why he had accepted his appointment as Proconsul of Taldryan. Instead of the sedate office job he’d expected would give him plenty of time to tend to his personal pursuits, he’d been thrust into the role of administering a Clan in a time of crisis. The sudden move from Chyron to Ostara, not long after Xolarin had arrived in the Caelus System, had thrown any hope of a daily routine into disarray. There were briefings, operations planning meetings, logistical reports, requests from departments like “signals intelligence” that he had to approve or deny despite not knowing a damn thing about how they worked because his “transition period” had been put on hold.

Oh, and the fact that they’d been ambushed by an enemy that had not only significant military strength, but the Force on their side. That made the situation dangerous instead of merely annoying, and had done nothing to improve Xolarin’s mood.

At least they were stupid enough to give us a lead, the Proconsul thought as he stepped out of the turbolift and crossed the lobby toward Erinyes’ office door. You could do worse than having an enemy who announced their every move before they made it–

As Xolarin reached to ring the door chime, the Force warned him of a presence on the other side of the door, moving rapidly towards him. Muttering to himself, he sidestepped out of the doorway just in time for it to slide open, and saw something that looked like it was trying to be anywhere other than the Consul’s office trying to bolt down for the turbolifts.

The would-be blur of motion didn’t get very far before it bounced half a metre into the air and jerked to a stop, then coalesced into a willowy humanoid clutching a datapad—a Sephi, Xolarin realised. The terror painted across the young woman’s face seemed to have blinded her to the fact that her forward motion had stopped. Even as her legs continued to pump at full speed, she floated backward into the Consul’s office, until she disappeared from view and the door slid shut.

Shaking his head, the Proconsul leaned against the corridor wall outside Erinyes’ office door and retrieved his own datapad from inside his robes. Whatever was going on in there, he decided, he wanted nothing to do with it. At least it would give him a chance to catch up on his reading.

“Dasha, listen to me,” Erinyes said for the third time in five minutes. “I told you, I’m only doing this because you keep running away. The sooner you calm down so I can tell you what I need to tell you, the sooner you can leave.”

Conflict twisted the Sephi’s features as she forced herself to take another series of deep breaths. Her shoulders sagged for a moment, then hunched up again as she tried to backpedal away from the Consul. Hovering in the centre of the office made that difficult, though, especially when there was nothing within arm’s or leg’s reach from which she could push off. After several more cycles of panic and forced self-control, she sighed, and Erinyes sensed waves of relatively calm resignation.

“Good.” We’ll see how long that lasts, Erinyes thought. “I’m sure you’ve heard about the little problem we had, where the worker droids in the cargo transfer area at the Citadel all started dancing and ended up destroying part of the distribution system. Now, under normal circumstances, a worker droid dance battle would be funny. I think I even watched a HoloNet clip of one last week, right before this all happened. But remember how Appius told you a while back that you shouldn’t pull pranks that disrupt the Clan’s operations?”

“Y-Yes,” Dasha stammered past a lump in her throat.

Erinyes picked a datapad up from her desk and began reading from it. “Seventeen Taldryan Army soldiers on Elysia are in the medbay because they had to go on patrol in the Eastern Rift jungle without antimicrobial drugs. We lost Two squadrons’ worth of Taldryan Navy pilots and their starfighters, along with any number of crewmen killed or injured, because they had to fight off that rogue Star Destroyer when it tried to sneak through our early-warning network—a hole caused by a relay station going offline for over twelve hours because the techs didn’t have enough spare parts to repair it. Both the spare parts and the medication were delayed because of your little prank with the worker droids. Do you know what these things mean?”

The Sephi stayed quiet. She had started trembling again, and didn’t trust herself to speak.

“It means that at least fifty Taldryan servicemembers are dead or wounded because you still aren’t thinking about the consequences of your kriffing actions.” The Consul slammed the datapad on to the desk with enough force to crack the screen, and felt a burst of tension and emotional static in the Force as Dasha involuntarily jumped within her telekinetic restraints. “I know you think your little pranks are harmless, but it’s time for a reality check. You’re putting yourself in danger. You’re putting me in danger. You’re putting Appius in danger. You’re putting every member of Clan Taldryan in danger, and every member of its armed forces, and every Caelus citizen within the blast radius of an attack against us, which I hope Rian is proud of me for remembering.”

Erinyes pushed herself out of her chair and began to pace in front of the suspended Sephi. “My instincts are telling me that I should still put my lightsaber through your throat so you won’t cause any more trouble. Lucky for you, your performances at Mattock Station and Arx showed that you’re good to have around, as long as someone’s keeping an eye on you—which is exactly what’s going to happen from now on. Congratulations, Major Talus. As of tomorrow, you’ll have a new job with the signals-intelligence people at SRI. They’ll make sure you’re using your skills for something productive, instead of just annoying Appius with glitter bombs and getting our people killed.”

