Contains spoilers for Destiny 2's campaign, so if you haven't finished it yet, come back later. Though if you have, and you want a deep breakdown of what that ending means, check out 8 questions I have after finishing Destiny 2.
Travelling weekend Exotic trader Xur has long been one of Destiny’s most engaging and enigmatic characters. Never explicitly involved in the main story, his status as an Agent of the mysterious Nine, and his endlessly cryptic, darkly intriguing dialogue, has made him a fan-favourite and a major source of storyline speculation. And now he's back in Destiny 2, in a new iteration of his trader role. But I think that this time, his place in the Destiny universe is steadily going to be become more explicitly apparent, in a way that might eventually change everything.
In in fact it's already starting, I reckon. He has a new colleague of sorts, in Trials of the Nine's new Emissary character. And the story threads spiraling from that partnership could eventually unravel a great deal of long-hidden truth, concerning allies, enemies, and the very nature of Everything itself. In fact, by my analysis, that's already started happening too. So let’s crack on, shall we, and dig deep into the truth behind of Xur and all his wiggly, wily mysteries.
Xur and the Nine
The story of Xur is inextricably the story of The Nine. The trader’s enigmatic and currently unseen (at least in-game) masters are a far-flung, vaguely defined group, ruling beyond the vast Jovian worlds on the outer edge of our solar system. This makes their chief domain the gas and ice giants - Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune - and those planets’ related moons.
This puts The Nine well out of the way of the first game's main areas of concern, leading to their (seeming) lack of involvement in the story, pre-Destiny 2. As of Destiny 2 though, we are right on their doorstep, exploring Titan and Io, moons of Saturn and Jupiter respectively. And regardless of their physical absence so far, The Nine are some of the biggest players in the bigger picture, a matter that I’ll explore a little further down.
As for Xur? The reason that he’s inseparable from his masters is that he doesn’t actually have a great deal of autonomous, personal will - if any at all. His dialogue reinforces this repeatedly, representing him as a kind of sentient puppet infused with a purpose he has long-since forgotten. So, quite literally, to understand Xur’s motivation is to understand that of The Nine. Aaand here’s where it gets interesting.
What are The Nine, and what do they want?
The short answer? We don’t entirely know. The long answer? Well, that’s quite a bit longer indeed, and will take the rest of this article to explain. To start off with though, we have the Grimoire card Ghost Fragment: Legends 2 from the original Destiny. This card purports to explain the nature of The Nine, but consists of nine separate, often contradictory sentences.
“The Nine are survivors of the cis-Jovian colonies who made a compact with an alien force to ensure their own survival.
The Nine are deep-orbit warminds who weathered the Collapse in hardened stealth platforms.
The Nine are ancient leviathan intelligences from the seas of Europa or the hydrocarbon pits of Titan.
The Nine arrived in a mysterious transmission from the direction of the Corona-Borealis supercluster.
The Nine are the firstborn Awoken and their minds now race down the field lines of the Jupiter-Io flux tube.
The Nine are Ghosts who pierced the Deep Black without a ship and meditated on the hissing silence of the heliopause.
The Nine are the aspects of the Darkness, broken by the Traveler's rebuke, working to destroy us from within.
The Nine is a viral language of pure meaning.
The Nine are the shadows left by the annihilation of a transcendent shape, burned into the weft of what is.”
What can we take from this? Well there are several interpretations. The first is that the above is simply a collection of the legends and hearsay that have built up around the mysterious faction, a compendium of myths and rumours that have grown to fill centuries of missing knowledge. And there’s some (loose) concrete plausibility to some of them.
We know that as a result of their position on the outside of the solar system, the Jovian planets (once colonised) were lost when the Traveler retreated to Earth during the Collapse. As explained in Destiny 2, Io was the last location the Traveler visited before the Collapse, hence its sacred status to Warlocks. We also know that ancient, sea-bound leviathans have existed. The Darkness-aligned worms that initially empowered the Hive were exactly that. And we know that the once-human Awoken (those blue-faced folk you’ve seen running around, as Guardians and otherwise) were created after surviving a run-in with the Darkness as they fled far from Earth to escape the Collapse.
