They left the inn and hurried out into the storm. The streets were filled with people trying to flee the city; the water was now waist high and still rising. Aretino had brought along plenty of bribe money, but he could find no available boatmen to bribe. The various stations along the Grand Canal had been abandoned hours ago.
"I don't know what to do," Aretino told Azzie. "Every boat in the city seems to be destroyed or already booked."
"There's still a way of getting the contestants to safety," Azzie said. "It will no doubt result in another anomaly for which I'll be held to blame, but we'll try it anyway. We need to find Charon. His boat is always around places like this where there are so many dead and dying. He's a connoisseur of large-scale tragedies."
"The actual Charon from the Greek myths is here?"
"Certainly. Somehow he's been able to continue ferrying people all through the Christian era. That's an anomaly too, but one they can't blame on me."
"Will he take living people? I thought Charon's boat was only for the other kind."
"I know him pretty well. We've done business together. I think he'll make an exception, this being an emergency of the sort he likes."
"Where do we find him?"
Azzie led them in the right direction. Aretino wanted to know what the big hurry was to get the pilgrims off. "Is the situation really so bad?" he asked.
"Yes, it is. The fall of Venice is only the beginning; it heralds the collapse of the entire universe. Both the Copernican and the Ptolemaic models are in difficulty, and the signs of anomaly shock are everywhere.
Already the streets are full of prodigies and miracles. Business has come to a standstill, and even love has been forced to put itself on hold."
"I don't understand," Aretino said. "What is this anomaly explosion? What is going to happen? How will this catastrophe reveal itself? By what signs will it be known?"
"You will know it beyond doubt," Azzie said. "There will be a sudden discontinuity in the action of life.
Causes and effects will no longer add up. Conclusions will no longer flow sweetly from their premises. As I told you, reality will fork into two branches. One branch will go on with the story of Europe and the Earth as if this pilgrimage had never taken place, while the other will continue what is going on now, bringing the results of the pilgrimage. It is that branch, that disaster, that will be sent to Limbo. There it will repeat itself over and over, in a loop bigger than all outdoors. We need to get the pilgrims out before that happens."
But Charon was not to be found. Aretino and Azzie carried on, shepherding their pilgrims from one point to another, hoping to find a way to get them out. Some people were already trying to swim to the mainland and were drowning, many of them pulled under by other struggling swimmers. The few remaining gondoliers were already occupied with passengers. Those lucky enough to have gotten aboard had drawn their swords, and with these they menaced anyone who approached them.
A tall, skinny old man with sunken jaws and preternaturally bright eyes came out from the little cabin into the torchlight. "Azzie!" he said. "You do pop up in some strange places!"
"What are you doing in Venice, Charon, so far from your usual route on the Styx?"
"We boatmen of the dead have been commanded to extend service to the area. I have it on good authority that there's going to be a die-off here like nothing anyone has seen since Atlantis foundered."
"I'd like to hire your services now."
"Is it really necessary? I was going to get a little sleep before the big evacuation begins."
"This whole construct is in a lot of trouble," Azzie said. "I need your help to get my friends out of here."
"I don't help anyone," Charon said. "I have my own rounds. There are plenty of deceased people still to ferry to the land of the dead."
"You don't seem to appreciate the seriousness of the position."
"It's not serious for me," Charon said. "However death comes, that's a matter for the Upper World. In the Kingdom of the Dead, all is serene."
"That's what I'm trying to get across to you. It's not going to be that way for long, not even in the Kingdom of the Dead. Didn't it ever occur to you that even Death can die?"
"Death die? What a ridiculous notion!"
"My dear fellow, if God can die, then Death can die, too, and very painfully. I'm trying to tell you the whole construct is in trouble. You could be wiped away along with everything else."
Charon was skeptical, but he allowed himself to be convinced. "What is it you want done?"
"I must get the pilgrims out of here and restore them to their starting places. Only with that done will Ananke have a chance to get everything back to normal again."
Charon was capable of moving with speed when he wanted to. Once the pilgrims were aboard he directed the boat, standing at the rear with the tiller under his arm, a cloaked scarecrow figure. The crazy old boat picked up speed, powered by the arms of the dead rowers who sat out of sight in the hold.
Fires burned on all sides in the beleaguered city, shooting ghastly reds and yellows up into the blue-black skies. The boat crossed the arm of the bay, and soon they were gliding through reeds and marshes.
Everything looked strange; Charon had taken a shortcut through a watery connection that joined one world to another. "Is this how it was at the beginning?" Aretino asked.
"I wasn't there right at the beginning," Charon told him, "but close to it. This is how the world looked when there was no physical law and all was magic. There was a time before everything, when magic ruled, when reason was not. We visit it still in our dreams, that world of long ago. Certain landscapes elicit memories of that world. It is of the place older than God, older than creation. The world before the creation of the universe."
Aretino asked if anyone had seen them. No one had since the ceremony with the candlesticks.
Everyone else was aboard the boat — everyone except Azzie, who stood on the pier and unfastened the ship's line.
"I can't find Kornglow or Leonore!" Aretino called to Azzie.
"We can't wait any longer!" Charon said. "Death keeps to a strict schedule."
"Go ahead without them," Azzie said.
"But what about you?" Aretino asked.
"There is that which will detain me," Azzie said. It was then that Aretino noticed the shadow at Azzie's back, which seemed to be gripping him by the neck.
Azzie threw the line aboard. Charon's houseboat moved away from the shore and began to gain way as the oars of the dead dipped into the waters.
"Is there nothing we can do for you?" Aretino called out.
"No!" Azzie replied. "Just keep going. Get away from here!"
He watched the houseboat glide into the shadowy waters until it vanished among reeds and marshes near to the other shore.
The pilgrims made themselves as comfortable as they could, crowded in among dead rowers who were not the most congenial companions.
"Hello," Puss said to the gaunt cowled figure who sat on the bench beside her.
"Hello, little lady," answered that individual. It was a woman. She appeared to be dead, even though she was still somehow able to talk.
"Where are you going?" Puss asked.
"Our boatman Charon is taking us to Hell," the cowled figure said.
"Oh! I'm so sorry!" Puss said.
"No need to grieve," the figure said. "That's where it all winds up."
"Even me?" said Puss.
"Even you. But you needn't worry, it won't take place for quite some time."
Quentin, on the other side, asked, "Is there anything to eat on this boat?"
"I'd really like something sweet," Quentin said.
"Be patient," Puss said. "Nobody gets to eat on the boat of the dead without forfeiting their lives. I think I see the shore ahead."
"Oh, all right," Quentin said. He wished he were still acting as messenger to the spirits. That had been fun.