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Randy’s first thought was to run, but there was a problem with that.

He wasn’t sure where to run to. Smooth metal walls—steel, maybe, thick and dull, judging by the solid thud when he rapped his knuckles against them—towered up on either side of him, too far apart to touch at the same time. About the only way he’d scale that was with his Ninja Spikes or maybe his Ninja Sai; his trusty Ninja Chain Sickle would never reach. But there was no guarantee he’d have anywhere to go once he reached the top, and he’d be totally exposed during the climb. Something told him that would be bad right now, which left him the choice of moving ahead or turning around and going back.

Granted, that implied that he remembered coming here. And remembered anything about here other than what he’d seen two seconds ago when he’d opened his eyes to find himself standing—standing, not lying—in this place.

“Hello?” he called uncertainly, half expecting to hear someone (McFist) gloating over having captured him.

His only reply was his echo.

This place sounded like it was huge. Which…shouldn’t be a surprise, given the walls, especially since they were so tall they blocked out a lot of light and left him in shadows, but—

He was still wearing the Ninja Suit. That was good. Probably. If this was McFist, then that probably meant he still didn’t know Randy’s real identity. This was probably just some elaborate trap, and Randy could try to slice a door into the wall with his sword and escape. Easy peasy.

Only, McFist really would be gloating by now.

Or there would be a robot attacking him.

Randy shifted on his feet, trying to get a good look around without accidentally setting off what might very well be ten dozen booby traps. At least the ground beneath his feet was solid. Stone, not steel. That might be a good thing. Hopefully.

He needed to think. How had he gotten here? No idea. How was he going to get out? He’d figure that out as he went. Why was he here? McFist. Or the Sorcerer. Or the Sorcerer’s new lackey. Or the Sorceress. Or someone else who knew about the Ninja. Or—

Wait, was he in the Nomicon?

Maybe he’d just fallen asleep on the Nomicon.

Sure, he wasn’t usually in his suit when he was in the Nomicon, but…. “Hey, First Ninja? Is this some kinda test or something?”

No guiding words (helpful or otherwise) formed in the sky or on the walls or on the path.

Somewhere behind him, there was a soft click.

Randy ducked on instinct and spun around, but there wasn’t—

“En garde, Ninja.”

Wait.

Randy slowly turned back and straightened. He gaped. “NomiRandy? What the juice are you doing here?”

NomiRandy (it had to be him) was also in the Ninja Suit, somehow, and had his sword drawn. Randy would bet money that he looked smug. Those were smug-looking eyes. Except he’d never thought his eyes could look like that, but, well….

“Afraid to fight? The faint of heart aren’t fit to take up the mantle of the Ninja.”

Randy frowned and held up a finger. “Okay, for one, I never say ‘faint of heart’. I mean, really? What kind of shoob actually says that? For another—”

NomiRandy lunged, and Randy—who had never actually drawn his sword—had to hit the dirt to avoid him. Steel sliced the air just above his head, and Randy had a split second to panic. He’d had some close calls, sure, but usually he was up against robots, and those weren’t…. It wasn’t the same. NomiRandy—

Randy’s hand closed around a Ninja Bee Ball and he threw it, rolling to avoid the worst of the swarm and getting to his feet. It was definitely time to run now. He could figure out what this was later. He just needed to go.

He bore right at the first crossroads he came to, then right again, and then he started to lose track. Straight and then left or left and then straight? He slowed, trying to catch his breath and remember where he’d been. It’s not like he wanted to backtrack, but having some idea seemed better than having no idea.

The path turned another corner—right again—and he found himself facing a dead end.

“What the juice? Is this supposed to be a maze?” That was not fair. He’d done a corn maze once as a kid. That had…not gone over well. And those chickens had definitely been following him, no matter what Howard said.

There was laughter behind him, and Randy turned. “It’s more than just a maze, Ninja,” NomiRandy taunted. He pulled off his mask, leaving him in Randy’s everyday clothes as the Ninja Suit vanished in a flourish. He was probably just making a point. Pretending he didn’t need weapons to be able to win at whatever this was. Or showing off the fact that he didn’t have a single bee sting. Randy had no idea how he’d managed that. He’d still gotten stung, so how was that fair?

“Then what the cheese is it supposed to be?” He didn’t like NomiRandy’s attitude. Never had, never would. Why was he even here? And how the juice did he get away from the bees and find him so quickly?