Dasha was still silent, though the waves of emotion rolling through the Force had shifted from pure terror to terror mixed with no small amount of confusion. Erinyes stretched a hand out toward her desk and toggled a button with the Force. “You might as well come in.”

A moment later, the office door slid open and Xolarin appeared, tucking his datapad into his sleeve. “Boss. I have an update on what the analysts are doing… Should she be here for this?” he asked, eyeing the young woman floating in the middle of the room as he stepped around her and took a seat in front of Erinyes’ desk.

“She’ll hear about it eventually anyway.” Erinyes opened her desk drawer and retrieved a bottle of tsiraki. “Fill me in.”

“The manifesto from those ‘Unchained’ clowns went out over a signal that looked like it came from the Virgillia system. The analysts tell me that Virgillia was the last of seven different proxies the signal bounced through from its origin on Orn Kios. I don’t know why they didn’t just say that instead of burying it in jargon, but whatever,” the Savant grumbled to himself.

“Are the Unchained stupid enough to leave their VicStar sitting at the other end of that signal?” Erinyes asked, after a swig from her bottle.

Xolarin snorted. “I wish. We’re comparing the signal data with security footage of the area to try to figure out where the signal was sent from. After that, I’ll see if any of our spies want to have a look around. We also found a second signal concealed as background radiation that’s probably an attempt to monitor the navy’s movements via something the wonks called MASINT,” Xolarin said.

“I guess they used that algorithm after all,” Dasha mumbled. She’d barely gotten the words out before her ears flattened and her hands flew up to clamp over her mouth.

Xolarin swivelled his chair to look at Dasha. “What algorithm?”

“Aylin and I were trying to– er, scan something, and we didn’t have the right algorithm to boost the SNIR high enough, so I borrowed a datapad from the guys who are always monitor comm frequencies and copied one of theirs, then tweaked it.” Dasha’s wince widened as she spoke, until her face was almost entirely scrunched up. “But I put it back before they noticed. And left a copy of the new algorithm on it, since they helped me make it.”

Xolarin blinked slowly as he absorbed the explanation, then turned back to Erinyes, who gestured to the floating Sephi. “Xolarin, this is Major Malfunction. She’s a very competent slicer, and as of tomorrow, she’s joining your team at SRI. I’m sure she’s looking forward to interacting with her new colleagues,” Erinyes said, with a pointed look at Dasha. The Sephi, fortunately, had calmed herself enough to nod meekly.

“Ah.” Xolarin’s brow furrowed, and he swivelled again. “You ever worked on old Imperial ciphers? Rakhai sent us some coded messages he found while he was chasing down a lead on the Unchained.”

“A few. The ones I saw weren’t that hard,” Dasha said. With her focus on a new problem to solve instead of being yelled at by an angry Sith Elder and having to interact with a man she’d never met, she was visibly calmer than she’d been when Xolarin first entered the office.

“Then why don’t you head down to the SRI level and ask them to show you what they’ve got? We’ll tell them you’re coming.” Erinyes set the Sephi down on the floor, and shook her head when Dasha nodded and trotted out of the office, lost in thought as though their confrontation had never happened.

Xolarin swivelled for a fourth time, facing Erinyes once more. “Are you sure this’ll work out?”

“No, but it’s better than having to deal with whatever Appius would pull if I executed his beloved apprentice for treason,” Erinyes said. “He’s far too lenient with her, which is why you’re supervising her for the time being. Anyway, what have you learned about the Unchained?”

“Not enough. I’ve been going through their manifesto, and SRI is checking every source they can for any reference to the Lady Krea that Drax Callian mentioned in his report. I’ve found out more than I ever wanted to know about an ancient Sith Lord named Darth Traya, but nothing about our enemies,” Xolarin sighed, and his brow furrowed.

Erinyes raised an eyebrow. “And… you have an idea for a different way.” She had no idea whether the Proconsul actually did have another idea or not, but she was a firm believer that the best way to motivate someone was to give them a reputation they felt they had to maintain.

“Maybe.” Xolarin rubbed his chin. “I’ve been inspecting the artifact that Appius brought back from the Observatory between reading piles of technobabble, and the Unchained member he killed. I think I can use them to draw visions from the Force of where they are.”

“I thought the whole point of that artifact was to make sure people couldn’t detect them in the Force.”

Xolarin shrugged. “Artifacts that conceal the user are like any other stealth technology: some work like camouflage, others work like jammers. When I know which one this is, I’ll know what to look for. It’ll take me a while of staring at nothing to figure out how to see through it, though. Trying to read SRI’s reports is going to distract me too much.”

“Don’t bother asking Nihlus to take over. I don’t even know where he is,” Erinyes said.

“I don’t care if it’s not Nihlus. I just need it to not be me.”

“Then go ahead and appoint an acting. Just make sure to catch up on everything when you’re done with that artifact.”

The Proconsul nodded and rose from his chair, already thinking ahead to how he’d form the shape of his ideas into a workable plan. He was nearly out of the office when something caught his eye, and he looked over his shoulder. “What happened to your wall, boss?”

