Chapter no 45

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

The room was just as Evangeline remembered: crumbling floors, gray walls, fossilized air that scratched at her throat, and a giant arch guarded by a pair of warrior angels, one sad and one angry. Both had their stone swords drawn over the center.

The last time Evangeline had been here, the angels had not moved, but this time, she swore they flinched when Chaos stepped into the room.

With a click, he unlocked the small iron trunk holding the first three stones.

The air immediately changed, glitter swirling through the room like dust.

The stones in the box were glowing, gleaming, shining, practically singing in their splendor. So was the mirth stone in her hand. Evangeline hadn’t even realized she’d lifted the lid on her jar, but now the stone was in her palm.

For a second, time seemed to pause, and she wondered what would happen if instead of placing the rock in the arch, she placed it in the box with the other stones and used them to go back in time.

Jacks had said the stones could only be used once for that purpose. If she did it first, he would never have the chance.

She knew that Chaos had warned that Time was vindictive and didn’t like to be changed, but with the mirth stone in her hand, it was hard to feel truly afraid. Her skin prickled with magic as she pictured going back in time and meeting Jacks before he found Princess Donatella. Then she saw her parents. She imagined going back and saving both their lives. If her mother had lived, Evangeline’s father might not have died of a broken heart. Her family would be whole again.

For a dazzling minute, she saw images of her parents alive again and smiling. She saw the curiosity shop open and Jacks holding her. She pictured a happier life where she never had a stepmother or a stepsister. A life where she never had to go North to look for love. Where Apollo was never cursed and she was never hunted. Where Luc never turned into a vampire. She could change her life and find one of the many infinite endings she’d always believed in.

“Don’t forget what we’ve come here for,” said Chaos. “Don’t worry.” Evangeline closed her palm over the mirth

stone. She was still tempted, but as much as she hated the choice that Jacks was making, she didn’t want to take it away. Instead, she hoped, one final time, that he would make a better one.

With a deep breath, she put the mirth stone in the arch. For a second, she waited for something magical to happen, for the stones to glow brighter or the angels to attack, but everything stayed just as it was before.

She put the luck stone in next. Again, nothing changed.

Her palm started to sweat when she placed the youth stone in the arch and the only thing that moved was a swirl of glitter-dust.

“I don’t know if it’s working,” Evangeline said.

“It will work.” Chaos’s voice was tight, and his fingers were tense as he handed her the final stone.

Evangeline felt like a bundle of nerves as she held the final stone in her hand. Everything that she’d done and experienced since coming North had led to this moment. If she believed in fate, she might have thought her entire life had led her here. She didn’t like that idea at all, and yet she couldn’t deny the sense of inevitability that seemed to fill the ancient room, as if Destiny were somehow standing silently behind her, holding its breath as it waited for the end of a story that it had set in motion centuries ago.

She put the last stone in.


The word was whispered in her thoughts from the arch. She could feel it breathing, brushing wind against her skin. It was waking up. It was working.

Chaos held out a small gold dagger, and Evangeline carefully pricked her finger.

As soon as she touched her blood to the stones, the room exploded in light, brighter than the first time she’d touched the arch. The angels glowed like a slice of sun. Evangeline had to shield her eyes until the angels dimmed.

When she could see again, the warrior angels had lowered their swords, and behind them waited a thick wooden door with an iron knocker shaped like a wolf’s head. Chaos pressed one gloved hand against the door, as if to test that it was real. Then he turned his head back to her.

“Thank you, Evangeline.”

He took his dagger and sliced off a lock of her pink hair. She jolted back. “Why did you do that?”

“Don’t worry, you’re the last person I wish to hurt right now.” He quickly returned the dagger to his belt. “The hair is to break the curses on you and Apollo—just wait out here while I go inside.”

“What’s inside?” Evangeline asked.

But Chaos had already opened the door and slipped through to the Valory.

The stone angels on either side of the arch shuddered as he entered. She remembered once more that he was the abomination many believed to be locked away behind the arch.

If that was the case, she wondered what was actually inside. The heavy door was still cracked. Chaos hadn’t properly shut it behind him. Clearly, he wasn’t afraid of something sneaking out to get her.

Evangeline stepped closer just to peek. With the arch still glowing as bright as daylight, the other side appeared dim at first, a world of sepia shadows.

It took her eyes a moment to adjust. She half expected cages and prisoners, but there was only a domed vestibule of sandstone walls with flickering orange and red torches that lit a series of halls. It looked like the entry to an ancient temple, but it could have been a vault. The story about the Valors locking away their greatest magical treasure could have been true after all.

She knew Jacks didn’t believe that there was anything in the Valory that could allow him to have another chance at love. But what if he was wrong?

Evangeline took a step inside.

She understood why Chaos had warned her away from Jacks earlier—she’d seen a glimpse of Jacks’s heartache when he’d talked about his dead friends and killing the Fox. Evangeline didn’t want to be another heartbreak, and she didn’t want to die. But she refused to believe that meant she had to let Jacks go. There had to be another way.

She felt a rush of anticipation as she stood inside the Valory’s entry. At a glance, the halls snaking out from the vestibule all looked the same—arched doorways made of

ancient redstone brick, and floors covered in surprisingly thick stretches of gold-threaded carpet.

This was definitely not a prison. Evangeline listened to each hall. Two were quiet, but she thought she heard footsteps echoing down the third. That must have been the one Chaos had gone down.

Quietly, she crept forward, following the sound. Halfway down the hall, sconces turned from iron to gold, art appeared on the walls, and then she saw a door.

