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Randy struggled, even though he knew he was pinned to the tree, that his suit wouldn’t easily tear free from the knives thrown at him by Viceroy’s newest robot. He tried to focus on the Art of Disguise, but his head was still spinning from the last hit he’d taken, and he couldn’t even focus his eyes well enough to pick Howard out of the crowd, let alone do the required Ninja-ing to get out of this.

He barely felt the mask being yanked off his face, let alone the swirl of furling cloth as his suit vanished and he dropped like a stone, but he could hear people’s shouts, hear McFist’s victorious cries from where he thought he was hidden, and Randy knew it was over.

Heidi had already begun Me-Casting, her voice rising above the others—or maybe the others hushed. He wasn’t sure. All he knew for certain was that his mask was gone and the robot had stopped before spearing him, and he wasn’t going to complain about that last part.

McFist might’ve revealed him, but he couldn’t kill him here, not in front of everyone. He could try, blaming the robot, but someone would find a way to connect it back to him. Viceroy was good, but he couldn’t cover all of McFist’s tracks. If the Ninja—the former Ninja—was murdered by a robot in front of the entire school, some nerd would figure out who was behind it all.

So he might not have the mask, he might not have his secret identity, but he did have time. At least a little. If he could hear McFist celebrating, he wasn’t talking to the Sorcerer, not yet. Which meant people weren’t going to be stanked immediately, even with the general unease of the Ninja being defeated, which meant there was hope.

Didn’t it?

He tried to focus on Heidi’s voice, tried to hear the whispers beyond it. Too much sounded muffled, like he was listening to it from underwater, but Heidi’s tone sounded confused. Despite Howard’s announcement that one time that he knew the identity of the Ninja, she’d never really considered that her brother’s best friend might actually be the Ninja.

And if she was confused, maybe that meant people weren’t entirely convinced.

Maybe there was actually a way to turn this around.

Randy didn’t realize that anyone was trying to talk to him until Debbie’s face was suddenly there, blocking out the view of the robot. She hauled him to his feet when his only response to what were probably questions was a blank stare and steered him into the crowd, which parted before them. There was a general buzzing that grew louder, but nothing he could make out.

A few excited shouts from Julian and Bucky did pierce his haze, though, and as Debbie stopped, he managed to find the source of the fuss. It was the Ninja, another Ninja, which meant it was Howard, but he was just in a ski mask and a scarf, the same old costume as before, nothing that would fool them after they’d seen the real thing—

Debbie was pulling him away.

He let her.

He didn’t know how to get the mask back yet, and until he had the mask, until he had the suit….

Focus,” Debbie’s voice hissed in his ear. She pushed him down, and his legs collapsed obediently beside what he now realized were the ruins of Principal Slimovitz’s car. “Tell it to me straight for once, Cunningham. Are you actually the Ninja?”

“Do I look like the Ninja?” he asked. He tried to smile. He wasn’t sure he managed it. Debbie growled at him either way.

“This is serious. McFist is after you, you know. Even if you aren’t the Ninja, he’ll think you are after this, and that’s got to be his robot. I don’t know why he wants the Ninja mask—”

“He doesn’t want the mask,” Randy said. “He wants the Ninja destroyed. So he can free the Sorcerer.”

“What?”

“The Sorcerer. He’s trapped. That’s why he keeps stanking people. So he can get free.” The Nomicon wouldn’t approve of him telling people, least of all Debbie, but Howard’s ruse wasn’t going to last long and Debbie apparently already knew about McFist. She was the only option he had. It’s not like the swordsmith was going to get him out of this one, and the guy who’d given him the suit in the first place was nowhere to be seen.

Not that Randy was entirely sure he’d have noticed either of them if they had been in the crowd.

“He’s the reason people turn into monsters,” added Randy when he saw Debbie’s blank look.

She swallowed. “There’s a Sorcerer. And McFist wants to free him. And the Ninja—you—have to stop that.” Nodding would hurt, but before Randy could give any sort of verbal confirmation, Debbie had started again. “But now there’s no Ninja, no real Ninja, which means the Sorcerer can get out and…and transform everyone? Into monsters? And destroy Norrisville?”