“Another victim of Dasha’s prank.” Erinyes didn’t look up.

Xolarin stared in silence for a moment as his brain went into overdrive. “How in the galaxy did she put a dent in the wall with the logistics system? Or did she send one of the worker drones up here?”

“What?” Now Erinyes looked up, puzzlement written across her face. “No, I flipped a table over with the Force when I found out what she’d done.”

“Oh.” Xolarin was silent for another moment, then shook his head and left the office.

Several Days Later
Summit Block, Taldryan Citadel
Chyron (moon of Perune), Caelus System
38 ABY

Aylin Sajark looked up from her datapad as the turbolift doors slid open. She’d never been on the top floor of the Taldryan Citadel before, and judging from the bare walls and discreet light fixtures, she hadn’t missed much. With the move to Ostara in full swing, the only decorations left on the Citadel’s top floor were the Taldryan Army troopers that acted as the Consul’s bodyguards, and they were all about as animated as… well, as Zentru’la normally was, she thought, glancing over at Tavros’ commander.

What hadn’t yet moved to Ostara—unfortunately, in Aylin’s mind—was the space wizard. As a rule, Aylin didn’t like Force-users and their bizarre, unnatural powers. A few of them were okay, sure; she and Zehsaa had been friends for years, and she was starting to warm up to Appius after having met him through Ankira. The rest, she avoided. Normally, that would’ve included the Consul that she and Zentru’la were meeting with, especially after hearing that Erinyes had done something to Dasha. Aylin hadn’t gotten the details on that yet, between the Sephi’s skittishness and her unexpected new job, but getting on the wrong end of a Dark Jedi rarely ended well.

That thought was at the forefront of Aylin’s mind as she stepped into Erinyes’ office to deliver some very bad news.

“Consul.” Zentru’la stopped just inside the door, coming to attention out of force of habit, and Aylin stopped with him.

Erinyes didn’t stand up from behind her desk. Instead, she waved the pair forward and gestured to the seats across from her. “I’m glad you got back in one piece.”

“So are we,” Aylin said with a sunny smile, her cheerfulness showing through before she could stop it. Her spark of apprehension was quickly doused when Erinyes smiled at the quip, though, and the Nautolan found herself calming slightly even as her mind started racing. Was Erinyes using some kind of space wizardry on her? Was it her Zeltron hormones? Was it her… distracting… appearance? Curses! Aylin fought the urge to blush in irritation as she and Zentru’la took their seats.

Erinyes retrieved a bottle of tsiraki from inside her desk and tugged the cork open with a pop. A moment later, three glasses floated upward and over the desktop, as if to offer the Tavros members a drink. Zentru’la waved the offer away—he was on duty, after all—and Aylin shook her head as politely as she could manage, not wanting to risk clouding her thinking any further around a space wizard. The Consul shrugged and poured herself a generous helping as the other two glasses floated back into the desk. “Tell me what you found.”

Zentru’la’s voice took on a slightly droning tone as he began his debriefing. “Our investigation took us to Rhamalai. The Unchained told the locals they were representatives of the Empire, and used them as a recruitment base. We infiltrated the Unchained FOB, and Aylin sliced their transmission logs to collect what data she could on where their main operating base might be.”

“Aren’t you going to tell her how we infiltrated the FOB?” Aylin lifted her brow-ridges, grateful to have the much less awkward alternative of teasing Zentru’la instead of having to converse with the Consul.

The corners of the general’s mouth tightened, and he shot a sideways glance at his comrade. “It’s not relevant.”

“You’re just embarrassed.” A mischievous grin tugged at the Nautolan’s features.

“I’m not em–” Zentru’la let out a quiet, long-suffering sigh. “Aylin disguised me as a droid.”

“Again!” Aylin was beaming, now.

Erinyes looked between the two. “‘Again’? You’ve done that before?”

“It’s Z3N 2.0!” Aylin confirmed. “It was a little more exciting than last time, though.”

“Could we get on with this?” Zentru’la scowled, as much as he ever showed emotion openly. When neither woman spoke, he continued. “The Unchained TO&E shows a standard Imperial line corps roughly four times the size of the Taldryan Army. Two infantry battlegroups, an armoured battlegroup, and a stormtrooper legion. One stormtrooper regiment is composed of Sith Troopers, including jetpack-trained assault troops.”

“It isn’t as bad as it sounds, though,” Aylin said. “We went through their readiness reports on the way back, and it looks like most of their units are only at seventy to eighty percent strength.”

“What about their navy?”

Zentru’la shook his head. “Intel on that was limited. All we could confirm is that the VicStar that attacked Iosan is part of a larger capital ship squadron.”

“Better than nothing. That’s all for now, but don’t go too far. We’ll probably have more work for you in the near future–” The Consul’s words were drowned out by a klaxon emanating from her desktop terminal, and a disembodied voice came through a moment later.