The Grimoire card, Mystery: Vault of Glass 3, details the perspective of a Ghost floating through space alone. It also depicts what seems to be the Dead Orbit faction’s long-prophesied exodus from a devastated Earth, apparently placing these events in the future. But when it comes to the Vault of Glass (a Vex catacomb, temple of sorts, and experimental scientific installation), time travel and potential alternate realities come as standard.
But it’s also possible that all of these descriptions identify the Nine, albeit in variably metaphorical form. Read as a thematic whole, rather than as separate pieces of literal information, there’s a strong thread of escape, narrow survival, evolution through hardship, and potential, empowered retribution. A sense of something that only just made it through the system-wide apocalypse of the Collapse and - being left alone in space, and separate from the methods and doctrine of the Vanguard, Traveler and Speaker - turned into something entirely different as a result.
It’s also feasible that, given that there are nine statements, the card details a Nine made up not of a single species, but of a collaboration between nine different life-forms. I tend not to take the card so literally, but whichever way you read it, the central themes of the Nine remain constant. They likely existed in another form (or forms) before the Collapse, and have now ascended in their own, distinctly alien way, both physically and philosophically. Indeed, Xur’s dialogue often riffs on heavy themes of transformation and deserted origins. His new Destiny 2 dialogue even more so. If you hang around with him and listen to his ambient dialogue, you'll hear all kinds of references to the evolution of cells and 'the combining of dust' to create something new.
As such, it should really be no surprise that the Nine seem to have a particular affinity with the Awoken, a race defined by their refusal to choose between Light and Dark (being the elevated product of both) and in particular have had repeat dealings with Mara Sov, the Awoken queen of the Reef. So let’s explore that next.
The Nine and the Reef
For all their seeming distance from the central ‘Earth story’ of Destiny, the Nine have been heavily involved for a long time. They’ve been allies - possibly even patrons - of the Awoken during some of the most significant moments in Destiny’s recent history. The Reef Wars, during which Mara Sov broke the Awoken out of isolation to halt a burgeoning Fallen attack on the City, have been defined as a “mutual victory” between the Awoken and the Nine, possibly related to the Fallen attack force originating in the Jovians, something the reclusive Nine can’t have been happy with.
Indeed, dissatisfaction with encroaching civilisations seems a major red light for the Nine, given that they later expressed displeasure to Mara herself when her brother Uldren’s Crow forces travelled to the Cauldrons of Rea on Saturn. The message was relayed by Mara’s Techeun Witches, technology-enchanced advisors and warriors who, among a great many pseudo-supernatural abilities, seem able to communicate directly with the Nine.
At this point, with all of the thematic parallels in their lineage taken into account, it seems increasingly unlikely that the Nine and the Awoken are two entirely separate races, and more plausible that the two groups are bonded, at least spiritually, through connected origins. If the forces of Light are in a worshipful partnership with the Traveler, and the forces of Darkness have malicious, ancient gods, it’s very feasible that the more ambiguous Awoken, transformed Light/Dark hybrids that they are, relate to the Nine in a similar way.
In fact, as of the Trials of the Nine's appearance in Destiny 2, there's even greater evidence of this. If you win a match in the new, hardcore Crucible multiplayer mode, you gain access to a new, Nine-themed social space. There, you'll find the Nine's Emissary. And she looks a lot like an Awoken. Or rather, she looks like some kind of ascended or progenitor Awoken. This makes me consider the real possibility that the Awoken might not simply have spontaneously evolved via their contact with the Darkness, but been given a helping hand through the encounter by the Nine.
Perhaps the Nine witnessed the run-in and, seeing some potential in those fleeing humans, and stepped in, giving the future Awoken the option to evolve and survive. Perhaps the Nine showed them a means of reconciling with the Darkness rather than making an (almost certainly doomed) attempt at fighting it, and then ascended them in a version of their own image. The Emissary's dialogue is certainly full of references to death and rebirth - even more explicitly than Xur's is - and, if we start thinking thematically again, there's an obvious connection there to Ghosts, as mentioned in that previous Grimoire card. After all, the resurrection and empowerment of the dead is a Ghost's primary job.
