One standard year after the assault on Starkiller Base
When the war finally came to Hapes, it came first in the form of wake rotation, the starfield rippling and distorting counterclockwise around the Millennium Falcon as it eased into realspace above the blue-and-green-speckled orb of Stalsinek IV. It had been a long and difficult journey through the ionized veils of the Transitory Mists, where a single erroneously calculated maneuver would have torn the ship apart, and then out the jumble of hyperlanes known as the Knot Holes, where one wrong turn would have led to Maker knew where— certainly not the Resistance base, where Rey longed to be playing sabacc with Finn or running flight simulations with Poe or chatting with Jessika. Anything was preferable to traveling alone, searching for what no one was sure even existed in the first place.
"No endeavor is fruitless if you learn something about yourself along the way," Luke had told her before she left. "Take this time to reflect. Clear your mind and commune with the universe. Let the Force help you find inner peace."
"Can't it help me find the mission objective instead?" Rey had quipped, prompting a fondly exasperated yet somehow oddly wistful half-smile from her master. She'd known then that he was remembering another student who had been just as impatient, just as sharp-tongued. And thinking of that person, even if it was only in passing, had quite ruined her day— as it always did— and her mood had been far from improved by the hours spent in hyperspace with only the Falcon' s droid brain trinity for company and the sheer nightmare of navigating the Mists. The beginnings of a tension headache lurked in the back of her skull.
"This better be worth it," Rey muttered under her breath as she grabbed the controls, coaxing the ship into the slow dive of planetfall.
Stalsinek IV was a rainforest world, dark green and oppressively humid. Rey was used to the arid, scorching heat of the desert, not this damp variety that lay heavy on the skin and filled the lungs even in the dense, overgrown places where sunlight was a distant dream. After an hour of trekking beneath the canopy of blackneedles, coilwoods, and whisperpines, she was drenched in sweat, her breath coming out in harsh bursts, the migraine sharp behind her eyes. But there was something here— she could feel veins of energy crackling through the gaps in the tree trunks. All she had to do was hone in on the source.
Rey stopped walking and pressed her fingers to her aching temples. She wasn't very good at Force healing yet, but she could at least take the edge off, make it easier for her to hear herself think...
Power surged through her fingertips, the migraine vanishing like a dandelion puff before a strong breeze.
Huh, she thought, surprised and completely free of pain. That settles it, then. There had to be a Force nexus nearby, amplifying her own abilities. Without the headache to distract her, she noticed for the first time just how tangible the energy currents were, thin sections of air shimmering faintly like a massive spiderweb wound through the branches, radiating outwards from somewhere deep in the woodland.
"For countless millennia the Hapans have told tales of a magic fountain in the Corsair Outback," Luke had said. "Its waters supposedly cure disease, restore limbs, and bestow youth on those who drink from it. Of course, such stories have been largely dismissed as tall tales, but, if there's one thing I've learned over the years, Rey, it's that most legends contain a kernel of truth. If there is a place of power in the Hapes Cluster, then it is a place where the Force exists as a concentrated wellspring, waiting to be harnessed by one who is sensitive to it."
The ruins of the first Jedi Temple on Ahch-To were a nexus, as was the cave in the swamps of Dagobah. Rey had trained at both, but she wasn't progressing as well as Luke would have liked— hence this little field trip. While Leia had initially been hesitant to send her off without reinforcements, there were no troops to spare and, like it or not, they needed her at her best in order to defeat Snoke and the Knights of Ren.
The war was going badly. The Resistance was getting desperate. Desperate enough to allow their sole Jedi-in-training to chase after fairy tales in the Inner Rim.
Rey would never admit this to anyone but, over the past several months, there had been a tiny, treacherous voice whispering in her ear that she could have been so much stronger by now, if only she'd found the right teacher. One whose philosophies didn't clash with her own outlook as Luke's— for all his patience and kindness— tended to do.
"I can show you the ways of the Force!" Kylo had shouted, dark-eyed and impassioned as he leaned into her while she stood at the edge of the snow-covered cliff.
She shoved the memory aside with a scowl, wishing she could banish it entirely. She would never join him. He'd have to kill her first, and she wasn't about to let that happen.
