It wasn’t much. A little white farmhouse on a few acres. A barn that was made up more of rot than it was actual solid wood. The garage was the nicest structure on the property, really. And that was where Jaina had the Uhaul backed up to.
But one could not live in a garage, no matter how nice it was. So her real estate agent had reminded her. So did the lawyer she’d hired to close the sale for her. So did the county official that had reluctantly handed her a certificate of occupancy that morning.
Even now, as two figures waved at her from the bottom of the driveway, and Jaina beckoned them up to meet her--neighbors probably, a man and his young son--the father looked at her questioningly.
“So you’re the new neighbor?” the man asked as he got nearer. He was tall and broad, his hair a deep dark brown contrast to his son’s blonde.
“That’s me,” Jaina answered, turning away from the particularly heavy box she was moving toward the ramp that led off the truck. It settled onto the floor with a resounding thud as she let it go, then jumped down onto the gravel driveway, offering her hand out to be shaken. “Jaina Proudmoore.”
The man took it and offered a professional, hearty shake. His hands were calloused and rough. Likely a farmer, as most of her neighbors would be. This was out in the middle of nowhere, after all.
“Varian Wrynn. My son, Anduin. We own the property across the street.”
Jaina had seen it. A castle compared to her more than humble abode. To anyone else, it might have been bothersome, living within sight of a beautiful sprawling modern farm, with a huge house and what looked like a pool out back.
But not to Jaina.
“Nice to meet you both,” Jaina offered with a smile.
“Say hi, Anduin,” Varian commanded his boy.
Said boy was of the age that he had to be reminded of those things, but should have known better on his own. Maybe eight or nine. He gaped up at Jaina curiously with bright blue eyes.
“Good afternoon, Miss Jaina,” the boy replied diligently after one last moment of staring.
“So polite. Thank you, Mister Anduin. It’s a lovely afternoon, isn’t it?” Jaina noted.
The boy grinned, instantly enchanted with someone who would speak to him like an equal. Children were so easy to impress, so easy to win over. Adults, on the other hand, were not as much. Varian’s deepening frown served as a reminder of that.
“What brings you to our part of the world?” Varian asked.
Because it was clear that Jaina wasn’t from their part of the world. It was clear in the contrast of their clothes--the man and boy in their dull flannels and dirty jeans against the crisp black and white of Jaina’s outfit, somehow unmarred with the sweat and dust that one might usually associate with moving.
“A change of scenery,” Jaina told him.
Adults, she found, needed to be lied to. They needed to feel that things were normal. They would be so eager and willing to believe it all too. Varian Wrynn clearly felt uncomfortable about his new neighbor. A woman, by herself, buying an abandoned hobby farm. Wearing a flared black skirt with suspenders and dark eyeliner. A wide-brimmed black hat on her head, regrettably flat on top. Her braided, silver-streaked hair smelling of cinnamon and hensbane.
“Ah,” he replied, still wearing that deep frown. “Must have bought the place cheap, huh? It’s gonna take quite a bit of work to fix up.”
“Nothing I can’t handle,” Jaina assured him.
“Your house is haunted,” Anduin stated, clear and plain and loud enough for all of them to hear.
And that was just the thing about kids. Kids were deadly honest. And they appreciated honesty.
Jaina smiled at him.
“Anduin, please. You don’t need to scare Miss Jaina. That’s just nonsense the old ladies chatter about in town,” Varian quickly snapped back.
“Sorry,” the boy said, rocking back on his heels. “Everyone at school says it is.”
“Well, since when did you care about what everyone at school had to say? Ghosts aren’t real. Isn’t that right, Miss Proudmoore?” Varian turned back to her to ask.
“Ghost or not, you’re correct on what you said before, I did get a great deal on this place. So a little haunting doesn’t scare me. And just Jaina is fine. We’re neighbors now, after all,” Jaina answered.
Just because adults liked to be lied to didn’t mean that she liked to lie. There were consequences for such things, after all. Consequences that Jaina was deeply familiar with. A balance in all things was necessary, after all. Mix some truth with the lie, always.
“Right, Jaina,” Varian said with a nod.
Jaina looked at the box sitting on the edge of the truck. It was awfully heavy. She could hardly remember what she packed into it, even. Books? Probably. Very likely, actually. It was always the books. She sighed deeply at the box, and rubbed a few fingers together before hiding the gesture in her fist.
