The Secrets of Heaven

Read chapters 1 & 2

Chapter 1

Dante

1033 of Heaven on Earth

Dante wiped his face with a soft towel and tied his overgrown raven hair in a ponytail. He mostly caught the hair on the top of his head, leaving many shorter strands free from the lace. The edges of the mirror had scratches and heavy traces of rust, but his reflection never looked fresher. The mirror was a hand-me-down from work, like most of his possessions in this mountain cabin.

Dante glanced sideways at where his lover slept peacefully in their bed. Raphael’s face was half-buried in the soft pillow as he lay on his side, while both his arms stretched over the empty side with a Dante-shaped imprint on the sheets.

The morning was sunny and calm, no distant howl of the wind. This part of the mountain was treacherous with the weather and it often made the cabin walls creak.

The cabin itself was small, with a single room, but it had everything a loving couple needed. A working wood stove kept them warm during the chilly nights. There was a large storage box under the dining table. And the double bed kept them safe and cozy. The walls were littered with coat hangers, holding all the clothes they possessed…which wasn’t many.

It was a humble home, but it was a true home. Last week, Raphael and Dante marked five years since they started living here. Five years flew by like air.

Dante carefully leaned over his sleeping lover and pecked his cheek. It was ridiculous how handsome he looked first thing in the morning. From the notorious bedhead, the disheveled half-buttoned sleeping shirt, and the morning stubble pricking Dante’s lips.

Raphael opened his eyes and looked drowsily at him. “So cruel,” he mumbled.

“What’s cruel?” Dante asked just as quietly.

“You smiling like this upon leaving me.”

Dante burst out laughing. “I’m going to work.”

“Do you have to?”

“It’s what poor people do on weekdays,” Dante said, and playfully petted Raphael’s hair. It had grown a bit since his last haircut, making it so easy to grab these blonde locks in a fist. “But how would you know? I spoiled you.”

Raphael’s lazy expression skewered with a sly smirk. He hooked his finger in Dante’s belt and turned on his back, pulling him on top.

“Spoil me more,” he whispered.

Dante steadied himself on his arms and knees, smiling down at his gorgeous lover, bathed in the morning light, his blue eyes demanding attention. Impossible to resist. Dante eagerly kissed his lips, and Raphael wrapped his arms around him like two snakes greedily pulling him further into their nest.

One hand pulled on Dante’s hair lace and let his hair scatter. Gentle fingers ran through the raven locks. The cozy warmth, the gentle breathing in his ear, and the unspoken plea for him to stay were making it increasingly difficult to go to work.

“What are we having for dinner tonight?” Dante asked, hoping to distract himself.

“Potato salad,” Raphael said.

“I love your potato salad!”

Being enemies of Heaven caused Raphael and Dante to live in isolation and sparingly visited civilization. Dante could afford to get a job, but Raphael was a recognizable public figure. So, he mostly stayed home.

For someone who used to be surrounded by high society, Dante expected Raphael to struggle with this situation, but he thrived in solitude. Back in Elden Palace, his lover was very sociable, but that was an enforced behavior. If it were up to him, he would have spent all his free time in a library, or at some academic endeavor.

That’s what Raphael mostly did at home, too. There were huge stacks of books under their bed. He read about plants, animals, and herbs that grew in these parts of the world. Often he ventured to gather wild fruit and berries. He taught himself cooking and fishing. He even made a tiny indoor herb garden. There were several pots on the windowsill growing spices he used in meals.

Raphael Azelys was never bored.

“It’s annoying you can’t get a job,” Dante said. “But I don’t hate having an old man waiting for me with dinner.”

“Stop calling me old. I’m not old.”

This year Raphael turned thirty and Dante found unexpected satisfaction in teasing him about it. “Yes, you are. You go to bed early, you can barely keep up with me on the trail…”

“No one can keep up with you.”

“And your hairline is receding.”

Raphael grabbed the top of his head in horror. “That’s not true!”

Dante burst out laughing and kissed his nose. “Don’t worry. You can be bald. I’ll be fat with the way you’re feeding me.”

Dante scrambled out of bed and walked out of their cabin. He inhaled the fresh air of the early morning while casually putting his hair back into a ponytail. This part of the mountains was especially beautiful. There was a deep valley with a river at the bottom. Colossal rock pillars rose to the sky, with thick green vegetation at the top.