NomiRandy bared his teeth in something that definitely was not a smile. “Too late by the time you figure it out.”

-|-

“C’mon, Cunningham! Wake up already. You’ve gotta get your butt in gear or you’re shoobed!”

Nothing.

Howard gave Randy one more shove, but he was still dead to the world. If he were drooling all over the Nomicon, well, that’d be fine. At least Howard would know what had happened. Instead, Randy had face-planted in his gravy cheese fries and Howard had had to drag him out of the cafeteria and to the relative safety of the custodian’s closet. (He’d have a few stories ready for later. The longer it took Cunningham to snap out of whatever this was, the worse they were gonna be for him.)

Howard was pretty sure this was a Ninja thing, whatever it was, and that Randy hadn’t suddenly developed narcolepsy. He just didn’t know what kind of Ninja thing. If Randy had known about it, he hadn’t warned him. If he hadn’t known about it….

The Nomicon was in Randy’s bag. Howard eyed it suspiciously. “Are you doing this?” he asked it. It didn’t even glow in response, and he scowled. “Some help you are.” If this wasn’t the Nomicon, what was it?

The closet yielded exactly zero answers. Howard stood there for a few seconds, weighing his options, and then dug the Nomicon out of Randy’s bag. He made a half-hearted attempt to open it, but it didn’t budge, and he wound up shoving it into his bag instead. He was on his own. As if he’d really expected anything else.

If anyone happened to come across Randy splayed out on the floor in here, well, Howard could just adjust his lies a bit. It wouldn’t be too hard. Better than to just leave the Nomicon here where anyone could find it, right? And the Ninja Mask….

“You better not be keeping it where I know you’ve kept it,” Howard muttered, kneeling to search Randy’s pockets. Thankfully, he’d just shoved the mask into the waistband of his McSkinnies and nothing worse. Howard still pulled it out with two fingers before stuffing it into his own pocket. “This is for your own good,” he said as he climbed to his feet again.

Randy didn’t even twitch.

-|-

“Are you sure this alliance is wise, sir?” Viceroy asked carefully.

“Of course it is!” snapped McFist. “Why wouldn’t it be? We’re going to destroy the Ninja!”

Viceroy sighed. He didn’t trust Booray. He didn’t trust many people, but especially not those whose loyalty could be so easily bought with various McFist products and upgrades. He wasn’t comfortable with Booray’s methods, either. Even the thought of the man’s gris-gris sent shivers down his spine. “Sir, if the Sorcerer sees this as subcontracting—”

“Make sure he doesn’t!”

As if it would be that easy. The Sorcerer saw through simple verbal manipulations. “Sir, if I may—”

“Just find the Ninja,” McFist ordered, “and give Booray that latest McFistPad for his trouble. Tell him it’s a bonus.”

And hope he’s too preoccupied with it to say anything. That’s what McFist meant, and for once, it wasn’t a bad idea. It was something Viceroy had planned on doing anyway. “Of course, sir.”

The phone rang, their Robo-Ape receptionist informing McFist that Marci wanted to see him immediately, and within seconds, Viceroy was alone in the lab. He sent a note down to the warehouse to have a new McFistPad set aside for Booray, and then he set about looking over the man’s communication.

Refined it wasn’t, having been attached to what Viceroy could only guess was supposed to be a courier possum. Said possum had escaped almost as soon as the message was delivered, which was just as well. Viceroy would rather think that it had made it safely back to Booray than that it might have become part of the mix for their McMeatStaches. Not that he ever ate those, knowing what he did about their origins.

The message wasn’t the easiest thing to decipher, between the language, smeared ink, and swamp scum, but it boiled down to one very important thing: Booray had managed to tag the Ninja in the morning’s encounter, and when the concoction worked its magic, he’d be out like a light. All they had to do was find the only kid in town who couldn’t be woken up. Heavy sleepers though some might be, wouldn’t and couldn’t were two very different things.

The solution was simple, really, and for once, he wouldn’t need to oversee what felt like the inevitable scrap metal collection. Humming to himself, Viceroy picked up the phone again and dialed a familiar number. The secretary at the high school—lovely lady—knew to transfer his call to the principal, and after a few bantering lines with her, Viceroy had the pleasure of informing Principal Slimovitz about McFist’s latest act of generosity. There would be an impromptu wake-a-thon, and McFist would donate money and technology to cover the school’s latest required repairs (only made worse after the last round of attacks). The students were to gather in the gymnasium. For every student who fell asleep before midnight, McFist would withdraw one percent of the funding.