“Would you like some help?” Varian offered.
Jaina returned the smile that was suddenly crossing the beefy farmer’s face. Only his son didn’t. The boy looked curiously up at his father.
“I think I have it under control, but it would be lovely if you could get that big box over there into the house for me,” Jaina told him.
Varian nodded and made no further comment as he picked it up off the back of the truck and turned to bring it into the open door to the house, just around the other side of the truck.
Once he was out of sight, Jaina turned to his son, beckoning the boy closer as she bent down to his level.
“Would you like to know a secret, Anduin?” she asked him.
The boy seemed to struggle to find his words again, but nodded as he stared at her.
“I know the place is haunted. Everyone knows that, right? I’m moving in so I can find the ghost,” she told him.
Anduin’s little blue eyes got bigger.
“And when I find her, I’m going to eat her,” Jaina confessed with a grin. And despite herself, a little laugh. Such was her joy, unabashed and overflowing and deadly. Well, was it really deadly to the already dead?
A philosophical question for another day, certainly.
“I, uh, set it down on the kitchen counter,” Varian announced as he rounded the truck again, looking a bit bewildered as to why he’d offered to carry the box in the first place. “I’d love to help out more, but we’d better get going. Anduin’s got, um...he’s got homework to do.”
Jaina was still grinning as she watched them kick up dust at the edge of her driveway, walking too fast to be polite about it anymore.
Jaina took stock of her new living room later on that evening. There was no furniture to speak of. She was having that delivered tomorrow. There were just errant boxes that had overflowed from the kitchen and dining room. She’d had the place cleaned and repaired, such as was required to legally inhabit it, but not enough to purge the stink of it. The age. The mold and mildew. The wear and tear.
The ghosts, if you will.
Even now, the pale green paint of its walls was still peeling. It was lit only by a stray lightbulb hanging from the ceiling with no shade or fixture to speak of containing it. The wooden floor, newly sanded and stripped, was still creaking beneath her feet. The boards that comprised it were narrow and plain. Maple. Good, honest hard wood.
As Jaina sat on it, she could feel the age of it. Feel the age even of the trees that had given their lives for those planks. Feel the weight they carried. The hidden burden of this place.
But she needn’t delve that far yet. No, not yet. Not without at least a little precaution.
She stood again, wandering off to the kitchen to dig through the boxes there. Only returning when she had what she needed. First, a container of salt, purchased at the grocery store in town, where the townsfolk had given her just as much of a wary eye as her new neighbor had, and the children had been just as curious. The clerk, however, had been so bold as to ask her why she was buying enough salt to turn “the old mill pond as salty as the ocean”, as he’d so delightfully put it.
Jaina had told him it was to help with a pest problem. Again, mixing truth with lies. It was necessary, after all. Besides, wasn’t salt supposed to kill slugs?
But in reality, the salt wasn’t being used for harm. No, it was for protection. Jaina walked in a circle, opening the spout of her container to draw a thin line on the ground. A circle in which she sat back down with her second item. A boombox. Silver and shining--chrome plated plastic and circuitry. Powered by a fortune’s worth of D batteries, which was her other purchase in town.
Salt and D batteries. Very normal groceries. Not strange at all. She should have at least gotten a frozen pizza or something. Both for sustenance and to blend in. Oh well, too late for that now.
Jaina checked to make sure she hadn’t disturbed her circle before she flipped the power switch on the boombox. It was already tuned to static. A bare hint of country music on one end. Maybe a sermon on the other. Jaina spun the dials until there was nothing but fuzz. No music. No preaching. None of that would do here.
“I wonder if you’ve realized I’m back yet,” she whispered as she set the stereo down.
There was no answer. Of course. Not yet.
“How upset will you be, when you realize I’m not leaving this time?”
No answer again. Very upset, Jaina surmised.
“Let’s see if we can catch you wailing again, banshee,” she said as she relaxed, feeling the wood again. Feeling the grime and the gore. Smelling the earth and the rot.
Letting her magic unfurl into the house. Into its darkness. Into its decay. Into the things that would scare anyone in their right mind. Things that turned normal people away for good reasons. But not Jaina.
Not a witch. And certainly not one as hungry as she.
As she stretched herself beyond her body, she knew the dial on the stereo would spin next to her. Cycling through the stations rapidly. Static. Music. Speech. Advertisements. Then static again.
