A/N: Submitted as an entry for Soul of the Jedi's Challenge of the Whills: The Purge.

A Voice in the Ashes
by FernWithy

Slither skidded to a stop in the Burned Over District, feeling more than hearing the presence of the Imperial Peacekeepers. He held up one hand, and three of the others nearly ran him down.

"You crazy, Slith?" Karka slid around him, her feet losing purchase in the greasy ash. "We don't have time to go sightseeing in the ruins. They're coming!"

"They're here."

The blood drained out of her face. "How do you..."

"Trust me."

One of the little boys started to cry. The candy he'd stolen in the merchant's district was melting into his filthy tunic.

"Oh, good job, Slith," Karka said. "Way to keep them calm." She went over and started fussing at him. The others--Joba, Tinker, Fat Girl, and the new boy who didn't have a name yet--gathered around her. They'd follow Slither if he led, and Karka usually let him lead their "gathering operations," but it was Karka who held them all together. She glared at him. "You're scaring them."

Slither paid no more attention. If they weren't scared of the Imperial Peacekeepers, then they were idiots. He looked up, trying to gauge his position, trying to find an escape. The Peacekeepers were ahead. He knew that. He thought they were also to the right, and he'd seen them coming from behind. The only way he wasn't sure about was left, but he couldn't turn left, not here. He couldn't go into that place of ghosts.

Karka had picked up the little one--who was big enough to almost overbalance her--and come to stand beside him again. Her face was more serious now. "What is it, Slither?"

"They're everywhere," he said. "Except..." He pointed vaguely to the hulking ruins on the left.

She didn't pretend not to understand. She was the one who'd found him here four years ago, trying to slither out from under the burned beams and wreckage. He didn't remember much before that. He'd been in an air pocket, and remembered almost swimming through the ash and metal. It had moved because he wished it to, but sometimes things collapsed if it moved wrong. He remembered others like him--small, dressed in knee-length tunics, holding beams of light in their hands. It was impossible, but it had happened--the tunic, now long too small, served as his pillow in Karka's den--and it had been here, before the burning. He had never seen any of the others.

Except when he'd had to crawl over them in his escape.

He shut his eyes. He didn't want to know about that.

Karka surveyed the ruins with sharp eyes, and Slither knew she would make them go in if it were the only way. She'd know why he didn't want to, but--

"You're one of the big ones now, Slith," she said. "You can handle it."

Slither might have argued, but the danger sense at the edge of his consciousness flared suddenly brighter. "They're going to come in!" he whispered hoarsely. "They're coming now."

As if to confirm it, the buzz of engines began to shake the ash from the upper beams, making a snowstorm of soot.

Karka pulled the others forward and leaned toward Slither. "We have to, Slith! No choice!"

Slither looked back. He could now see the dots of the oncoming Peacekeepers darting through the rubble on the other side of the square.

"I can't," he whispered.

"You can."

Karka put down the boy she was carrying and shoved him in front of her, into an unsafe looking corridor between the piles of charred metal. The others came around her, and she pushed them onto the same path, then she grabbed Slither's sleeve. "I know, all right? I know. But we have to get out of here. You have to get us through here. I trust you."

Then she gave him a shove, and he was back in the nightmare, back in the fire, back in the ashes.

He made his way around the smaller children, to the front of the group. He had been here. He knew this place, knew where the path would come out when the wreckage ended, but the fear sat in his belly like a laughing demon.

(Anger, fear, aggression, the Dark Side are they...)

Slither shut his eyes, trying to shut out the voice. He didn't want to hear it. He pushed forward for a few meters.

(Padawan, you must learn to control your emotions. You must feel the Force around you, within you...)

He clenched his teeth tightly and clambered up onto a pile of debris that had collapsed onto the path. He could see from here that the way became clearer and easier, and veered away from a drop off into the deep cellar hole. It wasn't dangerous. It wasn't...

(Good morning, younglings. A story I will tell you today. A--)

But the story had never come. Instead there had been a raging knight, tearing through the Temple. Shouting, screaming.