Raphael and Dante chose one of these pillars to be the place they built their new home. It was a place that only birds could reach. Or a human with wings. It was the perfect protection from the guardians and anyone who wished them harm. Later, they built a bridge connecting the pillar to the closest mountain path, so Raphael could cross when he was alone.

Dante walked over the rope bridge as it swayed under his feet. He could easily fly the distance to the mountain cliff, but he chose long ago to use his abilities only in emergencies. They never knew who could be watching. The view from this height, the wind, and the low quality of the wooden planks could make any intruder think twice before crossing.

Spring was in full bloom, but the mountain air was still chilly, and snow still covered the path. Dante skidded on the slippery remains of winter while enjoying the sounds of awakening nature all the way to the village of Cava.

Cava was half an hour downhill, and still three hours uphill from the closest stone road. About two hundred people lived here. There were no paved roads. Most houses were scattered amid the vast greenery. Many of the inhabitants had farms or worked the croplands not too far from here. There was a small Temple of Virtue, kept by a single angel follower.

A small marketplace graced the center. It mostly sold food products, but there was always some interesting book or trinket that found its way to the stalls. Sometimes travelers would pass through this village and sell their curious items. Dante made a mental note to check the market for new books for Raphael. He wanted to find him more things to keep him busy at home.

“Good morning, Isaac!” an old man shouted.

This was the village newspaper salesman, who brought a stack of newspapers with him every week from the town at the foot of the mountain.

“Good morning,” Dante said and immediately noticed the news on the first page.

Newspapers rarely came to these parts, and when they did, they brought weeks-old news, but it was still the only way to know what was happening with the rest of the world. Dante picked one from the stack, and his brows furrowed with concern.

There was a new assassination attempt on Queen Sienna for the second time in the last six months. This had made it six times since she ascended to the throne of Heaven. Many noble houses accepted her as the new ruler, but quite a few Azelys loyalists still supported Michael Azelys. He was in prison for his monstrous deeds, and still had people who followed him.

Dante spent enough time in Elden Palace to know what a toxic environment it could be. Raphael also suffered quite a few attempts on his life. Dante had been the one to save him from a few bad ones. Mortal danger always came with being the ruler of Heaven.

“Those rich bitches will kill each other,” the old man said with a satisfied smirk.

He was an old angel who had always lived in poverty. He had no family and his happiest time was when he sat at a table full of food and drink. Not at all like the angels Dante was used to, so he could relate to him so much easier.

“If only it were that easy,” Dante said, and paid for the newspaper.

He headed for the orphanage. His daily chores started with greeting his colleagues, most of whom were angels. He helped with making breakfast and preparing the canteen, and after that, he walked out into the backyard to chop wood and fill the storage.

By the time he was out, a wave of children’s laughter filled the corridors, as they all flocked into the canteen. Soon enough, they were all over the playground. It was always noisy here, and Dante wouldn’t have it any other way. Children needed the chance to be children. If only he could give this chance to the orphans who lost their lives back in the capital’s ghetto.

Dante was just about ready with the firewood for the day when he heard someone squabbling. He looked at the playground and saw two ten-year-olds pushing each other and pulling on their shirts. There was already a group encircling them to watch the fight and cheer.

Dante put down the ax and pushed through the circle of children. A few ran away, not wanting to get into trouble. Dante grabbed the two little troublemakers and pulled them apart.

“What’s this all about?” he asked, more annoyed than anything else.

“It’s his fault! He started it!” one boy yelled, still trying to punch and kick the other, and only ending up swinging his limbs in the air.

“He pushed me out of the line and that’s against the rules!”

The squabbling seemed to have started because a game had become a little rough. There was a ripped shirt, a split lip, and a swollen eye. How does a game cause this to a couple of ten-year-olds?

“He only pushed me because he knows he can’t win otherwise!” the second boy said.

“Yes, I can! Your mom knows it, too!”

“I don’t have a mom and neither do you!”

“You both suck at trash talk,” Dante said, and the surrounding boys laughed. “Here are your options. You can either play nice and have fun. Or you spend the rest of this sunny day grounded in bed. What would it be?”

The two boys looked at each other. After spending many years caring for children, Dante had learned the best way to handle them was to offer them a choice between two options beneficial to him. It worked occasionally for children in the ghetto, and it worked every time here.

