“Spang!” The metal ninja star rang out loudly as it struck the heating vent. Crouched behind the ductwork, 14 year-old Moira Mackenzie gripped her sword. Taking a deep breath, she relaxed herself, and got ready to jump.
You can do this, she told herself. You really can do this. Lightning flashed lighting up the roof around her just long enough to see the machinery and heating units around her.
For just a moment she thought of the candles on her birthday cake only one month ago. If anyone had told her that she’d be a newly minted ninja, fighting for her life and wielding swords and knives before she ever got her driving permit she would have laughed out loud. But, here she was, doing all that and more.
She tossed her long brunette bangs out of her eyes, and took one hand off of her sword long enough to tuck her hair behind one ear. She was going to have to start tying her hair back like her sister Mindy if this was going to become a regular thing.
A crack of thunder followed the lightning. It rattled the machinery on the roof of the Akiyama Building. Through the flashes of lightning from the storm, Moira saw the skyline of Manhattan. On any other night, she would have thought it beautiful, but now, she just felt fear, and the cold, stiff Autumn rain that swept across the roof as sheets of freezing water.
Slender, but slightly muscled, Moira wasn’t what anyone would call obviously athletic, but it was clear she was nimble on her feet and extremely coordinated for a teenager.
At five-foot five inches, she was taller than average for her age, and almost as tall as her older sister Mindy. She looked older than her age as well. Of the three sisters Moira had the most distinctly Japanese features of all — looking more like her full-blooded Japanese mother than her fully caucasian father.
There was no denying all the sisters were of mixed parents, but if any of them had to pass for full blooded Japanese — it was Moira.
“You look just like your mother when she was your age,” her father often told her. It was, he admitted only to himself, why Moira was his favorite. He loved them all equally, but differently. But yes, he guiltily admitted to himself, she was his favorite, perhaps because they were so much alike.
The middle of three sisters, Morira was also the most practical. His eldest daughter, Mindy, was independent, westernized, and a joy for him. His youngest daughter, Marci, was his child genius — more bookworm and nerd, small and compact, and as introverted as he was.
But Moira? He only had to look at her to be reminded of her mother — now long gone — killed in a car crash. Maybe it wasn’t fair that he had a favorite child, but she was so much like her mother, he couldn’t help it. It was Moira, he knew, who would be most likely to want to follow in his footsteps and run her own company one day. They had talked about business since Moira was five years old and insisted on going to work with him. She had colored and written quietly at her own desk inside his office - absorbing what it meant to run a business and deal with people as she grew up. And while they had both assumed she would one day run the company, neither of them had realized just how soon that would be.
"Moira!" yelled a familiar voice. "Come out! I know it's you!"
Moira forced herself to stand, leaning slightly into the rain and wind, squinting against the elements, and holding her sword in front of her. She flexed her fingers on the cloth-wrapped hilt. Lightning, reflected in the straight edge of the blade, also showed her what else she faced. A circle of ninjas dressed in black uniforms had spread out across the roof. They moved in and surrounded her. She saw their leader: her Uncle Jiro.
He no longer wore his black face mask. His uniform was more detailed than those of the other ninjas, but they all appeared similar. His uniform included wide shoulder flaps of cloth, which crossed his chest and allowed him to hide more weapons. His sword and his collapsible bow were still slung over his shoulders. Reaching into his vest, he produced several more throwing stars. Here it comes, she closed her eyes and winced.
The other ninjas posed with their weapons but they did not move. A ninja leader ruled by strength. Because of Moira, Uncle Jiro seemed weak in front of his clan of assassins. He now had to prove to the others that he could still lead them.
Uncle Jiro said nothing more. He let the shuriken, the ninja stars, do the talking for him, flicking them through the rainy night directly at Moira's face.
Moira reacted almost without thinking. Her straight-bladed ninja sword clanged as she flicked her wrist back and forth, catching the sharp-pointed throwing stars and knocking them aside.
Each one clattered to the rooftop at her feet. One struck the top of her tabi, her soft-soled ninja boots. It stung, but she pretended it didn't. She couldn't let Uncle Jiro see how afraid she felt.
"Moira," said Uncle Jiro. "Stop this. Give up. You are a 13 year-old girl. This is not the place for you. You can do nothing to stop my ninjas."
“I’m 14,” Moira shouted back. “I had a birthday a month ago and you didn’t even bother to send a birthday card.”
