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Every time I opened my eyes I was blinded by the overhead industrial light. I tried to shield them, forgetting my arms were stretched and bound. A dark shadow moved across my vision and blocked out the light, I closed my eyes to rest them for a moment. When I opened them again I was looking directly into the face of Discordia. Her long black hair falling like a dark curtain surrounding my bloody and bruised head. I looked deep into her eyes and thought how beautiful she looked. Once you got past the burning anger that seemed to envelop her that was. I let a smile slip across my face, surprisingly it was the only expression that didn’t hurt.
‘You still find all this amusing I see, no wonder Aphrodite insisted on choosing you for this task.’ The goddess whispered over me. ‘Although your charm and stupidity will be your downfall this time, Mr Carol.’
I didn’t care that she sounded like an old silver screen villain, all I wanted to do was stroke her silken, black hair. As my hands struggled to reach up and touch her the part of my mind that wasn’t entirely mush was trying to bring me to terms with my certain death.

It was a call from one of the followers that snapped me back to reality. ‘She’s gone!’ He cried out. I twisted my head to see where they were. The goddess above me rose up to full height and once more I was blinded by the lighting.
‘Find her! She couldn’t have gone far.’ She said firmly. ‘Take one of the cars, you’ll catch up to her quicker.’ I wanted to talk her out of it but my voice was lost in the back of my throat.
Discordia smiled down at me. ‘Don’t worry, she’ll be back with us soon, James.’ She said stroking my head idly. Part of me didn’t want her to stop. ‘My, you’ve changed your tone.’ She said noticing the attention I was paying to her, if I was a cat I’d be practically purring. Laughing she playfully stroked my worn and battered face. Less than an hour ago she was slamming her fist into my head, now she soothed my broken cheeks and I practically hummed under her touch. I could feel myself slipping away into nothingness, the pain that filled my body was being replaced with adoration for the goddess cradling my battered head in her hands. I struggled pathetically against my bonds in an effort to stay focused, but the allure of the goddess was growing stronger by the second. The words began to fall out of my bleeding mouth before my brain could stop them. In a choking rasp I confessed my undying love for Discorida, goddess of strife, most beautiful of all the gods!

A disappointed clicking noise came from behind my head. ‘James, you do disappoint me so. Your taste in women is terrible.’ It was like a light switch had been flicked in my mind and Discordia no longer held any power over me, she repulsed me and I struggled to get away from her touch. I watched her back away slowly, her once soft, caring hand retreating to her chest and her eyes began to glow bright red. The angelic voice of the goddess Aphrodite sung in my tired head as she bent down and kissed me. As our lips met my mind flooded with the thoughts of every single kiss I had the pleasure of experiencing. What seemed like forever only lasted a moment and soon the goddess was smiling down at me once again. The headiness of the kiss stayed with me for a while, I was punch drunk in more ways than one. It took me a while to realise but when I did it was obvious, the pain had disappeared again. My chest no longer felt like an elephant was sitting on me and my brain wasn’t playing the drums on my skull, I felt healthier than I had in years. I started to mumble something about the apple but the goddess shushed me with a finger on my lips. ‘It’s ok, James. Your goddess is here now.’ Even in my disoriented state I knew when I was being patronised.

I knew from Rosie that Discordia and Aphrodite were in on this whole thing together but I was only guessing that the lesser goddess had over stepped her bounds by stealing the apple back for herself.
‘She’s got your apple.’ I said finally finding my voice, I tried to point towards the large pile of fruit and meat that had been moved to another area of the warehouse but my wrists were still bound. ‘Can I get one last assist?’ I asked pulling at my restraints. Watching her upside down, Aphrodite ran her hand the length of my arm, starting at the shoulder and stopping just before the rough rope circled my wrists. What was it with these goddesses constantly touching me? ‘I know I’m irresistible but a little help, please?’ That’s when I saw it, the little smirk. First it appeared on Aphrodite’s face then on Discordia’s, she slowly crept forward, no longer afraid of the goddess of love. I stopped straining and lay back down on the alter. Part of me had hoped that Discordia had stolen the apple under her own accord, double crossing Aphrodite and thus bringing down her wrath, sadly this was looking more and more not be the case. I heaved a heavy sigh. ‘This was all part of the plan, wasn’t it?’ I looked from one deity to the next, their subtle grins had become fully formed smiles of pleasure. I was an idiot.