Slimovitz wasn’t a fool. He knew how much he needed the money to keep the school open, and he was willing to cancel afternoon classes when he had so much to gain. And he knew how many teenagers could make it past midnight. His agreement was immediate. Exactly as Viceroy had expected.

“Be sure to have Heidi Weinerman MeCasting the event,” Viceroy added. “We’ll keep tabs on things that way until McFist is able to come down.”

And then they’d get a chance to see who their sleeping beauty was.

-|-

“Yo, little bro, grab Sandy and get to the gym!” Heidi called, pointing as if he didn’t know where the gym was. “Everybody’s gotta be there!”

Howard hadn’t heard any announcement over the loudspeakers, but Heidi would be right. She was never wrong about these things. Instead of heading straight to the gym or back to the janitor’s closet, though, Howard just stood his ground and waited for the crowd to catch up to him.

Slimovitz made the announcement just then, talking about how everyone in this school needs to stay awake for the sake of our Norrisville High pride and other nonsense like that, but all Howard really cared about were two words: stay awake.

He was not surprised when McFist’s name was mentioned as the sponsor.

“I knew this was a Ninja thing,” he muttered. Anything that involved McFist and staying awake when Randy was out like a light pretty much guaranteed that. Howard how no idea how Viceroy had managed it, but that wasn’t the important thing right now.

The important thing was figuring out how to pull this off without every shoob here figuring out who the Ninja was.

Howard did the most logical thing he could: he grabbed some snacks from the vending machine to fortify himself and then went off in search of Julian.

-|-

“I don’t see Randy,” Theresa said, craning her head to scan the crowd as they made their way towards to gymnasium.

Beside her, Debbie rolled her eyes. She was in a sour mood because she’d been told this was Heidi’s exclusive and she wasn’t to report on it. Orders from the top, apparently. Theresa hadn’t pressed for details. “Knowing him, he’s probably in the bathroom stocking up on water balloons.”

Theresa caught a familiar flash of hair and slowed, looking back. Reluctantly, Debbie stopped. “Isn’t that Howard?” Theresa asked, pointing.

“Yeah. Howard and Julian. Now come on.”

“But they’ll know where Randy is.”

“Randy’s fine.”

“What if he’s sick? Didn’t you see how Howard had to help him out during lunch?”

Debbie sighed. “Theresa, I don’t keep tabs on him like you do. I’ve got more important things to worry about.”

“They’re the Ninja’s number one fans,” Theresa shot back. “If you want to find out who he is, why don’t you ask them if they have any idea?”

“Because they won’t. And if they did, they’d never tell me. They’d rather see me squirm.”

Theresa started to make her way towards Howard, stepping around students as she fought the flow of traffic, and she didn’t need to look back to know that Debbie was following her despite her misgivings. “Hey, guys,” she said when she reached Howard and Julian. “Why aren’t you heading to the gym?”

Behind her, Debbie muttered something under her breath.

“We are!” Julian said. “We’re just, ah, making sure we look our best first.” The smile he offered her was too wide, and Howard looked mortified, so—

Her eyes fell on the slim tube in Julian’s hand. Oh. Make-up. There was more stashed in Julian’s locker, tucked in a bag under one of his posters—

“For Randy,” Howard said, smirking in a way that made her wonder if that was a lie. “As incentive. And reminder. To stay awake. You know often he just goes out. Don’t want that to happen now, not with the fundraiser on.”

Debbie snorted. “Please, like that’s actually what you’re up to. If you just wanted war paint, you would’ve raided your sister’s purse. Spill, Weinerman. What’s really up?”

“Graffiti,” he said without missing a beat, and Julian immediately looked horrified.

“You said Randy needed this!”

“He does. For…that.”

“Fine,” Debbie said. “Then Theresa and I will help.”

“We’ll what?” Theresa stared at her friend. Debbie stuck out her chin and stared back, daring to be defied. Theresa had a sinking feeling she’d done this just so that Howard would tell them where Randy was. Well, that, and because Debbie could smell a story and wanted the truth. Theresa wasn’t convinced this was the truth, either, but….

“No can do. We’re hitting up the boys’ washroom. No girls allowed.”

