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drinking from the river

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*

The two figures stand at the foot of the mountain, taking a breather after the travel they took to get there. The monastery is hidden by clouds, and it will be a long journey up. Acronix and Krux aren't tired, but they have to prepare mentally for what lies before them. Their final fight against the elemental masters, after which they will rule over Ninjago. They know they'll win, know that the elemental power of time cannot be overpowered – but they can't afford to take chances. They can't let themselves be distracted.

And Acronix is, certainly, distracted.

"Almost time," Krux mutters, looking up at the sky. "Almost time…"

Acronix takes a deep breath. "Krux?"

Krux looks up. "Yes?"

Now or never, Acronix thinks. "You… love me, right?"

"Of course!" Krux says immediately. "You're my brother! Of course I love you!"

The words feel like a knife to the gut. Acronix swallows hard.

"Will you love me… unconditionally?"

"Always and forever."

Deep breath. Fight down the rising fear.

"Will you love me… as your sister?"

Krux frowns. "I'm… sorry?"

"I…" Acronix's hands are trembling. Why is she so much more afraid of this than fighting the elemental masters? "I don't feel… right, as a man. I… I don't think I am one. A man, I mean." Because when she fights the elemental masters, she has her brother by her side. "I would… I would… much rather be a woman." For this, she has to face the possibility that she will be alone. "I feel… right… when I think of myself as a woman, like – like it was what I was meant to be all along – I – I –"

"Acronix."

She freezes, the confidence drained out of her. She can't find it within herself to look Krux in the eyes – he puts a hand on her chin and moves her head up to face him anyway.

"Acronix," he repeats. "I will love you until the end of time. Never forget that. I will always love who you are – and if who you are is a woman, I will love you as a woman, and as my sister."

Acronix just stares at him, unable to find words.

Krux lets go of her. "Now. We should get moving."

He says it so naturally, like he knew all along. Acronix has heard stories of people who were kicked from their families, disowned, left to survive on their own – the fact that her brother accepts her so quickly, unconditionally, as if he understands…

"I will say, I have a lot of questions for you." Krux shrugs. "But they can wait until after we've won. Are you ready, sister?"

Acronix breaks into a grin.

"Of course!" she says. "I'll race you to the top, brother!"


Chapter One

Far below the shiniest stars,
Shiniest stars won’t shine forever.
Take your soul and you can go far,
If you don’t fall from grace or favor.

The Presets – Ghosts

It hurts. It hurts a lot.

Morro wasn't expecting it to hurt this much.

He's lying on the couch, sweating and gasping, chills wracking his body. He's uncomfortably reminded of that day in March, less than a month after he had arrived at the tower – he pushes that thought out of his mind and squeezes the hand grasping his own, turning his head to meet his father's worried gaze.

"Are you sure you're alright?" Cyrus says, and Morro can tell he's breathing fast and hard, can feel the rapid pulse in his hand. "I'm worried – there's very little documentation on this potion, for all we know –"

"I'll be okay," Morro manages to say between gasps. "Never… never expected it to be easy. It's worth it."

"I know, and I trust you, but I… I don't like seeing you like this."

Morro cracks a smile. "Not great being like this, either."

Cyrus shifts his wheelchair a little closer. "You should be close to the end. I've been keeping time, and while there's a very small sample size to go on, most all the data measures it in minutes, as opposed to hours or days."

"That's… good." Morro closes his eyes briefly. His joints are aching and his head is pounding. "How long has it been?"

"It'll have been ten minutes since taking the potion in…" Cyrus checks his watch. "Five seconds." He pauses. "Now."

"How much longer?"

"You're past the shortest time recorded… it's hard to say. If you start feeling nauseous, it should be almost over."

Morro grimaces and tries to make a joke, but sudden nausea overwhelms him and he claps his free hand to his mouth. Cyrus quickly places a plastic bucket in his lap. Morro misses it completely.

When he's done, his head drops back onto the couch. The pain has subsided, somewhat, but his head is spinning and exhaustion is weighing on him. He takes a few more deep breaths, then says, "Check my soul."

