The sickness struck the whole family, seemingly at once. First it was grandmother, old and decrepit, who caught it. Coughs, the runs, a burning fever. Then little Stella, who had tended her. Then father. If father died, like grandmother had, the family would be ruined.
They went to the priests for help, like you did. "Pray to God." They said. "Make offerings to His church, and ask for Him to spare you His wrath." For it was God, they said, that made them sick.
In desperation, mother gave them Valena to raise and serve them. The youngest girl of five, she was not yet marked by the disease. The priests promised this would appease God.
It did not. They all died, one by one, while Valena watched from the spires of the Basilica.
The crypt was beneath the Basilica of course, she should have guessed. If Valena had learnt anything in life it was that all things of great importance held a certain symmetry. This was the place where it had all begun, and this then was the place where it would end. Her hands were shaking, but that was to be expected. She had been waiting for this for a very long time.
The crypt was unlit, but veins of phosphorus ore ran through the walls, glowing strangely in the darkness, and they provided her with enough light to see by. She stepped lightly, mindful of the dead. This was no ordinary resting place after all, but the grave of a once-God.
She had come for the weapon that had killed a God; here to this place beneath the patterned floors of the great Basilica, locked away beneath layers of stone, hidden from the world. Again, there was a symmetry in this, the coming together of a circle in a city of circles, each ring encompassing another.
The Basilica as a structure was as all-encompassing as the clergy. Its summit could be found in the dust, from whence it rose, vertically, horizontally, ever upwards towards God. Valena was thirteen when she learned that the teachings of the church were not the same for those who laboured in the dust and grime - where she came from - as it was for the merchants, the craftsmen, the educated, in the second circle.
It was not God who struck the merchants with His wrath when they got sick. It was something else - microscopic organisms that could be defeated with soap and cleanliness, by throwing out spoiled food and isolating the sick. God's wrath manifested itself in different ways - in deals gone awry, in tools breaking prematurely, in mills catching fire in the dead of the night, in the inexplicable vagaries of the weather ruining the cotton crop.
This was also when Valena first realized how much she hated their God. It was only later that she realized it was possible to do something about it.
The maze was there, as promised. Made up of concentric rings that overlapped and intertwined at random intervals, forming a complex and delicate pattern. Vast, metallic and gleaming in the half light. To falter here would be perilous, she knew.
She secured the pack across her shoulders and stepped across the threshold. She didn't allow herself time to think, emptied her mind, became part of the pattern. Each section was a test, each stride a gamble. Once she misstepped and there was a sound, a low thrumming that spoke of unknown dangers, but the moment had passed, and she returned to the path, tracing her painstaking route to the centre where there was a small indentation, a lock; though she would not have recognized it as such.
She removed the key from the cord around her neck. It was small, patterned with deep grooves that slid into the welcoming lock with ease. She twisted, then pressed down. Around her the maze began to shift and the floor opened up beneath her, she did not have time to cry out. The darkness swallowed her whole.
Valena worked hard. The hate gave her purpose, even if that purpose was as of yet diffuse. The more she worked, the closer she got to God. Why? At the time, she wasn't even sure why.
She passed through the iron gates leading to the first circle in her twenty third year, the youngest adept yet. Precious few mysteries remained to the nobles there. Disease was unknown. What had killed her family could be cured. The worries of the merchants and craftsmen were not the worries of the landowners, the rich, the elite. Theirs was a different life, a life filled with the pursuit of friends, lovers, favours, and secrets. A complicated game.
Valena found herself an expert at it. That was when she first heard the legend of the Godslayer. The mortal who had slain a God - blasphemy of the highest order, yet the sweetest words she had ever heard.
Pursuing the mystery was what led her to the Brotherhood, in the end.
She woke up to the taste of blood in her mouth, sharp and coppery. It grounded her, brought her back to the reality of where she was and what she was doing. Her head hurt, and she had twisted her leg in the fall, but otherwise she was unhurt.
It took her a moment to become aware of her surroundings. Gone was the softly glowing stone. What illumination there was was vague, shadowy, transforming the world into alternating shades of grey.
She shifted painfully, got to her feet. As she moved a light flickered into life upon the wall, startling her. I was a kind of globe, set into a metal sconce of some sort. The light was hard, and very bright. It unsettled her. The very walls, the floor, polished to a smooth and unnatural shine. All of it seemed subtly wrong, unlike anything she had ever seen before, artificial.
