The shadow of Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, looms over the future of our beloved galaxy far, far away. In The Force Awakens, we learned that Ben Solo — better known as Kylo Ren — had fallen to the Dark Side, in part because of a strange obsession with his grandfather. But how did we get to this point, to the point where Kylo Ren embraced Darth Vader's legacy and led the brutal Knights of Ren?
As #StarWars fans know, the franchise is more than just a series of blockbuster movies. When Disney purchased Lucasfilm back in 2012, it didn't take them long to embrace the idea of linking different mediums together in one breathtakingly seamless narrative. Now, the novelist Chuck Wendig has just completed his canon Aftermath trilogy, set in the years after Return of the Jedi. It's the story of the Empire's fall — but it also offers fascinating hints about how the First Order came to be.
What's more, it gives some tantalizing clues as to how Darth Vader's legacy has transformed the galaxy...
The Secret History of Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa
First, some context: It's important to realize that, in the aftermath of the Battle of Endor, Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa chose to keep some of their family history secret. Sure, they let everybody know that they were brother and sister, but they didn't tell anyone that their father was Darth Vader. The Empire kept secret the fact that Anakin Skywalker became a Sith Lord; it suited Palpatine to have his Apprentice suddenly emerge from the shadows, a terrifying and mysterious force. That's why none of the rebels ever told Luke about Anakin's fall — nobody knew about it. Luke and Leia chose to keep that secret.
We're never really given their reasons, but it's likely that there were both practical and emotional considerations. Emotionally, Leia in particular would have taken the news like a blade into the heart. After all, her strongest memory of Darth Vader would have been the torture he subjected her to on the Death Star, followed by the destruction of the world she called home. Claudia Gray's novel Bloodline checks in with Leia years later, still struggling with the truth.
What's more, with both Luke and Leia playing such a decisive role in the Rebellion, their family history would have been a terrible complication. It would have dragged the focus away from rebuilding the Galaxy, and left their every action questionable. As Leia sought to continue her political career, people would have whispered in fear; as Luke searched out Jedi teachings, the public would have been suspicious.
No, the two could only choose to keep Vader's tie to them a secret — and, as such, Luke would never be able to tell anyone what actually happened on the Second Death Star. The tale of Darth Vader's redemption would never have been disclosed.
Chuck Wendig goes on to develop this in a fantastic, unexpected way, as he reveals the Acolytes of the Beyond. They make their debut in the first novel, Aftermath, where they're referred to as a Dark Side cult of teenagers who clearly have a lot of credits behind them; they're hunting for, and purchasing, Sith lightsabers. Incredibly, we're told that they intend to destroy these blades, uniting them with the ancient Sith Lords in the afterlife.
For all that's the case, though, the same scene gives us a glimpse of some graffiti scrawled on a wall: "VADER LIVES."
In Aftermath: Life Debt, we learn that the Acolytes of the Beyond are somehow tied to this graffiti; they believe that death isn't the end, and that Vader is still deserving of their loyalty. In a scene that's frankly styled after a horror movie, the Acolytes actually stage a bloody revolution on Corellia, with some using actual lightsabers and others using sticks painted red. Their worship of the Sith is obvious.
It's no surprise to see Wendig circle back to the Acolytes of the Beyond in Aftermath: Empire's End, but he does so in a way that's absolutely breathtaking. He reveals that the Acolytes were formed by Yupe Tashu, a Sith cultist who was associated with Palpatine himself. They're fervent and zealous, bloody and brutal, and they're influenced by a strange mix of Sith lore and Tashu's insane teachings.
Here's the thing, though — they clearly have genuine Dark Side artifacts, including Sith masks that are clear nods to the events of the old Knights of the Old Republic game. These masks are soaked in the Dark Side, and we see one Acolyte transformed as she dons one, losing her doubts and her fears, giving in to her bloodlust and rage.
The description of the mask is pretty reminiscent of the one worn by Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens. It may not be the same mask, but it's pretty easy to see the conceptual link.
The Secret Revealed
We now circle back to Claudia Gray's Bloodline, a politically-strong novel that's mostly told from Leia's point of view. In it, Leia decides to stand for the position of Chancellor, campaigning relentlessly to make a difference in a New Republic that's straining under too many competing ideals. In a tragic twist, though, one of Leia's political opponents learns her greatest secret, stumbling upon a message left for Leia by Bail Organa, intended to tell her the truth about Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader in the event of his death.
Naturally, the truth comes out — and Leia's career is ruined. Her political career is cast as part of Darth Vader's legacy, and the entire Galaxy looks at her with suspicion. Leia withdraws from the Senate, and — believing that some dangerous force is manipulating events — reaches out to her closest friends in order to set up the Resistance.
What Bloodline doesn't show us, though, is the impact this all has on Ben Solo. It seems that Han and Leia hadn't yet gotten round to telling their young son about his grandfather, and no doubt this revelation would shake a child's world.
Where do we go from here?
The Acolytes of the Beyond have clearly been set up as a key force in the future of the galaxy far, far away. They live within the shadow of Darth Vader, and will no doubt be seeking out anything connected to the Sith Lord — from his lightsaber to the remnants of his mask.
With Darth Vader's fate revealed, it's pretty clear that the Acolytes would head to Endor, to seek out Vader's funeral pyre — doing so would probably become a pilgrimage, in fact. If any fragments of Vader's armor (such as, say, his mask) survived, they'd take them as holy artifacts.
Worse still, when Leia's family history was revealed, the Acolytes would most definitely become interested in young Ben Solo. Given that the family secret would likely have shaken a child, it leaves Leia's son in a very vulnerable place indeed. And there are clear conceptual links between the Acolytes of the Beyond and Kylo Ren — ranging from the Sith masks to the veneration of Darth Vader. Indeed, in The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren speaks to Vader's helmet as if he believed Vader were still alive, still inhabiting it — just as the Acolytes of the Beyond would believe.
Lucasfilm is playing the long-game, setting up new elements of the Star Wars franchise that will no doubt come into play in the future. Personally, I'm expecting #TheLastJedi to reveal the truth about Ben Solo's fall, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Acolytes of the Beyond played a part in it. Given that their founder, Tashu, was linked to Palpatine's insane plan to destroy the Empire and launch the First Order, they could very easily wind up connected to Snoke himself. In which case, through the Acolytes of the Beyond, Snoke could reach out to corrupt Ben Solo.
And the shadow of Darth Vader would be cast across the Galaxy once again...