“We’ll play nice,” the first boy said, and the other nodded.

Dante let them go. “Good choice.” 

“Even though it was his fucking fault!”

“You’re a shitty passer!”

“Hey!” Dante grabbed them both at the top of their heads, steadying them in place. “No swearing! Remember what happens to boys who swear?” 

The boys rolled their eyes and said simultaneously, “They don’t get sweets.”

“That’s right.” Dante let them go again. “Now, get your asses back inside. Lunch is ready.”

The children ran into the building of the orphanage. The tasty smell of porridge was already reaching the playground.

Sometimes, Dante found it strange how easy it was to live here. This village was a hidden haven where nothing bad was lurking in the shadows. Sure, there was a lot of work to be done for everyone to live well, but he was never afraid someone would come and ruin everything they built.

The sound of breaking dishes reached him.

Dante flinched and gazed at the orphanage. Something was wrong. Anyone could have dropped a dish by mistake. There was barely any day when something didn’t break in this place. But there never was tension in the air. Dante knew this tension all too well.

He carefully approached the back entrance, his steps on the grass barely noticeable even in the current windless state of the mountain. Nature itself had quieted down for him to hear someone crying. There must be an unpleasant visitor today, agitating the children. One of the female staff of the orphanage was arguing with someone in outrage.

Dante saw the golden uniforms passing through the corridors and hid behind a corner. His breath stilled in his lungs. Thankfully, no one noticed him.

It must have been five years since he was in the presence of an entire squad of guardian angels. Guardians never dared to traverse the mountains. That’s why Raphael and Dante stood clear from large towns or villages. Raphael especially was always in disguise. This village never had stationed guardians, so these were visitors.

“You don’t have any right to search the orphanage!” Dante’s female colleague yelled after the guardians. They ignored her, while spreading through all the rooms, pushing away furniture and breaking into the locked doors.

“We have a warrant from the Court of Dominion,” another female voice sounded through the corridor. “We’ve received information about criminal fugitives hiding in this village.”

Dante carefully peeked from his hiding place. His female colleague was arguing with a black woman in a golden uniform, holding a piece of paper with a vivid red stamp. From his spot, he also noticed two distinct red stripes over her shoulder. She was an archangel—a platoon leader.

It was rare to see archangels on the field with ordinary guardians. Archangels usually had desk work, delegating responsibilities. Sometimes they led special operations with elite squads deployed to search for the worst criminals. Nothing was worse than being an enemy of Heaven.

So, the law had finally caught up to him.

“Well, you won’t find anything, because there are no fugitives here!” the female staff insisted.

The archangel put away the warrant. “That’s for us to decide.”

Dante silently headed to the exit. If this squad of guardians have traversed the mountain to get here, then they would soon reach the cabin, too. He had to take Raphael and get out of there as fast as possible. He should have known good times never lasted. They’ve made so many beautiful memories here. People were kind to him, they needed him and he was useful.

This new home made him forget he would always be a wanted man. But the dream was over. He had talked about this with Raphael. In case the guardians found them, they would leave this place forever and search for happiness somewhere else.

“No! No! Leave those alone!”

Continuous breaking sounds assaulted Dante’s ears, and he stopped. Several guardians were in the arts and crafts room, pushing over furniture and toppling cupboards. On the walls were several shelves filled with plates and vases made by the children in pottery class.

The guardians broke them on the floor one by one, as the children cried and pleaded with them to stop. Dante’s hands tightened into fists. The children worked so hard on those vases. Creating something beautiful with their own hands always puts the brightest smile on their faces.

The guardians always did this. Every time, they ruthlessly stomped even an abandoned child’s smallest bit of happiness. This orphanage was supposed to be different.

Dante stepped into the arts and crafts room, just in time as the last few vases were about to hit the wooden floor. He extended an arm and everything that was about to break stopped mid-air.

The guardians stared at the strange phenomena, and the children gaped in wonder. Dante sent each saved item in the arms of the child that made it. The kids wrapped their arms around their creations and ran out of the room. One of them hid behind Dante. Little Ayana didn’t feel safe anywhere but behind her favorite teacher’s back.

Dante has never seen these guardians before, but they just now made him their worst enemy. The air around the demon thickened and skewered.