‘James, James, James.’ Cooed Aphrodite, ‘when will you learn that a mortal can never beat a god. We’ve been playing you like a cheep lyre from the very beginning.’ She laughed softly, it sent chills down my spine making me wish even more that I wasn’t tied down in such an exposed manner.
‘What about the girl?’ I asked, ‘was she part of your  plan?’ This stopped the merriment and wiped the smile from the goddess’s face.
‘The foolish child just happened to be in the wrong place. Pity, she was showing such promise as a priestess, quite a charmer if you catch my meaning.’ I cringed at the wink she gave me, the thought of Rosie being involved in what I had first thought to be purely rumours was quite chilling, despite what I had already learnt about her extracurricular activities. At any rate I hoped she’d be well away from here by now.

With a million things running through my mind there was one part of this whole ordeal that didn’t quite stick. ‘Why did you have Discordia steal back the apple? I was ready to hand it over to you, no questions asked.’ It seemed like a stupid thing to do, unless there was a reason I just couldn’t see. The goddess looked at her partner in crime before responding to me, her look was not a happy one. ‘I was ill advised that you would create more of a sensation and not just hand the apple back to me. I wanted my name all over the papers James, I wanted everyone to know that Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty was still the most deserving of the apple. Then you had to roll over like a puppy and simply hand the bloody thing over. Where’s the fame in that?’
‘So you had Discordia steal it from my office, so she could start the whole process over again. Find another patsy to cause a fuss and gain some new followers in the process.’ Discordia bent down to look at me, her hair sweeping along my now healed chest. ‘It was a win win situation, Aphrodite gets the fame and everyone would know the name Discordia, queen of strife, once again!’ She cackled like a cheap firecracker.

‘You two have way too much time on your hands, you know that? Why not just take out an add in the paper or head down to the local shops and hand out autographs?’ I laughed at my own idea. ‘Hel, you could even donate some time to charity and help feed the homeless.’ My enjoyment was soon cut short by Aphrodite’s hand pressing down on my chest. I could feel my ribs on the precipice of popping once again.
‘I’ve had a great deal of patience with you Mr Carol, far more than a god should be required to express towards a mortal. And if you wish to stay as intact as you are now I would highly recommend keeping any future comments to yourself. Hard as that will be for you, I know.’ I coughed and spluttered as she removed her hand and I was able to breath once again. I wheezed as I tried to speak but as my breath caught in the back of my throat I thought better of it.
‘Much better, James. See, that wasn’t so hard.’ Aphrodite looked at Discordia. ‘What of the girl?’
I had to choke back a comment, this will be good, I thought to myself. I watched as Discordia looked anxiously at me, while they both might be gods there was a ranking and the goddess of strife sat well below that of someone of Aphrodite’s stature.
‘She got away, but my people are after her. There’s no where for her to run.’
Just as Aphrodite was looking to explode with rage the large roller doors at the front of the building opened and one of the black cars rolled in. The engine died and two black suited Discordians exited the vehicle, one dragged a limp school girl from the back seat. Damn. I thought as they carried Rosie over to the alter. The one carrying her snapped her head back by her hair so the two goddess could get a good look at her. Bright red blood gushed from her forehead where they had smacked her around, I could hear her breathing which was a relief.
‘See, I told you not to worry.’ Discordia looked pleased with herself. ‘Tie her up next to this one.’ She said, waving at me. ‘Make sure she can’t get out this time.’

Aphrodite ignored the goings on and walked over to the table where the apple of Discord sat. She hefted the solid gold fruit in her hand, for someone who had owned the thing for the better part of the last millennia she looked it over like it was the first time she had seen it. She traced the inscription with her finger, sounding it out for all to hear. ‘Kallisti. To the most beautiful.’
I was going to have a very hard time not making any wise comments if she was going to start ranting about how she deserved that stupid trophy. Instead I focused on Rosie being bound next to me. As the alter wasn’t wide enough for both of us Discordia’s people had opted to tie the girl up in front of the alter, binding her arms to my right arm and leg. If I stretched my wrist I could rub her hand. It flexed and she moaned, I breathed a sigh of relief and whispered for her to hold on. The two goddesses were preoccupied with their own egos and the rest of the Discordians were clustered together by their vehicles, trying to keep out of the way. I turned my head as much as I could trying to see around the warehouse. I was waiting for something, my deus ex machina if you will, and I needed to see how longer I had to hold out for.