“Like it would be my first time in the boys’ washroom,” Debbie said, and Howard looked too stunned to stutter out a response. “Please, if you’ve ever been anywhere busy, you know there’s always a line at the girls’ one.”

“But—”

“So where’s Cunningham? Let’s do this.”

“You’re not serious,” Theresa murmured.

“I want to know what they’re up to,” Debbie replied, not quite quietly enough that she didn’t fully expect Julian and Howard to overhear.

Howard glared at them. “You know what? Fine. It’s Cunningham’s fault, anyway. And you can probably draw better than me, so you can draw his eyes.”

“What?” Theresa asked, too confused to worry about how that might sound.

“He’s out. He’s not waking up anytime soon. We need to hide the fact that he’s asleep or he’s shoobed. So you can draw eyes on his eyelids.”

The idea was ridiculous. Theresa wished she could find it surprising, but Howard and Randy wound up doing some weird things. Their pranks were legendary.

Well, Howard’s pranks were legendary. Randy’s usually seemed half-finished, especially lately. But he was always so busy, sometimes even running off without Howard, and—

“Is he unconscious,” Debbie asked carefully, “or asleep?”

“If he was just asleep, I could wake him up.” Howard sighed. “Look, he didn’t want anyone to know. He just gets like this sometimes. You’ve seen him, drooling all over his math book. He can’t help it. It’s a medical condition. School’s aware, but, uh, McFist probably isn’t, so if we can wonk the system for the good of the school….”

“What kind of medical condition—?” Debbie shook her head. “You know what? Forget it. Let’s just see what we’re dealing with.”

Howard eyed them for a moment before shrugging. “Fine. Whoever wants to help, follow me.”

The three of them trailed him to the custodian’s closet, which he unlocked—why did he even have a key?—and pushed the door open. He swept his arm towards it with an exaggerated movement. “After you.”

Theresa pushed her way through first, and Debbie had to nudge her from behind when she stopped in shock. Randy was sprawled out on the floor, head tilted to one side, but he looked…pale. Like he was sick, not asleep. Maybe it was just the dim light. Howard had said it was a medical condition, but she couldn’t remember Randy ever looking that…that….

Howard prodded Randy’s side with his foot. “Yup, he’s still out. You guys get to painting on his fake eyes. I’m gonna stock up on snacks again. This is going to be a long night.”

“Hey, wait!” Debbie yelled, making a desperate grab for Howard’s arm. She missed, but he stopped just outside the door. “Why not just get an exemption from the school if this is really a medical condition? They wouldn’t be able to count this against us that way.”

Howard stared at her.

She stared back.

“McFist can’t know,” Howard finally said, and then he stepped back and shut the door behind him, leaving them in the dark.

Julian laughed nervously. “Ah, darkness. An old friend. An older foe. Do, ah, either of you know where the light switch is?”

“I’ll find it,” Debbie grumbled from somewhere to Theresa’s left. “I’m closest to the door.” There was a crash and a curse, and then they were all blinking against the light from the single bulb above them. Debbie looked over at Julian, not bothering to pick up the broom that had missed Theresa by mere inches. “Do you know what’s really going on?”

Julian’s smile looked forced. “Randy does fall asleep like this a lot.”

“He does,” Theresa agreed softly, “but he never used to. I thought it was the stress of high school, but now….”

Debbie snorted. “More likely all-nighters playing video games with Howard than some medical condition.” But she didn’t sound certain. She couldn’t be. Not when they couldn’t wake him up.

Theresa put a hand to his forehead. “He feels a bit cool, but that’s probably just because of where we are.” Biting her lip, she slid up her sleeve so she could see the face of her watch and checked his pulse. It was fine. Steady. Normal.

“He’ll be fine,” Julian said as he sat down next to her and titled Randy’s head toward the light. He pried open Randy’s eyes, and both pupils reacted to the light. “See?”

Theresa swallowed. She saw, but seeing just made it worse. Randy really wasn’t just asleep, and he couldn’t have faked that, could he? What would he be trying to accomplish if this was a joke?

Julian started humming a tune she didn’t know as he began to paint Randy’s fake eyes. Even if he didn’t believe Howard, he was content with the lie. Or maybe he thought Howard would fill him in later. Or maybe Howard already had and just didn’t want to tell them.

Theresa glanced back at Debbie. “What do you think is really going on?”

