Each sharp intake of breath fills Rey’s lungs with the sting of ozone and the crackle of tension, thick enough between herself and her Master that the sparring felt slow. Belabored by the exhaustion from hours of training beforehand and the humidity that singes the twin red blades of her saber, enough for intermittent puffs of steam to rise. The glow of their weapons is the only light they go by now, the sun hidden by phosphorus and sulfur clouds; Maul would not stop, day or night, they’d continue on until Rey drops to one knee and begs of him, his mercy.
Today is different. Lightning, painted orange by the eerie tapestry of the dusky sky, forks brilliantly and thunder rattles the ground beneath their feet. Rey can feel it, it feeds the living force with static and sets her on edge.
Something is coming; it has both of them pacing neatly across the flatlands where they routinely train. Maul bares his teeth at the sky, unbothered by the threat of a storm and gives his saber a flourish to draw Rey’s focus back to him. She inclines her head in an approximation of a bow and sets back into a defensive stance; staff held parallel to her body so that one blade shone directly in front of her face and its twin burns a stain into the greyed stone at her heel.
He approaches cautiously, in a choreographed sequence so that Rey would both learn the follow-through to repeat it when it is her turn to go on the offensive, and how to defend against it now.
Maul’s a skilled teacher, even if not a patient one; his desire to see her succeed under the cruel thumb of Sith tutelage wars with the man who had known her since she was knee-high and terrified of being left alone. The girl before him now is a woman forged in the fires of adversity and hardened like an unholy diamond from the pressure and rigor of her training. And so he would fight her not as a child, but as his near equal.
He brought his saber down over her head and Rey blocks it with a split second twist of her forearm, the other edge of her own saber nearly catching him in the knee but Maul is lithe, and his robotic limbs give him the upper hand insofar as flexibility, and speed. It draws a surprised noise from her and Rey has to throw herself to the slate floor in order to avoid the singe of him swinging his staff around to complete the arc of the initial attack.
“Slow.” He chides, but there’s no heat behind it. If anything, Maul’s the one who is beginning to sound worn, whereas Rey’s cheeks burn from exertion but her muscles hum happily, power still pulsing through her in waves.
Rey chuckles when he reaches out his hand to pull her up, she claps it with her own, firm, and rises to stand. Dusting ash and soot from her dark robes in the intermediary, it’s nearly invisible, the marks left by her fall but they are nonetheless irritating, and the young apprentice is nothing if not meticulous
“Again,” she insists, and Maul responds with a sage nod and by falling back into step -- Rey would get this right eventually, she’s sure of it.
Before they can resume, Qi’ra’s voice echoes off the sheer cliffs behind them; and both force sensitives turn to look towards her, a mirror image that makes her smile wide (the lines on her aging face tell Rey that she hasn’t smiled nearly enough in her life), and she waves for them to continue. The older woman takes her seat on a smooth outcropping -- worn from a hundred other days, just like this -- and watches as Rey reignites her saber.
Her posture is ramrod, the careful footwork, one behind the other as Rey faces him, walking in a semicircle around Maul, the world fading to a monochromatic blur behind her. Nothing exists that is not this: the steady rise and fall of her chest as she measures her breathing, the creak of her knuckles as she tightens her grip on the hilt of her saberstaff, and the way their eyes lock-- Master and apprentice -- across the training ground.
It’s nearly a dance in its complexity but as routine as the setting sun; two predators posturing -- the flash of her Master’s serrated teeth, and her own exposed as full lips split into an incredibly telling grin. This, while necessary to ensure Rey would blossom as a Sith all her own, still wrought joy.
Some families go to core worlds and play on beaches, theirs sparred until the callouses on her palms split and bled.
“Tired yet?” Rey goads, and the Zabrak throws back his head, vestigial horns catching the last dregs of the golden sunset when a laugh of all things works its way up his throat. She can’t recall ever having heard him laugh before, so it’s enough to catch Rey off guard. Maul isn’t one to miss an opening -- shifting forward, he lunges and the end of his saber catches her in the shoulder, knocking Rey flat on her ass.
This time, he doesn’t help her up, and the flash of his mangled smile is a warning.
She has to do better. She must.
