Theology had never been one of Hux's strong suits.
His opinion of most organized religion was that it lacked sufficient organization, and relied entirely on that which could not be verified by any proper means to instill awe and fear in its adherents; mostly he thought its general benefit involved the creative scope of blasphemy. His father had been staunchly atheist, as was Hux mostly himself, but at some point in his early childhood he had been told by someone or other that there were hells to which bad people went after death, and that for some reason there were seventeen hot hells and seventeen cold hells, which struck him as excessive. He was pretty sure that Kellan IV had been located in one of the cold hells, probably near the bottom of the stack, and Jakku was probably at least a contender for a hot hell. But at no point had anybody mentioned the idea of a wet hell, and this, Hux felt, was an oversight.
They had been on the dwarf planet Felthor for--he checked his chrono--four hours now, and he was pretty sure he had never been this wet in his entire life, even when he'd been underwater. His uniform stuck horribly to him as he plodded after Ren through a dripping, violently green forest, following some nonexistent trail that only Force-sensitives could detect. Even Ren was having trouble now and then, having to stop and concentrate to refocus on whatever signal he was receiving.
They were here because Snoke’s spynet had been picking up repeated references around various parts of the galaxy to an old ruin somewhere in the middle of this horrible forest, a ruin which might have once upon a time been part of, or even all of, a Jedi temple. He hadn’t asked exactly what it was they were supposed to find, in these ruins, even if they had at one point been used by the galaxy’s most obnoxiously virtuous bunch. Snoke had not vouchsafed details to him, and he was not about to make a nuisance of himself demanding clarification, not when they’d at least partly won their way back onto Snoke’s useful radar with the information from Kellan IV.
Jedi temples, Hux thought, ducking under yet another tree-branch draped with green and sticky fungus that wanted to get stuck in his hair. Jedi bloody Temples. What did anyone want with them, now that the Jedi were gone? Had they perhaps buried some sort of secret information at each site that would help to bring about a new Jedi Order if anything particularly nasty happened to the current version?
Hux wished he hadn’t just thought that, because it sounded unpleasantly feasible. If so, that meant this was not the only wretched little planetoid he and Ren would be sent to examine. Not even close to the only one. Snoke would want that hidden information. He would, if he were Snoke. He would want all of the information.
He pushed his wet hair out of his face, stifling a cough, glad at least that their slow and ungraceful passage through the forest was noisy enough to provide camouflage. Hux couldn’t seem to make the rasping tickle in the back of his throat go away, and it wasn’t something he particularly wanted Ren to know about, any more than the aches that made him feel as if he were carrying dive weights on his wrists and ankles as they clambered and scrabbled through the dense undergrowth.
It was reasonably warm, at least, but the sheer unpleasantness of being soaked to the skin with no prospect of drying out anytime soon made up for that small positive note. His officers had been passing a cold around for the past several days, and Hux had no doubt that it was now his turn. Over the past hour or so his chest had begun to feel uncomfortably tight, tight and warm, and it wasn’t that particular flavor of heat that he instinctively associated with Kylo Ren, more the nasty spreading warmth of something that might actually require medical attention.
Hux filed that away under the not now heading, and pushed his hair out of his face again. They had been bushwhacking solidly for what must be...coming up on six hours, and there was no sign of the ruins.
“Ren,” he said--or tried to say, catching halfway on a cough, which hurt more than he’d expected. “Stop. Are you sure we’re headed in the right direction?”
Kylo Ren, who was apparently determined to spend all of his on-world adventures in full mask and hood and drapery, paused to look back at him. “It’s just,” Hux said. “We should probably have encountered some...indication of wreckage, by now.”
“We are. I can feel it,” Ren said through the mask. “There is something here. I’m not sure what, but there is something strong with the Force.”
Hux shivered again, feeling rain crawl down under his collar. “Okay, then. Far be it from me to question your direction-finding capabilities. I just hope there’ll be somewhere to get out of this bloody rain.” He had wanted to use a somewhat different adjective, but training at a base level had filtered that out.
Ren was still staring at him. He’d been a little surprised to find that he could sort of tell when Ren was looking at him, whether or not the mask was actually pointed straight in his decision. It was a little like the sense he had of the troopers’ faces, past the helmet visage. “What?” Hux demanded.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “But I’d be finer if we got to someplace where it wasn’t raining quite so hard, if you take my meaning.”
His throat was beginning to feel as if somebody had taken sandpaper to it, and Hux was grateful when the continued downpour began to involve thunder muttering overhead, because it meant he didn’t have to worry so much about Ren hearing him cough. Definitely a cold, he thought, and perfect timing, he could not possibly have imagined a less convenient moment.