“Consul, we have over a dozen hyperspace signatures appearing at the edge of the system. Sensor net is picking up multiple dreadnaught- and cruiser-sized ships, types unknown. They’re too far out to scan properly.”

“Stand by.” Erinyes tapped the “hold” button on the console, then drummed her fingers against its surface as she considered her response. “Tell the admirals to have the fleet take up defensive positions,” she said after resuming the call. “Have the hangar fit two Defenders with long-range scanners and sensor baffles, and tell Andrelious and Rakhai to prepare for a recon flight.”

Once the Consul had killed the transmission, Zentru’la spoke up. “If you need us, we can deploy one company and our SpecMis detachment immediately, and a second company within sixteen hours. Tavros is tied up supporting another operation, but when we’re finished, we’ll be available.”

“All two of us,” Aylin mumbled, earning a sideways glance from the general.

“After the report you just gave me, I don’t have much of a choice, do I?” Erinyes sighed. “Try not to embarrass the generals in their planning meeting this time. They wouldn’t shut up about that for weeks.”

Aylin looked over at Zentru’la. The then-they-should-do-their-jobs-better was written all over his face in a rare display of expressiveness, but the general knew better than to say that. Instead, he nodded and rose from his chair. “We’re on it.” Aylin quickly followed suit, and the two of them almost made it out of the office before Erinyes stopped them.

“Oh, Aylin, feel free to take Dasha with you. She can learn more from you than she can from Xolarin, and she could probably use a break from being cooped up in the office.”

The Nautolan stopped short and turned, and her brow-ridges shot up when she saw Erinyes’ expression. Aylin wasn’t much of a people person, but she’d seen similar looks from other people when they… cared. She hadn’t expected that from a space wizard, and it was weird enough that all she could do was nod her acknowledgement before she hurried out the door after Zen.

Residential Block, Taldryan Citadel
Chyron (moon of Perune), Caelus System
38 ABY

Rakhai polished off the last few crumbs of his pre-mission ritual and reached for the pilot’s helmet sitting on the dining table beside him. It had been a surprise—though not an unpleasant one—to discover that his Consul retained the old conceit that Sith were supposed to be pilots. Erinyes’ order to suit up and get into a TIE Defender confirmed the suspicions he’d felt when ripples of dark presences ran through the Force. It seemed as though these Unchained characters were back, and spoiling for a fight.

The pressurised hiss of the helmet seal comforted Rakhai with both its familiarity and how it insulated him from unwanted interactions. The less he had to talk to people, the better, and most Taldryan personnel knew better than to make casual chit-chat with someone in a pilot suit with a lightsaber hanging from their belt. From the time Rakhai left his quarters to the time he reached the fighter hangar, none of the servicemembers scurrying about the Taldryan Citadel so much as met his gaze. It was only when he approached the two TIE Defenders being prepped for launch that someone engaged with him.

The crew chief turned and came to attention when he heard the imposing footsteps behind him. “Prep is almost finished, sir. Long-range scanners and sensor baffles are installed and online.”

“Good.” Rakhai turned to a nearby figure, similarly clad in a pilot’s suit. “You must be Andrelious.”

The other Sith turned and eyed the new arrival, his expression as cool and smooth as polished ice. “I take it you’re Rakhai.”

“I am.” A moment passed in silence, and Rakhai found himself relieved that Andrelious wasn’t the chatty type. “The Consul didn’t mention which one of us was in command of this mission.”

“No, she didn’t.”

The two men glanced each other up and down—mostly down, in Rakhai’s case, given their height difference—to size up their counterpart like wary predators competing for dominance of a pack. Neither was technically a military man, but the rank badges they wore to ensure deference from those who were had the same number and style of pips. Rakhai almost sighed at the prospect of having to wrangle over who was in charge, but thankfully, the calm currents of emotion flowing through the Force informed Rakhai that Andrelious was no more interested in petty squabbling than he was.

“Very well. We can discuss our plan en route.” Upon seeing Andrelious’ nod, Rakhai turned and climbed into his TIE Defender to begin his preflight checks—and to minimise the chances of giving away the other part of his mission. Erinyes had warned him that Andrelious had a reputation for changing allegiances across the Brotherhood, including having left Taldryan for another Clan, and she was determined to make sure that Andrelious didn’t have a relapse of greener pasture syndrome. Rakhai didn’t know either of them well enough to know whether the Consul’s concerns were warranted or just the same sour grapes that always accompanied a member of one Clan leaving for another.

In the end, though, it didn’t particularly matter. As far as Rakhai was concerned, a mission was a mission, and—like his reconnaissance run against the Unchained fleet, it occurred to him as he activated the Defender’s sensor baffling system— it would go a lot smoother if his target didn’t know what he was doing.

Edge of the Caelus System
38 ABY

In the vast blackness of space, Andrelious J. Inahj let out an agitated sigh. His first scans of the Unchained fleet loitering on the outskirts of his home system had come back, and he didn’t like what he was seeing. “Rakhai, are you getting this?”