Moira shook her head. How rude could this man be?
Uncle Jiro stopped. A birthday? Had it been that long since his quest for control of his brother-in-law’s company began? This was taking entirely much too long. Clapping his hands together in front of his body, he began to hum deep in his throat. His body seemed to turn to smoke in front of her eyes. As she watched, Uncle Jiro started to shrink, started to pool lower to the ground...
...and suddenly became a wolf.
The enormous, black wolf with a huge white streak down the center of its enormous head, glared at her with its yellow eyes and snarled. Moira took a half step back. Swallowing hard, she forced herself to take a half step forward again. The wolf raised its head and howled to the sky, growling and drooling. It was the most ferocious, unearthly animal Moira had ever seen.
The ninja's magic can be made from fear... or from love, Moira thought, remembering her lessons. She forced herself to close her eyes, fearing that at any moment the wolf might leap forward. Uncle Jiro wanted her to be afraid. The more fearful she was, the more powerful his ninja magic would be.
Aiko, a grandmother she never knew she had until almost a year ago, had taught Moira to use love, so she focused on what she loved the most: her sisters, Marci and Mindy and her mother, whom they had all loved. She held that feeling close and the warmth began to grow within her. As it did, she could feel herself falling away into the center of her body. In that center she pictured a massive, snow-white wolf of her own -- more like a Husky dog, really, with ice-blue eyes.
Suddenly Moira realized she'd turned into the Husky wolf. She stood on her paws and faced the black wolf at the animal's height. Whether it was an illusion, a trick of the mind, or she and Uncle Jiro truly were truly wolves, she would never be sure.
Moira howled. She would not let Uncle Jiro bully her. She would not back down.
The black wolf growled once more. Then, without hurrying, it began to stretch, becoming taller, standing on its hind legs. Like a pool of ink, the shape spread until it once again took the shape of Uncle Jiro. He smiled at her. As she watched, his teeth shrank back to normal.
"Aiko has taught you well," he said. He took a step forward, then another. His human voice sounded deep and hoarse, just as threatening as the wolf's growl had been. His dark eyes were full of anger. "I am going to give you one last chance. Only because you are... family,” he said as if the word tasted bad in his mouth.
"No," Moira said. “We are not family.”
Uncle Jiro seemed surprised. Then he smiled again, but it was not a happy smile. Moira thought he might change back into a wolf again... or into something worse.
He opened his mouth to say something, but one of the ninjas crouching in the darkness shouted a warning in Japanese. The enemy forces turned to face outward, away from Moira, and pointed their swords and other tools towards the edge of the roof.
Uncle Jiro's ninjas were dressed in black. The ninjas that crept over the edge of the roof, their swords ready and their bows drawn back, wore gray like Moira. Even behind her mask, Moira saw that their leader was an older Asian woman.
Aiko, thought Moira.
"You…” Uncle Jiro hissed. Slowly, deliberately, he reached up and drew his ninja sword from the scabbard on his back.
"Step away from her," Aiko said. Her eyes narrowed as she watched Jiro. She held a pair of sai, long cross-hilt daggers used for trapping and deflecting sword blades. Extending one of her daggers and flipping it expertly in her hand, she gestured toward the enemy ninja. "Do it now and we will leave."
"None of you will leave this place," Uncle Jiro rumbled. "And you," he pointed the tip of his black sword at her, "should not have come back."
Aiko spoke sharply in Japanese, giving commands to her ninja warriors. To Moira, she said, "Down, child! Down!"
Moira knew not to argue. She took shelter behind the ductwork again.
Uncle Jiro transformed once more. This time he became a hawk, with wings reaching easily eight feet across. The giant hawk shrieked and leapt up, flying through the air, its talons razor sharp and extended to attack.
Aiko leapt as well, and met him in the air.
The female leader of the gray-clad ninja had become a crane. She leapt on her long legs, flapping her mighty wings, pecking at Jiro's hawk-form. The two birds turned in the air, fighting and tussling, shrieking and clawing. From her vantage behind the duct, Moira could not help but be afraid. She knew Uncle Jiro's strength and Aiko’s brilliance and cunning. Which would prove more effective?