Time passed. Hux was shivering now in long uncontrollable waves under the sodden uniform, and when Ren paused he nearly walked right into his back, catching himself only with an effort. “What is it?” he rasped. They were on the edge of a broad gap in the forest; an overgrown heap of stone stood some little distance away in the middle of the clearing.
“It was a temple,” Ren said, and then turned to stare at him. “You’re unwell.”
“It was a temple, so what? Is...are you going to find anything useful here, or did we just come this far to verify an intelligence claim?” Hux leaned on a tree, blinking through the rain. His chest hurt with a sort of hot, dark-red feeling. “Please for the sake of all space tell me we’re here for a reason.”
“We are,” said Ren. “There is power here. Power, and perhaps information.” He gestured to the tangled open space surrounding the ruins, half-subsumed with violent, virulent green overgrowth. “I have to go in there.”
“Into the...what, rubble?”
“There is something to find,” Ren said, and Hux had rarely felt quite so strongly that he wanted to take Ren by the shoulders and shake him until he started making sense. “Stay here,” Ren added. “It may not be safe, past this tree-line. The power is...unstable. Ancient.”
“You’re walking into the equivalent of an unstable, what, substation, and you want me to stay out here?” Hux said. “--On further thought, that’s not such a terrible idea.”
“You are unwell,” said Ren.
“I’ve got a cold. Go on. Go find your...whatever it is we’re here for.”
Ren’s mask stared at him for a little longer, unreadable even with Hux’s vague new skills, and then he turned and pushed through the cover at the edge of the clearing, heading for what Hux finally recognized as the ruins of a sort of ancient ziggurat, or step-pyramid, or something along those lines. It had not been easy to parse at first because some titanic force had, at some point in the past, apparently cleaved the pyramid right down the middle, like a giant butcher’s knife slicing through stone and fill and substructure, and the two halves had sort of...collapsed, away from one another, into heaps of overgrown rubble.
Ren was walking, quickly, with determination, into the riven space between the two mounds of ruin. Now that he was out of earshot, Hux leaned against a tree and let himself cough heavily, trying to get the stupid tickle to vacate the premises, but all it did was hurt, not in his throat but his chest--tight and difficult and hot. He held on to the tree until it finally passed, trying to get his breath back, trying to make out Ren’s form through the drifting grey veils of rain that passed through the open space between him and the ruins.
Possibly if he had been at his best and brightest Hux would have seen the thing in time to prevent what happened next, but as it was he barely had time to react before disaster was upon them. Two disasters. First--Ren’s dark indistinct figure had almost vanished between the two halves of the temple ruins, but not quite vanished, not sufficiently indistinct that Hux could not see him clearly when something like a blue-white lightning bolt flared between the two heaps of stone, like a spark jumping a gap once sufficient voltage difference had built up, and...in its leap from one chunk of rubble to the other...passed through Kylo Ren.
Ren was held frozen for a horrible moment between the flaring arcs--not quite frozen, Hux could see, he was jittering and shaking helplessly as the current flowed through him--and then the light snapped off and silence and grey slow rain refilled the universe.
Hux let go of his tree and floundered through the knee-high tangle of vines and bushes, falling several times, struggling to his feet again, coughing and gasping as he ran until he broke free of the jungle-growth and found himself in the force-corridor between the heaps of stone.
He fell on his knees beside Ren, breathing much too hard, with a nasty creak in the sound, not caring. The last time he had seen this white closed face turned up to the sky had been on Starkiller, before the universe had changed. He bent to rest his head against Ren’s chest and slumped in relief as he heard the heartbeat.
Hux gathered Ren in his arms, shivering like a half-drowned dog, and thumbed his way through the comm unit’s emergency frequencies. Something about this place seemed to interfere with their signals, and he was not entirely surprised even as despair threatened to drown his reasoning. He did his best to transmit on the whistling, sighing crackle of their set comm frequency, and on all the emergency frequencies, and when he heard nothing in return but the hiss and crash of static simply returned the comm to its clip on his belt and looked around.
Shelter. Ren needed shelter, badly, and so did he, and there was no guarantee that bolt of flaring blue-white energy wasn’t about to come back. Hux felt, instinctively, that if they got out of this corridor between the two sets of ruins they would be safe at least from that, from whatever ancient protective system Ren had triggered with his approach. He scanned the clearing through the grey curtains of rain.