Qi’ra’s gone to say something - a snide comment that’d distract Maul long enough for Rey to regain her footing - when the sky darkens further, unnaturally. This is not the work of oncoming night but the dreadnought that crawls out of hyperspace and leaves the world around them in a mottled, patchwork of shadow.
Rey’s heart is hammering in her chest; not out of fear, but the thrill of a battle promised.
She might be an apprentice, but she knows that she’s a force all her own, ready and raring to deal damage to whatever fool battalion thought it best to attack a planet inhabited solely by ancient Sith and powerful enemies to any and all who’d threaten their home.
Nobody moves for a solid few moments; all staring on in awe (and perhaps in fear -- though no present parties would ever admit to such a weakness). Maul’s the first to react, extinguishing his saber and marching back towards the refurbished Sith temple that now serves as their house.
It takes Rey twice as long to shake off the paralytic that is the unknown looming ominously above them; saberstaff clipped to the wrap-around holster on her thigh. Qi’ra joins her, of course, not a minute later; her hand warm to the small of Rey’s back in a familiar and comforting gesture.
“What do you think they want?” Rey speaks, hushed as if the willowy hwotha berry or stout greybush that line the pathway back up the foothills were listening in. Qi’ra’s sigh to follow speaks to the life she’s lead, prepared for the world to fall apart at any moment.
She stops, well out of earshot of the Zabrak that then disappears behind rotting pillars and worn Qorsisajak inscriptions, and turns to look at Rey. Weary eyes rove over the young apprentice’s face, and Rey can almost cry from the fondness she finds when a weathered hand lifts her chin, gaze held in silence as the wind kicks up russet sand, they stand shielded only by the Snowbark tree, looming like a patron of the temple behind it.
“What all Empire’s want sweet girl,” Qi’ra’s voice breaks, cheeks hollow when she goes to steady herself with a penetrative breath, “To conquer whatever and whoever aren’t already theirs to control.”
There’s a heft to the force now, something that hadn’t previously woven itself into the complicated tapestry of all living things here -- Rey senses it, weak from afar but it’s familiar in the way a lost dream is when it comes back in pieces. It leaves her unsettled yet without a way to communicate the pit of dread forming low, heavy like a stone in her gut.
“They’ll die if they come here. We’ll make sure of it.” Rey speaks with a strength she possesses, but cannot wield with any true efficacy. It makes Qi’ra bark a laugh, but it’s sad, weighs someplace around the middle.
“They’ve got unlimited resources and thousands of soldiers waiting for the opportune moment to strike. I’ve worked with men like these before, they won’t stop, they won’t yield. Rey -- it’s important that you listen to me,” Qi’ra’s grabbing her by the upper arms now, her hands shake from the force of it, just this side of painful. Rey nods her understanding, so she continues. “You need to leave -- they only know what the legends of old told them. No one’s stepped foot on Dathomir in half a century with any sort of intent. It’s been neutral ground through nearly two regimes -- we knew that it would come to this eventually.” She lets go of her, unaware that a tear or two have leaked out, traveling down the lines of her face, a story by pathways and age marked skin.
Rey knows the warning is riddled with maternal intent but it sends a shiver up her spine and has her withdrawing from Qi’ra’s arms as if she’d been stung.
“You want me to run away? To leave ?” Incredulously, a clap of thunder saps the moment of its tenderness, and as the light flares hotly across the sky, Rey’s eyes had gone the way of a true sith; veined in hellfire and gold.
She was five when Qi’ra found her. Sun-soaked, starved, huddled in the carcass of an Empire-era AT-AT, to shield herself from the unforgiving desert. It’d been her home for a handful of weeks; and tally marks begun to obscure the far wall (not too many, she’d been plagued by dreams where the scratches numbered in the thousands). A sandstorm drove her towards Rey’s then-home and avoided an untimely -- and unpleasant -- death by the shelter she found.
Rey’d been terrified; thought another slaver had come to steal her away (her parents were coming back, you see), but Qi’ra’s shock and awe radiated nothing but warmth: it is you, she’d said, sensing what she’d been sent here for in the little girl tucked away, a ramshackle doll clutched to her chest and a too-large helmet matting her three buns to the back of her head.
