For the first time ever, Valentine cried.

When he watched fire swallow his home, squinting through stinging smoke and ash, he didn't shed a single tear. When soldiers took turns beating him, made sport of his pain, he stayed strong. All of Niramor's past sessions with him left him dry eyed. But not today. Today, he cried.

His arms were tied above his head, pulled up to leave him dangling, his toes barely scraping the floor. A thousand red lines crossed his chest, Niramor's handiwork

"Oh my, are you crying?" Niramor noticed his plight, coming closer to him. She set her whip on a side table, walking until her face nearly touched his. He could feel her warm breath on his face, and her fingers felt just as gentle tracing along his tears. She tracked the tear line and wiped it away, studying it on a gloved fingertip.

"I've drowned you, beat you, peeled you open, starved you for weeks, and you've never cried. But now… this is what puts you over the edge." She looked to her whip sitting on the table, seeming to fill with pride. She returned her attention to Valentine, holding his cheek with her gentle, gloved hands. She had the touch of a lover now, treating him as if he was glass and might shatter under her touch. "Does it hurt?" She asked.

"...yes," Valentine said.

"Good." With a sickening crack, she slapped him with the back of her hand. She sent Valentine spinning like some sort of ceiling ornament. He scraped his toes against the floor, frantically searching for purchase. She inspected her glove, which she had split open from striking Valentine. WIth a frown, it was discarded. "Just remember Darling, this is necessary."

"Do you have to use that damn whip?" Valentine asked through gritted teeth.

Niramor clicked her tongue in disappointment. "Language, Val. You know the rules." A crack of her whip echoed down the halls. It felt like she'd laid a hot iron on him, curling Valentine's spine along with the rest of his body, contorting in pain. A cry escaped his lips, despite his best efforts. "We are close Valentine, I know it. A few more experiments, that's all I need. Once I find it, think of all the benefits. We could save thousands of lives. People would live longer, happier lives. You could bring us out of the dark times, Val. Now, are you ready to continue?"

Valentine clenched his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut, eeking out more hot tears. He braced himself, and nodded slowly.

"One more session with Bitterheart, then we will break for lunch." She walked past the table and grabbed her whip, then began.

Niramor whipped with precision and efficiency. Bitterheart curled and struck like a metronome with perfect, fluid motions. It split his skin open all over. On his front, on his back, on his arms, burning, splitting pain erupted all over his body. His body was starting to look like a hunter's dressed kill when a cry overtook him, which escalated to a scream.

"Stop!" He begged. "Niramor, I can't-" His answer was a blow to his ribs that knocked the breath from his lungs. His tears dripped off his cheeks freely now, dripping into the puddle of his blood that had formed on the floor. He thrashed like a caged animal, pulling on his restraints with every ounce of his feeble strength he could manage. Bitterheart cracked across his arms, putting a stop to that with another scream from Valentine.

His head drooped forward. His skin had become raw and numb. Sensory overload had begun, and his mind teetered on the edge of consciousness.

"I can't…" Valentine croaked weakly. "I'm sorry… I can't. Please, no more. Please stop… Please…" Begging was all he could do. He couldn't stand another strike, and he couldn't escape. It was all he could do to beg Niramor for salvation.

"Weak." Niramor hissed, curling Bitterheart back and cracking open Valentine's back. His breath escaped him, and his mind went dark.

Blackness swallowed him like the sea, pulling him under, deeper down. Even here, he hurt. His body was cloaked in invisible fire, and every movement sent searing pain through him. Luckily, all he was doing was sinking. He didn't know where to, or even if there would be a destination. He couldn't tell if his eyes were open or closed, it was all just black.

"You don't have to do this, you know."

Valentine whipped his head around, but saw no one. The voice spoke into him, the vibrations rattling his joints and sending shivers down his mind. It was a powerful voice, like a conscience but louder. It felt from within him, not without. Perhaps it was himself he spoke to, or a version of it.

"Who are you?" he called.