She was breathing faster than before, and Randy reached out to put a hand on her arm. He accidentally swatted her in the process, but she didn’t seem to notice—which meant she was pretty far gone. “Calm down,” he said in the most authoritative voice he could muster. Instead of sounding like he wanted it to—calm, commanding, in control—his voice cracked. “Panic won’t help. He feeds off chaos.” It was getting easier to think now. “Howard’s trying to confuse McFist. It’s worked before. We just need to get the mask back.”

Debbie stared at him.

Randy tried to remember what the Nomicon had said before he’d gotten into this mess. WORDS ARE SHARPER THAN SWORDS obviously did not mean taking the chef robot into the library; that had just led to the library’s destruction (no great loss, as far as he was concerned), but taunting the robot as per usual had ended up with him pinned to a tree.

But Debbie dealt with words all the time. So, maybe…. “Words are sharper than swords.”

“What?”

Randy repeated himself before adding, “That’s what the Nomicon said.”

“What’s the Nomicon?”

“Doesn’t matter now. Can you figure out what it means?”

“You mean beyond what it sounds like?” Debbie must have read something in his face because she sighed and continued, “It’s basically the pen is mightier than the sword, isn’t it? Better to fight with words? Because they’ll cut deeper in the end?”

“That makes no sense,” Randy said, confident of that despite how rattled he felt. “I mean, you can chop someone to bits with a sword.”

“And you can destroy them without lifting a finger with words,” Debbie shot back. Then she frowned, pursed her lips, and added, “Actually, we could do that here.”

“Ruin McFist?” Randy had serious doubts about that. McFist had more money than he knew what to do with, and he used a lot of it to his advantage.

“Not exactly. But we can destroy the truth and craft it into something else if we have to.” She still looked unhappy. “I really don’t want to do that. I’m the editor of the NHGTTWDPC because I like to uphold the truth, uncover it, but…. This might be the only way to turn things around and…and keep that Sorcerer from getting free.”

Randy gaped at her. “And you know how to do that?” Maybe the Nomicon wouldn’t be mad he’d told her. Not if it had given him a clue she’d been able to figure out so easily. After all, if they got through this without the Sorcerer escaping, he could just mind wipe her if he had to.

Although, if she didn’t expose him, he actually wouldn’t mind another ally….

“Howard’s pretending to be the Ninja, isn’t he? Well, then we start there. He won’t be the only one. And neither will you.”

She had her phone out and was dialing a number. Randy frowned. “Wait, who are you—?”

Debbie, with the phone already to her ear, held up one finger. “Hey, Theresa? I need a favour. Like, right now.”

Randy swallowed. The Nomicon might let him get away with telling one more person, but two? It would never— “You can’t tell her anything!”

“You’ll need a ski mask,” Debbie was saying, ignoring him completely, “or something else to cover your face. Black or at least dark. Here’s what we’ve gotta do.”

-|-

Debbie marched back and forth on the stage in front of the assembled students. Randy sat off the side, trying not to be the centre of attention or to look too obviously like the defeated Ninja he was. He wasn’t sure what Debbie and Theresa had said to convince the half dozen students to leave behind the unfolding scene with the supposed Ninja, and he didn’t know where every kid had gotten dark clothes on such short notice (Julian excepted), but he hoped this would work. Whatever it was.

All he knew was that Theresa had already gone out there wearing her war paint and a scarf she’d found…somewhere. Whenever Howard got ‘exposed’, she was supposed to step up and switch him off. She was going to break out some tumbling moves and baton tricks to confuse McFist, and she was armed with a few Frisbees as Ninja Ring stand-ins when the time came. He’d debated going and begging S. Ward Smith for some real weapons but figured balloons wouldn’t be any better, and the less Debbie knew about everything else, the better.

Right?

“Foam daggers,” Debbie said, handing a box to Rachel to pass out. “Collapsible swords. All the tennis balls I could find in the gym. Randy did a great job covering for the Ninja, guys, but we’ve gotta step it up.”

Bash snorted. “Cunningham completely wonked up when he tried to cover for the Ninja. That’s why we’ve gotta save him!”

