There Are No How-To Books for Aspiring Ninjas: Part Three
When he woke up the next day after his adventures in Moltara, Orion desperately wanted to curl into a smaller ball and wrap his tail over his eyes to keep out the light. He sighed and got up anyway, ate breakfast, and picked through the overflowing sewing bin to find some fabric to use for his party costume. It was a perfect job to let him think about the events of yesterday. He measured, cut, and stitched mechanically, pondering the strange mystery he had stumbled into. He had heard from the bookshop owner about a ninja training school on Mystery Island. Was it possible the tunnel from Moltara had led there? He considered the warm, damp air he'd felt, and the smell of growing things. That might seem to confirm it. Yet the only way to know for certain was to go there, and he was far from being high enough in stats to attend the secret school, much less rich enough to buy the rare red codestones. There was no way he would risk sneaking through the tunnel again. He'd been lucky last night that no one had spotted him.
He was thinking so hard, he almost lost track of the time, and had to run to the Krawk Island ferry for that day's lesson. There was a new student wandering around the Academy looking lost, so Orion showed him the right room and dashed to his own lesson. He was still so distracted from the night before, he got hit several times with the wooden swords they were fighting with.
"Sorry, Orion," his Acara partner blurted after the fourth strike. "I expected you to block it!"
Orion could feel a new welt rising on his side. "My fault, I'm distracted."
"Arrr, and distracted gets you cold steel through yer belly, not just a little tap." The instructor materialized, as the pirate Uni always managed to do, right behind him. "Whatever's got ye distracted, gets ye dead in short order. Yer mind must be as fit as yer body. Spar with me a bit, and focus!"
Her horn had a piece of cork stuck on the end for safety, but no one laughed at her appearance when she sparred. She was deadly quick with her horn, and used hooves and tail as well. Orion focused, and managed not to get hit more than eight or ten times more, which was good, considering her skill compared to his. Class ended with him pinned up against the wall with the cork on his heart, and his sword several armlengths away.
That went well he thought disconsolately as he trudged back to the ferry, wishing he had some ice. He was contemplating plunging into the waves, even though the salt would wreak havoc with his fur. The other student he had helped, a Shadow Kyrii, ran up beside him. "Hey, thanks for the help earlier." He stuck out a paw. "I'm Louis."
"I'm Orion, nice to meet you. I remember being lost when I first started coming, so I was glad to help. Are you going to take classes regularly?"
"I'm not sure, it's pretty intense... hey, wait, Orion... aren't you Breeze's brother?"
"Cool! She's really stylish."
They filed onto the ferry with the other Neopians and while Louis chitchatted some about having moved to Neopia Central lately and where were the best places to get clothes, Orion was able to answer him with only half his brain engaged. The other half was still wondering about last night. Louis parted company with him at the dock, waving a cheery farewell.
Life went on as usual, and Orion saw Louis around from time to time. Before he knew it, a week had flown by, and Orion was getting ready for the costume party. His sister was going as a desert princess. Why does no one ever dress as desert peasant? Probably because it's not glamorous, Orion thought with a smile as he pulled on his own costume, green clothes, altered with a fringe on the sleeves, with a handmade red archer cape. He also slipped two tiny items into his pocket.
Breeze yelled, "Orion, do you know where I left my Geb necklace?"
He wandered across the hall and helped her look, finding it inside a gnome cap.
There were a lot of neopets at the party. Breeze was surrounded by a crowd of talk and perfume within five minutes, and Orion wandered around, saying hello to various friends and chatting a little. Twisting his large ears in different directions, he could catch random snatches of various conversations.
"Try dipping in lemon juice and sitting in the sun, that will lighten it right up..."
"Oh sure, and if I believe that, you'll try to sell me a house in Jelly World!"
"...and with the coupon, it only cost me 670 neopoints!"
"Green blush is in, right now, which is too bad since it doesn't match my eyes."
"There's a disruption in the space-time continuum that causes the whole thing to vanish, and all you can think of is where the stick came from?"
He saw Louis, dressed as a pirate, in a corner by the punch bowl and went over to say hello.
Louis looked up from his cup. "Hi, I'm not avoiding anyone, I just don't want my cup jostled. This is really great punch, would Keesha give me the recipe?"