With a single motion of the head, a school desk hurled across the room into a guardian, throwing him into the corridor. Little Ayana shrieked, though she wasn’t truly afraid. She couldn’t take her eyes away from the scene.

His horrified female colleague was also in the room, bearing witness to everything. She had employed an escaped enemy of Heaven. This was going to destroy all of Dante’s relationships in the last five years.

The guardians who remained in the room prepared their weapons, firearms, but not swords. So they’d started using ancient weapons, after all.

“Hold your fire!” a loud female voice ordered.

The guardian archangel walked into the room. Her subordinates had taken aim at Dante, but no one was pulling the trigger. Dante felt no killing-intent either.

The archangel was just as tall as most of her male guardians and filled out her uniform with quite a bit of muscle. Her hair was cut short in a stylish and neat hairdo that accentuated her gentle facial features. Her dark eyes were so intense, she could bore a hole through him.

“Stop vandalizing my orphanage or I swear, you’re all flying off this fucking mountain,” Dante said in a tone few people had heard from him.

“I told them to vandalize only until you showed yourself,” the archangel said, not afraid of the paranormal air filling the room. “I’ve been told you lose your temper when kids cry.”

“Isaac, what’s going on?” his female colleague asked, petrified.

“Isaac?” the archangel said. “That’s how people know you?”

She didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, she stepped before him, not too close to trigger more anger, but still not close enough to speak comfortably. She wasn’t reaching for her weapon either, and the lack of killing-intent was making Dante confused. Guardians always wanted to kill him. 

“Dante, I’m archangel Remiel and I’m not here for you,” she said. “Take us to Raphael Azelys. That’s all we want. If you do, we’ll leave and never come back.”

“I don’t know where he is,” he said. “We separated years ago.”

Remiel pulled out another piece of paper from her pocket. “Dante, the Dominions offer you a full pardon for your crimes, as long as you cooperate.”

Dante looked at the paper as she unfolded it for him. It listed several reasons absolving him of all his previous crimes, including being a confirmed accomplice of an enemy of Heaven. In the end, the document had the official seal of the Dominions, the downward-pointing flaming sword.

“You never were an enemy of Heaven, Dante,” Remiel said. “You were simply following the orders of your then-sovereign. The High Dominion himself vouches for your innocence, but only if you cooperate in capturing Raphael Azelys.”

Cassiel Astaroth vouched for Dante? They never once spoke to each other. This was an attack on Raphael. Smart people knew that to capture Raphael, they should start by separating him from Dante. His lover enraged too many powerful people.

“You must have heard the queen gave every demon in the world angel citizenship,” Remiel said with a kind smile. “This is a chance to erase the crimes of your past and live peacefully for the rest of your life, without having to hide. Just do one last service for Heaven.”

The air around Dante lightened, as he imagined the clear blue sky in this calm village, children’s laughter, and the sweet murmur of the neighbors. Freshly baked goods for everyone. Colleagues and children sit before the fireplace in the winter playing or telling stories, and no one is freezing to death. He could tell everyone his real name.

He wouldn’t have to hide, or always look over his shoulder, wondering if the law was finally coming for him. No more stealing this comfortable happiness. It would be rightfully his. He could watch the children grow up and shape them into good people, just as he always wanted.

He had to admit, it was a good bait.

“I’ll take you to him,” Dante said.

Remiel smirked. “A wise choice.”

The day had gotten even chillier than the morning. The sky was clear, and the sun was shining over the village of Cava, while a chilling wind whisked the grass to the side.

Dante walked out of the orphanage through the front door, followed by Remiel and her entire squad of guardians. Old villagers walked out of their houses, staring at the orphanage from a distance, murmuring to each other, wondering what was going on.

Most of these people were in their old age and they’d never stepped down from the mountain. For many, this was also the first time seeing a guardian. They knew Dante as Isaac. And by now, his true identity must have already circled through the houses. They looked at him in shock, accusingly, with betrayal filling their eyes.

It was fine. Everything will be over soon.

“No! No! Teacher, stay!”

Little Ayana ran out the door and past the guardians until she stood before Dante, not allowing him to walk any further. She was seven years old. The girl had the most adorable red eyes, and she was still clutching her precious vase.

Dante kneeled at her level. “Go back inside, Ayana. They won’t come back here anymore, I promise.”

“Will you come back?”

Dante smiled. “Of course.”

“You’re lying.”