The energy streams grew more intense the further into the labyrinth of trees she went. A strange taste blossomed on her tongue, weighty and metallic like ozone, or perhaps blood. Raven-thorns scratched at her bare arms as she quickened the pace; without breaking stride, she ran her palm over the shallow cuts and they disappeared, leaving nary a mark. Yes, there was power here, old and vast, overwhelming her senses until she felt drunk, her skin prickled with goosebumps and her heart thundering against the bones of her ribcage.
The temple was the first thing Rey saw after wriggling through a wall of fragrant blueleaf shrubs. Slabs of milky white stone rose from the undergrowth, their opalescent edges catching what few rays of light filtered in through the canopy of trees. Although the facade had grown scattered patches of grayish moss, the complex of squat rectangular buildings wasn't in ruins, just abandoned— for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, judging from the weeds that sprouted between the walkways and the enormous strangler figs that were attempting to reclaim the wide, open courtyard.
The second thing she noticed was the fountain.
Rey stepped through the Misura vine-entangled entrance arch, ignoring the rows of pillars etched with intricate reliefs that she would otherwise have paused to examine. She was focused on the jet of silvery water that issued from a small oval pool in the middle of the courtyard, into which flowed the energy currents that had guided her through the forest. Its pull on her soul was magnetic. It called to her the way the Skywalker lightsaber had in the basement of Maz Kanata's castle. Unlike then, however, she was no longer afraid of the Force. Sometimes it was a friend, sometimes it was a frustrating enigma, but it was always her constant companion.
She reached out to touch the water— and nearly screamed from how cold it was. Kriff, it was freezing, like she'd plunged her hand into a bucket of ice. She pulled her arm back. Her fingers were dry.
Huh, she thought for the second time that day. That was... not the way water worked.
Upon closer inspection, the liquid in the fountain didn't look much like water, either. For one, it really was silver, not colorless and reflecting the stone surroundings, as Rey had assumed. She dropped down on one knee and studied the pool, and her face was very conspicuously not reflected back at her— it was all just silver, oozing and burbling and lapping at the stone edges.
She closed her eyes, couching her breathing into the slow, deep, cleansing pattern of the meditative trance. The darkness blinked with the constellation of lights that formed the rainforest, the life energy connecting the trees to the creatures that lurked and slithered and roosted and hunted amidst them. And there, at the center of all things, was the fountain, blazing in her mind like the beating heart, the anchor, the nexus point.
"Show me," Rey said.
And something— some ancient, endless, primal thing— answered, "Yes."
The monotonous, well-oiled routine of the Finalizer' s bridge was disrupted by several officers snapping to attention when Kylo Ren stormed inside, the blood and soot of field combat still clinging to the armor that shrouded him from head to toe. They then quickly returned to their business, not a single one of them foolish enough to gawk or eavesdrop as he confronted Hux on the observation deck.
"I see you're still with us," said the redheaded general, turning away from the viewport beyond which the agriworld Taanab was obscured by the floating wreckage of several Resistance ships. "That went rather well, don't you think?"
"Perhaps I'd have a higher opinion if you hadn't sent in the air force after I commed you specifically to say that I had it under control." Kylo's voice was a low, metallic growl through the voice modulator, his gloved fists clenched at his sides.
Hux shrugged. "You were taking too long, Ren. The battle up here was already over, so I deemed it more efficient to direct our TIEs to the capital instead of giving Taanab's ground troops a chance to rally."
"What you did," Kylo spat, "was make them desperate enough to raze their own fields. Billions of acres of prime farmland are currently going up in smoke beneath our feet. I look forward to seeing you try to explain that to the Supreme Leader."
"Our priority is to secure the Perlemian Trade Route as soon as possible," Hux retorted. "I am confident that Leader Snoke will laud my strategy—"
"Your strategy? More like your desire to hog all the glory for yourself, thus costing the First Order valuable resources—" Kylo fell into an abrupt silence, head cocked to the side. It was as if he'd heard something, even though the only noises on the bridge were the tick of chronometers and the beep of radars.