No one questioned that someone was after the Ninja now. Debbie hadn’t said it was McFist, of course, or breathed a word about the Sorcerer, but no one needed to see the villain to believe there was one. Not once the Robo-Chef had stopped dead upon unmasking him, having seemingly achieved its purpose—or at least one of them.

“He lasted longer than some of us would have,” Debbie pointed out without missing a beat, “and it might’ve been enough to fool the Ninja’s enemies. Until the real Ninja gets back from his vacay, we’ve gotta save Norrisville ourselves.”

Randy had to hand it to her. It wasn’t a completely terrible lie, and she’d come up with it pretty fast.

“What the juice was the Ninja thinking to ask him to pretend to be the Ninja?” continued Bash, pointing in Randy’s direction. “He’s a complete shoob, and he shoobed this up! I would’ve been way better!”

Randy’s face burned but he kept his mouth shut. Arguing wasn’t going to get him anywhere, and arguing with Bash might end painfully for him. Besides, keeping the tattered remains of his secret intact demanded he not argue. And that he get to Howard as soon as possible to fill him in.

He should probably be shloomping on this, but there wasn’t time. The damage had been done. They needed to do damage control now or there really wouldn’t be a Ninja in Norrisville.

“I’m gonna go check on Howard,” Randy announced, getting to his feet. Debbie didn’t even acknowledge him, instead telling Bash to hide a collapsible sword in his McHoodie—just with the hood on the inside, turned in instead of out, so that it would appear as if he were pulling the sword from nowhere when he retrieved it.

Randy had to hand it to her.

She was good.

She was also good at convincing the others that their eyes had been playing tricks on him, that he wasn’t the real Ninja. And that…hurt, a bit, because he was the real Ninja, the Nomicon said so—he wasn’t going to let it take that back—but if he had to play fake Ninja to preserve the real Ninja, then so be it.

It was a confusing concept, but if it worked, he wasn’t going to argue.

Besides, he really was better off back outside. If this actually worked and McFist threw the mask away, thinking it worthless, then he had to be there to pick it up again. And then the real Ninja could show up. Again. Just for the first time, as far as everyone else was concerned.

And if this didn’t work….

It has to work.

There wasn’t another plan this time.

-|-

Viceroy winced as McFist let out another holler entirely too close to his ear. “I wouldn’t contact the Sorcerer yet, sir,” he said carefully, not taking his eyes from the screen.

“But I got him, Viceroy! I defeated the Ninja! Me!”

It was not the time to point out that he had built the Robo-Chef, nor that they’d merely unmasked the Ninja rather than ensured his defeat—especially not when he was about to give McFist some bad news. “Yes, sir. But I’m not sure if we’ve unmasked the right Ninja.”

“Of course it’s the right Ninja! Why wouldn’t it be the right Ninja? Er—what do you mean right Ninja?”

Viceroy pointed to the feed on the screen. The boy—Randy Cunningham, if he remembered correctly—had been helped to his feet by another one of the students. Beyond the crowd the two disappeared into, the multiple hidden cameras in the Robo-Chef clearly showed another Ninja striding onto the scene to take the place of the fallen Ninja.

“Why is there more than one Ninja, Viceroy? There isn’t supposed to be more than one Ninja!”

“I know, sir.” Viceroy frowned as the new Ninja began making terrible puns. “The first Ninja was more convincing than this one, but without—”

“Reactivate the Robo-Chef!” McFist yelled. “I have to defeat the Ninja!”

And because that robot had beaten the last Ninja, he assumed it would make short work of this one, too. Viceroy sighed but couldn’t argue McFist’s logic right now. Their position was precarious as it was, their catering truck easily visible from the school grounds and no doubt within earshot. One of these days, someone would realize how often they were on the scene of an attack.

But until then, they’d make do. And if McFist truly did defeat the Ninja before that and freed the Sorcerer, well, he’d cross that bridge when it came to it.

Although, hopefully, he’d be able to take all the vacation time he’d earned first.