Getting back to their brief falling out - but leading toward the Nine's possible current motivations - Mara sent Skolas, a Fallen prisoner of the Reef Wars, to the Nine as a gift, in recompense for her brother’s transgression. The Nine rejected the gift and set Skolas free, for reasons currently unknown. The agent they used to send him on his way? Someone who sounded a lot like Xur. It seems he is their go-to point of physical contact with civilisations beyond their own.
Skolas’ freedom eventually kickstarted the events of the House of Wolves expansion, which forced Mara Sov to invite Guardians into the Reef for the first time, to help her fight back. It’s currently unknown if this was an unplanned side-effect of the Nine’s actions, a further punishment for her brother’s incursion, or part of some other, wider plan on their part, perhaps an attempt to introduce the Guardians to the Awoken’s embracing of the Dark. That latter option certainly gains a lot more credence when you consider the Trials of the Nine tournament as a testing ground for the worthiness of new recruits.
The Nine and the Tower
As for the Nine’s relationship with the Vanguard forces on Earth? Even more ambiguous. The Speaker certainly saw them as a potential friend, albeit with some frustration, occasionally lamenting “If only the Nine would help”. Admittedly it’s unclear whether this was out of a genuine sense of kinship with the Nine, or simply sheer desperation, but regardless of the Speaker’s motives, he clearly saw collaboration feasible, despite the Nine’s seeming lack of interest.
Not that the Nine have a total disinterest in the Tower. The very appearance of Xur at all is evidence of that. But is the Nine's sending of representatives a truly altruistic move? Let’s consider a few choice lines of Xur dialogue from the first game:
"An end will come, we will be there."
"This is but one end."
"I am filled with secrets, but you would not understand them."
"I do not entirely control my movements."
"I do not know what the Nine want with you."
"Items belong to The Nine, not me."
"There are no birds where I come from. The things that fly are like shadows."
"There is so much Light here, I suppose I feel pain."
"I...cannot endure long in this place."
"Your Traveler has a dark mirror."
"The Nine are very large... I cannot explain. The fault is mine."
"The deep black is many things, but never lonely."
"I feel a great many consciousnesses impinging on mine. And all of them so small and lonely."
"So lonely here."
"I came for the light perhaps... to understand the light."
"It is very possible The Nine intend to help Humanity."
"There is no reason to fear me."
So if we run all of that thematically, what do we get? Well the dominant concepts this time around are that Xur is (like many races in Destiny) in thrall to a higher power, in this case the Nine. Even more explicitly than the Awoken are, in fact. There are several comparisons between the Nine’s civilisation and the Tower, chiefly concerning the contrasts between Light and Darkness, loneliness and communality. The sense is that the Tower contains a great deal more Light than Xur is used to (to an uncomfortable degree), and that life in the deep black beyond the Jovians might take a more hive-mind style approach.
All of this makes the Nine sound particularly Darkness-aligned, or at least Light/Dark agnostic, as per the Awoken, with some interesting parallels to the Hive’s nature as a host/parasite species, as well as to the hive-mind operations of the Vex. But the Nine don’t sound malicious. Disinterested, perhaps. Undecided, even. They’re certainly not wholesale behind the Vanguard in its glorious battle of Light against the Darkness, but they’re not hostile either. Given that the Nine, through Xur, sell Exotic weapons and armour to Guardians, they’re obviously not against the fighting of the Darkness. Though at the same time, it’s worth noting that several of those Exotics are Darkness-infused, their item lore telling of the ability to corrupt.
Like the Awoken – only on a much larger, more powerful scale - the Nine seem less interested in the overarching concept of Light vs. Darkness, and more concerned with dealing with individuals on a case-by-case basis, while accepting both sides of the line in some sort of balance. If the theory that the Nine both saved and ascended the shadowy Awoken is true, then them now turning their interest to Light-powered Guardians seems to put them in the role of a neutral race, not standing for either faction, but rather watching the ancient war for potential candidates for recruitment.
So if they do straddle the Light/Dark divide, and are looking to strengthen their numbers by promoting balance, what does that mean for the future of Destiny 2? Well actually, quite a lot. And I think it’s all going to come to a head in the first expansion.
