Beware the Nefarious Nosenibbler!
Hobart excavated the disaster beneath his bed and dug out his Hover Heels. It took him several minutes to find them, as they were buried behind a mound of comic books, dirty socks, and dust bunnies. It was actually amazing they were so well concealed, considering he had just used them only yesterday afternoon.
He took the stairs down from his room two at a time, careful to make sure Flora was nowhere in sight. He could almost hear her saying, “You’re going to break your neck, young man!” as he sauntered through the kitchen into the Hocus Pocus Magic Shop. The shop, owned and operated by his grandfather, occupied most of the first floor of their home. It was still filled with shadows this early in the morning and wouldn’t open for a couple of more hours. The boy usually took time to linger and marvel at the hundreds of enchanted and magical items in the display cases and shelves, but this morning was different.
Hobart had already planned to meet his best friend, Specks, for a day of, well, who-knew-what, but days when they didn’t have to go to school seldom needed much planning. He would take the bread back to Gerk’s Groceries, then zip across town to Specks’ house. Maybe they could even see if Rosie was around and ask her if she’d like to take a trip to Mumblemonk Meadows. The Flutterbyes were always plentiful this time of year.
He tried to hang on to his Hover Heels and not squash the loaf of bread at the same time as he opened the door, but it wasn’t an easy task. He finally pulled it open and stumbled outside. The bright morning sun didn’t help matters, and he found it difficult to keep his balance as he narrowly avoided colliding with someone walking past the shop.
“Excuse me,” he managed to spit out as the loaf of bread and his Hover Heels slipped from his grasp.
“Well, I should hope so!” a dark-haired lady huffed.
Hobart bent over to retrieve the dropped items. The bread was beginning to show signs of abuse, and he hoped that Mr. Gerk wouldn’t give him a hard time about returning it.
“You really should watch where you’re going, young man,” the lady said, not finished with her scolding of the boy.
Hobart squinted into the glare of the morning sun behind the woman’s head.
It was Delphenia Dragonwart, Druid Lane’s newest shop owner. She had recently moved to Pennywhistle and opened her shop, the Oracle, just down the street. She shifted her red sunbrella from one side to the other and glared at him.
She spun the sunbrella on her shoulder and straightened the seams of her perfectly unruffled red dress. It seemed to Hobart that the only thing hurt in the near-collision was the woman’s pride. But that seemed to be enough.
“Young people simply have no respect these days,” she persisted. She pushed her long, dark hair away from her deep, green eyes. It immediately fell back, its blackness hiding the sharpness of her pale features. “Don’t they teach etiquette in school these days?”
Hobart shrugged, not quite knowing what the lady expected to hear.
She inspected him closer.
“You’re Wicksford Waxenbee’s grandson, aren’t you? Herbert, isn’t it?”
“Hobart,” he corrected her.
“Well, Herbert, I guess that explains it. I’ve heard about that eccentric grandfather of yours. Of course, I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him yet.”
She used the word “pleasure” in a way that made Hobart squirm a little as he stood there in front of her. Her tone indicated she wasn’t really in a hurry to meet his grandfather at all and that she definitely didn’t consider the possibility a pleasure.
Even though the lady had only been in town a short time, Hobart had already heard rumors about her. But he had been taught better manners than to mention them, regardless of what the lady thought about his etiquette or his grandfather. That didn’t keep him from thinking them, though. Thinking them? That gave Hobart a start. What if this strange lady really could read minds? After all, the sign in her window read “Prophecies, Predictions, and Prognostications.”
Hobart gulped quite loudly.
Delphenia Dragonwart’s new business had become quite popular since her arrival in Pennywhistle. Many of her clients were some of the town’s more prominent citizens. Of course, their visits were at odd times of the day and night. Apparently, they didn’t want to become a matter of town gossip. That didn’t stop the talk, however. Pennywhistle was, after all, a small town. And rumors were one of the village’s favorite pastimes.
Hobart realized he hadn’t been listening as the woman continued with their one-sided conversation. Would he ever make to Specks’ house?
“I’m sorry,” he said sheepishly. “What did you say?”
She rolled her eyes. “I said, your etiquette is sorrowful, Herman. Young people have no manners these days. None at all!”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said as politely as possible. “And the name is Hobart.”
“Perhaps, Humbert, I should speak with your grandfather.”
“No, ma’am, it’s Herbert… I mean, Hobart,” he mumbled.