-|-

Theresa’s scarf caught on the branches of the bush she was crouching behind, and she reached up to adjust it. She wasn’t sure if Debbie was brilliant or crazy. Le Beret was one thing, but the Ninja? She’d never seriously considered that the Ninja might be one of her classmates, not when he’d been around for over 800 years. She’d laughed whenever Debbie had brought up the very idea. But now….

“Randy’s covering for the Ninja, but he shoobed it up and now we’ve gotta save his butt.” Debbie handed her a backpack filled with Frisbees. “These are your Ninja rings.”

Theresa looked at Randy, who shuffled his feet and didn’t meet her eyes. “Seriously? Where’d you get the sword and everything?”

“Drama department,” Debbie replied without missing a beat. “We’re going to round up a few other kids and hand out the rest of the stuff, but we need someone to cover Howard ASAP because I can’t see him lasting long.”

“And you think I’ll last longer?” She slipped on the backpack, knowing it wasn’t ideal but that she’d need both her arms for this to work—even if this was crazy.

“I think you can move faster, which you’ll need if the attacks begin again.”

“Attacks?” Even when Debbie had first asked her to do this, she hadn’t thought—

“You don’t have to do this,” Randy said, finally looking at her. “I don’t want people getting hurt because of me.”

She tried not to let her heart swell at his words, at the concern in his voice. He’d said people, not you, and she couldn’t pretend it meant the same thing. “I know.” She had to force the next words past her lips. “But I want to do this. For you. And the real Ninja.”

Randy winced, but Debbie had already started talking again, explaining her plan in more detail, and Theresa didn’t have time to wonder about Randy’s reaction. “You’ll have to step up when it looks like Howard’s about to falter. We need him confused.”

“Him? Isn’t it a robot?”

Debbie pursed her lips. “Someone had to build it.”

The truth was, Theresa had never thought about that, either. Monsters and robots…. The Ninja always stopped them. She hadn’t questioned it, hadn’t considered that the robot attacks were relatively new in the grand scheme of things.

Debbie was right, of course. The Ninja didn’t just defend the citizens of Norrisville; he defended himself. The monsters terrorized indiscriminately, but the robots always targeted the Ninja once their attacks had drawn him out. There had to be a human mind behind their design. She had no idea who would try to destroy the Norrisville Ninja, but she doubted it was simply an inquiring mind like Debbie’s. This latest robot had stopped short of a fatal attack, but there had been too many close calls to naïvely assume that wouldn’t have been an acceptable outcome.

Which meant someone in Norrisville saw nothing wrong with destroying Norrisville’s defence against monsters, destroying a beloved town hero, and was highly unlikely to pause for very long when she stepped into the fray.

But she’d agreed to do this.

For Norrisville.

For the Ninja.

For Randy.

He might have been the first to fill in for the Ninja, but he was surely the reason Howard had had a costume stored in his locker. They had both known the Ninja’s plan. They’d always proclaimed to be the Ninja’s number one fans, but she’d never thought much of that, either. But perhaps Howard’s old claim of knowing who the Ninja really was hadn’t been as false as he’d allowed it to seem.

Howard seemed to be doing a decent job of evading the robot that was now chasing him, but it mostly involved him ducking to avoid knives, doubling back because he was still faster than it was, and yelling things over his shoulder. But he was tiring, getting slower, and he’d barely started the actual chase; his appearance itself had been enough to confuse it, to confuse the human behind the robot, but now that the initial shock had worn off….

“I have to get out there,” Theresa realized. If she waited, Howard might make a mistake. And, despite that this was his choice, she’d feel responsible.

She swallowed, trying to gather her courage, and then she stood.

For now, she was a Ninja of Norrisville, and she had to fight accordingly.

-|-

Howard clutched at the stitch in his side, gasping and trying to ignore the coppery taste in his mouth, and wondered if his friendship with Randy was worth this pain.

This wasn’t the first time he’d had to save Cunningham’s butt, but he really hoped it was the last.

He dove for a tree, ended up sliding more than rolling, and heard the thunk of a knife embedding itself into the wood above his head.

Maybe it would just be easier to let this robot unmask him, too. Lying here was really appealing right now, giving him a chance to catch his breath even if he still hurt all over, and—

“Ninja Ring! Ninja Ring! Ninja Ring!”