The Nine and Osiris
Destiny 2’s first expansion is called The Curse of Osiris. Osiris, as I’ve discussed in other Destiny 2 story articles, is a legendary Warlock, long-since exiled from the Tower for allegedly heretical beliefs. Once the apprentice of the Speaker, his concerns grew past the simple dichotomy of Light vs. Dark, leading him to investigate the potential of a wider, deeper truth, beyond the usual Vanguard doctrine. He searched for an afterlife. He closely studied the Vex in order to understand – and perhaps harness – their scope for space-time travel, multiple-universe construction, and the separation of body and mind. He turned Guardians away from the Speaker’s cause, and sent some on investigatory missions into the Vex Vault of Glass.
In short, he was the first Guardian to notably embrace the shady area between Light and Dark, and, like other ‘heretics’ such as Hive-loving Toland the Shattered, chose to commune with our supposed enemies in the pursuit of greater knowledge.
A Light/Dark agnostic character who evolved beyond his original form. An interest in hive-mind civilisations. A greater understanding of the universe beneath the official narrative. Sounds like a pretty close parallel to the Nine, right? No coincidence. Along with the Awoken, Osiris (currently deemed both alive and dead by those in the know), is known to have communicated with the Nine directly. That’s quite the faction now building for the ‘Darkness isn’t so bad’ cause.
And Osiris, by the sounds of it, is coming back, in an era when he can now make a real difference. He's referenced many times in Destiny 2. He's mentioned repeatedly by former student Ikora, he's called out to by a sympathising Toland during the Warlocks' Voidwalker quest, and he even communicates with the Guardian directly, through Ghost, in a Vex-themed Adventure mission on Nessus. And now the Speaker is dead, having admitted during Destiny 2's campaign that all of the Light/Dark doctrine he spouted on behalf of the Traveler was made up. The Guardians, free of the past, are rebuilding themselves in a new direction. And if you pay attention during certain story missions, Adventures, and in the Tower, you'll hear a whole lot more open discussion of the Darkness than you used to.
Despite Osiris' ongoing influence in the Vanguard – the Trials of Osiris PvP tournament was run by his surviving cult, likely in an attempt to vet worthy recruits to his cause – alone he might not be able to effect much change. But if he is indeed in alliance with the bigger, more powerful Nine as a result of shared outlook and philosophy, and possibly in cahoots with the Awoken as well – it’s believed that Osiris first warned them of Oryx’s return in The Taken King – then he could be in a position to change everything in a very big way.
A quick side-note before we move on to the end-game? Why not. It’s also worth noting that in Egyptian mythology (and Destiny loves its ancient mythology), the god Osiris was the deity of the afterlife. He was part of a group of gods known as the Ennead, who among them represented contrast and balance across the key Earthly and universal forces. There were nine of them.
So how is all of this going to come together in Destiny 2? Well naturally, it all starts with...
The Trials of the Nine
If Osiris is in communion with the Nine, with shared goals of ending the Light/Dark division and creating empowerment through balance, it’s entirely possible that the mysterious collective have taken over the recruitment tournament in order to continue Osiris’ work on a larger scale. The doctrine-spouting Emissary seems good evidence of this so far.
And if you look into the sky when you reach the Trials social space, you'll see only a single, huge planet, behind a moon. That implies that we're on the far side of the Jovians, having been brought well into Nine territory for some reason. Historically, we know that the Nine do not tolerate anyone on their turf unless they specifically want them there. With the Emissary almost guaranteed to drop further cryptic teasers in her dialogue, and Xur now back with fresh insights to give, we’re likely looking at a scaled-up double-dip of Nine lore as the Trials continue.
Although things are going to accelerate through Destiny 2, we are looking at a long-game here. It’s likely that issues of the Nine, Xur, Osiris, and the Awoken will be seeded throughout the game’s early life, to build a foundation for major revelations and explicit storytelling in the Osiris expansion, and perhaps beyond. Having started on September 15, nine days (Ha! Nine!) after Destiny 2’s launch, the Trials now run weekly. The Osiris expansion is currently slated for December. That’s plenty of time for Bungie to drop a raft of story hints, building up to the Warlock’s return. And with his return, I suspect, things may start to become a lot darker. And if the Nine are to be trusted, that might be no bad thing at all.