“Well, no matter,” she replied. “I’m sure it wouldn’t do much good anyway.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
“I would, however, like you to ask your grandfather something. Please tell him I wish to discuss the purchase of that old mirror he has. And tell him I refuse to deal with that dreadful ghost-thing floating about in there. I thought those creatures were against the law. It’s beneath me to have to deal with such a thing. Can you possibly remember to relay that message, Humphrey?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, not even bothering to correct her again.
Delphenia Dragonwart whirled around, her long, red dress swirling about her. She twirled her bright red sunbrella and marched away, shoulders straight and head upright. She crossed the street toward her shop, not even giving notice to a carriage that screeched to a halt to avoid running her over.
She folded her sunbrella, opened her shop door, and entered. A lady who had been lingering at the corner, her face hidden behind a scarf, followed her inside. Hobart wasn’t sure, but he thought it might have been Pernacious Prattfall’s wife. No wonder she’s hiding her face, Hobart thought. It certainly wouldn’t do to have the wife of a Bureaucratic Minister seen on Druid Lane having her fortune read.
He sat down on the bench in front of Bladderblott’s Books and tugged on his Hover Heels. He laced them up nice and snug, then tested his balance as he stood.
“Skates up,” he commanded after retrieving the loaf of bread from the bench.
He shifted his weight as the Hover Heels elevated his feet a couple of inches above the ground. It always took a moment for him and the skates to get into synch.
“Forward!” he commanded.
He moved smoothly down the sidewalk, leaning slightly to his right, and immediately veered off across Druid Lane, deciding to take the long way around. The town of Pennywhistle was small, and it didn’t take much time to get from one end to the other, even when walking.
He leaned forward, and his speed increased as he glided around the corner onto Bumperchuck Boulevard. He moved effortlessly, his flight smooth as salamander silk. The bumpiness of the cobblestone street beneath him was hardly noticeable. It only took him a minute to reach the intersection at Wizard Way, and he decided to take the shortcut through the next alley.
It happened so fast that Hobart doubted even a fortune-teller like Delphenia Dragonwart could have seen it coming.
The cats appeared as if by magic.
At one moment, the passageway was quiet and normal―well, as normal as things can be in the village of Pennywhistle―and then, it wasn’t.
Why couldn’t it have been dogs or squirrels or even animated gnomes? No, it had to be cats!
Hobart Hucklebuck wasn’t fond of cats.
No, that wasn’t quite true. Hobart Hucklebuck feared cats worse than death itself. Of course, to him they might as well have been one in the same. No one knew why he was so fearful of the friendly little felines, which most people seemed to adore. His mother and father―now off on one of their grand archeology expeditions―had no clue. Neither did his grandfather―a Seventh-Level wizard and enchanter―or even Flora, who seemed to know everything there was to know about Pennywhistle and its inhabitants. In any case, people who knew him often didn’t even speak of the feline species when Hobart was in the room.
Cats darted at him from every conceivable direction. They seemed to spring magically out of the dozens of crates and cartons stacked and scattered about the alley. They dashed from drainpipes, blossomed out of barrels, and bounded out of boxes.
It was a nightmare.
The stampede consisted of every breed imaginable. Cats of every conceivable color and size seemed to emerge out of thin air. Nefarious Nosenibblers, White-Whiskered Wagtails, and Palidromium Purrfects bounced off brick walls like pingle-pong balls. Not to mention two or three Stringtailed Stubbies somersaulting over his head as if in a circus act.
Hobart tried to maintain his balance, but his Hover Heels had a mind of their own and attempted to adjust to the situation in order to avoid the onrushing animals. The skates jerked him left, then yanked him back to the right. His decision to remain motionless was ignored as the skates did exactly what they had been enchanted to do. Avoid obstacles. Hobart felt himself lifted six inches off the ground―the maximum altitude for factory-enchanted skates―as a huge, orange cat zipped beneath him. He somehow managed to remain upright.
The last cat in the batch to dance into his projected path was just a kitten. Ironically, it was also his downfall. To be precise, it was nothing more than a tiny, three-toed tangerine tabby. Hobart’s Hover Heels arced into a dizzying loop to avoid the animal. Hobart felt weightless for what seemed like forever, but his rear end finally bounced off the cobblestone pavement, and he cartwheeled flat-faced into the gutter.
He gasped for breath. It felt as if every ounce of air had been forced from his lungs. Hobart lay there, stunned. If he hadn’t heard the moans and groans escaping from between his lips, he might have thought he was dead.