For a second I thought I saw something in the corner of my eye but it was just the glare from the lighting. I urged them on under my breath, chanting ‘come on, come on.’ I smiled when Discordia looked towards me and started humming a stupid tune I had heard the other morning in Ness’s apartment. Ignoring me she turned back to focus on the apple and her partner in crime. I willed them to hurry up still scanning the warehouse for my sign, and in the blink of an eye it was there. You had to look hard but in the middle of the room, halfway between the roof and the floor, ripples had begun to form in the air. They started out small but had soon doubled in size and with every passing second more of them appeared. I tapped Rosie’s hand and said, ‘Just a little longer, kid.’ I looked back to see the ripples taking shape, they had grown into two opaque shadows hanging in mid air. They were now large enough that the Discordian’s began to take notice, they looked up, pointing to the ever growing figures.
They must be coming in large, I thought as the shadows were much too big to be human. Suddenly my plan was looking to be a little bit overkill. The concerned voices of her worshippers caused Discordia to turn around and upon seeing the massive objects moments away from fully forming she tapped Aphrodite’s shoulder, hard.
‘What?’ The goddess said turning around annoyed. She was rendered speechless when confronted by the larger than life Athena and Hera.

With my head upside down, I watched the two new goddesses gain their bearings and quickly home in on Discordia and Aphrodite. More than twice their size these giant deities towered above everyone, and I could do nothing else but smile.
‘Ladies, I see you got my message.’
Athena shot me a side eye while Hera ignored me. The idea that I was possibly better off before they arrived floated through my mind. They stalked forward and both Discordia and Aphrodite retreated, giving ground to their peers.
‘It’s come to this now, has it step-daughter?’ Said Hera, addressing Aphrodite, child of Zeus. ‘You and this pitiful creature conspire behind our backs just to gain favour with the mortal realm. Have you no shame?’
‘Clearly you forget whom you are crossing.’ Snubbed Athena. Her armour glistened in the light showing up the intricate golden designs carved into her breast plate. The warrior goddess stood in a powerful pose, spear at her side while Hera, unarmed, looked as if she could kill with but a glance. The area around the alter was too small for the larger than life goddesses to occupy together, so Athena moved around the side in a pincer move trying to block the further retreat of Aphrodite and her accomplice. I wondered why the usually chatty goddess of beauty was so silent, my answer was given when I craned my head upwards and saw her attempting to teleport away. Neither Athena nor Hera seemed concerned as they stood and watched the goddess shimmer into an ethereal blur. Seconds later she reappeared as if she had never left, a thoroughly confused look pasted over her face and mine.

‘What is this?’ She tried again to leave and Hera laughed. Her voice boomed through the warehouse and I strained against my bonds, trying to cover my ears.
‘Give up child, do you think I would let either of you get away that easily? My power base is much stronger than yours despite what you would have us believe. Hand over the prize and we will discuss your surrender.’ Hera stood tall, extending her arm out to receive the apple of Discordia.
‘You forget my queen,’ said Aphrodite in her most silver of tongues, ‘Zeus himself decreed that a mortal must decide the true owner, and this one has awarded it to me.’ She looked over at me and gave a wink.
‘You bitch.’ I whispered before Hera’s attention turned towards me. ‘Hi.’ I said cheerily, despite still being bound to a sacrificial alter whilst being judged by no less than four goddesses. ‘What can I do you for?’ I wasn’t trying to push her buttons, really I wasn’t. I can’t help that I use humour as a defensive method, at least that’s what I told my last therapist, sure we were both sharing a cell down at the local lock-up for drunk and disorderly conduct, but that was a night full of breakthroughs for everyone involved. Of all the memories that was the one playing through my head as I went tete-a-tete with Hera, queen of the gods, for the second time in two days. I personally didn’t like my chances of staying this pretty for much longer.

