Chapter no 16

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

Evangeline should have been paying attention to the secret passage.

Chaos was guiding her and Jacks to a place where the vampire said that she’d be able to start her search for the missing stones. But instead of watching her steps or reading the words marked on the shadowy walls, all she could do was replay Jacks’s taunt: The truth is never what you want it to be.

He’d said it like a warning, as if his truth were as destructive as his kisses. Yet his words only made her wonder: What was Jacks’s truth? What did he want from the Valory, and why didn’t he want her to know?

Of course, Jacks seemed to enjoy tormenting her, so perhaps that was why he kept it a secret. Evangeline wasn’t sure she was convinced by this explanation, but at least she had the new hope that she could find out everything from Jacks once she collected the truth stone.

“Here we are.” Chaos halted at a door with an emblazoned image of a wolf’s head that had been slashed across the center by either a beast or a hand with a great set of claws. Then he handed her an iron key attached to a velvet ribbon. “I know you can unlock any door, Evangeline,

but you should probably avoid spilling blood while you’re here.”

Evangeline knew she should have felt some sort of fear. But either the story curse’s effect on vampire tales was impeding it, or she was just feeling stubborn. In a world of immortals, she had one power, and she didn’t want to be told not to use it.

Of course, she didn’t say that as she turned the key Chaos had given her.

On the other side of the door, bookshelves, thick and sturdy and packed with ancient tomes, lined the rounded walls, all the way up to a ceiling so high one would need several ladders to reach it. Thankfully, there were indeed multiple ladders of aged rosewood, as well as a number of small balconies that dotted the upper shelves like iron stars.

The air shifted as Evangeline entered, redolent of old paper pages that called to her like a siren’s song. Like all admirers of fairytales, she’d always loved the scent of books. She loved the paper dust in the air, the way it swirled in the light like little sprinkles of magic. And most of all, she loved the way that fairytales always made her think of her mother and endless possibilities.

The floor underneath her slippers was covered in a tapestry carpet embroidered with the image of an arch flanked by two knights in armor, one of whom had no head. Atop the rug sat a rounded table with a lamp and some journals, all courted by two dusky velvet chairs that, thankfully, did not have any shackles attached.

“As lovely as all of this is, how is this supposed to help me find the remaining stones?” she asked. “I thought all books were unreliable because of the story curse?”

Of course, this hadn’t stopped her from looking in libraries for answers before, though they had never led her anywhere useful. When she’d searched the royal library,

she’d been hunting for information on the Valors, but there had been no books on the Valors. She had supposed it was because of the story curse. But it seemed the curse hadn’t done away with the books—it was Chaos. He appeared to have every book on the Valors hidden away in this library.

The spines said things like:

How the North Became Magnificent: A Glorious History The Wolf King

The Valors’ Court of Wonder

Wolfric and Honora: The First Epic Love Story of the North

There were also titles pertaining to the Great Houses, but the majority of books were related to the mysterious Valors. “Have you collected all these, just to find the stones for the arch?”

“I thought placing them in my library would be the best way to keep them safe. Because of the story curse, the words in most of these volumes change a little every time they are read.” Chaos’s gloved fingers traced an old leather spine, and Evangeline watched as the title shifted from Castor Valor: A Prince Among Princes to Castor Valor: A Plague Among Princes. “However, since I rarely allow them to be read, most of the stories inside have been preserved.”

Evangeline shook her head as she stared up at all the countless leather spines, some of the words flickering before her eyes just for daring to glance at them.

She didn’t even know where to begin. “Perhaps we could pull the luck stone back out just—”

“No,” Chaos and Jacks both replied at once.

“What if we just use it to find the right book?”

Jacks seemed to consider it, but Chaos shook his head. “The last key wore the luck stone after she found it. She

believed it would give her good fortune, and it did. But it also made her far too reckless and ultimately led to her death.”

“What if Jacks were to use the stone?” She turned to him. “You said it didn’t affect you.”

“It didn’t. But it’s also not going to help me. Only the prophesied key can find and reunite all four missing stones.” Evangeline wanted to think Jacks was exaggerating—or that perhaps he just wanted to get out of spending time in a library. But then she remembered their trip to the Fortuna Vault, how he’d watched her as they’d walked through all that treasure, observing her reactions. She also supposed, given Chaos’s rather compelling reason for wanting to open the arch, he must have spent time searching for the missing stones—and given how long he’d been alive, he had a lot of time. Yet he only possessed one, which had been found by

the previous key.

Now, Evangeline needed to locate the other three. She wondered if they really thought she could do it … or if they were just willing to see how many she could collect before she died as well.



The following day, when Evangeline woke up inside her borrowed room, she half expected to find Jacks at the edge of her bed, ready to toss a gown at her face as he told her it was time to get to work and find the stones.

Instead, there was just a note tucked next to the teapot on her breakfast tray.



“Try not to die,” she muttered. She didn’t know why she was surprised, either by Jacks’s callous words or the fact that he’d disappeared almost as soon as she’d agreed to do the one thing he wanted. But she was surprised—and maybe just a little hurt.

What could he have to do that was so important? She knew he couldn’t help her find the missing stones, but she also knew how desperately he wanted them. And how badly he’d wanted her alive, yet he’d just left her, alone, in a castle of vampires.

Maybe she’d been right yesterday: Jacks and Chaos just wanted her to get as many of the stones as she could before the quest took her life.