As the two ninja leaders fought in animal form, the other ninjas began to battle with each other. Swords clashed. Sai clanged. Stars flew through the air, clattering on the rooftop and around the ducts. A storm of arrows flew this way and that. Aiko's ninja fought Jiro's ninja furiously, neither side willing to give ground, but both so equally matched that it was impossible for one to get the advantage over the other.
Moira recognized her cue to escape the battle. Not every battle was won by overcoming one’s opponent. Some battles were won by escaping the opponent to live to fight when the odds were better. This, she told herself, was one of those times.
Scrambling to avoid the stars and the arrows, moving in and around between the two opposing ninja clans, she ran, scurrying, bent at the knees and waist, staying low to avoid the weapons flying around her.
As Moira reached the other side of the roof, using the distraction of the battle to do so, she paused to look back. Aiko and Uncle Jiro had reverted back to their human forms and were fighting with their blades. Jiro was a master swordsman, but Aiko was good with her two, shorter sai, blocking every slash and thrust he made with his sword.
She didn’t have much time. Moira had to find Mindy and Marci.
The entrance at the opposite end of the roof was one of those big, metal doors used to keep people safe if there was ever a fire. It was very heavy, and from this side, it was locked. Checking behind her as Aiko had taught her, Moira knelt by the door. From inside one of her hidden pockets she took out her lock picking kit.
It's a simple lock, she thought. Don't get nervous. I can do this. I can do anything if I stay calm.
Aiko had taught Moira how to pick a lock. Door locks were easy. She took two small pieces of metal from the lock pick set. One was an L-shaped piece, the "wrench," which didn't look like a wrench at all. It just looked like a bent piece of metal. The other was a jagged needle that resembled a key, but a lot thinner.
The battle sounded loud and scary behind her. Moira inserted the jagged piece of metal and moved it back and forth. While she did so, she used the L-shaped wrench to turn the lock. Soon after she felt the lock release and turn.
Got it, she thought. She tucked the picks away and took out her small flashlight. The door was heavy, but she pulled it open and crept inside. As she thought it might be, the stairwell inside was dark. She clicked on the compact, super-bright LED flashlight.
A ninja always carries a flashlight, she repeated to herself. A ninja always carries tools. A ninja is prepared for what might happen. A ninja never lets fear stop her, but acts in spite of any fear she feels.
She took two tentative steps into the darkness. Her flashlight's switch let her blink the light on for a second, then move. If an enemy saw the flash of light and threw a knife, or a throwing star, or shot an arrow at her, she wouldn't be where the light shone. She always thought one step ahead.
Uncle Jiro's Akiyama building was very tall with thousands of rooms and nooks. She had no idea where to look for Mindy and Marci. What would Aiko do? No doubt, stay low: the first rule of sneaking. When in doubt, start at the beginning.
She found the staircase and moved quickly down the stairs, taking them two steps at a time, feeling light on her feet in her tabi boots. She thought she heard a noise. She froze, listening. You must be still in order to listen: another of Aiko's lessons.
Except for the distant sounds of the furious ninja battle still going on upon the roof, she heard nothing more. The fighting noises became more distant as she descended the stairwell. Each floor number was marked on the fire door for that floor. But where should she start? Marci and Mindy could be anywhere.
Except, no, that wasn't right. The message Marci managed to send had been in code. It had to be, to prevent Jiro's men from intercepting it. But even Aiko hadn't understood what the message meant.
She took out her phone and looked again at the text message again:
WE CAN'T WAIT TO SEE YOU, read the message, uncharacteristically in all caps. SO MUCH FEAR HERE. TWO FEAR, ONE FOR EACH OF US.
That message had been Uncle Jiro's idea of scaring her. He had let Marci send a text message from her phone before taking it from her again. But something about it seemed strange. Marci never typed in all CAPS. And "two fear, one for each of us" sounded awfully odd to Moira.
Then she realized. Of course it sounded odd. It was meant to.
Marci had been complaining about her German lessons just the other day. Mindy was learning Spanish, but Marci had already learned Spanish and had moved on to German. The two sisters had argued about what good it would do to learn German. Marci had insisted she liked knowing what people were saying in the old World War II movies that their father used to watch.
The thought of her father brought a sudden lump to her throat. She missed her dad so much.
