The paladin wasn’t hard to find, even amongst the ruins. No single mortal would ever be hard for him to find, but certainly not this one. The echoes of holy magic still rippled across his skin, the wounding warmth of it, branding deeper than any weapon of the hells.
There was no plane on which Asmodeus could not find this man. Not even Celestia would shield his presence from his senses.
A body lay cradled in Zerxus’ arms. A small body. Well. All bodies were small on this plane. They had made their mortal children so very tiny, once upon a time. But this one was small even for them. A child. Well. Of course.
He made himself known. The world was quiet and full of flame, the ruins of two cities, the slow trickle of empty time. His steps were loud. Even a man lost in grief would hear them. Zerxus looked up. The wall of rage and grief and hatred in his eyes seared. All the comforts of home. Asmodeus had to smile at him. Small, and lopsided, and warm.
“You lied to me,” Zerxus rasped, as Asmodeus crouched gently alongside him. Clutching his child tighter, pulling the still form further away. Where Asmodeus could not touch it. “You said you would remember. You lied.”
Asmodeus tilted his head, his arms resting lightly on his knees. “Did I?” he asked simply. “I have not forgotten you, Zerxus Ilerez. I remember your name and all there is to know about you. Where was my lie?”
Such a flash-fire of hatred for that. Such a surge of holy light, righteous and enraged. But for the child in his arms, he knew the paladin would have struck him. Pain for pain. Gifts for gifts. But he would not let his son go. Not for anything. Not for any cause.
“You know what I mean,” Zerxus snarled. Thick and shattered. “You know.”
Asmodeus smiled. He did. Of course he did. They both did. They both had. The moment the promise was made. The mortal had no more trusted it than he. But he had … hoped. Knowing it was foolish, knowing it was blind, he had hoped regardless. He had to have.
Such was treachery. His gift. It could not live without first some measure of trust, or some measure of hope.
Without evil, good could not matter. And without good … evil would not exist.
“I never lied to you, Zerxus Ilerez,” he said softly. Gently. Wounding as only kindness could wound. “All my words were true, and all my promises too. But words alone are not what truth is made of. You’re right. I am treachery incarnate. I told you the truth. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t lie to you.” He smiled, and lifted a clawed hand to gently brush some hair from the man’s brow. Some hair, some blood. Zerxus flinched, and curled to shield his son. “Much … as you lied to me.”
Zerxus stared at him. Denial. Stuttering anger. Affront. To be so accused, by one who had betrayed him so very deeply. To be called a liar, by the Father of Lies. It was enchanting, that anger. That expression. It was … beautiful.
“I never lied to you,” Zerxus managed eventually. A harsh grate of offended fury, of blind grief. “I would have given you all I promised you. I would have helped you. I didn’t lie to you.”
Asmodeus laughed. Softly. Only softly. It would wound regardless, but he did keep it gentle. Perhaps to make it wound all the more.
“Didn’t you?” he asked lightly. “Zerxus. I am the Father of Lies. The father of pain, the father of treachery. I know my gifts, as I know my creations.”
He smiled faintly, and reached a hand towards the body. Towards the child. Watched as the paladin all but flung himself away, carrying the boy with him. The perfect illustration.
“Mortals will always recoil from me,” he said softly. Gently, around the echoes of that old conversation. “It is the nature of the gifts I gave them. And some … some recoil more than others.”
Light dawned in the paladin’s eyes. Anger. Understanding. Grief. And … underneath them. Just a hint, a tiny spark in broken, weary eyes. Guilt. An acknowledgement of sin. Even now. Even for him. Even with his son’s body in his arms. He had lied, perhaps unwittingly, to the father of lies. Betrayed the betrayer. And he felt guilt.
No more perfect creation could there be. Not in all the worlds.
“I did not make you wrong, Zerxus Ilerez,” the Lord of the Hells said softly. Vibrant with passion. With truth. Never had he said a thing more truly. Never with such ardent honesty. “I didn’t make you wrong. I made you perfectly.” He reached out. One final time. Cupped a bloodstained, tear-worn cheek in his red, clawed hand. “A liar. And a good man.”
Tears welled, and spilled. A burning trail across the backs of his fingers, purer and more damning than any blood. Asmodeus ducked his head, and brushed his thumb beneath the man’s eyes. Bathed them all the more.
There was no treason quite like kindness, no agony quite like gentility, when all else was ruin between them.
Without hope, without trust, treachery could not be.
His gift. Always and ever, his gift. Without one, the other would have no meaning.
In a world without Zerxus Ilerez. A world without such desperate, ardent goodness. What would Asmodeus be? What would any evil be?
Without light, how empty and silent would the darkness be.
The burning blade pierced his side. Rage, grief, guilt. Agony. Hidden beneath gentility. Taking advantage of Asmodeus’ kindness. Zerxus’ face was still and grief-stricken beneath his hand. His son lay curled, clung to, in one hand, under one arm. And in the other … a sword. A righteous, burning blade. A perfect treason. A perfect gift.
Asmodeus laughed. His lips bubbled and spilled with blood. Delighted. Enchanted. Grieved. His lips bubbled over. His ribs burned. His heart shone black and radiant in his chest. Zerxus, with a gasp of grief, pulled free the blade. Stared, in perfect, damned defiance, as Asmodeus, almost dreamlike, brought his hand to the wound. Touched his own blood, with his tear-stained hand.
Betrayal, in exchange for compassion. Such a perfect, perfect gift.
“I cannot die,” he said quietly. “You know this. No mortal hand can kill me.”
“You said you would remember,” Zerxus answered back. So purely heartbroken. So stricken in his rage and his grief. “You said you would remember me. Remember this.”
Remember my rage. Remember my grief. Remember my gift.
And there was no other answer. There never could be.
Asmodeus leaned forward, uncaring as his wound split open and spilled across his side. Uncaring as the blade slipped to the ground, abandoned and unlooked for as Zerxus brought both arms back to his son, and cradled the child’s body against his chest. He brought both hands to Zerxus’ head. Now bloodied, still tear-stained hands. Zerxus didn’t flinch. One last gift. One more. Asmodeus cupped his face between his hands, as the paladin’s eyes slipped closed, pale, bruised lids over staring grief. He cupped his face between his hands, and pressed his lips to the man’s forehead in one last burning, searing kiss.
“… For all eternity,” he said, as he pulled gently away, and looked down to Zerxus’ face. Meeting his eyes, holding his gaze, as he slid black claws delicately, almost gently, through his throat. As he mingled their blood one last, fatal time. “For all the ages of the world, Zerxus Ilerez. You have my oath. I will never, ever forget you.”
How could he, when no one in all the worlds had ever given him a greater gift?
And when he looked to one side. Over the body, the pair of bodies, curled together. When he looked to the sword, still radiant at the paladin’s side, and the reflection of his face in the searing metal. He saw not red skin, but pale and bloodstained, and no black eyes, but weary and heartbroken brown.
For beauty was in the eye of the beholder. And the Father of Lies always wore the most beautiful face in the world.