And stopped dead, frozen. Two eyes the size of his head, like round orange embers, had appeared at the edge of the forest where he and Ren had first entered the clearing.
Two...no. Three. Four. By all the hells Hux couldn’t make out how many there were, the smaller eyes massing above and around the two he had first seen. A heavy dark form began to appear around the eyes as the thing moved forward into the clearing surrounding the ruin. Too many legs, Hux thought, getting up, putting himself between the thing and Kylo Ren.
His chest was on fire but somehow everything had slowed down, as if he were watching the situation through glass-clear ice. So clear and so slow and so cold. He reached for the blaster on his hip, and even before he brought it up to aim into the center of one of those massive orange eyes somehow he knew it wouldn’t fire; something about this place, this rarefied atmosphere between these heaps of ruin, had jammed it as effectively as any unstable charge could have done.
Hux stared as the thing lumbered toward them, everything still so clear and so slow and so cold, and turned his head in what felt like slow motion toward the dark crumpled form of Kylo Ren. They were going to die, he thought. They were going to die stupidly, on this wet hell of a dwarf planet, and no one would ever know what had become of them once they lay in that thing’s belly--and perhaps that thought was what finally unfroze Hux. He felt as if he himself were slowed down to the point of farce as he ran the few paces back to Ren, half-fell on his knees beside him, and took the cold cross-shaped hilt of the lightsaber from its mounting on Ren’s belt.
It was heavy. Terribly heavy. He had not expected that, and Hux had to hold the thing in both hands, squeezing his fingers tight around it well below the crossvents at the base of the blade, as he struggled back to his feet. His breathing hurt, raw and thick and heavy; he could feel things moving in his chest.
We are going to die unless I can do this, he thought, staring at the creature--now almost upon them, a misbegotten nightmare of legs and eyes and tumescent lumps.
I can do this.
His thumb found the lightsaber’s activation switch and suddenly instead of holding a heavy ungainly object Hux was holding a heavy ungainly object with first one and then two more brilliant, humming, hissing-crackling red blades of light sprouting above his fists. He could feel the thing’s energy vibrating through the bones of his hands. It smelled like thunderstorms. All the little hairs on his arms stood up fiercely, helplessly, as if in the grip of a powerful electric charge.
And the odd thing was it now had balance. Hux had trained with mock blades worlds ago, lifetimes ago, in the Academy: it was a gentleman’s game, nothing more than that, but they had trained, and he could remember the feeling of a sword’s balance in his hand. The weight of the blade and the weight of the hilt should come to a fulcrum-point based on the sword’s shape and length. For the practice sabers he’d played with in that previous world, the balance point had been just beyond the crossguard; you could hold the sword out steady on a couple of fingers, just there, and it would eventually level itself in equilibrium. Ren’s saber, for all its stupid dramatic effect, was balanced, and Hux stood up properly and felt the center of its weight would rest just at the crossguard, which helped, gave him a little more reach, a little more leverage.
He swung the thing through the air and part of him could not help being excited at the sound it made as it moved--the hum stretched out, sound catching up with light. Hux put it through a couple of the passes his hands and arms and feet remembered better than his mind did, and then he walked out of the corridor between the halves of the dead Jedi Temple with Kylo Ren’s lightsaber held on guard.
We’re going to die, said part of his mind, and Hux felt his lips draw back in a nasty, a horrible grin. Maybe, he thought. But at least I got a chance to try this.
The thing towered over him. Still everything was very clear, almost too slow--and then it reared a tree-trunk leg back and brought it down in what was obviously meant to be a killing blow, and Hux swung Ren’s saber and felt only the slightest resistance as the red-humming blade bit all the way through, the severed portion of the leg rolling into the mud with a thick splat.
There was a scream, deafening but still almost felt more than heard, and then everything seemed to happen at once, and Hux’s ability to think clearly retreated into the back of his mind as the part involved with surviving took over and swung, slashed, stabbed, parried, cut, hacked. The world had turned into a hell of glowing orange eyes and black blood and the red blade, the burning blade and its little side companion blades, which Hux had only just barely managed to avoid hurting himself with as he slashed and swung. Blood stank as it cooked off the blade with a brief sizzle.
Then it was over, and he stood panting, coughing thickly, with the saber drooping from guard as he fought for breath; and it took him a long time to realize he could turn it off again. The creature was...not moving, and he thought probably if it was going to do much more it would do it slowly enough to give them warning.
He stayed where he was, the dead hilt of the saber still in his hand, for what seemed like a very long time before finally dropping it into the mud and stumbling behind a handy boulder to be sick. When, eventually, he reemerged, Hux was relieved to see the hulk of the creature had not moved.
