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Shuffle Duffle Muzzle Muff

Matthew F. Amati was, and currently is. He will be, until he isn't. When he's not, at least he will have been, until this fact is forgotten in the sweep of Time, and one may well wonder by that point whether it was worth it for him, or anyone, to have been at all. His fiction has appeared previously in Daily Science Fiction, as well as in Flash Fiction Online, Perihelion SF, Space Squid, and elsewhere. His neglected author blog can be found at mattamati.com.

Unk Unger was boiling his head.
"If a real Wizhard ye would be," his voice burbled from the roiled waters of the charmed pot, "ye must commit. Commit! Many a prentice cometh wheedling to my stout oak door. Born with Powers, they say. O Maister, teach me Secrets, they say."
Oik Smildrin, prentice cap hung awkward off the ears, was still a sentence behind. "Commit," he repeated to himself, scratching clumsy letters on a scroll. Torchlight licked up and down the dirty stone walls, illuminating hellish bric-a-brac in flashes.
"They haven't the spine!" scoffed Unk Unger as his head bobbed to the surface. "First time ye ask a mewling prentice to sleep on nails, or slay a villein babe, or feed his privates to the oracular goats, he fades on ye! Runs screaming for the exits."
"Haven't the spine," Oik repeated, quill scratching. He turned pale recalling his own encounter with the oracular goats. "Does it hurt, boiling your head like that?"
"Of course it hurts!" the head bellowed. "But Necessity demands, boy! Ye want your father alive again, do ye not?"
"I do... but at such a cost?"
"We all want him back. Such a fine Lord Mayor he were. And I'll be the one to reanimate him. Before my rival, the Witch of Mud Bend manages the feat, takes all the glory. And the cash."
The head sank. When it surfaced again it said, "Boy, fetch me the tongs."
Unger's headless body felt around and nearly upset a flagon of a substance that emphatically did not like to be upset. Oik quickly placed the tongs in Unger's groping digits.
Unk Unger fished his head out of the pot. The eyes were dead milk-white, the beard was wet as a drowned cat. There were chunks in the beard. They might have been carrot, or something worse. The head spoke.
"Anyone can chuck in a tiger's chaudron, or pick up a penny'orth of Turk's noses at the corner 'pothecary. Weak water, that's what that gets you. The real powerful ingredients--boy, will you stow that goose-pinny and listen!--the real powerful ingredients are the ones that hurt! That cost you something you'll never get back."
Unger heaved his head back into position on his neck with the tongs. He jostled it this way and that, and muttered a chanson of joining. "Kurrekurremutt, ektabanada, poco, afroko, beh!" The seams on the neck joined like running butter, although there was still a marked difference between the quick beige of the lower neck and the dead grey of the severed flesh.
Unger moved his jaw back and forth. He batted his eyes. He grunted.
"It'll never be the same, of course, this head of mine. Always going to feel soup sloshing in the brainpan. But that's commitment!" His dead eyes fixed on Oik, who dropped the scroll and took a timorous step back.
"Did ye get the supplies I sent ye for?" Unk Unger asked, in a tone that implied he didn't think Oik had gotten the supplies.
"I-- I got the slips of yew. The howlet's wing. The finger of a babe strangled by moonlight."
" I could have sent the grocer's boy to fetch me such odds and sods. Ye know what element I ask whereof."
"I couldn't!" Oik squeaked. "I-- I mean, how could I? My own sister!"
"It's needed."
"It's barbaric!"
"Ye fed yer own williwaws to th' goats, didn't ye? Just cause I asked ye to?"
"There are worse things to cut from a person than williwaws. And she's dear to me."
Unk Unger leaned in close. The reek of reanimation made Oik want to retch.
"Boy, I told ye about commitment. Ye want to be a Wizhard? Ye want to bid the dead dance and the dying live? Ye can't go round with these squeams an' scruples, boy." He held up a cruel curved blade. "Get your sister close. Slice down, slice up. She'll scream a bit--they do--but be ye cold and see the deed through."
Oik Smildrin paled. He stepped back. He turned, and ran weeping through the door, into rain and the night.
Oik ran, crying, gagging, stumbling, to the shabby hovel where he lived with his sister.
His sister was home. She wore her tunic, and it was wet with rain.
"O Sister! I have left the service of Unk Unger! Such foul deeds he demanded me commit!"
"You poor thing. Come, embrace me."
Oik held his sister close, buried his face in her tunic, wept. For a brief shocking moment, he felt the cold agony of a blade between his shoulders.
The Witch of Mud Bend held up the final ingredient and grunted with satisfaction. "Well done, Prentice. We'll have the Lord Mayor alive and walking any moment now."
Oik's sister sighed. "My father was dear to me as my brother. The choice was hard. But I made it."
"Wasn't your brother in the service of that flatulent fake Unger?"
"He was. He hadn't the spine to continue."
"He hasn't any spine at all now," the Witch guffawed, and she tossed the beastly thing into the pot. "Ah, that's why I only take women for prentices. The men, they just can't commit."
The End
This story was first published on Monday, April 2nd, 2018

Author Comments

There are nice witches and wizards, and then there are not-nice witches and wizards. Some teach at Hogwarts, some get visits from MacBeth. "Shuffle Duffle Muzzle Muff" is the incantation from Dr. Seuss's early prose story, "Bartholomew and the Oobleck," which features some surprisingly dark wizardry, considering the source.

- Matthew Amati
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