I’ll keep you safe, she’d insisted, her hand held out, a ring in her palm - it shone gold in the wan light of dusk, the emblem formed was unfamiliar to her then, but it was oh-so-pretty, and even a novice scavenger would know it’d be worth a hundred thousand portions at least. Rey clutched at it, her toy left to the wayside in favor for this trinket; and Qi’ra smiled brightly, pale eyes full of something unfamiliar to Rey, hope.
I’ll never leave you, she’d promised, cradling the malnourished girl to her, Jakku disappearing beneath their feet and blue, so much blue, blurred by in the lanes of hyperspace.
We will watch over you. We, now, as a man with horns knelt before her and promised to the oldest gods of old that he’d give her the strength to conquer the world, and to know without a shadow of a doubt that she was worth more than what she’d been sold for.
All of these promises had been made before Rey could comprehend their magnitude; and now, now, as she breathes in tears and exhales ash, she knows what it meant to watch them be broken, one by one.
“I can’t,” Her voice is thick where it catches in her throat and Rey’s grappling desperately to reign in her emotions.
Peace is a lie, there is only passion
“You can’t what, Rey?” Qi’ra’s not soft, the iron of the survivor underneath riding her words like a command. “I’m not asking you -- I’m telling you.” And oh, it hurts her to do it because she knows full well why Rey’s aching this way.
Rey sets her jaw, nostrils flaring; she’d always been defiant, always strong, but now she shows that she can be cruel. “I don’t have to listen to you,” Her accent, a mirror of Qi’ra’s own, and the older woman flinches at how imperious it twists the words, Rey’s head held high. “You’re not my master -- he is,” She looks to the temple now, and more thunder wreaths them in threat. “And he’s gone to meditate on this problem. Not to run from it.”
She steps back until she’s beyond Qi’ra’s reach, shaking her head and unwittingly dislodging tears from her eyes, raining them down like dark flecks on the path at her feet.
Come back, Rey hears, as she turns away to walk towards her home; the night has fallen darker still, promises, promises of this hellish world churning underneath the First Order’s threat, long, angled shadows slot across the red planes at the mountain’s base.
Crying in earnest now, it becomes increasingly difficult to navigate the pavement that twines up the hillside and leads to the temple above. Rey’s walked it twice every day for thirteen years, she should know it by instinct if not sight -- and still, she clips her shoulder on the gnarled finger of a grave thorn, a tree she knew better than to touch.
Blood falls now; blood and tears -- the irony, however poignant, only serves to further rile up the fledgling Sith and she shouts her frustrations to the skies.
As if they’d grant her peace.
Peace is a lie, there is only passion, through passion, I gain strength, through strength, I gain power, through power, I gain victory, through victory, my chains are broken, the force shall free me.
Rey recites this internally, some fools hope that it would serve its due in grounding her, in stopping the snap-crackle of force energy running like an overworked bit of circuitry through her veins.
She rests her palm over her shoulder where the fresh wound continues to weep; power then, a white-hot surge of it and she’s healed it, warm, wet, red, but left without a trace of where it’d come from.
Healing, a sign of the light; Rey knows this but she’s unafraid. Her loyalties are built on a solid foundation and it would take more than just a utilitarian trick to sway or convince her otherwise.
It’s dangerous for her to live so far in her head, so deeply and completely; but what had they expected? She’s got them; two people she knew, and no one else. A growing girl needed friends her age to acclimate to adolescence, and so Rey’d only been guided by the firm hand of a Sith Lord and his criminal companion.
Rey loves them.
Or at the very least, she respects them.
The air is thick in that way before a storm, but one’s been brewing for a long while now and it does not explain the shift; the weight that’s got her shoulders lifting defensively up the back of her neck, the hair at its nape raising.
This all tells Rey one thing; danger is near.
It stands to reason that the First Order dreadnought is to blame, unmoving from the spot it’s been in since coming into their system. A black stain in a kaleidoscope sky; Rey pauses, a half step from the temple’s entrance to look upon it.
Massive is Rey’s first thought; she’s only seen the Scimitar, half-rusted and a dozen miles away; and Qi’ra’s vessel -- some ungainly straight shot flying castle that she’s not sure has a name.