“Affirmative. ImpStar’s IFF reads Aleema—haven’t heard that name in a while,” Rakhai grunted. “VicStar reads Vowrawn. Two Vindicators, Strike Cruiser, two Carracks…” The longer the list continued, the less Andrelious liked it.

“Copy that. Logging the readings for transmission back to base.” The sensor-baffling system didn’t cover communications, and though they could still keep in contact with each other, the Taldryanites didn’t want to risk blowing their cover with powerful long-range transmissions. It was just another thing Andrelious didn’t like about this mission.

Truth be told, he hadn’t liked what he’d been seeing since he’d first met his wingman, let alone since they spotted the Unchained fleet. He had no doubts that Rakhai was a competent pilot, and seeing the man fly had only strengthened that belief. No, what bothered Andrelious was the flash of suspicion that his Seeker’s senses had detected when he and his fellow Warlord first sized each other up. He couldn’t tell whether Rakhai didn’t trust him because he didn’t trust anyone, or if it was because someone had told him Andrelious was untrustworthy. Neither option bothered him exactly, but the timing of Rakhai’s scrutiny was inconvenient.

Ever since the Unchained had announced their crusade to restore the Sith Empire, Andrelious had wondered how he might get on with them. More importantly, he wondered how his family might get on. Taldryan was a safe harbour for Andrelious and his family, but not one to which he was particularly attached; he’d left in the first place, after all, and he hadn’t been back quite long enough to decide whether he had a yearning to stay. This Unchained lot seemed to have the right idea, Andrelious thought, letting Dark Jedi run the place; proper Dark Jedi, not some bizarre Jedi-Mandalorian hybrid like his current Quaestor, let alone the Force-blind people he’d seen roaming the Clan’s halls.

Then there was the matter of the fleet that the Unchained had dropped on the edge of the Caelus System, which appeared to outgun the Taldryan Navy—or the navy of any other Clan he’d be willing to join, come to think of it—by a small but significant margin. If the Unchained army was equally powerful, they’d be better able to protect his family than anyone in the Brotherhood could. None of this was certain, of course, but it was all worth thinking about.

So yes, given that Andrelious was in the middle of the same sort of re-evaluation of his future prospects that had caused him to leave Taldryan in the first place, Rakhai’s timing couldn’t have been worse.

Of course, none of that would matter if Andrelious didn’t finish this mission, so he shook his head to clear it and returned his focus to the task at hand. The long-range sensor system fitted to his Defender had continued to tally up hostile IFFs, and now reported nearly twenty Unchained capital ships in the area. All were Imperial models, ranging in size from corvettes to Star Destroyers.

Andrelious frowned and toggled his comm as something about one of those Star Destroyers crossed his mind. “Do you remember what the IFF was of the VicStar that attacked Iosan?”

“Mmm… It was in the report I read. Sidious, I think? It was different than this one,” Rakhai said.

“So we still have a VicStar unaccounted for. I’ll note that in the log.” Andrelious tapped the information into his comm system’s message buffer, along with the rest of the sensor readings. “I think that’s everything we need here–”

“Check-check,” Rakhai broke in, the use of the priority code causing Andrelious to straighten in his seat. “Unchained fleet is changing course. They’re launching small craft. Gamma-class assault transports, four in total.”

Andrelious toggled his sensor readout, then spat a curse. “I can’t tell where they’re headed from this distance. The Citadel can probably handle them, but Ostara’s air defences are still being installed. We’re going to have to chase them down.”

“Chase them down? We have to warn the Consul,” Rakhai said.

Andrelious shook his head, forgetting for a moment that Rakhai couldn’t see the gesture. “That’ll give our position away and bring them down on our heads. We can handle a few assault transports.”

Rakhai snorted. “Fast enough to keep them from calling for help? I doubt it.”

“If we don’t pursue them and they attack Ostara, they’re going to land unopposed even if we do warn HQ—and once they know we’re here, we’re going to have to cover each other if either of us wants to make it out of this alive.” Andrelious paused for a split-second, then reminded himself that wounded pride hurt less than dying in a fiery wreck. “Are we in this together, or not?”

Tabarnak,” Rakhai sighed. “Fine. Give me your intercept course for the transports and I’ll send HQ our sensor data before we engage.”

“Copy that.” Andrelious marked his intended target and opened the Defender’s throttle to full. Then his sensor board chirped at him, and his eyebrows leapt upward as he looked at the new scan. “Check-check. Sensors show a lot more transports launching. Up to eight, now– correction, sixteen– kark, they’re still coming,” he growled.

“Escorts, now, too. First Order TIEs, both standard and Special Forces models.” Rakhai confirmed. “The SpecForce models are quick enough to intercept us. If we engage them, all we’ll do is take a few of them down with us.”

Andrelious sighed inside his helmet. As much as it irritated him, Rakhai was right about their odds, and knocking out a company or two of Unchained troops wasn’t worth leaving his family with nobody to protect them. “Setting a course back to Chyron.”