Dante shuddered at the blunt reply. There wasn’t even a shred of doubt in her voice. Innocent eyes looked straight into his soul. He was never more exposed. Dante always was bad at lying, but he didn’t think he was this hopelessly transparent.

And now he stood here, his soul bared before a child’s gaze that saw nothing but the truth. He hugged the little girl and let out a shaky breath while silently suppressing a sob.

“I’ll be back,” he said. “I’ll be back, whatever it takes.”

Chapter 2

Raphael

Raphael lived to surprise Dante.

Potato salad for dinner? Well, it was partly true.

As soon as Dante left for work, Raphael got out of bed and crossed the bridge, heading for the river. Last night he had left a net at a strategic place on the stream and his idea did not disappoint. He cheerfully returned home with three fish in the bag.

After boiling the potatoes, searing the fish filets, and seasoning them with home-grown herbs, Raphael dropped on the dining chair, satisfied with his work. This masterpiece did not deserve to sit on the stove all day. He should bring it to Dante for lunch.

Last night, Raphael had a dream about Laylah Azelys.

She was the Queen of Heaven over three hundred years ago, and she used a still-working machine dating back to the Great War. It was one of the first memories he saw after he faced the enlightenment ritual by the Supreme Virtue.

Yet the historical archives had no documentation about such a machine, or that she, a ruler of Heaven, had used it. Raphael was the only one who knew this.

The Supreme Virtue said all memories of his ruling predecessors would come to him gradually with time, and they did. But they were so scattered and unorganized. It was like his brain refused to process those mountains of information for fear of overloading.

Though this might be a protective reaction. Overloading could be what brought his predecessors to insanity.

Raphael could still see the images from his vivid dream. The strange machine was before his eyes. It was metallic white. It had the shape of a pyramid with smooth, round corners, and it was as big as an average human.

Laylah activated this machine by sliding her finger into a hole in the surface. An internal mechanism cut her finger and drew blood. And she called it the Commander.

But Raphael still couldn’t recall this machine’s purpose.

The Commander was a concept he’d heard in his childhood, too. His parents had discussed it just before his father murdered his mother. His mother found the Commander on her last archaeological expedition and this cost her life. For many years, Raphael wondered what historical artifact was worth the life of a human being.

He rubbed his eyes in frustration. Every morning, he’d been spending hours forcing his brain to give him answers, and never finding any.

His hand absentmindedly played with the medallion around his neck. The little blue trinket he received from Dante many years ago. It was his only possession he took after leaving Elden Palace, another tiny relic from the ancient world, though hardly valuable. As Raphael twirled the medallion between his fingers, he noticed the two sides moving.

Raphael looked down curiously.

It was a flat circle with meaningless ancient writing. The material was the only remarkable part of it since no one knew how to produce it. It most probably required a natural resource that didn’t exist today or a technology that was erased from records in the great book-burning a millennia ago.

Raphael never inspected this object in detail, even though he’d had it for almost two decades. Now, instinct told him to slowly twist the two sides of the medallion, each in the opposite direction. The two sides unscrewed, came apart, and a tiny, folded piece of paper dropped in his lap.

He unfolded the paper to reveal a single sentence.

Find the Commander in the Holy Land, on Yara Island.

Raphael stood suddenly, toppling the chair. This was his mother’s handwriting. The day before she died, she had taken this trinket and gave it back to him later. Raphael still remembered how intensely she’d looked him in the eyes as she made him promise to never lose this medallion under any circumstance. She’d already expected to lose her life.

Raphael clasped a hand over his mouth and leaned on the table as tears blurred his vision. The answer he was looking for had been with him this entire time.

Even in death, his mother was guiding him.

Raphael dropped to his knees and sobbed uncontrollably. Old wounds reopened, and he was once again a child filled with guilt. He laughed through the tears. These few words, which came at just the right time, gave him a new purpose to work for this world.

He noticed movement from the corner of his eye. The window was facing the bridge, and Dante was currently crossing. And it wasn’t even noon yet. He rarely came back in the middle of the day. Soon after, a group of golden uniforms followed behind him.

Raphael rose and stood awkwardly in the middle of the cabin. Too many things were happening at once. He needed a second to take a breath. This high mountain had kept him and Dante hidden from the guardians for the last five years, but the peace had apparently come to an end.