Debbie pursed her lips. “I don’t know. Howard’s desperate to keep this a secret, whatever it is. Otherwise, he wouldn’t care if McFist knows. And his excuses would be even more ridiculous if this was some prank.”

“So you think it’s real?”

“I don’t think it’s a medical condition, but I think it’s real.”

“All students who have not reported to the gymnasium must do so now. The fundraiser will begin in two minutes. All students to the gymnasium.”

Debbie sighed. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” she said, and then she knelt to help Julian finish.

Theresa just clutched Randy’s hand, hoping he’d wake up.

-|-

Randy couldn’t see any exits, but he wasn’t opposed to making one. The ground was stone. His Ninja Earth Attack should work. If he was lucky, maybe NomiRandy would fall down a hole and not come back.

But the moment Randy settled into the familiar stance, the walls began to melt. As if they were made of ice, not steel. It didn’t get any hotter, and the liquid itself felt like water, not scalding liquefied metal, but it was definitely a lot denser than water, and—

NomiRandy didn’t seem fazed as the liquid whatever-it-was rose steadily past his kneecaps. Past Randy’s kneecaps. It was hard not to fall over, knocked by some crosscurrent formed by the vanishing walls. Randy had to brace himself and alternate his footing whenever that didn’t work, which was frequently.

NomiRandy didn’t even have to move.

“You can’t escape this,” he said as Randy unsuccessfully tried throwing a Ninja Cold Ball at his feet to slow the flow. Even as he watched, the frozen liquid thawed and became part of the liquid again. “You can’t win. There will never be an exit. You will spend the rest of your existence running.”

“That doesn’t even make sense! And if it did, that would mean that you’re trapped here, too.”

NomiRandy sneered at him. “Is that what you think? That I don’t know how to break free? I’m the reason you’re here.”

Here being the Nomicon?” Randy asked. He started to tread water. NomiRandy was still standing, but the water—not-water—was almost up to his shoulders, and Randy just really didn’t like the idea of not moving. It seemed too much like tempting fate. Even though he could float higher than in normal water, staying head and shoulders above it instead of neck deep, he didn’t trust it not to suddenly try to suck him under. This place looked like an endless sea now, no shore in sight and only grey sky above.

Randy couldn’t tell if the sky was reflecting the water or if the water was reflecting the sky.

“Oh, I never returned to the Nomicon,” NomiRandy said. “I just let you think I did. That’s one of the differences between us. I know how to be patient.”

Randy blinked. So this wasn’t the Nomicon? Even though NomiRandy was here? And he was here? Then where were they? The melty walls pretty much confirmed that this couldn’t be the real world. There were no flash floods with liquid metal in the middle of mazes that shouldn’t exist outside of places like the Nomicon, so….

What did that leave, if this wasn’t the real world or the Nomicon?

NomiRandy yawned, stretched, and then planted his hands on the top of the water and pushed himself out of it as if it were solid. He wasn’t even wet. “Don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll get the hang of this eventually. And if not, well, all the better for me.”

“Wait,” Randy called, trying—and failing—to copy NomiRandy’s moves. He swam after him instead. “I don’t…. What is this? Where are we? How did I get here?”

NomiRandy stopped walking and turned back. “You’re here because I want you here. Because I’ve been planning this for so long. And because I was finally given the perfect opportunity to pull you under.” He spread his arms. “This is your world now, Ninja. If you don’t learn how to survive, it will consume you. Or at least make sure you’re so lost you never see real daylight again. I’m not picky.”

In desperation, Randy tried to blast himself out of the water with the Ninja Air Fist.

It worked.

Sorta.

He left the water, but he didn’t go very high or very far, and when he did land, it was with a bone-rattling thud that made him certain the bruise was going to be a big one.

The flat sea had turned to smooth glass, nary a ripple in sight, and NomiRandy….

Randy looked around.

NomiRandy was gone.

-|-

Debbie wouldn’t admit it later, but she shrieked when Randy suddenly sucked in a huge breath and bolted upright. He was somehow on his feet before anyone else. They’d only just finished painting on his fake eyes—Howard wasn’t back with snacks yet, if he was even coming—and, frankly, Randy was lucky she or Julian hadn’t accidentally stabbed him.

