By Rook or By Crook

Smoke was billowing up from the little village at the end of the road. Orange, flickering light acted as a beacon for anyone who wanted to find the mass of chaos writhing at the town’s center. From the dock, he could still make out the skeleton of the clock tower, the face now nothing more than a ghostly circle, dancing with the same orange light as the sky.

He heard the soft tolling of the ferry’s bell as it drew closer through the fog, but he kept his eyes on the village, waiting to see if there would be any change in the current turn of events.

Between the tops of the buildings and the billowing clouds of smoke, the air shimmered with heat, and even from here he could feel the warmth of the inferno on his face. The wind that swept across the water was cold at his back, reminding him that he had somewhere else to be. The bell tolled once more, louder and closer, and he glanced over his shoulder toward the bobbing yellow speck of light that signaled the ferry’s approach.

He looked back at the village, watching as the face of the clock tower fell from its perch with an almighty scream of splintering wood and warped metal. Cries filled the air tenfold as the great face crashed into the ground, splintering in shards of metal and glass, shrapnel hurtling towards those brave enough to stay and try to fight back the inferno.

Another toll from the ferry’s bell caused the rook on his shoulder to shift uncomfortably, and grumble into his ear, the bird’s feathers brushing over his cheek as it did so.

We should make ourselves scarce, the voice said.

He knew they should. They shouldn’t even have waited for the ferry—they should have left as soon as the job was done. But he had always been a sucker for a good bonfire, and it was such a chilly night, after all.

Another toll, closer still, and he could hear the prow of the ship as it broke through the water, a soft whisper in contrast to the tumult of the village. The ferryman’s pole made a steady, rhythmic melody as it dipped into the water, rose from it, and then dipped again past its surface.

The bell tolled right beside him, and he turned to look at the ferryman, the weathered face and worn clothes illuminated in dim yellow light from the lantern that hung from the end of his pole.

“All aboard.” He called out, voice as rough as the stormy seas.

Now, quick, before they come looking, the voice urged him, the rook nudging at him to move toward the boat.

“How much to cross to the other side?” He asked, watching the façade of the clock tower begin to peel away, leaving a black skeleton brimming with dancing orange flames.

The ferryman looked toward the village, and then returned his gaze to the dark figure at the end of the dock, his expression never changing. “Thirty pieces of silver.”

The rook on his shoulder laughed: an unearthly cry of twisted delight.

“Thirty pieces it is, then.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small purse, tossing it to the ferryman as he boarded the vessel.

The ferryman tucked the purse away and pushed off from the dock, the lantern bobbing as he pushed them out into the fog. The white mist swallowed them up, silencing the screams from the village. Soon there was no sound but the whisper of the water around them, and the creaking of the ferry as it bore them along.

Well done, the voice said, the rook rubbing its head into his temple.

He reached up and stroked along the bird’s breast, smiling. “It was well done, wasn’t it?”

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