Of course, they had expected to eventually be found. Nothing good lasts forever, especially for enemies of Heaven. That’s why they’d made preparations for an escape. Raphael put the note and the medallion in his pocket, then pulled a large, full backpack from under the bed.

Several harsh knocks hit the door from the outside. “Raphael Azelys, come out!”

Raphael opened the lid of a wooden box attached to the wall, revealing the end of a metal pipe, horizontally aligned with the ground. It led outside and all the way to the bridge, while buried in soil, rocks, and vegetation. Inside this pipe was a generously poured line of gunpowder. He lit a match and started a pathway of sparks.

“You are to be taken to Alirie and executed at Judgment Mountain,” the woman said loud and clear. “If you resist, your execution will be immediate.”

Raphael rose and put on the backpack. He spared a few moments for a last glance at the interior of the cabin. He’d built this place, together with the man he loved, and had spent the happiest years of his life here. No matter where life led him now, he would never forget this place.

Raphael opened the door, and a dozen rifles aimed at him in a crescent shape. This was one of the elite guardian platoons that investigated the most dangerous criminals in the world, led by archangel Remiel. Raphael had exchanged a few words with her years ago, back when he was a prince, and she was a newbie in the guardian police force.

It was impressive that she’d climbed the ranks at such a young age. She couldn’t be more than thirty years old. And she specialized in such a hectic and demanding branch. Most guardians patrolled the city streets and took bribes from the locals. But she led the squad that found two enemies of Heaven. She must already be picturing a parade in her honor back in Alirie.

Dante stood in silence on the side, looking at his lover with a blank face. Raphael spared him a glance, before raising his arms in surrender. “Well, you found me. Aren’t you proud of yourself?”

“Your honeymoon is over, Your Highness,” Remiel said.

“Don’t call me that.” Raphael smirked. “I worked hard to lose the title.”

The howl of the wind vanished in an instant, as though the mountain held its breath. Then, a brutal explosion deafened the vicinity and shook the stone pillar on which they stood. The shockwave shoved the guardians to their knees. They glanced back and saw the bridge they’d used minutes earlier utterly destroyed. The only way off this colossal rock pillar was gone.

Meanwhile, Dante and Raphael dashed for the edge of the cliff.

“Open fire!” Remiel shouted.

The guardians scrambled to their feet, but by the time a hail of bullets came their way, Raphael and Dante were already over the edge in free fall. The height over the river valley was petrifying, and every fiber of Raphael’s being screamed in terror in the face of certain death.

Dante’s wings pierced through his clothes and spread majestically to the sides, just in time for Raphael to wrap his arms and legs around his demon lover and leave the rest in his capable hands. Their fall carried on for a few more terrifying seconds when his demon made a graceful downward arch. With a powerful flap and skillful navigation, Dante led them far away from the stone column.

Distant gunshots sounded from above, growing quieter and less threatening in mere seconds. Raphael’s heart slammed against his chest, shaking off the shock. Indeed, he was shaking all over as he tightly held onto his lover, his eternal savior.

Remiel and her squad of guardians were now stuck on an isolated rock tower. They would have an extremely difficult time going down. This should give Raphael and Dante a decent head start.

It took Dante a few minutes to reach the foot of the mountain. He landed in the forest, close to the outskirts of the nearest town with a railway station. His wings fell off his back, burst into blue flames, and turned to dust in seconds.

Meanwhile, Raphael pulled two new sets of clothes from the backpack , then they buried the clothes they had been wearing. Soon, Raphael and Dante entered the town, heading straight to the rail station. This town had stationed guardians, so they were extra careful, making sure they didn’t draw attention.

The first train about to depart in the next few minutes was a cross-continental fare that would take them to the biggest port of the Fertile Land. Fortunately, this was exactly where Raphael intended to go, which was a decision he’d made half an hour ago.

Raphael and Dante entered the saloon car with the fewest passengers and, as soon as they took their seats, the train left the station.

Emotions were still running high.

For a while, they sat in silence, looking into the empty air, still processing what had happened. In a single day—no, in a single afternoon—Raphael had found the whereabouts of the Commander, became homeless, and was now on the run with his lover.

He reassuringly squeezed Dante’s hand. Dante looked at him and just now allowed himself to breathe easy. They were safe and still free. No matter how many things the world denied them, they would be alright, as long as they had each other.