“You’re awake,” Theresa said, smiling. She was still holding Randy’s hand, half on her feet now and rising to join him, and he was staring between her and their linked hands not in disbelief but in—

Randy managed to pull his hand free, his lip curling. He made a point of wiping it on his pants. “Yeah, wide. Finally. Hey, you see that Weinerman chick around? I figure I’ll kill two birds with one stone. I’ve wasted enough time as it is.”

Theresa’s mouth opened, nothing but a small, hurt whine escaping. Debbie tossed the eyeliner she’d been using back to Julian and got to her feet. “Heidi is so not interested in you, Cunningham,” she snarled. He was an idiot, but he was not so oblivious that he had no idea what he’d just done to Theresa. The girl was not as subtle as she thought she was.

“Mmhmm, you say that now.” He was patting his pockets. Frowning. “That’ll change.” He grabbed his bag off the floor and started to search through it.

“As if,” Debbie shot back. “She doesn’t even know your name. You’re nothing to her but her little brother’s snot-nosed friend.”

That was the moment Howard came back. The armful of snacks he was holding dropped to the floor. “Randy!”

Randy’s head snapped towards Howard, and he shoved his bag away. “Where is it?” he growled.

Howard actually took a step back. “Oookay. Right. Um. Maybe not here.”

Randy was on him in three long strides, grabbing Howard by the shirt. “Where is it?” he hissed again.

Debbie held out a hand in case Julian thought to open his mouth (Theresa was too stunned to do that) and waited. Howard’s eyes rolled specifically in their direction. “Later,” he choked out.

“I don’t care if they know. I can deal with them later. And you. I don’t need you messing this up for me again.”

Again? Debbie officially had no clue what was going on. Randy was acting weird. All of a sudden, ‘medical condition’ didn’t sound as far-fetched as it first had. What was this, some kind of dissociative disorder?

Howard struggled, trying to break free as Randy shoved him into the wall and tried to search his pockets with his free hand. Against her better judgement, Debbie stepped up and grabbed Randy’s arm. “Hey, lay off!”

He released Howard long enough to punch her in the gut, and while she tried to remember how to breathe, he grabbed Howard’s bag and starting rummaging through it.

“Randy,” Theresa whispered, “what are you doing?”

“What I need to,” Randy ground out. He pulled out a huge leather-bound book, turning to avoid Howard’s tackle, and smiled. “You hid the mask in your locker, right? Or in his?” He didn’t wait for an answer.

He just hugged the book to his chest and bolted.

“What the cheese is up with Randy?” Debbie wheezed. She didn’t trust herself to get back to her feet yet, so she stayed on the floor.

Howard groaned. “That’s not Randy.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” she demanded, even as Theresa echoed ‘not Randy?’ with so much hope in her voice, it hurt.

Howard sighed. “I’m kinda hoping I can mind wipe you guys when this is over, but—”

“Hoping you can what?”

“—Julian, you still have that ski mask I gave you, right?”

Julian gave a nervous twitter as he removed his hat and pulled out a black mask. “Right here.”

“Good.” Howard straightened up, strode over, and took it from him. “Okay. First things first. What you saw and what I say never leaves this room, got it? Especially you, Scoops Kang. You scoop this, you shoob us.”

She frowned but didn’t argue. “Fine.” He wouldn’t tell them anything otherwise. And without knowing what was going on…. “I won’t write about any of this.”

“Ever.”

She rolled her eyes. “Ever.”

After the others had murmured their agreement, Howard took a deep breath. “Right. I’m not supposed to tell anyone, but I’m the Ninja.”

Surprise outpaced common sense, and it took a moment for Debbie to remember she’d seen Howard with the Ninja. She’d seen Howard saved by the Ninja. He couldn’t be the Ninja. He was one of the first people she’d crossed off her list.

“That book Randy ran off with,” Howard continued over questions from Theresa and Julian, “is my NinjaNomicon. It’s, um, important. For training. And knowledge. And…stuff. So I need it back. You guys gotta help me.”

“I thought….” Theresa took a shuddering breath. “I thought you said that wasn’t Randy.”

“It’s not. It’s a…a…. There was a mix-up with the Nomicon a while back. We just call him NomiRandy. He’s a complete shoob, and we’ve gotta wonk his cheese if we’re gonna get Randy back. But we need the Nomicon for that, because that’s where he came from and that’s where he belongs.”

“So where’s the real Randy?”