Hera leaned down towards me, her body shrinking as she did so. When our faces met we were both of similar size. She still would have towered over me by a good two feet had I been standing, but compared to her previous height advantage of twelve feet, I was able to relax a little. That was until she grabbed hold of my lower jaw between her thumb and index finger. The pressure was unbearable, yet she hardly show any sign of stress. My teeth felt like they were about to shoot out of my gums, small enamel fireworks ready to explode and make the crowd gasp in awe.
‘Did you,’ Hera said, increasing the pressure on my jaw ever so slightly, ‘give her the apple?’
I wanted to say, ‘it’s complicated,’ but being unable to move my jaw it came out more like ‘uts ompli-mated,’ with chocking rasps in-between each syllable. The goddess some how understood my dentist chair speech.
‘It’s not that complicated, James. You either did, or you didn’t. Now, which is it? Yes,’ she manipulated my head into a nod, ‘or no,’ she shook my head from side to side. I had no choice but to nod. She smiled at me. It was not a smile I would forget any time soon, that grin held my future between it’s perfect, alabaster lips. The more I looked at Hera, the more I realised how statuesque her features were, from the subtle marbling of her faultless skin, to the cold touch of her hand against my jaw. She was unlike any of the other gods I’d had the pleasure of meeting. I was guessing that her large following afforded her more power at the cost of becoming more of an idol. The curse of being a god I guess, the more powerful you become the harder it is to stay real as you’re elevated to that realm of pure belief. That’s probably why we haven’t seen or heard from Zeus in the last century.

While I was busy admiring my tormentor’s beauty, a habit I sorely needed to get out of, Athena had managed to secure the apple for herself. The bright red scar that was quickly fading from Aphrodite’s arm and the blood splatter on the warrior goddess’s spear told the story. I tried to tell Hera to look but my garbled words just resulted in my mouth being compressed even more. My dentist bill alone will wipe out any profit I’ll get from this case, if I lived that is. Eventually after much struggle on my part, Hera finally turned to see her supposed ally holding the prize. To say she was not happy would be an understatement. Releasing her grip on my mouth she rose to face Athena who had also shrunk down to match her fellow gods.
‘What is this, Pallas Athena? Do you turn against me as well, for a beauty contest? You of all the gods?’
True to her nature Athena did not back down, she stood tall and confronted her queen.
‘The ownership of the apple is in dispute, yet again.’ She said, glancing at Discordia. ‘If left in dispute a war would surely break out, and while I would not be against this personally I feel that it is up to me to prevent it. If not for the sake of our mortal followers, than to honour the Father and his wishes, “No more shall the gods interfere with the warring of the human nations”.’ She quoted.
‘And what solution do you propose? Keep the apple for yourself declaring you the most beautiful?’ I could feel the hairs on my arms and legs stand up as Hera struggled to control herself.

I too struggled, at my bonds, hoping to get myself and Rosie as far away as possible before these deities could explode. Suddenly I found myself face to face with the business end of Athena’s spear.
‘He shall choose.’ She said. ‘This time, there will be no bribery, no retribution, just this mortal’s decision and it will be final.’ She glared at the three gods, her spear unmoving from its position. Silently, and most surprisingly, the others agreed. With the flick of Hera’s hand the ropes binding Roise and myself to the alter dropped away. I sat up and rubbed my aching jaw and scratched several places at once. Disgusted, Athena threw the golden apple at me.
‘Here fool, make your decision and end the mess you started.’ The apple sat heavy in my hands, no bigger than a regular apple and about as powerful as one. I hadn’t actually seen it since the night I stole it out from under Pepworth’s nose. I ran a finger over the engraved inscription, ‘ΚΑΛΛΙΣΤΗΙ’ the Greek letters proclaiming the apple’s owner, “to the most beautiful”.
‘Choose!’ Bellowed Hera. Her cold grey eyes boring into my already tortured soul. I struggled to look at the four goddesses standing before me.

Athena posed as warriors do, she had removed her polished silver helm to reveal long black hair that travelled down to her waist. She shone with power, beauty, and grace. Discordia, the goddess of strife was as beautiful, if not more than any mortal woman I had laid eyes upon, but she seemed plain compared to her partner in crime. The golden Aphrodite, her silken blond hair still managed to swim in an unfelt breeze despite the trouble she found herself in. My eyes followed down her perfectly soft skin, over the mounds of her ample breasts and down the subtle curves of her womanly body. I swallowed the lump forming at the back of my throat as she winked at me, her pure red lips pouting and promising so much. I forced myself to look at Hera, not because she was unattractive, far from it, it was the power within her I feared. While she looked older than the others it was not shown on her body, it was in her eyes that she aged, the aeons she had seen, the wars she had fought and won, this woman, this god, was older than the other three combined and when you looked at her the way she held herself you could see the power within. Strong, confidant and beautiful. All four were more than worthy of taking the apple from me, and by very definition they were perfect in every way. This was going to be difficult.

Chapter Fourteen...