Jaina spread herself all over. Eyes closed, becoming one with the shadows that twisted through the corners, along baseboards, over doorways, between window panes. She was in the bedrooms, then the bathroom. The kitchen. Watching herself in the living room. In the attic. She was everywhere, listening, watching.
Her quarry was so faint, so fleeting. Nearly faded away, but so powerful. So very powerful. And it was that power that Jaina sought.
Suddenly the dial stopped spinning. The stereo fixated on a station of just pure static, and Jaina in turn found her prey in a back bedroom.
Wailing, as she was prone to do. As all banshees were.
The stereo gave life to her voice. Dual-toned and mournful. Singing a song in a language that Jaina didn’t know, and likely the spirit didn’t either. Something ancient and mighty. Something that could convey a sorrow that was lost to the modern world.
“Well isn’t that pretty?” Jaina said as she listened on.
She could feel the moment the ghost sensed her. Before it even cut the song short. It kept singing, but one note came out even more discordant than the rest. Jaina could not see her. No, this spirit wasn’t ready to manifest yet. And even then, Jaina’s extended sight was more of a sense, more like touch than anything else.
So she could feel when the ghost shoved back at her, pushing her back into herself with surprising force.
And she could hear when it finally stopped singing, and let out a blood-curdling scream over the speakers of her boombox instead. Jaina drew her legs up to herself, but only to avoid the sparks from the crackling electronics as the boombox shattered and sputtered, spilling into pieces of its plastic and circuitry.
One of those pieces--the knob Jaina had just been tuning moments ago--threatened to roll into the circle of salt, disrupting it, but Jaina reached out and stopped it with her magic. The knob stopped just short of the salt, halted as if by some tiny invisible wall.
And she had good reason to be so careful. As if to serve as a reminder, a smaller box hurled itself across the room at great speed. It would have hit Jaina in the head, if it weren’t for the salt, which formed a barrier around her, blocking the spirit’s actions with its own invisible wall. The box stopped just short of the circle, clattering the ground. Its lid popped open, and a few forks dared to escape. Silverware. That would have hurt.
“You don’t want to try to fight me,” Jaina declared.
The ghost, it seemed, didn’t get the message. It hurled another box at her, which met the same fate as the one before it, falling to the floor with the dull thud of cardboard against wood.
“It won’t end well for you,” Jaina warned again.
Boxes and their contents began to fly through the air one after the other. Another scream manifested from the ruins of the boombox as they all clattered uselessly against the barrier, crackling with static and the hiss and sputter of the sparking wires and cogs.
Oh, so powerful this one was. So angry. Jaina could feel the greed boiling in her veins. But not now. Not yet. It was too soon. There was still so much work to be done.
“I’m not afraid of you,” Jaina told the spirit.
This time, the scream didn’t come from the dying electronics at her feet. It was right in the room, with her. Jaina stood, facing the source of the sound directly. She still couldn’t see the ghost, but this was the most it had manifested for her yet. Even during her clandestine trips here before she owned the place. When she’d driven up the backroads in the middle of the night, evading the nosy townsfolk and farmers, and sought to capture the banshee her fellow witches had considered far too dangerous to take on their own.
Such was Jaina’s nature. If she was ever told that something was too perilous or out of her reach otherwise, then you could bet that was the very next thing she would seek to do, or find, or get. And that she wouldn’t stop until she had conquered it.
It was surprising that she hadn’t made a ghost out of herself yet, for all her reckless wanting.
Jaina grinned again to herself as she watched her own breath forming clouds in front of her. It had been a lovely summer day, and this night was proving pleasantly warm as well, but in the living room, at that moment, the air was freezing.
Jaina’s skin only reacted to the temperature as it pebbled into goosebumps. She held her arms wide, stretching her fingertips to the very edge of the circle. The barrier crackled with her power, raw and shining arcane. Hard fought and hard won. The energy of a witch who had consumed many spirits. But never a banshee. So many wraiths and revenants. Never a banshee.
Jaina couldn’t wait to get a taste.
“You don’t scare me,” she said.
The banshee let loose one more scream, echoing high and sharp into the night, and just like that, Jaina knew she was gone. The cold left with her. The tension. The excitement. The danger. The power.
It left Jaina reeling. And it was such a wonderful feeling. She should be dead. She should be afraid. She should be a lot of things. But instead, she was left panting, in a state of ecstasy even better than sex. So alive. So energized.