“I’m sorry it didn’t work out with the orphanage,” Raphael said.

Losing their humble home was one thing, but because of him, Dante also left a fulfilling workplace. Caring for children has been his dream job. The children loved him and his colleagues were nice to him. Raphael caused his lover to desert a place of belonging and he would always hate himself for this.

“I promised I’ll come back,” Dante said.

Raphael wrapped his arm around him. “Yes. We’ll come back home, whatever it takes.”

Dante smiled, and Raphael kissed his lips. Everything was going to be alright. This wasn’t the first time they’d lost everything. They’d managed before and they’d manage again. What they had was indestructible and always will be. And it had been ages since they traveled.

“Where are we going anyway?” Dante asked.

“Yara Island,” Raphael said. “On the Holy Land.”

“What? Why there?”

Raphael pulled from his pocket the opened medallion and the folded piece of paper. “Your present turned out to be a treasure chest.”

Dante read the note, and the realization was on his face. He knew of Raphael’s frequent dreams about Laylah Azelys and the Commander. He knew of the death of the former queen of Heaven, and why it was important for her discovery to be revealed.

“Are we…” Dante smirked. “Are we going on an archaeological expedition in search of a historical artifact?”

Raphael smirked back. “Only if you want to.”

Dante burst out laughing. They had been talking about taking a trip for the last five years, but that day never came. Mostly because they had no direction. But now they did. And they were on the run from the guardians anyway. Time couldn’t be more perfect.

Raphael pulled a world map from his backpack. It showed all six continents of Heaven—the Throne’s Land separated from the Fertile Land with a steep mountain range, the same mountain range they’d just left. The Preserved Land and the Holy Land were south, separated by the vast ocean, but still so close to each other.

Far into the west was the largest archipelago in the world, with a constant storm raging upon the tens of thousands of islands, affectionately called the Impact Land. And the sixth continent, the Isolated Land, was missing. It was missing from most world maps since it was the most remote landmass in the world and only a select few had a purpose to reach it.

For them, there were special maps, but this was a mainstream one for the rest of the public. 

“For now, we remain on this train to the last rail stop at Crestos Harbor,” Raphael said, pointing at the southern edge of the Fertile Land. “Once there, we can take a ship to the Preserved Land. After that is another cross-continental rail trip to Pilgrim Shore, followed by a month-long walk on foot to the Holy Land. And once there, we’ll figure out how to reach Yara Island.”

“You planned this just now in your head, didn’t you?” Dante asked.

“Do you doubt me?”

“Not at all.” Dante pointed at the map. “But why can’t we take a ship to the Holy Land directly from Crestos Harbor?”

“Unfortunately, many years ago, the Supreme Virtue disallowed any passenger ships to reach the Holy Land. Tourists can visit only through an annual religious journey. The good news is, we might be just in time for it. We’ll get to travel through three continents. Are you up for it?”

“Sure I am! When else am I going to see the world?” Dante snuggled closer, wrapped his arms around Raphael’s waist, and rested his head on his shoulder. Raphael wrapped an arm around his lover’s shoulders and kissed the top of his head.

“What are we going to do with this artifact?” Dante asked.

“I don’t know. My mother was murdered because she wanted to reveal it to the public. We might—” The breath hitched in Raphael’s throat. “We might find out something awful.”

Dante looked up at him. “But it would be the truth?”

“Yes.” Raphael’s stare hardened, looking at the place on the map named Yara Island. “For the last thousand years, history has been hidden, or transformed to benefit the ones at the top. It’s time for the world to know the truth. This will make the world a better place.”

Dante cupped Raphael’s cheek. “I missed you saying that.”

Their lips collided in a heated kiss. The ambition to make the world a better place had brought Raphael and Dante together five years ago. Now, embarking on a new mission, reignited a familiar thrill their calm domestic life had buried.

* * * *

Raphael and Dante spent the next seven days on the train, sleeping in two seats next to each other. The trip was comfortable enough. They had a roof over their heads, which, in their experience, was a luxury. It was warm, and they had money to spend on food in the dining car.

The view out the window was spectacular. The Fertile Land was the largest continent in the world and, save from the one mountain range, it was mostly flat land, used for farming. Over two-thirds of the food production for the entire world came from these fields.