A name. He had shouted a name.

And then something had exploded, and the fires had begun in earnest. The adults went to fight. And the roof... the roof had come down in flaming pieces, and they were too scared to control it and--

"Slither!"

He snapped back into the present. Karka and the others were still at the bottom of the debris pile. He himself had fallen to his knees, and a bit of metal had stabbed through his trouser. His blood soaked red into the broken ceiling. He struggled for words. "It gets... easier... other side..."

A pain stabbed through his head like a burning laser and he screamed. He wasn't alone here. Something was looking for him, something raging and insane. It was stalking through the smoke and ashes, coming closer. He jerked his arm at the others. "Go! Get out of here, now!"

Karka pushed the little ones up and around him and shoved them down the path, then grabbed at Slither's arm. "You have to come."

"No! I can't. I'm supposed to--"

"I don't care what you think you're supposed to do, you're coming with me."

"Leave!"

"No, I--"

Something clicked in the ashes, and began to buzz. A red light, diffused in the air, lit the grayness.

Then a mountain of black formed itself in the gloom.

Karka screamed.

"Leave," the mountain said to her. "I have no business with you."

Karka didn't seem to have much voice, but Slither could see her shaking her head. He could feel the others escaping.

Good.

He looked up at the mountain, which had resolved itself into the shape of a man wearing a long black cloak and a death's head mask. The regular hiss-shush of an internal respirator was now evident. "Lord Vader," Slither whispered.

Vader stood and regarded him strangely, head cocked to one side. He seemed almost surprised.

"Your name?" he commanded.

"His name's Slither," Karka said.

Vader didn't respond to her. He simply continued to stare at Slither.

"What is your name?" he said again after a long moment. "I do not recognize you."

Slither looked up at him, feeling cold and alone, and gave the only answer that was true: "I don't remember."

The red lightsaber twitched in the gloom, and Slither waited for it to fall across his neck, but it didn't. Something went through his mind, though, slicing through his defenses without effort.

"You were not among the traitors," Vader said. "You stayed behind."

"He was seven!" Karka shouted, her temper rising at last. "What do you think he did?"

Vader cocked his head toward her. "You would do well to remember your place... and your responsibilities." He nodded significantly down the path, where the rest of Karka's ragtag collection of orphans and misfits was undoubtedly still visible. He looked back at Slither. "This place is forbidden ground, and you are a Jedi."

There wasn't an answer to that. Vader seemed to be talking to himself more than to Slither. Trying to convince himself.

This would be the time to beg, to grovel, to plead ignorance. And yet, the fear that had paralyzed Slither seemed suddenly far away. He straightened his back, and forced himself to his feet. "I don't remember it," he said, "but I am what I was."

"Slither, don't!"

Vader raised his lightsaber.

Karka scrambled to her feet and threw herself in front of Slither. He tried to push her away, but she shoved him back, and he lost his balance on his cut leg. "He's one of mine," she said firmly. Fear baked off of her, but she didn't show it. "Not one of yours."

Slither could feel Vader's presence very clearly--it was so powerful that it almost overwhelmed his own--but he couldn't understand it. The rage remained, but it was shot through with other things, deep, complicated things that didn't fit together to make a whole. Slither was certain that the lightsaber would come down at any moment, forcing him to watch Karka die as the last moment of his own life.

But it didn't happen.

And continued not happening.

The buzzing sound vanished, and the red light was gone.

Vader stood in the ashes, his cloak swaying in the light wind. "Go," he said. "If you steal again, you will be punished. But you have no part in Jedi treachery, whatever your upbringing. The death sentence is commuted."

Slither blinked up, not daring to believe.

"You were instructed to leave," Vader said, putting his hand on the hilt of his lightsaber. "Leave this place and leave this world. Do not allow me to find you again."

With that, he turned away, and the black cape melted into the gray ash. Still, Slither sat atop the debris pile, Karka at his side (now shivering uncontrollably), watching death retreat.

The End