“The Nomicon? Maybe? It wasn’t open when this started, but…. I dunno. Point is, we need to get NomiRandy back into the Nomicon, real Randy back here, and we need to not let McFist realize anything’s wonked or we’re shoobed.”

Now was not the time to ask how the heck they could get a person inside a book. Even if Howard knew the answer, he either wouldn’t tell them or couldn’t explain it. She settled on the more pressing observation. “They have something to do with this, don’t they? McFist and Viceroy.” She remembered the soupsicle incident. She remembered the monster that had been Howard, that the Ninja had saved him, that McFist and Viceroy had been the ones behind the mutant soup. Maybe that hadn’t been the only connection they had to all the strange incidents that occurred. Maybe it was just one of the few she’d seen.

“Yeah, but, uh, don’t tell anyone that, either. Cunningham will flip when he finds out I told you guys as much as I have. This was supposed to just be between us. Y’know, as the Ninja’s number one fans.”

“Cunningham will just be grateful when we get him back,” Debbie said. “So if you’ve dealt with this…not-Randy before—”

NomiRandy. We call him NomiRandy. C’mon, Kang, keep up.”

“Fine. So if you’ve dealt with him before, what do we do?”

Howard pulled on the ski mask, and there was a flash of light and fluttering of cloth, and then….

Then, he was the Ninja.

Actually the Ninja.

Looking a little bit different than usual, sure, but he was definitely wearing the Ninja suit, and—

“I’ll work on catching NomiRandy. If you guys run into him, stall him and someone call me. My cell’s on. Julian’s got my number. And if you run into McFist, everything’s cool. Um, and if Heidi doesn’t have it under control, maybe make sure no one falls asleep during this wake-a-thon thing. Pretty sure that’s important, even if I don’t know why.” He grinned at them and pulled something out of his pocket. “Smoke bomb!”

Debbie started coughing the moment the foul stench hit her nose, and she wasn’t sure she would have made it out of the room without help from Theresa and Julian. There was no sign of Howard. No sign of the Ninja. She’d gotten some answers, but she still had no idea what was going on.

“Why…why do you think it’s important no one falls sleep?” Theresa asked quietly. “I know it’s a fundraiser, but—”

“Yeah, something besides the smoke bomb stinks.” Howard couldn’t be telling the whole truth, not when she’d seen him with the Ninja, but what else made sense?

What was she missing?

“Here’s Howard’s number,” Julian said, holding out a piece of paper. “I’ll, ah, go on ahead and make sure everyone stays awake. Maybe we can tell scary stories! Wouldn’t that be fun?”

“Thanks, Julian,” Theresa said, taking the paper from him. “See you in a bit.”

Julian grinned and ran off, and Debbie used the excuse of putting Howard’s number into her phone as a reason to avoid Theresa’s question. Unfortunately, her friend knew her too well to be put off by that. Finally, she answered, “I think it’s a Ninja thing, and I think McFist and Viceroy are involved somehow. We can’t risk assuming they’re not. Maybe, if this is some elaborate scheme, they’ll just think they failed at whatever they’re trying to do.”

Theresa bit her lip. “What if what they’re trying to do is the same thing you’ve been trying to do?”

Debbie frowned. “What do you mean?”

“What if…what if they’re trying to figure out who the Ninja is, too? I don’t know why, but…. Howard was so worried. And he told us the truth. Or at least…. I think he told us most of the truth. Debbie, if McFist is trying to figure out who the Ninja is, then this sudden fundraiser can’t be coincidental.”

Debbie nodded. “I know. The timing—”

“But it was Randy who was asleep,” Theresa interrupted, “so doesn’t that mean…? What if it means Randy’s the Ninja? And Howard’s just covering for him? And he only told us what he did because Randy’s not Randy anymore, he’s this NomiRandy person, and Howard doesn’t know if—”

Theresa’s voice caught, and Debbie swallowed. Hard. Theresa had just voiced what she’d been trying not to think about. “Let’s get Randy back first. We can make the boys talk later. I don’t trust Howard to handle this by himself, so I’m going to go help him, and you can either come with or help Julian. We’re going to need people in both places anyway.”

“Debbie.” Theresa caught her arm as she turned to go. “What if we…. What if we don’t get him back?”

She was worried about Randy.

Right now, Debbie had the sinking feeling they had to be worried about the rest of Norrisville, too.

“We will. Because we have to.”