"I – I don't know, Morro, it might be too soon –"

"Please, Dad."

Cyrus hesitates, then finally says, "Okay."

He leans over Morro and softly presses his hands against his chest and speaks the incantation – the same words repeated over and over, until the light of the soul is strong enough to show through the body. Pink for a healthy soul. Red for a sick soul. Yellow for a dying soul. For as long as Morro's known the spell, his soul has been green; a cursed soul, doomed to go to the Cursed Realm after death. Not even being brought back to life changed that.

He wonders, sometimes, how Cyrus thought the future would turn out, during those first few days Morro was in his care. Did he even consider this possibility, that he would grow so attached to the resurrected teenager that he would be willing to risk so much for him? To study magic and potionmaking – a fact that would surely cause controversy if it ever was leaked to the public, to say the least – in an attempt to lift the curse on his soul? To allow him to stay, to want him to stay, to call him Morro Sky Borg, his son –

Morro doesn't know what, if anything, he's done to deserve this.

He's so caught up in these thoughts that he almost doesn't notice when Cyrus lifts his hands away. Morro blinks. "Dad –"

"Morro," Cyrus whispers. "Look."

Morro lifts his head back up to look down at his chest

glowing a soft pink

like a healthy soul would

one without a curse

and it's too much, too much for Morro to believe right now, too good to be true, almost – he can feel tears pricking at his eyes, his breaths coming in shudders, and Cyrus is smiling down at him with a crooked grin. He's been hoping for this moment for half a year, now, and now that it's happening – it's too much.

Morro lets his head fall back down and closes his eyes.


He wakes up some time later, his strength returned enough to go to his room and change out of the clothes he got puke on. Morro wonders if the stains will come out of the couch. He hopes so. He liked that couch.

He does the spell to check his soul again when he's alone, his voice shaking with the incantation. Again, his soul glows pink. Maybe a bit redder than it should be, but Morro isn't going to complain. Not about this.

The next morning, he wakes up again still not believing it. He presses his hands to his chest before he even gets out of bed, repeating the spell. Pink, again. No longer cursed.

He sits up and looks around. His room is a mess, like it's always been. Dirty and clean clothes both are strewn around the room; he sometimes forgets which piles he can wear and which need to be washed. Various bits of trash and paper are littered on the floor. There's a small stack of vinyl records placed haphazardly on his desk, next to his record player. It doesn't seem much different now. He doesn't feel much different.

He's not going to go to the Cursed Realm when he dies.

Not that there's much of a Cursed Realm left, anymore. The Preeminent is still trapped at the bottom of the ocean – still alive, somehow, but without the extra energy she was siphoning from the Temple of Resurrection. A memory surfaces and he cringes – before he was resurrected, he had been there, too. The water destroying his incorporeal form over and over, endless agony, wordless wailing all around him as he reached for the surface and joined his voice to the chorus –

Breathe. He's alive. He's not going back there.

His phone buzzes. When he checks it, he has a few texts from his father.

< Hello! Are you awake?
< I just wanted to check in :)
< Please text me when you wake up.

ok >
im up >

< Excellent! How are you feeling?

good i think >

< I'm almost finished with work. Where do you want to meet?

my room >
can you bring me breakfast >

< Morro, it's 2PM.
< But yes.

Morro lies down on the bed again and stares at the ceiling until Cyrus knocks on the door. "Morro? Can I come in?"

"Yeah," Morro says, and the door opens.

Cyrus frowns at the messy floor, as he usually does. "You really need to keep this clean. How am I supposed to come in here if there's no path?"

"It's just trash. You can roll over it."

"Morro, please."

He does end up rolling over the trash, and puts the plate of food on Morro's headboard. "Are you feeling alright?"

"Yeah," Morro says. "I feel… really good, actually."

"I'm so glad, Morro. I'm so, so glad." Cyrus hesitates for a long moment. "There's… some things I wanted to discuss with you, but I'll understand if now isn't the right time."