The door was tall and wide, and fairytale-bright light spilled through, allowing her to spy through the crack and see the other side with ease.

Evangeline inched forward, about to open the door all the way, when she caught sight of Chaos on the other side. He was peering down at a row of people lying on the floor holding hands. Their clothes looked ancient, like something out of storybooks—lots of deep-dyed wool gowns and braided gold rope, pewter breastplates and spiky pauldrons.

Evangeline didn’t know what to make of it all until she glimpsed a face among the group, one that she’d seen once in a painting. The girl was even prettier than she’d looked in the portrait, and Evangeline instantly recognized her as Aurora Valor.

It was then she noticed the gold circlet crowning the head of the petite woman beside Aurora. The woman’s skin was a darker shade of olive, her hair was gleaming silver, and her face was serene. She must have been Aurora’s mother, Honora Valor.

The man lying beside Honora looked more battle-worn than handsome. He also had a crown on his head, and Evangeline imagined he must have been Wolfric Valor.

The family on the floor was the Valors.

They were what had been locked away in the Valory, not their treasure or their prisoners. Evangeline nearly

staggered back at the realization. This was not what she had thought she’d find. But it made perfect sense—and it actually fit both of the stories she’d been told about the Valory. If the Valors had been trapped here, then the Valory was a sort of prison, one that locked away the Valors’ greatest magical treasure—because it contained them.

No wonder Chaos wanted it open. If the Valors had cursed him to wear the helm, then it stood to reason that they could take it off. Evangeline wondered then if Honora was one who could break the curse that was placed on Apollo. Jacks had said she was the world’s greatest healer.

It all made perfect sense—except Jacks’s belief that the Valory did not contain a loophole for him. If Honora could cure Apollo of the Archer’s curse, then maybe she could help Jacks, too.

Just then, the queen began to stir from her place on the floor. She was graceful, even as she stood on unsteady legs. Chaos seemed to watch her with bated breath, as if she might disappear. And Evangeline found herself doing the same.

“Is that really you?” Honora had a slight accent that spoke of times before and a voice just as delicate as her appearance. “Castor?”

Evangeline leaned closer, unsure she’d heard the name right. Castor was dead. Jacks had told her how he’d died. Except now that she thought back, Jacks hadn’t finished the story. He’d just ended by saying he wasn’t meant to be a savior.

Evangeline watched as Honora embraced Chaos. “How long has it been?” she asked.

Chaos said something too low for Evangeline to hear. But she thought she caught the words “I’ve missed you, Mother.”

Honora started sobbing.

Evangeline felt like a terrible intruder, yet she couldn’t look away. If she was putting this together correctly, the Valors hadn’t created a monster to avenge Castor’s death— he’d become the monster. Chaos was Castor Valor. This was why he really wanted to open the arch. Not just to take his helm off. He wanted to save his family. He missed them. He loved them.

It hit Evangeline then, how she could save Jacks. It was so simple, she cursed herself for not considering it before. Love was how she could save him. She didn’t just care about him or want him. She loved him. She just needed to tell him that.

The thought terrified her a little. He’d already rejected her; it was tempting to fear he would do it again. But that was the whole problem: fear. Jacks was only rejecting her because he was afraid that he would kill her. But if she told him that she loved him, hopefully it would be enough to make him want to stay and try for more than what he was settling for.

Some of her ideas about love might have changed since coming North, but she still believed it was the most powerful force in the world. If two people really loved each other and they were willing to fight for that love, if they were willing to go to war for each other, day after day, then it didn’t matter what they were up against. Love would always win as long as they never stopped fighting for it.

If Jacks loved her the way she loved him, they could find a way to make it work.

It didn’t matter if he stayed forever cursed. Although a part of her couldn’t help but believe that maybe her love would be enough to break his curse. She knew the stories said that Jacks only had one true love—and he’d already found that girl—but the stories also twisted the truth. The Valory proved that.

With a surge of hope that felt like wings powerful enough to soar to the moon and stars and beyond, Evangeline started to turn around. She needed to find him, she needed to tell him how she felt. She—

—startled to a halt as a flash of blinding light came from the room with the Valors.

Chaos made a sound that might have been a sob, pained and deep.

Evangeline turned back to the cracked door, just in time to see the cursed helm on Chaos’s head was now broken.

He wrenched it off with a roar and threw it across the room. The helm crashed so hard against the wall that it shattered as it fell to the ground.

“Finally,” he said, his voice somewhere between a cry and a roar. And for the first time, Evangeline saw what he looked like. He had a face that made her breath catch in her chest. Glittering eyes, clean-cut jaw, smooth olive skin, and a smile that made her heart flip.

“The Handsome Stranger,” she gasped. Honora and Chaos both turned her way. Evangeline froze in the doorway.

“Looks as if we have a visitor,” Honora said, angling her head in a way that could have been either curious or wary.

“Mother, this is Evangeline,” said Chaos. His voice was different without the helm, all velvet without the smoke, more similar to the voice he’d used in her dreams. “She’s the one who unlocked the arch.”

Suddenly, Chaos was at the door, opening it wider and giving her a smile that rivaled any immortal’s she’d ever met. “I truly can’t thank you enough.” He took her hand and gently kissed it.

Without his helm, Chaos was a different kind of monster, possessing all the charm of a prince and the power of a vampire. It made Evangeline a little breathless as he smiled

down on her. His eyes were the most arresting shade of green, a thousand different facets, all shimmering with magic until they flared with heat.

Evangeline caught her mistake too late—she shouldn’t have looked into his eyes. Before she could scream, Chaos’s smile turned to fangs, and then those fangs were on her neck, tearing into her throat.

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