She advanced with care. Her instructions had not extended beyond the maze. What lay beyond now was the stuff of myth and conjecture. No one had seen the level of the crypt in living memory, and she felt a strange reverence as she walked down the smooth hallway towards the single door, lights flickering into cold life as she passed, showing her the way.
The doors slid open soundlessly at her arrival, and for the first time she felt a kind of fear. She wondered just how much she had misunderstood.
The Brotherhood first appeared cowled, speaking to her only from the darkness. A fraction, a sect within the clergy she thought, and a dangerous one. Valena was attracted to them immediately. They confirmed the legend of the Godslayer, of the mortal who pierced through into the final ring, the home of a God, and in a fit of rage slew him.
"How?" Valena asked, her mind bent on one thing and one thing only.
"A weapon. A weapon from the time when the Gods were young, and the world was in chaos, when the Gods still warred."
"We must find this weapon." Valena said fiercely.
"Yes." The cowled figures agreed. "Our God is corrupt, His power waning. It is time to shift the balance."
They showed her what to do. Valena did not hesitate.
He was waiting for her, in the room beyond. She knew who he was instinctively, could not say how. She had never seen his face, nor heard him speak. He was faceless, voiceless, nameless, a power beyond powers according to the teachings of the clergy. Strange then to see him here, sitting before her in a wheeled chair. Strange to see him old, and sad, yet smiling, as if he had known she would be here.
"Hello, Valena." He said, his smile cheerful. Human. "I hate to be cliché, but - I've been expecting you." His old fingers caressed a sphere, the size of an infant's head, resting in his lap.
Valena swallowed, hard. "How... I don't understand. How did you know I was coming?" She was startled, off balance, suddenly angry. Filled with a bitterness that burned, a rage that consumed. For a moment, hot tears threatened. But she had fought for too long to get this far, she would not let him glimpse his victory now.
"Kill me then and get it over with. There will be others. My task will not be left undone."
He had been waiting. Had known all along. All her fears, all her doubts brought to sudden life before her. She had wanted a monster, a faceless evil, instead there was him. This...man, for suddenly she understood that that was exactly what he was.
"Well, I admit the Brothers like to keep me out of the loop - to put it mildly - but I've got my ways." His eyes glinted with mischievousness. He lifted the sphere in his hands, turned it around for her to see. "This is it, by the way. The weapon that got me where I am now. It wasn't all lies."
He looked over his shoulder, as if expecting someone to stop him, and then he lobbed it at her. "Catch."
She reached for it instinctively, scrambled for a grip, then stared in horror at her hands, as though suspecting some sort of trap. But nothing happened. She could see her face reflected in it, upside down, distorted. For a moment she did not recognize herself. She looked up at God, questioning.
"I don't understand. Why would you give this to me, if it is what you say it is. What possible reason could you have?"
God sighed and shook his head at her in disappointment. "You don't see yet, huh? All right, I'll spell it out for you. That thing there? That's what makes me a God. Immortal and all that jazz. Speak a single command while you're holding it, and bam: I'm dead." He held up a finger to pause her. "Not so fast. There's a catch. Everything I am you will be. You take my place. A new Goddess."
He smiled, but the smile was grim. "Frankly, I'm looking forward to being dead. I didn't sign up for this job. I was set up for it. And so were you. Getting the picture, lil' missy?"
Valena tightened her grip on the sphere, knuckles white. This was what she wanted, everything handed to her before she could even so much as ask. Only none of it was real. If she believed him: and she found she did, despite herself, everything she had known, all the hard won truths she had searched for, all of it was meaningless.
Kill a man and take his place. She could make a difference, she could change the world. It was almost comical, how even this slight revelation made everything slide into place, sudden and blinding.
"Who orchestrated this, if not you?" She asked.
"You know who." God answered. "Your little black-cowled friends. I guess they finally grew tired of me slipping between their fingers. I doubt you'll be given as much leeway as I."
He paused for a beat, his eyes on the sphere. Then the corners of his lips rose into a smile best called roguish.
"You know...that thing has enough power in it to kill a God. I figure it has enough power in it to take out a few men with a poor sense of fashion and delusions of grandeur too..."
Valena considered. She looked at the sphere, deciding, then met God's eyes, unflinching.
"What do I say?"