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Chapter no 11

The Ballad of Never After (Once Upon a Broken Heart, 2)

Evangeline felt the instant dawn arrived. All her limbs, which had been too strong before, were suddenly too weak to move. She’d become a girl again, with ordinary senses and normal incisors, and a deep sense of discomfort as she lay there under Chaos, excruciatingly aware that her slip had ridden up past her thighs, all the way to her hips.

A wave of mortification washed over her at the thought she had been like this all night—and that Jacks had seen her like this as well.

She’d been so hot before that she hadn’t noticed how exposed she was, but now she could feel the cool air sliding over her skin as Chaos finally released her wrists and pushed up from the bed.

Evangeline kept her eyes tightly closed and tried to slow her breathing. It was childish to pretend she was sleeping, but she didn’t want to face him—or anyone, really. Last night she had not been herself.

She sensed Chaos standing over her, watching her for a reason she wasn’t sure she wanted to know. Then she felt his hand smoothing down her slip until it fell back to her knees.

Gooseflesh covered her skin. She remained very still until finally she sensed that Chaos had left. She tried to open her

eyes, but she couldn’t find the strength to do more than flutter her lashes. With the venom gone, she wasn’t just human, she was entirely drained.

She recalled that Jacks had been the same way after he’d been infected with vampire venom. She’d thought he was being dramatic as he’d curled up against tombstones and collapsed in various doorways. But now she was impressed that he’d possessed the resolve to move at all.

Evangeline did not know how long she’d slept. But as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes and dared to climb out of bed on her shaking legs, she imagined it could have been an entire day.

Her stomach rumbled, and her throat felt dry. She was grateful to find someone had left a few things for her: a tray piled with food, a dress, and a copper tub for washing. The water was cool, but she was glad for the chance to scrub the blood and grime from her body and her hair.

Once she was clean, she ate as much as she could manage. There was hearty bread, rich cheese, cold slices of meat, and her favorite fig jam. But with so many thoughts swirling through her head, the meal was difficult to enjoy.

As soon as she’d been infected with the venom, all thoughts of Apollo had fled. But now she wondered if he had been healed from his injuries when she had or if he was still wounded. She hoped he was healed and somewhere safe. She still didn’t think this was truly his fault. Someone had to have been coercing him.

She needed to figure out who and why. She would start by returning to Wolf Hall and questioning Havelock. The last time she’d seen him, he’d had news. She imagined it was that Apollo was awake, but Havelock had seemed alarmed instead of relieved. Perhaps it was because he knew something.

Evangeline felt a little nervous to return to Wolf Hall on her own. But there was no way she’d willingly stay here with Jacks and Chaos.

She wondered again if it was Jacks who’d somehow forced Apollo to shoot her. But Jacks needed her alive. He wouldn’t have done this … at least she didn’t think so. It was difficult to be entirely certain of anything with Jacks. Except for the fact that he was untrustworthy, which was another reason why she needed to get out of here as soon as possible.

Evangeline picked up the dress that had been set out for her. The frothy flowered confection was as pretty as a sunrise, but it was more akin to a dressing gown than a proper garment, slender and light with billowing off-the-shoulder sleeves and a neckline so low it felt as if she’d be practically begging any nearby vampires to bite her.

She was unsurprised to find a vampire standing guard on the other side of her chamber door—the red-lipped vampire who’d bitten her last night.

“Could you tell me where the exit is?” she asked politely.

The female regarded Evangeline as if she were a child and she wasn’t particularly fond of such creatures. “You’re not allowed—”

“Don’t say it,” Evangeline cut in. She knew this vampire could probably break her neck with merely her fingers, but she also knew that Chaos didn’t just need her alive, he needed her willing blood to open the Valory Arch, so she doubted any guard would be allowed to break any part of her. “If you tell me I can’t leave, I’m going to be very cross with Chaos, and then he’ll be very cross with you. So, let’s avoid all the crossness. Just let me go, and please tell me where the exit is.”

The female stepped aside with a smirk, making it clear she’d let Evangeline go, but she wouldn’t tell her how to get

out.

Which was fine. Evangeline had been here before. She was sure she could find the exit on her own. The last time she had visited with Jacks, they’d escaped by following steps that led up toward the graveyard above.

Gamely, Evangeline took every upward staircase she found. There were lots of empty cages and shackles, and more than once, she had to quicken her pace when she caught the sound of footsteps. She was breathless and a little jumpy by the time she reached what she hoped was the topmost hall.

There were no shackles or cages here, just deceptively fancy decorations—gold candelabras, velvet settees, wispy drapes. Then, finally, there was a door—heavy and metal and locked.