The farmers working the fields did not wear the gray honorary angel uniform anymore. Ever since Sienna became queen, she’d ordered the Temple of Virtue to disband the honorary angel program. This still caused lots of protests in Alirie, if the newspapers were to be believed. It was a drastic change, but such tension was to be expected with the throne of Heaven.

Raphael often wondered how Sienna fared in Alirie. She had always wanted governmental power, but she had never expected to be given the throne. And Raphael wasn’t there to support her. He’d had no connection with her since he’d become an enemy of Heaven, and it was better this way. Associating with him would only harm her image.

Still, he missed his best friend.

Late in the afternoon, the train stopped at a station where a group of guardian angels boarded. They walked from car to car, inspecting the passengers. The train took off again and started speeding up.

It was safe to assume the guardians were looking for Raphael and Dante. So Remiel’s squad had left their trap and sent word to the rest of the continent.

Raphael and Dante grabbed their backpack and casually left the car before the guardians got a glimpse at them. They passed the dining car, two more saloon cars, and in the last one, the options ran out. They had to leave the train, no other way around it.

Dante kneeled before the only other passenger in the car. “Excuse me?”

Before the man could say anything, Dante’s hand laid a chop at the side of his neck, instantly knocking him unconscious.

Meanwhile, Raphael pulled the metal lock off the back doors, and they suddenly shot open under the force of the wind and the high speed. The loud clickety-clack of the rails deafened their ears. Before them were the train tracks, the horizon with the blazing sun in his eyes, and the yellowish dirt of a desert, with no sign of human activity anywhere in sight.

The guardians would soon enter this last car. It was now or never.

Raphael and Dante stepped from the edge of the car onto the side of each metal door. Slowly, they let the doors support their entire weight. Raphael’s mind filled with all kinds of images of the door pulling out of the rusty hinges and him plummeting with it on the train tracks. He forced himself to move over its edge and find a stable spot to step on the outer side.

“Hold on!” Dante shouted.

Raphael took a deep breath and felt the door slowly move by itself to close. It was Dante’s doing. Both doors closed on their own. His lover glared at the rusty metal lock on the inside and it dropped on its own, securely locking the doors, leaving them both stranded on the outside.

At these high speeds, holding on to the doors was excruciatingly exhausting with each passing second. And Raphael made the mistake of looking down at the tracks. He stiffened. His hands instinctively tightened around the door handle, not letting go. Thank goodness Dante had taken the backpack out of his care since he couldn’t imagine holding onto that and the doors at the same time. 

“You can do it,” Dante shouted next to him.

Raphael looked at his lover and he could tell Dante noticed his hesitation and sudden fear. It was a ridiculous fear. There were so many worse things that could happen to them. Raphael took a deep breath and forced himself to let go.

He dropped to the side of the train tracks and rolled on the gravel. Dust and debris went into his eyes and mouth. As he stopped rolling, Raphael lifted his head, and the first thing he noticed was the immense lack of sound and the train disappearing behind the horizon. After seven days of listening to the wheels, he felt deaf now. 

Dante stood and dusted himself off before helping Raphael get up. “Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine,” Raphael said while shaking off the dust and debris from his hair.

This place was a wasteland. No farmlands, no villages or cities, just an endless desert with bad soil where even weeds couldn’t grow. This was the non-fertile part of the Fertile Land. Ironic.

“Unfortunately, this was the trans-continental fare. The next train won’t pass through here for another two weeks,” Raphael said. “We’ll have to continue to Crestos Harbor on foot.”

“How long would that take?” Dante asked, heading down the tracks a few yards to grab the backpack he had tossed before jumping.

Raphael opened his map and made a rough estimation of the time they’d spent on the train and the distance they must have covered since departing from the last station. He dropped his finger on the map, a little over half the journey to Crestos Harbour. This was where they were. He had hoped to reach the port by train, but he hadn’t anticipated the appearance of guardians. This was going to delay their plans.

But they were both in shape from traversing the mountains in the last five years, and this was flat land. It wasn’t unthinkable to take the distance on foot.

“Maybe a week,” Raphael said, a discouraging note bleeding in his tone of voice. A week of walking in a desert had not been a part of his plans.

Dante wrapped an arm around Raphael’s waist, an encouraging smile on his face. “So, the adventure begins now.”

Raphael chuckled and kissed his cheek. Sometimes he forgot who he was talking to. Few things in this world could scare his handsome lover.

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