Hobart jerked his arm away as something brushed it. He slowly―and a little painfully―opened his eyes and gazed around. Cats continued to zoom around the alley. They reminded Hobart of cardboard cutouts in a carnival shooting gallery. Even in his groggy condition, he knew they weren’t behaving in a normal fashion. Of course, as far as he was concerned, nothing cats did was normal.
The antics of the frenzied animals finally slowed, and after a few excruciatingly long minutes, they returned to being typical cats doing typical cat things. Not that this diminished Hobart’s fear. The only thing that would be able to accomplish that state of mind would be the disappearance of the little monsters, completely. Unfortunately for Hobart, that didn’t come quickly.
Some of the critters yawned and stretched while others simply hissed at each other. A few sat down to lick themselves, but cats being cats, far too many of them were curious about the young boy sprawled on the cobblestone.
The animals regarded him with interest, but Hobart knew their curiosity would soon get the best of them and they would approach him for closer inspection. He looked frantically about the alley for an avenue of escape, but the cats were everywhere. He shivered uncontrollably. He could think of a million other places he would rather be at the moment. The lava pits of Lost Island? The foul-smelling swamps of the Nether Regions?
He might even make the choice to be locked in the Tower of Tribulation rather than to be lying here helpless in his favorite shortcut through the village. Or, what used to be his favorite shortcut. Hobart doubted he would ever take it again. If he survived the morning. The boy took a deep breath and sat up. His aches and pains were forgotten for the moment. Remaining alive seemed to be his primary concern.
“Big deal,” he whispered to himself. “It’s only a few little kitties. All I need to do is talk my feet into cooperating and get the flooglesnort out of here. Just move nice and slow. Yes, nice and slow…”
But Hobart lost it completely the moment a feline brushed up against him. He yelped―hoping he didn’t sound like a six-year-old girl―and tried to stand, but a wave of dizziness swept over him. He plopped back down on the cobblestone pavement, nearly squashing a White-Whiskered Wagtail in the process.
No longer trusting his Hover Heels, he pulled them off his feet. He stood slowly, placing a hand on the lid of a garbage can for balance. The can, dented and wobbly, promptly tipped over and Hobart found himself flat on his face again, this time covered with day-old stinkpot stew and fried famish.
He groaned and tried to clear his head to figure out a solution for his predicament.
Maybe I can scare them off with a blastball.
Hobart closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and concentrated as hard as he could to conjure a ball of light in his hand. The familiar tingle buzzed in his palm. Maybe he could actually do it right for once.
His exhilaration was short-lived. Not only did the tingle disappear in a puff of smoke with a slight smell of ozone, but his failed spell stung his arm all the way up to his elbow. But it was the laughter from the rear of the alley that caused his eyes to pop open.
“Afraid of a few little kitty cats, Hucklebuck?”
The cats scattered as fast as they had appeared when they realized another human had entered the alley. Hobart blinked twice. The voice was very familiar. And not in a comforting sense, either.
A dark figure stood at the end of the alley, casually leaning against a lamppost. Could things get any worse? Had someone actually witnessed his entire, embarrassing ordeal?
Hobart squinted into the shadows of the alley. “I should have known,” he muttered, wiping a splotch of blood and day-old garbage from his cheek.
It was Pickwick Prattfall.
Hobart stood very slowly and took a step forward, still a little unsteady on his feet. He touched a bump forming on his forehead and sent Pickwick a scathing scowl.
“It’s against the law to enchant stuff unless you’re certified, Pick. It’s also against the law to enchant living creatures.”
“What?” the bully asked innocently. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Enchanted cats, you say? My, my, that would be devious and mischievous. And quite an achievement, too. Of course, using magic to accomplish anything would be an achievement for you, wouldn’t it?”
“You can deny it all you want,” Hobart shot back out of anger. He was hurt more by Pick’s words than getting bounced around on the cobblestone pavement. “I don’t see anyone else around here. And those cats certainly weren’t behaving like any cats I’ve ever seen before. You had to have cast an enchantment on them, Pick.”
Pickwick Prattfall’s eyebrows arched upward. “It’s your word against mine, Slowbart. Or maybe that garbage can could be a witness for you. Maybe it’s just a full moon or something. Who knows? Besides, whoever heard of anyone being afraid of a few little kitty cats? You act as if it was some big cat-astrophe.”
Hobart stepped forward. “Well, maybe I’m not fond of cats, Pick, but I’m sure not afraid of you.”