Orion grinned. "There is no recipe. I helped her make it once and everything from fruit juices to Spirit of the Ruins Fizz to Sparkling Bog Water goes in there."
Louis looked slightly ill at the thought.
"Oh, cheer up," Orion said with a grin as he snagged a cup. "No one's died yet! Pirates eat worse, I'm sure... Hmm, tastes like she added a little too much radish puree this year."
Louis set down his half-empty cup and said, "Nice costume, you look kinda rustic. What are you, anyway?"
The Xweetok struck a heroic pose. "Behold the extra-stealthy woodland archer!"
"Extra stealthy? Archer? Where's your bow?"
"Well, a longbow keeps getting caught on low branches and it's not easy to run with. So..." Orion fished in his pocket and brought out a miniscule item: a Nearly Microscopic Crossbow."
"I see," Louis said doubtfully, "but what about arrows?"
Orion presented, with a flourish, a tiny handmade quiver, complete with little arrows made out of toothpicks and petpet feathers.
"I should have seen that coming," the Kyrii groaned, slapping his paw to his face. He looked up. "Besides, if you want to be extra stealthy, you should have dressed as a ninja."
Orion kept an easy smile on his face. "Nah, too boring, with all that black."
His friend persisted, "They're pretty sneaky. I'd love to get a glimpse of one someday. Have you ever seen one?"
Orion thought fast. "Sure!"
Louis's gaze flickered to someone else behind him. "Really?" he said, dropping his voice to a whisper, and moving closer. "Where? When? That is so amazing!"
"When we took a trip to Mystery Island, of course," Orion said, shrugging. "Haven't you ever seen Ryshu in action? He's pretty fast! That's what inspired me to start training, actually."
It might have been Orion's imagination, but the Kyrii looked relieved for a fraction of a second. "Oh, really? I could take a trip there, maybe."
"I'd recommend it," Orion commented.
"You'd also recommend the punch," Louis retorted, "Hey, I'm going to check out the food, want to come?"
"Nah, I want to finish my punch first."
The Xweetok took a healthy swig, and Louis actually shuddered a little at the sight, before turning and slipping through the crowd to the even more crowded food table. Orion watched him go. He moved smoothly through the crush, and Orion wondered, why this sudden mention of ninjas? Who had he looked at? Orion couldn't see anyone paying special attention to the Kyrii, who was inspecting a platter of sliced lemorans for the perfect piece of fruit.
What if someone had seen him visit that cave? What if the Kyrii was a ninja checking on him, to see if he would tell about the tunnel and guards? Everyone knew pirates and ninjas had a rivalry, could he have deliberately dressed as a pirate so no one would suspect? Or am I just being paranoid? He had no way of knowing.
Orion jumped. Louis was right beside him, holding a plate, and he hadn't even noticed. Was he that busy thinking, or had the Kyrii just been really stealthy?
"Whoops, sorry to startle you. Want a fruit kebab or some lemoran?"
They munched and chatted for a while, and then the conversation turned again to ninjas.
"I just wish I could see a ninja, or talk to someone who's seen one."
Orion felt a cold chill. Most pets would have made some stupid jokes about wussy ninjas or dropped the point entirely by now. Louis was trying to find out what he knew. He smiled. It was the same smile he pasted on after hours of clothes shopping with Breeze, when he wanted to go home but didn't want to break his sister's heart, (who just needed to look at one more thing!) Who would have thought those years of practice would come in handy? If Louis was just a friend, then no harm would be done, but if he was a ninja, could he send a message of sorts?
"Well," Orion said, after taking the last swig of his punch, "the point of ninjas is not to be seen, obviously. If someone sees them, they're either faking it or else really lousy. I wouldn't advise trying to find out too much, or you just may... have some kind of accident, you know? Why are so you fascinated?"
"I want to write a Neopian Times article," Louis said glibly, selecting a cracker from his plate. "Lots of people would love to read more about ninjas."
Orion took a deep breath. "I'd want to read it too. I wanted to find out more about ninjas after seeing Ryshu, maybe even be one, but the bookstore owner said, 'There are no how-to books for aspiring ninjas.' So instead I started reading fitness books and playing action games. I can Ugga Drop with the best of them, now. That's why I'm taking classes at the Pirate Academy, so I can take classes on Mystery Island when I'm stronger. I've heard there's even a special school for graduates of Mystery Island, a ninja school, have you heard of it?