"What is it?" Hux demanded. "Why did you— Ren, where are you going?"
The other man was already halfway across the room. "I have business elsewhere," he said without looking back.
"We debrief in T minus fifteen minutes. You can't just leave."
"Actually, General," Kylo drawled as he stepped over the threshold, "I think you'll find that I rather can."
And then he was gone, the doors hissing shut behind him.
When Rey opened her eyes, the world was pitch black. Not the dark of night, but of shadow. It was deathly quiet, the birdsong and the chirp of insects and the rustle of leaves replaced by a silence so thick that it was a knot in her throat. There was a woman kneeling where the fountain had been— or perhaps the fountain had been a woman all along, the spout a slender torso, the pool a graceful draping of voluminous golden robes. Her skin was as white as ivory, her eyes were as green as the forest, and her snowy wings seemed to fill the void of nothingness that the planet had become.
"Child," she murmured.
Looking back, Rey would be very embarrassed about what she said next. "Mother?" It was an instinctual question that betrayed the wound in her heart, the hope that she still nurtured even after all this time.
"It will be hundreds of thousands of years yet before the Mother wakes. I am the Daughter." The woman spoke in a slow voice bearing traces of confusion, as if she, too, had just emerged from the depths of sleep. "Or I was. Or another aspect of me was. In this form I am the Goddess."
"I've known other deities." Rey thought of cruel R'iia, whose breath brought the weather storms of Jakku. "What makes you so special?"
"I should ask the same of you." Pale wings stirred in the darkness as the being leaned forward. "Only my adherents may perceive me thus, and you, while strong in the Force, are not of the blood." A cool hand touched Rey's face. A pause, and then, "Ah. I see." The Goddess sounded startled, puzzled, and intrigued all at once. "That changes things."
"What does?" Rey demanded. She was being rude but previous experience had taught her that it was sometimes more effective to bully the Force into giving up its secrets. This was yet another source of friction between her and Luke.
The Goddess ignored her question. "You seek wisdom. You wish to know the reason for your lack of prowess. There is an ocean in your mind but you can't find it, even if you hear it in the space between heartbeats. Even if you feel echoes of it surge within you."
"You imagine an ocean," Kylo had murmured, head bowed and eyes hooded in the bluish light of the interrogation room.
A frown marred the Goddess' pristine visage as she, too, saw the memory in Rey's head. "That one is... interesting as well. Oh, the ruin you will bring upon each other."
"No surprises there," Rey groused. She didn't need divination to know that her future relationship with Kylo would consist mostly of attempts to inflict grievous bodily harm. "We're getting a bit off topic, though, aren't we?" It was always the same problem with these ghosts or manifestations or whatever she was supposed to call them— when they weren't being unhelpfully vague, they were talking about something else entirely. She needed to be the one to focus. She needed to speak their language. "How do I find the ocean?"
"By finding where your power comes from. Where you come from."
"It would really save a lot of time if you just told me," Rey helpfully suggested.
"Not as much time as you might think," replied the Goddess. "The threads of destiny are coming together. You will learn very soon." She sat back on her knees, hands folded in her lap. "And now he is near. In the mood he's in, I'd advise you to run, but, somehow, I don't think you're going to do that."
It happened so fast. With Rey's next breath, she was in the courtyard of the abandoned temple once more, the surrounding forest soft and purple in the twilight. Stars, how long was I out? she wondered as she got to her feet on joints stiff from staying locked in one position for what must have been hours. In front of her, the fountain sparkled and rippled like nothing had ever happened, like it had never turned into a winged woman in a soundless vacuum of space and time.
As the lingering grogginess from the trance lifted, Rey became all too aware that she was not alone. There was someone behind her, his Force signature jagged and raw and furious. At the exact moment that she registered his presence, the unmistakable shriek of a broken kyber crystal flaring to life shattered the air.
Rey didn't waste a single second. Igniting her own lightsaber, she spun on her heel and was off in a flash, leaping straight at the masked figure standing a few paces away. Their beams collided and held, sapphire to scarlet, the resulting amethyst haze glinting off of his blank obsidian helm. She'd met him a year ago, in another forest, and he'd been a tight coil of menace and determination while she had been scared out of her wits.