In reality, he was a little afraid of the son of the man who ran the Bureau of Magical Abuse and Misuse―which seemed rather ironic under the circumstances)―but his indignation pushed the thought aside.
Pickwick Prattfall laughed. “Oh yeah? What are you going to do? Throw a few feeble blastballs at me? My five-year-old sister conjures up blastballs that are better than yours. I still can’t believe your grandfather is one of the most respected magicians in the world. Magic must have skipped a generation, huh?”
“I wasn’t thinking about trying another blastball, Pick,” Hobart replied as he formed a fist with each hand. (Even though it hurt his scratched and scraped fingers to do so.)
Without thinking, Pickwick took a step back. He was a year older than Hobart, but being older and bigger doesn’t always translate to being braver. He was a typical bully. Always ready with lots of nastiness and teasing, but never quite ready to fight. But then, the corners of his mouth turned up in an evil grin.
“Look out, Hucklebuck!” Pickwick shouted. “There’s a cat sneaking up behind you!”
Hobart jerked his head around and immediately smacked his forehead on a Watch Out for Bumps sign. That, of course, resulted in another lump forming on his already tender skull.
And, whether for better or worse, there was no cat.
Pickwick broke into a fit of giggles and guffaws.
“What’s going on here?”
The two boys glanced toward the end of the alley.
“Well, well,” Pick said as he hitched up his pants. “If it isn’t Rosie-Posie, too-darned-nosy.”
Rosie Rumpleskirt stood at the other end of the alley, hands placed firmly on hips in a familiar pose. She tapped her foot impatiently as she waited for an explanation. The girl reminded Hobart of a miniature version of Flora Flaxenfluff. Under different circumstances, the image would have seemed humorous.
Pickwick hesitated. He had briefly considered taking on Hobart, but Rosie Rumpleskirt was another matter. The girl’s hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail and she had a touch of dirt on her cheek. It was very apparent to Hobart that Pick had no intention of tangling with her. The last boy who had teased her had returned to school the next day with a mysteriously acquired black eye.
The girl glanced at Hobart. “Are you okay?”
“Everything’s fine,” Hobart replied rather gruffly. “Prattfall was just leaving. Weren’t you, Pick?”
The bully’s grin revealed two missing front teeth.
“Sure,” he replied casually. “I wouldn’t want to be around in case another pack of ferocious felines attacks. Those furry little critters are so dangerous. In fact, maybe you’d better let your girlfriend walk you home, Slowbart. Maybe she can even kiss your ‘owies’ for you.”
“She’s not my girlfriend!” Hobart blurted.
He felt bad about the remark the moment it escaped his lips. And the fallen look on Rosie’s face made him feel even worse. He knew the girl―a year younger than he―had a small crush on him. He didn’t really mind, but he would deny it with his last breath if ever asked. Rosie was actually pretty when she cleaned herself up, and she was a blast to hang around. In fact, he and Rosie and Specks had spent many an adventure together over the last year or two.
Pickwick laughed again. “Hobart and Rosie sitting in a tree…” The bully stuck out his tongue at Rosie in an attempt to show he wasn’t afraid of her and then strolled casually out of the alley and turned up the street toward Twirlin’ Merlin’s Enchanted Toy Store.
Rosie walked over to Hobart. She reached out to inspect the scrape on his cheek, but he jerked away.
“I just wanted to see how bad it was,” she explained. “You look like you were attacked by a wild rosebush.”
“I’m fine!” Hobart snapped, struggling to regain his composure.
“Hobart, I’m just trying to help!”
“Who said I need any help?”
Between his battered body and wounded pride, Hobart Hucklebuck found himself in no mood for sympathy.
A rare tear rolled down Rosie Rumpleskirt’s face. By the time Hobart reacted and properly scolded himself for acting like a jerk, she had turned and walked away.
The girl quickened her pace, not even acknowledging she had heard him.
He felt like just plopping down in the garbage and sitting there for the rest of his life, but he finally picked up his Hover Heels. He tied the laces together and hung them around his neck. He was in no hurry to put them on. You never knew when another cat might pop out of a drainpipe. Besides, he was too sore to bend over and put them on again. The loaf of bread was nearly smashed beyond recognition, and Hobart left it lying with the rest of the trash in the alley.
He limped out into the main street and tried not to think about his bruises, bumps, scrapes, and scratches. He knew Specks had been expecting him, but he was no longer in the mood and had wounds to repair. Physically and mentally. He hoped his friend would understand.
He hobbled back toward Druid Lane, wondering if he was ever going to start enjoying spring break.