“Copy that,” Rakhai said. “Transmitting the sensor data now. Let’s run like hell.”

Taldryan Sector
Chyron (moon of Perune), Caelus System
39 ABY

Bloodlust and mayhem and sharp steel and pain—these were a few of Valera Scoryx’s favourite things. The Unchained war leader growled to herself as she stalked down the streets of Chyron’s Taldryan District with her tuk’ata, Axeo, bounding around her legs. Scoryx’s scouts had reported that a number of civilians under Clan Taldryan’s protection had taken shelter from the attack, and that a Force-user was protecting them. Maybe this new enemy would offer more of a challenge to Scoryx than their comrades had. So far, the opponents she’d faced were pitiful. Many of them hadn’t even been Force-wielders, and those who did carry lightsabers weren’t prepared for the twin onslaughts of her Sith swords and Axeo’s fangs. None had been worth the effort it would’ve taken for Scoryx to show her dominance, so she left them to be fodder for her Sith troopers and the explosive quarrel-bolt launchers slung under their blaster rifles.

Dominance, after all, was the reason Scoryx had aligned herself with Sazita Krea. The war leader didn’t care about the Twi’lek’s political ambitions. Her only goal was to prove that she was the most powerful force on any battlefield she entered. That atavistic, animalistic urge was one reason she got along so much better with her canine companion than she did with any of the soft, coddled so-called sentients around her–

Suddenly, a man’s voice bleated through her earpiece. “Scoryx, it’s Flaq.”

“What do you want?” As a side effect of not caring much about people, Scoryx didn’t care much for conversational niceties, either.

“I just wanted to tell you that I’m going ahead to the Orian System. Someone who stole something from me is hiding out there, and I decided I might as well do your job for you while I retrieved my property.” Even without a visual feed, the sneer on Flaq’s face was plain in his words.

Axeo growled as if to voice the expletive that Scoryx chose to hold back. “Fine. Go ahead and get yourself killed.” She killed the transmission without waiting for Flaq’s response. With any luck, her next set of targets would be more of a challenge than these Taldryan types had been, or at least capable of making sure that that arrogant frakker wasn’t Scoryx’s problem anymore. Even the prospect of Flaq’s demise didn’t do much to sweeten her mood, though. She broke into a fast jog, with Axeo bounding along beside her and the contingent of Sith troopers hustling to keep up. Conflict rippled through the Force, and Scoryx’s communications feed confirmed that the Taldryan holdouts had been spotted a few blocks away.

When she reached the storefront-turned-makeshift-bunker, Scoryx was delighted to see an orange flash emanate from inside the building, followed by one of her Sith troopers bouncing off the inside of a transparisteel window. Several more red-clad soldiers were stacked up to either side of the doorway, crouched low to remain out of the defenders’ sight as they prepared for their assault. As she approached, Scoryx sensed a presence in the Force, every bit as proud and powerful as her own—a challenger worth beating down, finally. The Unchained war leader signalled the troopers to withdraw, then called out loud enough to be heard through the barricaded doors. “Come out and face me!”

Quiet fell over the scene, and Scoryx sensed a jumble of emotions rippling through the Force. However, it wasn’t long before a figure emerged from inside the storefront, slashing through the makeshift barricade with a pair of lightsabers. The doors slid open, revealing an armoured, bullish-looking Mirialan. “You’re the one behind all this?” Rian Taldrya asked.

“No, but I’m the one you have to fight, unless you’d rather lie down and die like your comrades.” Scoryx’s Sith swords whispered out of their scabbards, matching the Adept’s blue and golden blades. Beside her, Axeo bowed his head and bared his teeth, snarling with anticipation.

Rian narrowed his eyes and shifted his stance, then raised one of his lightsabers and extended it horizontally at Scoryx. “Taldryan isn’t one of your dogs. Anyone who tries to subjugate us will learn that the hard way.”

That was all the encouragement Scoryx needed to dash forward, twin blades singing through the air, scything toward each side of the former Consul’s neck. Axeo’s snarl drowned out the metallic whistle a split-second later, and sparks flew as Sith steel clashed against plasma blades.

Modified Baleen-class Freighter Box of Nidavellir*
Edge of the Caelus System
39 ABY

“Can’t you work any faster?” Xolarin muttered to himself. For the last hour, he’d been pacing behind the makeshift work station aboard the Sphere of Research and Intelligence’s mobile headquarters. Aylin Sajark and Dasha Talus were hunched over a terminal in the electronic warfare centre, trying to make sense of a stream of bits and bytes that the Unchained had left behind in their raid on the Elysia Observatory.

Aylin scowled over her shoulder at the Proconsul. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to reconstruct data that’s been scrubbed down to this level? Nagging us isn’t going to make it go any faster.” Having made her point, the Nautolan turned back to resume sifting through the data with Dasha, who seemed not to have noticed the exchange.