Focus, she thought. She was trying to tell me where they were without Jiro or his men knowing. Jiro’s men wanted her sisters to send her the message to scare her, and it had. Jiro's men sent a picture of Marci and Mindy attached, a picture with Uncle Jiro standing over them with his sword. His threat was clear. Marci had told them Moira wouldn’t believe they were alive unless she included a text. They agreed, handing her the phone. She typed a message that would contain a clue. She loved clues and mysteries. Only nine years old, Marci was more than just a puzzle addict. She was a genius puzzle addict with an IQ approaching that of Einstein’s.
That message was a clue, and one Marci knew Moira could figure out, But what was the clue? Moira thought back to the last time the sisters had all been together in their kitchen baking the chocolate chip cookies they had baked for their Uncle Mort. Marci had been counting the cookies as she placed them on a plate - but counting them in German, which sounded almost lyrical. She had repeated it many times, which was what caused Marci and Mindy to argue about languages. Marci loved to sing repetitive songs. Eins, zwei, drei, vier. One, two, three, four.
Vier was pronounced "fear." Two fears. Two viers. Two, four.
"Twenty-four," she whispered to herself. She wrote it that way to get my attention, and the all-caps drew my attention to the message. She needed me to notice. They've got to be on floor twenty-four.
She hoped she was right. She couldn't think of anything to do now but find the twenty-fourth floor... and hopefully, Marci and Mindy.
The building was so tall that it took her a long time to get to floor twenty-four. When she did, she tested the fire door. Success! It wasn't locked. She opened it slowly so that it would make as little sound as possible. Quietly she tiptoed out onto the carpeted hallway. Crouching, as Aiko had taught her, she felt for the tanto knife in her belt. The Japanese weapon was a last resort, one that she didn't want to use. But there was no telling how many of Uncle Jiro's guards there might be between her and her sisters. She had her sword, and she had her other weapons. She hoped she was ready.
She crept down the hallway. A year ago, if someone had told her she would be training to be a ninja, or that she would be fighting an ancient ninja clan war between her mother's side of the family and her own evil uncle, she never would have believed it
Her Uncle Mort, her father's best friend, said he didn't believe in the ninja legends. Ninjas weren't forest spirits called tengu, he would tell her. They were just spies and assassins, ancient Japanese secret agents who the world had forgotten about. Down through the centuries since around the year 1100, the ninja had taught each generation their fighting and spying secrets. But they weren't supernatural, Uncle Mort said. Whatever men like evil Uncle Jiro did that made them seem to change shape, or disappear in puffs of smoke, or somehow confuse their enemies with hand signals and hypnosis... there had to be a scientific explanation for that, right? Maybe not the science of this world, but...
Well, Uncle Mort would have to take that up with Uncle Jiro. Uncle Mort wasn't a ninja. He didn't understand. How could someone understand something they didn’t believe in? She sighed, squinting into the darkness at the end of the hallway.
She hoped Aiko was okay. She hoped Aiko's ninjas were winning, up there. She just needed them to hold off Uncle Jiro's ninjas until she could rescue Mindy and Marci.
What kind of uncle kidnapped his own nieces? But of course she knew the answer. The same kind of uncle who killed people to get them out of his way. The same kind of uncle who used his ninja powers to try and take over his brother-in-law's company.
She heard it again, then. The sound was very soft, but unmistakable this time.
It was the sound of a tabi boot, ninja footwear, on the carpeted floor. Moira whirled just in time to dodge the arrow that whizzed past her head. Uncle Jiro stood there. A bleeding cut lay across his face and his black ninja uniform looked covered in ash. As Moira drew a deep breath, Uncle Jiro let his bow drop to the floor. Moira realized the quiver on his back, next to the hilt of his sword, was empty.
"You foolish, foolish little girl," Jiro said, breathing heavily, as if he were exhausted. "This all could have been avoided."
"You're a murderer," Moira shouted. She felt her face grow hot. She couldn't help it. She was livid. "You're a thief, too, and a kidnapper!"
"So many crimes," Jiro said. "And yet no one has been able to stop me. And nobody will." He drew his sword and held it in front of his body, its angular point flashing in the overhead lights of the hallway.
"I'm going to stop you," Moira said. "I'm not afraid of you."
"Yes you are," said Uncle Jiro.
Moira thought about that. "Fine," she said. "I am. But I'm going to stop you anyway."
"We'll see about that," Jiro said. He raised his sword to attack.
"You killed my father!" shouted Moira.
"And now," roared Uncle Jiro, "it's YOUR turn!"
His sword cut through the air, whistling softly in the quiet hallway.