Morro sits up. "What things?"

"Nothing bad, necessarily, I just…" Cyrus smiles at him. "We've been trying to lift your curse for so long… how do you feel now that it's done?"

"I told you, I feel good. Really good." Morro pauses. "I feel like… almost like it's not real. I keep –" He puts his hands to his chest. "– doing the spell, over and over, because – I can't believe it, almost. I don't know how to explain."

"I think I understand. Not completely, of course, but…" Cyrus looks distant, for a moment. "A similar experience might be if I were to wake up and find that all the damage the Overlord did to my body was gone."

Morro doesn't know what to say to that.

"…sorry," Cyrus says sheepishly. "That probably wasn't… appropriate of me."

"It's alright," Morro says. "It's a lot to wrap my head around. I've been cursed for years and years, and to think that I'm not anymore…"

Cyrus nods and takes a deep breath. "I wanted to discuss your future, Morro."

Morro blinks. "What?"

"Your future. We haven't talked about it, much." Cyrus looks him in the eye. "You're going to be eighteen, soon. That's a fairly big milestone, in our society! I was wondering… do you have any idea what you want to do?"

Morro slowly shakes his head.

"I thought that might be the case. Do you mind if I offer some possibilities?"

"Like what?"

"You could go to school. College, maybe. There's a number of programs out there for whatever you'd want to learn."

Morro has read about college, but the idea of going – his hands are shaking. His breaths are coming out in gasps. His father notices, of course.

"Are you alright?" he asks, and he brings his wheelchair closer. "Sorry, this is a bit much, isn't it?"

Morro swallows hard. "I don't know if I could," he whispers. "I feel like… like I'm stuck, doing the same things over and over. I don't – I don't –"

Cyrus puts a hand on his back. "You're not stuck," he says. "I understand how it would feel like – you were stuck for a long time. But you're alive, and you're – you're not cursed anymore, Morro. You have infinite possibilities before you."

"It's…" It's too much. "I don't…"

"How about this. Get some food in you, and we'll talk about this when you're feeling up to it. Maybe talk about it with your friends?"

Skylor might have some advice. She's older than he is, and she's always willing to listen. She's also his only real option; his only other friend is Ronin, and Morro isn't sure a thief running a pawn shop will have any good advice about his future. "Okay."

Cyrus smiles. "Unfortunately, I have to get back to work. I postponed some meetings on short notice to make sure you were feeling alright, and I have some annoyed investors scheduled to meet with me. Text me if you need anything, alright?"

"Okay."

Before Cyrus reaches the door, Morro blurts out, "I love you, Dad."

Cyrus looks back at him with his crooked grin. "I love you too, Morro. I'm so glad this chapter of our lives is over."

Morro smiles. "Yeah."

"Oh! I almost forgot – I want you to be at the BorgWatch reveal tonight!"

Morro's smile vanishes. "Dad, I don't think –"

Cyrus interrupts him. "I don't want to hear any arguments. You are my son, Morro. Pixal said she would make an appearance, and I don't want to only have one of my children there."

"But –"

"I have no time to spare for you to argue with me. Rest up! Eat something that's not pure sugar!"

"Dad –"

Cyrus leaves without letting Morro get a word in. Morro groans and falls backwards on the bed again. Maybe he can fake some horrible illness that keeps him in his room for the night.


Ronin finishes counting the cash and locks the register. Morro didn't show up to work, but Ronin isn't too worried – it's not the first time the kid's missed a shift, and Ronin can't be assed to care when he's not paying him. He sends a quick text and heads to his next job; helping the ninja move into their new base.

Before he leaves, he stops in the bathroom and stares at himself in the mirror. He looks tired, Ronin thinks. He's been having messed up dreams lately. He sighs.

He has asked Morro about his debt just once.

"Soul Archer still gonna be after me to pay up?" he had asked. Even the memory of saying his name is enough to make Ronin shudder. He had managed to hide his fear well enough as he waited for Morro's response.