What the juice?

Howard rolled over when he heard the robot moving away from him. Some of the crowd had dispersed, but most were still there, blithely unaware that they were in real danger because the Ninja always saved them. Seeing the Ninja unmasked should have scared them but obviously didn’t—much—because he’d been fast on his feet. (Cunningham definitely owed him for that.)

But if Randy didn’t have his suit, and he was already on the ground, who—?

A blur of purple streaked past, tumbling and grabbing— That was a baton.

That was Theresa.

What the cheese did Fowler think she was doing?

“Get up, Ninja!” she yelled as she dodged another volley of knives. “Unless you like the taste of dirt!”

Wow, she definitely needed some new lines. He got to his feet and made a show of brushing himself off. “You’re late, Ninja!” he called back, successfully distracting the Robo-Chef. It hesitated, its head swivelling back and forth between them, not sure which of them to attack. Just as well. The more time they bought, the better. The Robo-Chef had taken Randy’s mask and stored it a compartment in its chest, probably as a trophy of some sort, or proof, or whatever McFist and the Sorcerer needed, and the only way they were going to get it back would be beating this thing themselves.

Granted, if he could just get close enough to touch it without getting stabbed, it might break on its own.

His magic touch was useful like that.

“I’m not late! You’re just early.” She was trying to sound brave, but he could hear the quaver in her voice. He’d expected to do this; he doubted she ever had.

Didn’t explain why she was doing it now, but he couldn’t exactly ask that in front of everyone.

He’d already opened his mouth to say something else when he realized he was hearing a high-pitched whine coming from the robot. “Duck!” he yelled instead, hitting the dirt again. He rolled on instinct, not stopping to see if Theresa had paid attention to him.

His (brief) stint working with Viceroy had given him a better idea of how the mad scientist worked. Self-learning AI wasn’t out of the question. Vanishing robots weren’t out of the question. He’d be stupid to think Viceroy couldn’t build something that could alter its internal mechanics as easily as its exterior to adapt in a fight.

So, really, getting more knives thrown at him?

Par for the course for today.

“We just need to keep it busy!” he heard Theresa yell. “The others’ll be out soon!”

Others?

That made it sound like this was planned.

But Cunningham didn’t do plans.

That was more for people like—

Oh, that shoob’s cheese was so wonked if Kang had finally put the pieces together. Unless this was some weird ploy on her part to draw out the ‘real Ninja’. Except that assumed she thought Cunningham was another fake Ninja. That didn’t—

Cold hands grabbed him.

Metal.

Hard enough to bruise.

Theresa was screaming.

He didn’t have a free hand to reach the robot, to touch it and make it fall apart. His hands were pinned to his sides. It lifted him up, analyzing him. He heard more people yelling. Saw the blade spring up from the robot’s shoulders.

Howard closed his eyes.

-|-

“Everyone clear on the plan?” Debbie waited for their nods before continuing. “Then we’re a go. Bash, come around from the gym. Bucky and Pradeep, cut through the band room. Rachel, head straight out the front doors. Julian, west entrance. Jacques, take the east. For the Ninja!”

“For the Ninja!” they echoed, raising their fists as she had.

They scattered, and she hoped this would work. She didn’t have a backup plan, and casting doubt felt like the only thing she could do. Half the kids who’d shown up had attended Ninja Camp at one point, but someone like Mikey was better off figuring out how to hack into whatever was controlling the robot—there had to be some kind of wireless signal, right?—and disrupting things without actually going out and fighting, so she’d sent him and a few of the others to the computer lab to figure that out.

If they actually managed to trace this back to McFist, well, she’d at least get the scoop before Heidi. If they could find some proof for her, she might be able to publish it. It would be beyond risky, but she wanted to uncover the truth.

Some truths, though, made less sense than others.

Why Randy?

What was the Nomicon?

And what the cheese was all this about a Sorcerer?

Words are sharper than swords. Randy had said that that was important, treated it like it was some kind of clue. But it sounded more like a message for her than for him. If everyone claimed to be the Ninja, it would cast doubt on Randy being the real Ninja. It would help get him out of this scrape, hopefully. Something similar had worked once before; it had to work again. But beyond that….