Xolarin huffed as a flash of anger rose through his chest, but he grit his teeth to choke off the snappish retort he wanted to give. They’re doing the best they can, he reminded himself. The trio had been in the middle of this analysis when the Unchained assault began, and—thanks to the timely intervention of Hyperion Flight—had barely escaped in one of House Ektrosis’ Upsilon-class command shuttles. Xolarin’s nerves were still frazzled by the excitement of the trip to the SRI flagship, and the only way he had to bleed the tension off was to stalk the ship’s corridors and labs.

So, Xolarin stalked. He spent hours wandering the freighter’s corridors, watching the data feeds of the battle stream across his datapad as Taldryan’s forces clashed with the invaders. The mess of incomplete intelligence wasn’t much help in figuring out how the battle was going. The Unchained were swarming the Taldryan Sector on Chyron. One of them had fought Rian to a standstill, and according to the reports, even briefly gained the upper hand before Appius and a battalion of reinforcements forced the Unchained champion to retreat. The front line seemed to have stabilised since then, but there was no telling when the enemy’s advance would resume.

Taldryan’s forces on Ostara seemed to be having an easier time, a different data feed informed Xolarin. For once, moving their headquarters to a moon populated by voracious predators seemed to be working to the Clan’s advantage. Zentru’la and his Vornskrs—the mercenaries, Xolarin reminded himself, not the actual vornskrs that lived in Ostara’s forests—were holding the line, with help from the Taldryan Army garrison and… locals? The Proconsul frowned. There wasn’t supposed to be anyone else living on Ostara. He made a note to himself to take that up with the general later. Then Xolarin scrolled down further, and was disappointed by what he read. The Axios and her escort squadron were holding the field against the Unchained’s naval forces, but only barely, and Andrelious had been captured during an attack run against the hostile Star Destroyer. Xolarin knew that Erinyes had already assigned several members of the Clan to lead teams of marines in a boarding effort, but how that action would turn out was anyone’s guess.

The mixed results of the status update set off a fresh wave of apprehension in the Taldryan Proconsul, and he found himself turning back towards the electronic warfare centre. Aylin’s warning to let the two slicers be was still fresh in his mind, but what else could he do? He was too far away from the front lines to be any use in combat, and his nerves were being rubbed raw by all the waiting.

Bet you’ve never wished you could be in the fight, have you? a voice prodded in the back of Xolarin’s mind. He blocked it out, but the thought certainly didn’t improve his mood as he stalked down the hall.

Detention Block, Imperial-class Star Destroyer Aleema
Edge of the Caelus System
39 ABY

Darkness. Pain. Pounding head, gritty eyes, scoured-dry throat, churning stomach… it wasn’t the worst hangover Andrelious had ever had, but it was certainly in the top three. The experience was made all the less pleasant by the fact that he hadn’t drank nearly enough to warrant feeling so awful. Almost by reflex, he opened himself up to the Force to allow it to purge the effects of over-indulgence from his body, as his mind churned over his current situation. How did I… ?

As the throbbing headache subsided, more of his memories came to the surface: the dogfight above the Unchained Star Destroyer, and the tractor beam that ended it. The interrogation chamber that he might’ve been in for an hour or an eternity. His unexpected meeting with the leader of the Unchained. Krea’s attempts to win him over to their side, first by guile, then by threatening his family–

NO!” A dizzying rush of rage, alarm, and dread washed over Andrelious. He lurched to his feet, thrashing against his bonds, struggling against the manacles that kept his arms bound rigidly behind his back and whatever was blocking his vision. My family! The cuffs must have been designed to hold a Wookiee, because even channelling his fury through the Dark Side didn’t give Andrelious the strength to break free of them. In any other circumstance, against any other threat, he might’ve been able to compose himself and puzzle out an escape plan—but the raw primal instinct of children-in-danger overwhelmed any shred of conscious thought.

Instead, Andrelious vented his rage with the best half-formed plan his mind could wrap itself around. He had enough awareness of being trapped to know that he needed to escape, and he began throwing himself against the walls of his cage—ramming them with his shoulder, kicking them, pounding against the same spot with all the strength he could muster until something gave and he tumbled back to a cold steel floor. Before Andrelious could drag himself upright again, he heard voices and footsteps, and felt gloved hands gripping his arms and hauling him to his feet. “My family! Let me go, you bastards!” The words came out somewhere between a snarl and a howl.

Then the Warlord felt a tug around his head, and the world turned painfully bright. He flinched and tried to pull away from his captors again, too disoriented to focus completely on resisting. Long seconds passed as his vision resolved itself into clarity, but it didn’t take long for him to distinguish the scarlet glow and ozone scent of an ignited lightsaber. “Leave my family alone! Kill me if you want, but leave them out of this!”

“Hey, shut up a second!” It was a young woman’s voice, belonging to someone in Mandalorian-style armour, flanked by familiar-looking troopers. “You Andrelious?”