"Probably not," was what Morro said. "Unless the Preeminent gets another source of energy, he's stuck at the bottom of the ocean with her. He can't escape. None of them can."

"But people with cursed souls –"

Morro flinched. "Yeah," he snapped, "I'm going to be there, too, when I die. We've been over this."

Ronin, because he's an asshole, had given Morro a hard pat on the back and told him to be careful crossing the street. Morro didn't speak to him for the rest of the day.

Now, Ronin puts his hands to his chest and recites the spell.

His soul glows green, like it has since the day he lost the bet.

Ronin doesn't know what he expected to see. His curse would've been somehow lifted now that the Preeminent was half-drowned? Soul Archer sure as hell hadn't done anything to lift it. Ronin still has a debt to pay, except now he has no way to pay it.

He shakes his head and leaves. Misako is expecting him soon.

All he has to do for now is look both ways before crossing the street.


"Dad?"

Garmadon slowly wakes up at the sound of his son's voice, sees Lloyd's green eyes peering at him in worry. "Lloyd?" he says. "Is something wrong?"

"It's nothing, I just…" Lloyd's eyes flick to the side. "You fell asleep."

It takes a few more moments for Garmadon to fully wake up and realize the situation. He was having dinner with Lloyd, Misako, and Wu… and he fell asleep at the table. No wonder Lloyd was worried. He can see Misako staring at him, too, her brow furrowed with concern.

He tries to laugh it off. Neither of them laugh with him, but they return to eating once he picks up his own fork.

When he's finished, he looks around at the table. "Where's Wu?" he asks. "I thought he was supposed to eat with us."

"Oh," Misako says. "He must have left shortly after you dozed off. He had to excuse himself, said he had somewhere to be."

Garmadon frowns. He can't help but feel that he's forgetting something, a feeling he's all too familiar with, these days. "Did he say anything about where he was going?"

"Just that he needed to do something that could not be put off until tomorrow." Misako shrugs. "You know how your brother is. He said he would be home late."

Something isn't right. He's forgetting something important. But try as he might, Garmadon can't remember what it is. "Let me know when he gets back."

After dinner, Lloyd has to meet up with the rest of the ninja at the museum. Before he leaves, he helps Garmadon back to bed. Garmadon is acutely aware of his aged hands in Lloyd's youthful ones, can feel the contrast as he hobbles back to his room.

"I'll be fine from here," Garmadon says, once they've reached the room. "I'm sure the others are waiting for you."

"I'm sorry," Lloyd mumbles.

"Hm? What for?"

Lloyd looks away. "If – if I had known you were down there – I could've done something sooner, and then maybe you wouldn't – you wouldn't be –"

"Lloyd."

Garmadon lowers himself to a sitting position on the bed and pats the spot beside him. Lloyd hesitates, then sits down next to him.

"Lloyd," Garmadon says softly. "You know I don't blame you. You had no way of knowing where I was after I was resurrected. Not even the scholars knew. And I'm certainly not angry at you for resurrecting me."

"But –" Lloyd takes a deep, shuddering breath. "You were down there for so long, and I – I didn't know, I didn't do anything, and – I can't help but think, if I hadn't –"

"Oh, Lloyd…" Garmadon puts an arm around his son's shoulders. "Lloyd… if you hadn't resurrected me, I would've still been there."

Lloyd stiffens. "What – what do you mean?"

"Did you not know? When someone dies in the Cursed Realm – they stay there." Garmadon remembers, his ghost trapped underwater, wailing in agony – he lets that memory go. "You saved me, Lloyd. Don't ever think that you didn't."

"I –" Lloyd is trembling now. "I – I didn't know, I –"

Garmadon hugs him to his chest, and Lloyd breaks down in sobs.


In the ruins of his old monastery, the sensei watches the hands of the clock tick ever closer.

In the lobby of his museum, the director watches the Borg Industries blimp make its slow circles above Ninjago.

High in the sky, a time vortex rips open.

The forty year wait is over.