After dressing in one of the many gowns that had been delivered to her room from Wolf Hall, Evangeline made her way through the hidden tunnels back to Chaos’s secret library. Despite Jacks’s note, she kept expecting him to softly walk up beside her or to saunter through a secret door in the wall. But Jacks did not appear.

The library was quiet without his teasing, or his laughter, or his tossing of apples. The only sounds were the

occasional flickers of the glowing lanterns that filled the hidden library with warm, syrupy light.

She tried to take comfort in the books. Stories had always felt as if they were her friends. But all these stories felt like distant relations to the tales that she knew.

Chaos had been right about the way the stories inside the books would change. In almost every book she read, words shifted before her eyes. Usually, they were minor things. She saw accounts of Honora Valor alter the color of her eyes from hazel to brown. Stories of Wolfric shifted his hair from golden to red.

But a few things never seemed to change, such as the names of the Valor children and a few of their defining characteristics. Aurora was sweet and was always described as the most beautiful girl who’d ever lived, followed by her twin, Castor, who was said to be quite noble. Vesper could see the future. Tempest and Romulus—another set of twins

—were great inventors, responsible for the magical arches. Dane was some sort of shifter, and Lysander had a gift that involved memories. Every story said they were handsome and kind and generous. The family was close, protective of one another, and beloved until …

Something horrible happened.

But Evangeline couldn’t seem to uncover what this tragic event was. She knew the outcome—the Valors built the Valory, sealed something inside of it, and then their heads were all chopped off, ending the Age of the Valors and ushering in the Age of Great Houses.

It was in between these ages that the stones had been created and hidden away. Unfortunately, Evangeline could find little about that mysterious time in between.

All she could find were tales that skirted the edge of what happened.

She found stories of before—of the Age of the Valors, when knights always won, good always beat out evil, honor was always rewarded, and fairytales always ended happily.

Then there were the tales of after—the Age of Great Houses, which often flickered and changed to the Age of Great Curses as she read.

One volume, A History of Famous Beheadings, had an entire chapter on the Valors’ deaths, but it made no mention of the Valory Arch.

An excerpt read:



The author went on to curse the names of all the original Great Houses: Fortuna, Slaughterwood, Merrywood, Redthorne, Hawkleaf, Casstel, Bloodgrave, Verita, Ravencross, Darling, Havok, Bellflower, and Acadian.

Acadian was Apollo’s surname, and reading it made her

picture him, sitting atop his hunting horse, battling against the curse, and she wondered where he was at this moment. She was uninjured; therefore, she could assume he was unharmed, at least physically. Emotionally, what was this all doing to him? The first night he’d been awake, when she’d seen him in the garden, he’d already seemed like a different

prince from the one she’d married. He’d been wounded and haunted. A little of that wouldn’t destroy him. But what if this curse went on too long? Who would Apollo be then?



The following day, Evangeline decided to read more about the Great Houses. There were thirteen original Great Houses, and they had gained the most after the fall of the Valors, which made her wonder if they had been involved in sealing the arch and hiding the stones. Especially as the stones were magic and possibly provided some measure of fortune to whoever possessed them.

She decided to look into House Slaughterwood first, since LaLa was marrying Lord Robin Slaughterwood. Unfortunately, it seemed there were no book spines mentioning House Slaughterwood, or if there were, the story curse had altered them. It did that a lot.

The next House she researched—House Merrywood— turned into Bitterwood as she read. Although nothing about this Great House or its namesake village seemed bitter.

Merrywood the village was said to be a charming township built in a forest, home to enchanted square fairs, magical foxes, and a trio of semi-infamous scoundrels who were all said to be charming and handsome and nothing but trouble. The trio was composed of Prince Castor Valor, Lyric Merrywood—son to Lord Merrywood—and a cocky archer.

The archer was given no name, but Evangeline immediately wondered if this was the Archer from The Ballad of the Archer and the Fox.

“Find anything interesting?”

She startled at the velvet voice and dropped the volume in her hand. It fell to the floor with a heavy thud.

“Sorry I frightened you.” Chaos leaned easily against the opposite chair, clad in leather armor that perfectly outlined

all his sculpted vampire perfection, and she knew he wasn’t sorry at all. He was entertained that she had jumped. There was a soft, unexpected crinkle around his eyes, giving just a hint of something human.

But Evangeline still remembered when his eyes had not appeared human at all, when she’d looked in them and seen death.

The vampire angled his head, his gaze leaving her to study the pile of books on her table. “You’re reading about the Great Houses?”

“Yes, but there’s one House I haven’t been able to find any books on. Do you have any volumes on House Slaughterwood?”

“There’s nothing worth reading about House Slaughterwood. They’re just a bunch of spineless brutes.” Chaos strode to the shelf and retrieved a book with a dusky lavender cover.

“Perhaps try this one.” He handed her the volume he’d just taken from the shelf.

It was a slender thing, wrapped in a thick black ribbon and embossed with gold foil.

The Rise and Fall of the Valors: Beloved First Royal Family of the Magnificent North

The title twisted as she read it, some of the letters turning into branches, others transforming into weapons and making Evangeline a little dizzy.

The first page of the book did the same. The letters and words kept flickering into other things, as if the tome were so excited someone had finally picked it up that it didn’t know what to say.

“This one seems a touch overeager—” Evangeline broke off as she looked up to find Chaos had already left. And it seemed he wasn’t the only thing that had disappeared from the library. After setting the book he’d handed her aside—

because the words simply refused to settle—she reached down to find the volume she’d dropped when Chaos had first entered.

Only, like the vampire, the book was gone.

All that remained was a fluttering piece of paper.

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