PART III: The Ballad of Never After – Chapter no 41

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

As soon as the mirth stone was removed from the clock, its ticking ceased. The Hollow turned silent, and the air in the entry went cold as tombs at night.

Evangeline knew places weren’t truly alive, and yet she felt as if the Hollow were dying. Candles blew out. Cracks wounded the floors. Dust appeared on the stairs where before there had been gleam and shine.

The Hollow might have been enchanted to keep out curses, but it seemed the rest of its magic had come from the mirth stone.

Even the little dragon changed. He started pawing at the entry’s doorknob as if he couldn’t wait to leave.

Evangeline would have loved to have kept him, but she opened the door and let him fly out into the cold. On the other side of the entrance, the snow no longer sparkled. Instead, it was wet and icy, and it bit at her cheeks before she shut the door.

A pit formed in her stomach.

She didn’t even want to look at Jacks. If the Hollow was this cold, she feared what she’d see when she turned back to him. Although a tiny part of her hoped that nothing had changed, that although the Hollow had been altered, Jacks had stayed the same.

“You can turn around, Little Fox.” His tone was brisk, and at the sound of it, her spark of hope burned out. “You don’t have to worry about any more unwanted declarations from me.”

And he was right; when she turned, the red was gone from his eyes. His jaw was still tight, but it looked annoyed instead of pained.

“I told you that you’d feel differently,” she said. The words hurt, and she tried to push the ache aside. Chaos had told her that she’d feel the power of the stones stronger than anyone else. It seemed she hadn’t stopped feeling the mirth stone’s influence yet, but hopefully, the lingering feelings would be gone very soon. They’d clearly already departed from Jacks.

“You were right,” he answered. “I feel like leaving now. I’ll fetch the other two stones. You should find a cloak.”



Evangeline discovered a gold cloak lined with thick white fur in the same wardrobe where she’d come across Aurora Valor’s journal. She took the cloak and changed into a matching white dress with embroidered gold flowers and a bodice laced up in sunset-pink ribbons. She decided to pack up the diary as well. She wasn’t really sure why—after the last entry she’d read, almost all the pages were blank. And it wasn’t as if she needed the book to find any more stones. She and Jacks now had the mirth stone, the truth stone, and the youth stone, and Chaos already had the luck stone.

Evangeline felt a prickle of something like trepidation as she remembered what Petra had said before she’d died. It was only then that I learned what all four stones could do together. But I’m guessing they didn’t tell you that part.…

“Ready?” Jacks said.

She spun around to find him in the doorway, standing straight as a soldier, clad in a long dark travel coat that looked as forbidding as his expression. She knew the mirth stone had taken all the joy from this place, but she’d have thought he’d have been at least a little happier now that they’d located all four stones. Instead, Jacks looked almost angry as he watched her.

“Aside from opening the arch,” she asked, “what do all four stones do when they’re together?”

“It’s a little late to worry about that,” he said sharply. His tone was no colder than it had been a hundred times before, and yet she felt the sting of it as he turned from the door.

The sled was ready to go when Evangeline stepped outside. Cold winter air whipped her hair across her face as she looked around at the Hollow. The flowers lining the road, which had been so bright when she’d arrived, were now wilted and covered in frost. She thought she remembered cheery mushrooms and flowers on the rooftop as well, but now it was just a series of boards that looked as if one storm might tear them away.

“We should get going,” Jacks said.

Evangeline climbed onto the sled beside him. It was as white as snow, with a wide bench that would have allowed for another passenger. This was the amount of space between her and Jacks. And she was achingly aware of the distance.

She didn’t want to keep glancing at him and hoping that he would look back at her. She didn’t want to feel anything for him at all, especially not this callous version of him. But her heart would not stop hurting.

She kept thinking the pull she felt toward Jacks would vanish now that the mirth stone had been put into a box. But she could not let go of it.

The ride back to Valorfell was brutal—it was frigid and silent, save for the galloping of the horses drawing the sled.

She wondered if Jacks truly felt nothing or if he was just trying to hide what he felt. She was the one who’d insisted on taking the mirth stone from the clock so that they could leave and open the arch. And she would do it again.

She didn’t regret her choice.

She just hated that it hurt so much. She hated that all she wanted was to reach across the carriage and take Jacks’s hand.

But she didn’t dare move.

Even if Jacks did still feel a flicker of something for her, he was choosing not to show it.



They left the sled at the cemetery gates to travel the rest of the way to Chaos’s castle on foot. Jacks had two of the stones in his satchel, and she still had the mirth stone sealed inside the cast-iron jar.

She was surprised he let her hold on to it. Unless he really didn’t have any lingering feelings, and the very thought of them appalled him so much that he didn’t want to carry the stone, even sealed away.

Two sad marble angels guarded the entrance to Chaos’s underground castle—one of the angels mourned over a pair of broken wings while the other played a harp with broken strings. She’d seen them several times before, but usually, it was during the night. The sun was still out now, shedding grainy light on the statues, and for the first time, they’d reminded her of the angels guarding the Valory Arch. She wondered if there was some sort of connection she was missing.

“Now that we’re back, I’m sure you’re eager to see your husband,” Jacks said, “but don’t go looking for him. Until the

Archer’s curse is lifted, Apollo is a danger to you.” “I already know that.”

“Well, I know how much you like tempting death, so I thought I’d remind you,” he snapped.

Shaking her head, Evangeline used her blood to open the door.

This earned her another glare from Jacks as they stepped through.

“What’s wrong now?” she asked.

“You have no sense of self-preservation. Did you not listen when Chaos told you that you shouldn’t shed blood when you’re in a vampire castle?”

“It’s still daylight. The vampires are asleep.”

“Which gives you several hours to die before you can open the arch.”

She lifted her chin defiantly. She almost added that she’d lived here for nearly two weeks on her own—she didn’t need his caution. But there was still a part of her that couldn’t help but wonder if his worry wasn’t just about the arch. “I thought you didn’t care about opening the arch. I thought you only wanted the stones.”

“I do,” Jacks said without hesitation. “But I gave Chaos my word that I wouldn’t use them until after he opened the arch and removed his helm, and he can’t do that until it’s dark. So why don’t you go be a good little key and lock yourself safely inside of your suite.”

Evangeline seethed. She still suspected maybe Jacks was trying to annoy her to hide any feelings he still had, and if that was the case, then he was succeeding.

“Don’t worry, Jacks, I would never inconvenience you by dying.” She stalked off toward her room. It was tempting to look for Apollo just to make Jacks mad. She also imagined that once she saw the prince again, it would be easier to stop thinking of Jacks. Because right now, it felt impossible.

Evangeline passed the courtyard where she’d found him playing checkers, and it made her think of the conversation she’d overheard him have with LaLa, the one that made it sound as if he’d spent his time away from her searching for a cure to the Archer’s curse. Hearing that conversation had made her dare to think he cared, but now she wished that he’d just been playing games. It was so much easier not to like him when he was being selfish.

Tears prickled at the corners of her eyes.

She swiped at them, refusing to cry for him. But it was so hard. All of it hurt. It hurt to want him. It hurt to be rejected by him. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to cry. It hurt even more when she tried not to cry.

Her head was throbbing and heart was heavy by the time she reached her room. It was cold and dark, but she only lit a few of the candles before collapsing into bed.

She was still clutching the iron jar with the mirth stone. It would have been so easy to take the lid off. And really, what harm could it do? The stone took away pain, and she was in so much pain.

Evangeline’s fingers hovered over the lid. Then she gently knocked it off.

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