The rain, which had either eased off during his fight with the thing or had ceased to register in his awareness, was coming back with a vengeance. Hux picked up the saber’s hilt and carefully hooked it to his own belt, coming back to kneel beside Ren. He was still apparently unconscious, and Hux was at once glad of it because Ren hadn’t been able to see how bloody terrible he was with a sword, and frustrated because damn everything, he had been able to kill the thing and save both their lives.
That won’t-- said a voice in his mind, and he pushed it away: not Ren’s, it was his own, the one he had come to think of as the Nag. I know, he said, kneeling to get his arm under Ren’s shoulders and drag him more or less vertical, draped over Hux’s shoulder in an inelegant but functional carry. I know. Won’t keep atmo in or vacuum out, whether or not he saw me. You want to be helpful, find us somewhere we can shelter, because he needs to get warmed up in a hurry.
Hux had given up, just recently, on worrying about the fact that he could hold arguments with himself inside his own head. There wasn’t much one could do about it, other than appeal to the psytechs, and Hux had a healthy desire not to spend the rest of his life somewhere with shatterproof windows. He put it down to a more than usually active imagination, and merely nodded to himself when the small voice suggested there, just there, a little way away from the clearing, there’s a space where you could cut some wood and put up a lean-to and wait for morning.
Ren’s lightsaber was much more efficient at chopping down trees than any hatchet Hux had ever used. In fact he was growing almost fond of the simple efficacy of the thing as he stripped off branches and notched them here and there to fit roughly into one another. It was still noisy and dangerous and unstable and unnecessarily dramatic, but it cut like anything and it didn’t make your wrists ache after half an hour of work the way a metal blade would have done.
He turned the saber off, almost with regret, when he was done, and it surprised him a great deal when Kylo Ren--curled up in the driest corner, where Hux had dumped him a couple of hours ago--spoke up. Your technique could use some work.
Hux had a fire going, hoping the wind would stay where it was because otherwise the shelter would turn into a smokehouse and he was already having the hells of a time trying not to cough. Yes, well, I haven’t picked up a sword in...um. A long while. One does one’s best.
You did, said Ren. You saved our lives. And you are still terrible with a sword. I need to teach you.
I can’t imagine it’s a valuable use of your time, Hux thought, glad not to be speaking out loud: talking made him cough, too, and coughing hurt his chest. It’s not as if I’ll be called upon to conduct duels with a rapier anytime soon.
No, but you ought to know how to use a weapon, if you have access to it, Ren said, and that surprised Hux enough that he twisted around to stare at him.
What do you mean, have access to it? You don’t let anybody else touch that thing. With good reason, I might add. I nearly sliced my own thigh open more times than I want to admit, those cross-blade things are bloody stupid, Ren.
You did reasonably well, for someone who has never wielded a lightsaber. But I do not want you to be ignorant of the ways of it.
Hux blinked at him. Why?
Reasons, said Ren. I feel terrible. What happened--that you saw?
Hux explained, without having to use his words: the blue-white lightning, Ren’s collapse, the thing. When he had finished, Ren frowned up at him, lacing his long fingers behind his head, as if Hux had given him a particularly interesting problem to evaluate.
“I must go back,” he said, after a few moments.
Hux scowled. “Absolutely not. That place is dangerous.”
“Not right now,” said Ren, curling under the thin blanket. “But I do have to go back. There is a reason I am here.”
“Yes, and it’s apparently getting eaten by creatures,” Hux said, and couldn’t help coughing, hard, muffling it in his elbow. It still hurt, more than he expected, deep in his chest. “--We’ve nearly done that part. What the hells do you think is there?”
“I don’t know. But it’s important,” Ren said. “And you sound awful.”
“I have a cold,” Hux told him, with dignity. “Mere mortals experience those. Go to sleep, we’ll work this out in the morning.”
“You should stay close to me. For warmth.”
“Inadvisable. You don’t want my cold.”
“I don’t have to point out the metatextual inconsistency of that statement, do I?”
“...Fine,” Hux said, shivering, and rearranged the fire so that it would burn down but hopefully still be wakeable in the morning. He crawled under the blanket next to Ren, sighing involuntarily when Ren pulled him close, Hux’s back to his chest. Something seemed to let go inside him at that, and he was astonished by just how exhausted he was, how much he had spent on their recent exertions. He slept almost immediately, slept deeply enough that his cough didn’t wake him for several hours, and did not dream.