This isn’t a small, personal shuttle or something outfitted for single combat. It’s large enough to take out a battalion; to mow down or house an army. Large enough to pose a threat to a family of Sith.
Large enough to conquer a planet.
Rey can’t repress the shudder that rattles her slight frame; she isn’t afraid, but like calls to like in her intrinsic draw to power. It thrums through the living force, it is respect and the natural order both; she feels it, not unlike the lightning streaking across the sky. It pulses in the back of her head, a voice: don’t be afraid.
She hisses, mirroring the Zabrak that’s taken the place at her side; only for him to grab Rey’s hands and drag her into the temple, the protective cloak of the force wrapping around them, an invisible barrier that stops Rey from feeling the oppressive force of something distant but nonetheless powerful.
“What was that?” Rey cries out in surprise, Maul’s since let her go and is pacing rapidly, in short distanced bursts.
“I don’t know,” he answers honestly, and Rey hates just how unnerved he appears to be by that truth.
For all her known life Darth Maul has been a legend, tangentially, but a father figure above all else; Rey both heard and saw first hand what he is capable of, and she thirsted for all the knowledge he’d impose: from Master to Apprentice. Such were the ways of the old.
Now, though, he’s feral, unhinged, Rey can sense his panic bleeding into the force between them and not only is it uncharacteristic of the Sith Lord, but it’s enough that Rey distances herself from him physically, much as she had Qi’ra not ten minutes before.
“That’s not good enough.” Rey spits. Any other time she’d have fear of repercussion, but then, just then, she felt as though she is the only one of the three that isn’t buckling under the pressure of the unknown.
Sure, Rey’s worried but what good does that do? She can compartmentalize if it means handling high-stress situations well.
Adapt to survive; it’s what Rey’s always done best.
Maul pauses, and looks towards Rey; the shadows at his back are shifting and no sooner had he opened his mouth to speak than a crackling spit of red light pierces his chest from behind. Through and through, a lightsaber blinking and spluttering as if it is comprised of fire alone and not the plasma she knew it to be.
His eyes go dark first; once vibrant, full of life (and wrath in equal measure), in the split second before his body falls, a dull thud in the otherwise silent temple.
Rey can count on one hand the number of times she’d seen him smile; a memory, sharp and invasive like the tears she feels stinging her eyes.
A hot spring around back -- she’d nearly fallen in twice before, but that time Maul oversaw her escapade, jumping into a small pool that didn’t run quite as hot as its neighbors. She giggled, absolutely enraptured by any body of water but that this one was special, she was tall enough to stand on her tiptoes and still keep her head above the surface. He’d still watch her, diligent, ensuring that she was never in harm's way.
She’d enthused about swimming, and so Maul had taught her how. Not in the puddles, no, but a lake with a loamy shore and water that’s pink and green, leached minerals from the alkaline bedrock striking the surface in an oil slick. Harmless, but Rey had thought it the prettiest thing and was amused by the way she floated, her tunic fanned out like a halo.
Maul instructed her there; basic strokes, he’d treat it like a survival necessity (any number of worlds they’d visit later on could have vast oceans and rivers that would necessitate her learning to swim), but part of Rey always knew, even then, that he’d done it because it made her happy.
One particularly warm afternoon, they’d gone down to the water’s edge and Rey’d dunked her head in -- to cool down, she’d explained, but all it did was matte her hair so it ran slick down her back, and Maul had chuckled amusedly. Rey looked up at him, one eye closed and the other squinting, “What do your horns do?” So baldly, so bluntly, that it’d blindsided the Zabrak.
He barked a laugh, just once, and Rey’s face twisted up in a frustrating display; he wasn't taking her questions seriously -- but the next thing he did had Rey in stitches.
Maul ran his hands through her hair (short, cropped to fall along her jaw; practicality above vanity) and as wet as it was, it took the shape he haphazardly crafted. Tufts of chestnut formed into a crown of makeshift horns, so that he and Rey could match.
She’d worn them proudly, until gravity played its part and took each away, one by one.
Funny, how in the thick of it she’d been angry at him, frustrated that the two and only people in her life could not give her answers the one time she’d asked something that had not been clearly explained.
Now though, all she cares to remember are the moments where she’d been happy, safe, loved and cared for in a way her biological family had not seen to.