She reached for her dagger, but of course it wasn’t there. It hadn’t been with the dress. She must have lost it that night in the garden, which was a good thing. She would have hated if Jacks had found it on her and realized that she’d been carrying around his old knife.

Thankfully, Chaos believed in decorating with weapons, so it was easy enough to find another knife to prick her finger with.

Quickly, before any vampires could catch the scent of her blood, she offered the door a few drops. She still didn’t want to be a key or part of a prophecy, but she couldn’t deny she was enjoying the one perk that came with the position. She felt powerful as she said, “Please open,” and the door immediately complied.

Freedom tasted cold.

The world was as dark as kept secrets, and she wished she’d tried to pilfer a cloak before leaving. Upon waking up in her windowless room, she’d assumed it was day, but it was actually night. And it was not the sort of evening meant

for whisper-soft dresses and delicate silk slippers. The snow must have melted during the time she’d been underground, for there were only sticks and dirt beneath her feet as she ventured out into the cemetery that rested above Chaos’s underground kingdom.

The graveyard had more trees than she’d remembered, their barren canopies stifling the moonlight and making everything murkier as she tried to remember which way led out toward Valorfell.

For a second, she hesitated. Now that she was out and feeling a little lost in the night, it was easier to fear that perhaps this was a mistake. Maybe it wasn’t the wisest thing to return to Wolf Hall. But her other option was returning to Jacks and Chaos.

With a breath so cold it burned her lungs, Evangeline continued forward. She thought she saw the mausoleum where she’d spent the night with Jacks. For a second, she felt a fresh shiver roll across her shoulders at the memory. When the prickling sensation continued all the way down to her wrist and her broken heart scar, she feared perhaps it meant that Jacks was there. But when she darted a look around, the forest was empty save for the trees. So many trees.

Evangeline didn’t remember the forest being this dense. The trees were as close as matchsticks in a box. She turned around, but she must have gone in the wrong direction again, for she found herself at a cliff’s edge, overlooking the foaming ocean.

Hugging her arms to her chest, she turned back the way she’d come. The air was growing chillier, and she tried to warm herself by quickening her steps. They were louder than she liked. So noisy that it took her a minute to notice there was another sound in the forest.

Clomp. Clomp. Clomp.

The plodding noise was more animal than human. It sounded like a horse lost among the graves.

Evangeline froze, remembering the last time she’d heard hoofbeats.

Carefully, she took a step back into the shadow of the trees.

Then she took another step. She swore she didn’t make a sound, but just a second later, the horse came into view, along with its rider. His shoulders were broad, his back was straight, and although she couldn’t clearly see his face, she knew this was Apollo.

He appeared to be completely healed, too. He looked strong and healthy, and she felt a strange and impossible pull toward him, one she had to fight, as she watched him from the shadows.

The way his horse was moving, slowly plodding, made it clear he wasn’t passing through. He was searching for something.

For her.

She knew it in her soul. But how had he known she was there?

“Evangeline.” He called her name like a plea, one that tempted her to answer, but she forced herself to stay in place. “If you’re out there, you need to run,” he said, more ragged than before. “If you go this minute, I won’t chase you—I have control of myself right now. But I don’t know how long it will last.” Apollo took a shuddering breath. “I don’t want to injure you, but something has come over me. Finding you—” he choked out. “Hunting you is all I can think about.”

Clouds parted from the moon, and Evangeline caught another glimpse of Apollo’s face through the trees. His entire expression was etched with something like heartache, something so raw she felt it like an actual wound. She

wanted to be optimistic and tell herself it would all be fine— if he’d woken from Jacks’s spell, then Apollo could fight whatever was overtaking him now, but she didn’t know what was happening. And the two of them were starting to feel doomed.

She tried to hold her breath, but she could see it sneaking out in thin puffs of white that she hoped didn’t give her away.

“I don’t know for certain if you’re out there. If that’s the pull I’m feeling right now. But if you’re listening, help me, Evangeline.” His voice softened at her name, before it sounded torn again. “Find a way to break this spell that compels me to hunt you, and I promise, I’ll do nothing but protect you.”

He reached toward the quiver at his back and pulled out a golden arrow. It glowed under the moonlight, flickering as the prince’s hand shook. Evangeline tried to hold very still. Apollo was clearly fighting whatever was trying to control him.

Or whoever it was.

Earlier, she’d been quick to shove aside the idea that Jacks had done this. But Evangeline hadn’t completely dismissed it, and now, as she shuddered in the darkened forest, she wondered again if Jacks orchestrated this to make sure she had no one to depend on but—

A hand clamped over her mouth, and a powerful arm wrapped around her arms and chest.

Don’t make a sound, Little Fox.

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