“I’d destroy him if I write about this,” she said softly. “If I tell the truth.” People would happily believe Randy was just playing at being the Ninja, considering the Ninja’s legendary reputation, but to hear that, yes, a mere teenager was protecting them? From what could very well be evil incarnate? It wouldn’t go over well. And if this Sorcerer would be freed when the Ninja was destroyed—either by McFist’s robots or her words—then Norrisville would probably become a ruin, too, if the monsters were any indication.

So maybe it wasn’t a clue for Randy after all.

Maybe the words were a warning for her.

If she wasn’t careful, she could dig too deep, cut too much, and destroy the safety that ignorance granted them all.

Debbie swallowed and pushed those thoughts aside. She could deal with the implications later—including the scary ones, like how the heck this Nomicon would know to leave a message for her. Right now, she needed to get outside and make sure her plan was actually going to work instead of falling apart before she could do anything.

-|-

Randy burst outside in time to see the Robo-Chef grab his best friend. He saw the panic in Howard’s eyes, saw his feet flailing as he struggled in vain. Theresa was there, running towards the robot. Her scarf had slipped off her face, revealing her identity to all who hadn’t guessed it, and—

There was no time to find some kind of weapon. Randy took off running, too, yelling wordlessly in a vain attempt to get the robot’s attention. His head pounded with each footstep, but he pushed forward, barrelling towards Howard.

He wasn’t thinking when he took the flying leap toward the robot.

By the time he realized that probably wasn’t the smartest idea, he was scrabbling for purchase on the tiny ridges between the metal plating. Theresa arrived a moment later, breaking her baton in an attempt to get the Robo-Chef’s attention when she whacked at the knife that was attached at its shoulder. It was only when he heard a lot of other yelling and cheering from the still-gathered crowd that he realized the reinforcements had arrived. The other Ninjas.

The robot turned to look, not dropping Howard, who had cracked open and eye at some point. The kids in their makeshift ninja suits were whooping and hollering, grabbing everyone’s attention. The barrage of tennis balls began a moment later, and Randy couldn’t bring himself to care that he was getting pummelled, too. There was something particularly satisfying about seeing them producing daggers and swords (seemingly) from thin air and waving them around, in the true spirit of the Ninja.

The Robo-Chef easily knocked Theresa aside and ignored him, raising one hand to unmask Howard, who plastered a grin on his face. “We’re all the Ninja,” he said. As the others converged on them, he thrust his fist into the air and yelled, “I’m the Ninja!”

Theresa scrambled to her feet and proclaimed the same, and her cry was echoed by the other kids, and then picked up by those in the crowd.

Just like at the Battle of the Bands.

Randy was too busy grinning to join in.

He was also too busy to see Howard put his hand firmly on the Robo-Chef’s torso until it collapsed to pieces beneath him.

“Ow!” He sucked the blood from his finger, even though he knew the cut was shallow and that he was lucky that’s all that he’d gotten considering how many knives had been inside this thing.

“Just track down the real Ninja, will ya, Cunningham?” Howard nodded to the mask that lay in the wreckage. Randy quickly pocketed it and got to his feet. The rest of the kids were beginning to swarm the lawn where the battle had taken place, and it was easy enough to slip away—even without a smoke bomb for a distraction.

He’d just crouched behind his favourite set of Ninja-o’-Clock bushes when he heard, “You gonna fill me in at some point, Cunningham?”

Debbie.

He turned to see her and smiled uncertainly. She was leaning against the wall, arms crossed, looking out at the joyful chaos on the lawn instead of at him. “You owe me since this worked,” she added, finally glancing at him.

“Uh…I plead the fifth?”

She snorted. “Off the record, Cunningham. I’m not stupid. I know the truth now, and I can help you. Like Howard apparently does, except better.”

“Uh—”

“Just think about it, Ninja.” She turned back to the crowd outside. “Someone will need to help you keep off McFist’s radar, and there’s power in words.” She stepped away and walked a few steps before turning back with a grin. “They’re sharper than swords, after all.”