And this masked creature had taken it all away.
In a flash she draws Maul’s saber to herself, igniting one of the blades as she reaches for her own, and does the same. Two saber staffs, half-lit, each with an angry bright spit of crimson ready to cut vengeance from sinew and bone. Rey has half a mind to dual wield them as they’re intended, as a staff with two beams but it felt sort of justified to use her master’s weapon to grant him retribution after death.
Rey leaps forward, a battle cry clawing its way up her throat; it disarms her opponent momentarily. His dark robes billow out, breeding uniformity with the shadows that flicker in the low lighting of the temple; but it is his mask that caught Rey’s eyes. For one, it’s a kriffing mask and the last person to wear one and wield a red saber is Darth Vader, and he’s decidedly not the long-dead Sith Lord. And secondly; in the intermittent flashes of their blades colliding, it paints a haunting picture, and Rey cannot discredit the intimidation factor it plays, or how she’s lost her footing twice.
He fights differently than Maul, and though Rey has dedicated every spare hour to sparring, studying stances and postures; how to retaliate against a litany of assaults. Each swing of his saber is heavy, and when it collides with her own Rey’s heels slide back on the smooth stone floor. Her right shoulder has begun to act, absorbing most of the impact until she sets her jaw and Rey feels it rattle all the way through her teeth. It’s painful, but through pain there is clarity.
Through pain, strength.
Rey grunts through his next barrage; but she regains the footing she’s lost and is attacking him with every ounce of strength she has left -- for Maul, for everything she’s ever known and the threat of losing it, and for herself.
This is her life, and Rey’s fought tooth and nail to survive this far, to earn her place as an apprentice to the once (and always) great Darth Maul.
“You killed him,” Her voice is high and tight; Rey cannot even recognize it as her own; she can’t hear all that well as it is, there’s been ringing in her ears for the past few minutes and she attributes it to the whine of colliding sabers.
The masked man does not speak, but there’s a growl that’s nearly inhuman, a voice modulator, Rey surmises, and in that millisecond where she draws both weapons back to spin, a perfect mirror of Maul’s training, just this morning; Rey finds herself frozen in place. A warbling, low, she feels rather than hears the distortion in the force that has her pinned.
“What was he to you?” He speaks, and the baritone sends chills through her, but she can feel autonomy returning to her in inches. Bit by bit, pins and needles first but its cold, like ice in her veins but she can’t quite feel it; removed, like distant, an echo of a sensation but it’s present enough that she can tell his grip is fading.
“My master,” Rey grits out, and it gives the man pause.
“You’re Sith?” He regards Rey differently; it’s still distorted by the mask but she can denote a shift in inflection, his posture is stiff, drawing to his full (and remarkable) height, and when he speaks next, it’s immediately beside her, “Apprentice.”
Rey hisses, and had Maul been alive he would have been proud of the hatred festering deep and dark and turbulent.
“I have no Master, I belong to no one,” She wrenches free of the paralysis and throws the stranger back with a powerful blow to the chest, the force interlocking as a battle of wits and wills ensues.
Rey screams, and the stranger’s helmet is ripped off of him, leaving him exposed. A man with dark features; broad, wide, obscured faintly by a mop of windswept black hair. Like ink.
“If you’re Sith,” He begins, grunting as they’re locked together by an unseen, telekinetic thread, “and I killed your Master -- as the standing elder I command you back down.” His voice is still low, even without the modulator, and Rey’s once more shuddering, shivering as if they weren’t surrounded by fire, locked in a heated biome with a supernova burning brightly above.
Rey wants to argue this, wants to scream and shout and do everything right by her fallen master but there’s a voice at the back of her head that tells her to yield, to stand down and do what is instructed by the code, not by her broken heart.
The moment she withdraws her power, his knocks her back. But she lands hard on one knee, and in that. Rey bows.
“You need a teacher,” He says, and Rey nods; hers is gone; she’d been told to leave and Rey hadn’t. The sound of a ship breaking atmo is all Rey needs to know about Qi’ra’s choice, and so she’s left with one.
“Master,” Rey’s voice betrays the tears hidden by how her hair slips forward, obscuring her voice.
“You may call me Kylo Ren.”