“Is my family safe?”

“Yeah, that’s him,” a deeper, familiar voice said. When Andrelious turned his gaze the taller figure who owned it, Rakhai nodded in greeting. “They’re fine. I’ll tell you more on the transport. We need to leave.”

VIP Quarters, Imperial-class Star Destroyer Aleema
Edge of the Caelus System
39 ABY

A reckless power charges into a temple engulfed in infinite despair. Dozens of pinpricks of light and darkness collide on a field of old legacies and new legends. A two-faced lion clad in the robes of an ancient Sith scion roars, scarlet and amethyst light glinting off golden fangs. A miasma of shadow and death consumes a forgotten world…

Sazita Krea started upright in her meditation chamber, gasping as she broke free from her reverie. The elder Dark Jedi was no stranger to harrowing visions—they were practically a daily occurrence for an experienced Sith seer—but the details of this one were unmistakable. The temple in her vision belonged to one of the systems that she had declared a target for the Unchained conquest, and the fool charging into it… Krea gestured toward the control panel at the side of the room. The lights dimmed, and a moment later, a miniature holographic image of Valera Scoryx appeared from a projector in front of her.

“What is it?” Scoryx’s tone was as harsh as ever, though tempered with grudging respect for her nominal superior.

“Recall your forces immediately. Flaq has made a grave error.”

The Unchained war leader snorted. “That’s his problem, not mine. Taldryan’s on their back foot. Give me a couple more days and the troops you held in reserve, and we can have this entire system under control.”

“There is a greater threat to deal with.” Krea’s voice carried a chill that made even Scoryx wince. “You must depart for the Orian System. I will return to my flagship and prepare to assist you.” After seeing Scoryx nod in agreement, Krea gestured again to cut the transmission and rose from her seat.

Consul’s Office, Taldryan Citadel
Chyron (moon of Perune), Caelus System
39 ABY (48 hours later)

“Kark, it’s crowded in here,” Erinyes muttered to herself, as though she’d only just noticed the half-dozen-odd guests seated or lined up around her desk. Rian and Andrelious, both looking the worse for wear after their respective ordeals, had claimed the two available chairs. Zentru’la, Aylin, and Dasha were lined up behind them. Xolarin and Appius stood to either side of Erinyes’ desk, facing the others.

“Alright,” the Consul said, reclining in her chair with a topped-up tumbler of tsiraki. “Time for the after-action review. Xolarin, start us off.”

The Proconsul withdrew a datapad from inside his robes. “The losses the military sustained were moderate, but nothing we can’t recover from. A number of House Ektrosis and Tavros members were instrumental in their efforts to shore up our defences. Besides those present, we have reports of Ankira Irr, Ben, Crysenia, Rakhai, Raistline, Shanree, and Tracinya performing admirably on the front lines. We also have the fact that we’re sitting here having this conversation instead of being in an Unchained prison cell.”

“Some of us were,” Andrelious muttered.

“And we appreciate your sacrifice,” Erinyes said. “Why did the Unchained retreat so suddenly, and where did they go?”

“Uh, nothing on the ‘why’, but Dasha and I recovered one of the files that the Unchained accessed at the Elysia Observatory,” Aylin said, gesturing to Dasha. The Sephi slicer activated her datapad and held it out, revealing the image of a temple hidden in the middle of a jungle world.

Xolarin’s eyebrows shot up when he saw the structure. “Frak! That’s the Temple of Sorrow on Sepros!” The comment was greeted with a round of blank stares. “In the Orian System. Naga Sadow’s home system.”

“Oh, great,” Erinyes groaned and looked at Rian. “Do you feel well enough to play diplomat?”

The former Consul nodded. “I never spoke with Bentre much when we were both Consuls, but I’m sure there are still ways to contact him.”

“I can help with that. I know Benny and Takagari pretty well from when I was there,” Xolarin said.

In nearly the same beat, Appius turned to Zentru’la. “I don’t suppose the Vornskrs could offer the Sadowans some assistance for hire?”

“We can offer the troops that aren’t deploying to the contract on Bespin,” the general said. “It would be quicker if we were to deploy under the auspices of Taldryan’s contract rather than have to negotiate a new one with the Sadowan leadership.”

“Or, we could just leave it to them to handle because they have a game-changer we don’t–” Erinyes’ suggestion was cut off by the sound of her desktop terminal chiming with an incoming transmission. She reached for the button that would dismiss it, but stopped short when she saw the authentication code. “… son of a bitch.”

The office’s other occupants turned inquisitively toward their Consul as she poked the button to accept the call, and a holographic image appeared above her desk—a goateed human man with dark, piercing eyes. Each of the gathered crowd exchanged looks as they saw Erinyes wince, swallow visibly, and force a smile.

“Hi, Muz. I was just talking about you.”

“Erinyes.” The former Grand Master’s eyebrows furrowed almost imperceptibly. “The Force warned me of a threat to my Clan. What did you do?”