John had found the door to the underworld. It’d taken a decade of research, a lot of wrong turns, enough failures to make a sane man give up. But he’d found it, and he’d entered with a list of names in his pocket and the knowledge that while he was free to leave any time he wanted, he would never find it again once he did.
On his way out, he ran into Cerberus. The three-headed behemoth snorted fire and stared at John with burning, red eyes.
“Leaving so soon?” the legendary hellhound asked. “But you only just got here.”
“I found what I was looking for,” said John.
Cerberus glanced over John’s shoulder. “Leaving alone, then?”
John laughed. “You don’t honestly expect me to fall for that?”
“Worth a shot.” Cerberus’s right head yawned. “My, that’s a great many souls coming with you. Are you certain you haven’t forgotten any?”
John held up his list. “Nope. I have them all.”
“I’m surprised they let you leave with so many. They usually limit one to a customer.”
“I think they assumed I wouldn’t make it out without breaking the rule.”
“None have so far,” said Cerberus. “There’s a first time for everything. Though I must ask, how have you managed it?”
“It’s not that hard.”
The great hellhound guffawed, shooting flames in the air. “Is there no doubt in your heart? Is there no fear that the gods of the dead have lied to you? Do you not yearn to glance at the faces of your loved ones so badly that you cannot resist a quick, backward glance? Why, I think it’s safe to say the gods would probably not even notice.”
“I do yearn. More than you can know. My wife, my son, my brother, friends and family. I’ve lost too many people over the years. Everyone. I would do anything to get them back.”
Cerberus snorted. “You have more self-control than any mortal I’ve ever heard of.”
“Not really. I would’ve looked behind me halfway up the path if these souls had been any of those people. But these people are strangers. I don’t know them. I only know their names, given to me by other strangers.”
Cerberus’s brow furrowed. “Then why did you brave this journey?”
“Because I don’t care about these people,” said John. “But somebody out there does, and in the end, that has to be enough.”
The hellhound stepped aside and bowed his head. “Leave then, mortal, with the blessings of the gods of the living and the dead.”
John exited with his charges. He walked past the waiting people. People he didn’t know. People he very purposely avoided getting to know because it was the only way this would work. Behind him, he could hear the joyful reunions of losses undone and tragedies unmade. He kept walking until the sounds faded away.
He never looked back.