A scene from Project 3, Muse. Heracles goes hunting, and instead encounters a stranger in the dark. Or is he?
Heracles whirled at the sound of a voice behind him, and found a rather odd looking character lounging against the alley wall. The man might have been short and spry under the moth-eaten fur coat, but it was hard to tell. His face was mostly hidden by the wide brim of a garish fedora, but his snaggled teeth gleamed white as he grinned at the demigod.
Heracles frowned. “Who goes?”
“Who goes? Well, nearly everyone goes, sooner or later. Nearly, of course, not all, because there are always exceptions to prove any rule, wouldn’t you say?”
The hound growled softly, a barely audible rumble, and Heracles tightened his grip on the collar. Distantly, on Olympus Tower, the clock chimed first bell. “Curfew comes, you should be off toward home, citizen.”
The jaunty little fellow sauntered toward Heracles, twirling a thin cane in one hand, tapping out a subtle rhythm. “Home is where you lay your head, I say. That way, you’re never far from it.” Something about the tilt of his head, the pattern of his speech seemed familiar, but try as he might, Heracles could not place it. “Except you of course. You’re far from home and hearth, and into strange territory here.”
“All the city is my territory, at the Lady’s behest.” Still, the little man advanced on him, and he had to marvel at the nerve. Very few humans would face down one of the Lady’s hounds.
“And of course, when the Lady snaps, we all jump to, sharp as nails. Keeper of the world pillar, long may she reign and whatnot.” The strange man stopped within arm’s reach, and fished inside his mangy coat, finally emerging with a beaten grimy flask. “Have a belt?”
“No, thank you.” Heracles tried to keep the incredulity out of his voice. It had been a long time since anyone spoke to him thusly. Hells, it had been a long time since anyone outside the tower had spoken to him at all.
“Suit yourself.” He helped himself to a swig of whatever was in the flask, and the aroma of alcohol filled the alley. Up close, the scruffy man had a scruffy goatee to go with his scruffy coat. They were the same color too, apparently some shade of dun brown, though Heracles could see darker curls beneath the gaudy hat. “Never did appreciate the simpler pleasures in life.”
The world seemed slightly out of joint, Heracles realized, as if a lens had fallen a hairsbreadth askew. Perhaps it was simply the reverberations of the muse’s high emotional state, but the demigod felt a haze around his thoughts. They skittered out of reach like water beetles on a pond. “Do we know each other, sir?”
“Oh, I don’t think we do.” Again, the odd fellow flashed the toothy grin that at once seemed jovial, lecherous, and snide. “Sure you won’t have a belt, before you go?” He offered the flask again.
“Who says I’m leaving?”
With a weary sigh, the scruffy man shook his head. “Perhaps I’m not making this plain. Shall I use smaller words?” He tipped the brim of his hat up, and while his voice remained as jocular as ever, there was something dark and hard behind his watery eyes. “You are not welcome here.” He pocketed his flask and sauntered out of the alley, turning to look back once as he stood in the street. “This place….it’s for people who can appreciate it. Not for old soldiers who sold out their own kind.”
Perhaps he flinched, the stranger’s words echoing thoughts he had never voiced about himself. Perhaps there was a ratcatcher nearby that wanted chasing. Perhaps the hound just sensed his distraction. Either way, the great beast gave a lunge at his lead again, and it took a good while to get the dog under control again. The ebon hound growled, the muted sound promising to become a roar if he was truly provoked, but he finally yielded to the demigod’s superior strength.
When Heracles looked up, the strange man was gone.