The opening crawl for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker declares that the Emperor has returned, a fact that the characters in the movie accept without skipping a beat. There are plenty of ways he could have come back, but J.J. Abrams’ sequel only brushes against the details of the plot and who helped enact it. As it turns out, there are answers to be found in The Rise of Skywalker’s supplemental material.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.]
In the movie, we see that Palpatine has thousands of beings hanging out around him on Exegol, but their identities are left out of the movie entirely. The one thing the movie does let us know is that they are a group of Sith cultists who wish to see the Dark Force-wielding faction return to power in the galaxy.
These cultists are called the Sith Eternal. According to The Rise of Skywalker — The Visual Dictionary, the Sith Eternal is a group of cultists who long for Sith rule in the galaxy, and venerate the legacy of Darth Sidious (aka Palpatine). It’s unclear if these cultists had already gathered in the Unknown Regions during the days of the Galactic Empire, or if they were only brought together to help the Emperor rise again. The Sith Eternal built shipyards on Exegol where, in the years since the fall of the Empire, they’ve been constructing a fleet for the still-living Emperor’s Final Order with the help of slave labor. The cultists have apparently also been assisting Palpatine in creating Snoke and several clones.
According to the Star Wars Aftermath books, Palpatine always had a contingency plan that involved building a secret fleet in the Unknown Regions. But it appears that this plan resulted in the First Order, and that this new Final Order fleet is something else entirely.
As for the mysterious crew of these ships, who are only briefly glimpsed in The Rise of Skywalker, the Visual Dictionary describes them as being “raised as the children of the Sith Eternal cultists,” though it doesn’t specify whether they’re actually the cultists’ biological children. The book does let us know that these officers have been raised in the ways of the Dark Side, and that while they aren’t Force-sensitive themselves, they do revere the teachings of the Force. This makes them a far cry from the Imperial officers who derided the Force as an ancient religion.
There isn’t much more information on the Sith Eternal, but there are a few things we can put together if we look at some of the other information in the Star Wars Aftermath novels. One character in the novels is a Sith cultist called Yupe Tashu. He was formerly an Imperial adviser and fairly close with the Emperor, or as close as anyone could be. While most in the Empire believed the Emperor dead after the Battle of Endor, Tashu thought differently.
“Palpatine lives on,” he says in Empire’s End: Aftermath. “We will find him again out there in the dark. Everything has arranged itself as our Master foretold. All things move toward the great design. The sacrifices have all been made.”
Tashu may not get a mention in The Rise of Skywalker, but he is called out in the Visual Dictionary. In fact, he’s a known associate of Ochi, the Sith relic hunter whose ship Lando tells Rey, Poe, and Finn about on Pasaana in the movie. That’s the same relic hunter that was looking for a wayfinder to get to Exegol.
While this doesn’t exactly prove anything, it does lay the groundwork for a compelling theory. Perhaps Tashu really did find the Emperor’s body, and was using Ochi to hunt down a wayfinder so he could bring Palpatine to Exegol. Or, maybe Tashu knew the Emperor had made his way to Exegol, and needed the wayfinder to reunite with his old master. Either way, it seems likely that Tashu was in some way part of, or at least aware of, the Emperor’s larger plans for “resurrection,” and for the Final Order.
Speaking of wayfinders, the Sith Eternal aren’t the only Sith-oriented cult we see in The Rise of Skywalker. According to the Visual Dictionary, the planet that we see Kylo Ren visit in the beginning of the film is actually Mustafar, the final resting place of Anakin Skywalker, and the eventual home base of Darth Vader — as we see in Rogue One.
Since Vader’s death, cults that worship the Sith Lord have sprung up; a pilgrimage to Mustafar is often an important part of their beliefs. The creatures that Kylo is slaughtering there are part of a cult called the Alazmec of Winsit. These cultists block Kylo’s path to Vader’s castle, where Kylo finds the wayfinder — held in a box with the Sith Eternal emblem on it — that will ultimately point him to Exegol and Emperor Palpatine himself.
While the Visual Dictionary has loads of information (details that we sort of wish were in the movie to begin with) it ultimately still leaves us with plenty of questions. It’s nice to know that the hordes gathered around Darth Sidious were members of the Sith Eternal cult, but we still don’t know exactly where they came from. Hopefully the full depths of these Sith loyalists will be explored in comics, novels, or TV shows while we wait for the next Star Wars movies to arrive.