This time was different. This time, they were both angry.
She pushed off from the blade-lock and set upon Kylo in a barrage of short, quick strikes that drove him backwards even as he deflected with masterful swiftness. Her plan to corner him against one of the pillars failed when he managed to sidestep around her and bring the lethal, serrated edge of his weapon down over her shoulder. She slanted her blade at a defensive angle, and her teeth rang from the force of his blow.
"You appear to have marginally improved since we saw each other last." The words emerged in a rumble of static and smoke that sent that same old shiver down her spine. She had dreams about him sometimes, dreams that she could barely remember upon waking, but the mask always came off in the end.
"Yeah, well, your uncle is a good teacher." She emphasized that last word, let it sink in like a barb, before kneeing him in the stomach and taking advantage of his momentary falter to put some distance between them, couching her limbs into a balanced two-handed guard with the lightsaber held on the right side of her body.
"Had you joined me, I would have started you off with the Ataru form of combat as well," Kylo remarked, "before we unlocked your full potential with Juyo, which I am certain Skywalker hasn't told you about because he is a weak and foolish man afraid of the dark." He assumed an opening stance of his own, scarlet crossguard angled to the ground, feet closely spaced. "But the time for that has long since passed. I know now that it was my compassion for you that proved to be my undoing. Consider my offer formally rescinded."
"What a tragedy," Rey mocked. "And you and I have very different definitions of compassion."
"And of tragedy, too."
When they crashed into each other again, it was vicious and relentless, the energy from the nexus augmenting both their powers until the temple's ancient stone foundations were shaking and the starlit forest was ablaze with sound and fury. He'd had a year to stew, to lick his wounds, and to let the resentment fester, and it showed in the way he bypassed disarming maneuvers in favor of going straight for the kill. It was much the same for her, too, all of Luke's platitudes about self-restraint vanishing in the face of this man who'd murdered his own father and almost mortally injured Finn. When they skidded apart after another exchange of blows, Kylo's hand stretched out and Rey felt the Force constrict around her, lifting her off her feet and hauling her towards the screeching edges of those intersected beams of red light. Summoning all her strength, she threw off his telekinetic grip and twisted her body in midair so that she slammed into him instead. His lightsaber flew out of his grasp and he landed hard on the floor of the courtyard, flat on his back with her straddling his hips and her blade humming at his throat.
"How did you find me?" she growled.
"The Force betrayed you." She could hear the sneer in his voice, arrogant and exultant as if he wasn't about to get his head cut off. "Did you think you could commune with a nexus point without me knowing, when I was only a few systems away?" His fingers twitched and, with a mighty groan, the nearest stone pillar cracked at the base and came toppling down over their heads. She automatically raised a hand to keep it still— the act of doing so was effortless, like breathing, here in this place where energy swept through her in mighty currents— but, the moment her lightsaber lifted from his neck, he surged upwards, rolling her over and to the side, the ground vibrating as the dislodged pillar smashed into the spot where they had been a scant half-second ago.
Now the one on her back, Rey glared up at the expressionless black helm looming above her. "You could have killed us both!"
"Wouldn't that have been poetic," he mused, "for you and I to die together?"
"You're crazy." Her fingers scrabbled at the tiles, feeling around for the lightsaber she had dropped, but he was having none of it, pinning her wrist to the floor with one heavy, leather-clad hand.
And then the Force... left. That was the only way to describe it, the sudden absence akin to the immediate ringing stillness after a door had been slammed shut. "Perhaps next time you will think twice before destroying my temple," the Goddess hissed in Rey's ear, followed by— nothing. Absolutely nothing.
"What was that?" Kylo demanded, his body tense and strained on top of hers. As if he'd heard it, too. " Who was that?"
Rey opened her mouth to issue some form of snappy retort. To rail at him for always, always ruining everything, for being a continued blight on her existence and on the galaxy at large. But, at that precise moment, a smattering of footsteps reverberated throughout the courtyard, mingled with the unmistakable clicking sound of safeties being deactivated.
"On your feet!" a stern, masculine voice commanded. " Slowly. Hands up where we can see them."