"Perhaps you'll find out." There, he looked behind him, and there she was.

A woman sat upon a throne before him, as casual as if she had been there all along. Her long legs were crossed and covered in black stockings. A purple dress rested upon her shoulders, filled with all the lace, patterns, and craftsmanship of a queen's robe. A golden headdress sat upon straight raven hair, framing glowing purple eyes. They pulsed in tune with the tattoos that covered her body, intricate lines and pattIerns.

"What do you mean I don't have to do this?" Valentine asked.

"Enough questions, Valentine. Listen." She rose to her full height, growing taller until she towered over Valentine. Her voice didn't change, it had matched this presence all along. "You're pathetic, letting that witch beat you like a dog day in and out. Lucky for you, you amuse me, what with your refusal to die. I can grant you a tiny fraction of my power. It'll help you escape and grant you powers beyond your wildest dreams. In exchange, you'll enter my servitude and pass my will onto your plane. Do you accept?"

Valentine only stuttered out a few words. His mind was groggy and barely functioning. He could hardly fathom who this person was, and what they wanted, let alone agree to anything.

"Answer! Don't waste my time, Valentine! Do you want to spend your days as a prisoner, or a king?"

"I agree!" Valentine sputtered out frantically.

A sickle grin curled onto her face. She sank, shrinking back into her throne. A coldness swept over Valentine, and a growing ball in his stomach told him he had made a grave mistake.

"So you do have some sense. Wake up, and escape."

The floor shot out from under Valentine, and he began to freefall. It wasn't relaxing like before, he was picking up speed and his stomach rose in his chest. His skin began to burn, causing him to cry out. He looked at his arms and saw fire tracing along his skin, leaving meticulous burnt flesh in lines behind. It was happening all over, from his cheeks to his toes. Panic filled him, was she killing him? He thought back to the stories of fools who accepted deals with fey and monsters, only to be tricked and slain by the same beasts. Before he landed back in his body, he heard her voice whisper. Her domain shuddered and bowed when it heard her name.

"Liliana Vess."

Valentine shot awake with a gasp. His feet were on solid ground. He held his wrists to his face, finding burnt remains of his bindings. Etched across his skin were intricate lines, patterns burned into his skin that glowed like a forge, just like Liliana's. They hurt like hell, but compared to Niramor's last session they felt like a collection of bug bites.

He was still in the same room, though it was empty now. His blood puddle had been scrubbed off the floor, and Niramor had left. Bitterheart still sat on a table, ready to be used again.

Take it.

Liliana's voice startled him, and Valentine had to cover his mouth to stop from yelping.

Silence, or they'll know you're awake. Take the whip, it's enchanted with powerful magic and you'll need it. Besides, don't you think you've earned it?

Valentine outstretched his hand at a snail's pace. He looked around twice to check if Niramor could see him, but the room was still silent as a grave. Even knowing he was alone, he hesitated to touch the whip's handle, somehow fearing it would recognize it was him and alert her. His heart raced in his chest as he edged towards his act of rebellion. His mind went through all the different punishments he might receive if he was caught. Finally, he brushed the tough leather handle. After affirming that sirens wouldn't go off, he gripped the handle fully and lifted it off the table.

You don't have time to marvel at it. There's guards in the next room, likely to check on you at any time. Leap out the window.

Valentine almost spoke out loud. Despite never being allowed free reign of the tower, he knew this room was near the top. They were at least a hundred feet in the air.

Speaking back to her in his mind was a difficult task. Liliana must have been able to sense his apprehension, because she spoke again before he could.

Don't doubt me. You'll learn that faith will take you far with me, Valentine. You'll live, I assure you.

The doorknob rattled, and a guard stepped in. Valentine locked eyes with the guard, who dropped what he was carrying.

"Valentine is free!" The guard cried out. He rushed for him, reaching for his weapon.


Valentine didn't look back. He ran towards the window and leapt through it. The glass shattered and Valentine fell.