"Maybe once," Louis said vaguely. "Not sure. Anyway, this cheese spread is really good. I can't quite recognize the spices, though..."
Orion grinned wickedly. "Keesha makes it herself." He had the satisfaction of watching a Shadow Kyrii blanch... a rare sight.
Orion kept seeing Louis around after that conversation, but ninjas weren't spoken of again. Life went on as normal, including neoschool, beauty contests, parties, and shopping marathons. One night he'd stayed home while Breeze and his mom went to the Neopies. He was listening to the rain running down the gutters and flipping idly through the pages of Pirates vs. Ninjas: The Novel, when the doorbell rang. He peeked out his bedroom curtains and saw a tall, cloaked figure. It didn't look like anyone he knew, so he ignored it. Then, the person looked up at his window.
"Orion, I know you're home, we need to talk," he called, slipping the hood off, ignoring the raindrops sliding down his face. Orion stared in astonishment at the face of the red Nimmo and ran downstairs as fast as he could. He unlocked the door and Ryshu stepped in.
"Er, would you like to sit down?" Orion said cautiously. Up close, the Nimmo was even more imposing than he had realized.
"This is about Louis, isn't it?" Orion asked, when they were seated in the living room.
"No, he was mostly to ensure that you weren't the type to tell the world about what you saw. You seem to be a quiet sort, overall, loyal. Everyone respects you."
"How long have you been watching me?"
"Since the night you took a little stroll in Moltara. By the way, if you happen to visit Moltara, there seems to a reduction in the number of caves visible to even the most advanced magic users." He put the tips of his long fingers together. "You place us in an interesting predicament. You know too much, yet we don't like to cause... 'some kind of accident' unless absolutely necessary. So I'll ask you one question: would you like to train as a ninja?"
Orion stared at him. The water trickled down the windows. "Yes," he managed to whisper. "I would like that very much. But... I'm not advanced enough to go to the ninja school, and I'd have to save up for the red codestones..."
Ryshu smiled. "The ninja school has two types of classes. One is for advanced battlers who want to learn more about fighting in the battledome. But the other teaches all levels of pets, and teaches them everything we know. Neopoints won't be a problem, as long as you take the various loyalty and confidentiality oaths. Your family will be at the Neopies again tomorrow, so why don't you take a trip over to Mystery Island? Someone will meet you."
"Okay, um... I never expected this. I was just hoping you'd leave me alone."
"We find recruits in many places," Ryshu said blandly, standing up. "Some of the most unexpected ones turn out to be the best."
Ryshu was at the door when Orion had a sudden thought.
"Wait! If you can tell me; why the worms? And what do you need them for?"
The ninja smiled. "Partly it's a training exercise... but we also have sources of information that tell us the worms are sentinels from ancient times. The fact that they happen to glow has been exploited and takes them away from their appointed posts."
"What are they watching for?"
"Listening, actually. Their eyesight isn't keen, but their hearing is exceptional. We don't know what they're listening for, but we keep an eye on them because whatever it is they're supposed to warn Neopia of, can't be good."
With that comforting statement, Ryshu strolled out Orion's door, and merged almost immediately into the shadows.
One year later: Orion crouched on a stone rooftop, watching the opposite building. He'd asked to be painted with a skunk paintbrush, and the few thin white stripes he had were concealed with a special concoction of the ninja's design. Most of his fellow ninjas preferred colors like pirate, grey, shadow, or invisible. The dark color wasn't his only way of staying hidden. He'd also learned other secrets that ensured no one would see him. The square below had very few neopets crossing it at this time of night. When he judged that it was safe, he jumped lightly to the ground, ran across the open area, and climbed a ladder that went to the second level of the building. He paused on the walkway, watching and listening for anyone watching him. He placed his paw over the lock and concentrated. It clicked open instantly, and the Xweetok slipped inside. He had already memorized the building's layout, and easily navigated to the glass and bronze item he had been ordered to take. He lifted it carefully off a shelf and peered at it in the near dark. Inside the thick glass, a yellow shape wiggled away from its companions to peer nearsightedly at him.
"Hey, Yellow," Orion whispered, unlatching the lantern's clasp. "Let's take a little trip."