Because Jaina Proudmoore was a witch. A very powerful witch. And more than that, she was fearless.
Jaina woke late the next morning, having slept very soundly for someone who was well aware they were sleeping in a haunted house. She would have slept in more, if it weren’t for the fact that she still had no bed, and was making due with a sleeping bag on the floor.
She’d had the sense to set up in the living room, within the confines of her salt circle. The back bedroom, she knew, was too dangerous now even for her tastes. She was fearless, but not stupid.
But still, she rose easily, humming and carefree as she brushed her teeth in front of the old brass mirror. Smiling to herself as she hunted around for the box of her kitchen things, and found a box of cereal stashed conveniently with the bowls. The milk she conjured for herself with a mere gesture. Her breakfast was that of Cheerios floating in a simple display of power. Jaina couldn’t help herself. She didn’t want to. Her magic, and the easy of which it flowed freely from her, was her greatest guilty pleasure.
She found a phone in another box, halfway through her bowl of cereal, and plugged it into the line in the kitchen. It returned a solid, low dial tone. Good, they’d hooked up her service already.
Jaina was already dialing a number on the metal keys. She supposed she should probably look for an old rotary phone. You know, for aesthetic. She was a sucker for looking the part, after all.
A click on the other end of the line came after the number tones, followed by a confused, “Hello?”
“Guess who,” Jaina laughed into the receiver.
“Jaina? What the hell area code is this?” the woman on the other end asked.
Modera had been her mentor in years past. Now she was one of Jaina’s few remaining friends. One that had grown tired of asking her to stop her reckless behavior to the point where she would eventually give up and stop asking. Jaina liked those friends.
“Middle of bumblefuck nowhere. I honestly don’t even know the name of the town. Probably a dead president. Jefferson. Washington. Lincoln. All these places are the same, you know?”
A groan rang through the plastic of the receiver in Jaina’s hand as she twisted the cord that hooked it into the body of the phone. “Don’t tell me you’re out hunting that banshee again?” Modera asked.
“Worse, I’m afraid. I bought her house,” Jaina informed her.
“You’re suicidal,” Modera spat with a huff of a laugh. “That’s the only explanation I can think of. Didn’t you get told off by the local coven for hunting her?”
“Just because those hags are scared of her doesn’t mean she’s off limits,” Jaina noted. “Besides, I’m a thousand times better than those country witches. And now they can’t do shit. I own the place fair and square.”
“I’m sure your mother is thrilled you’re spending your inheritance from your father on haunted farms,” Modera replied. Jaina could almost hear her eyes rolling.
“My mother can hang,” Jaina snapped back. “Besides, I bought the place for what I’d pay in rent in the city in six months. I had to pay more to repair it than I did for the property itself. Think about it as an investment.”
“People who invest in things value the future, Jaina. You are not one of those people,” Modera pointed out.
“But I do value the future,” Jaina argued. “My future. My future at being the witch that eats an unconquerable banshee. My future at showing everyone exactly what I’m capable of.”
“I don’t know why you feel the need to keep proving yourself. It’s not going to change Dalaran’s mind about you.”
“You think I want back into Dalaran? Pfft. No. I’d sooner stay here, give up magic, and settle down with some nice corn fed farmer. Hell no, Modera. I’m doing this to show everyone I don’t need Dalaran. I don’t need a coven. I don’t need their approval. I don’t need anyone but me, myself, and I,” Jaina said.
She certainly didn’t need anyone telling her what to do. How to do it. When to do it. Why to do it. She didn’t need to be governed and managed. No, life in the fabled city of magic wasn’t going to ever work for her. Jaina was too young, too vibrant, and too independent for that. A real modern witch.
“One day, maybe, you will realize that it’s not proving anything other than that the Archmages were right about you,” Modera replied.
“We’re supposed to be friends,” Jaina told her over the clatter of her spoon in her now empty bowl.
“I’m telling you that as a friend, Jaina,” Modera reminded her. As relaxed as she usually was, the old teacher voice was coming out now. Time to end the call.
“Well, you have my new number on your caller ID now. Call me sometime when you’re feeling less lecture-y,” Jaina offered.
“Have you even done your research? Do you know her name?” Modera asked.
“You know me, Modera. I don’t like to know the names. Do you think my farmer neighbors here name the cows and chickens they eat? No. They name the ones that stick around to give them milk or eggs. I’m not here for dairy products. I’m hungry for meat,” Jaina told her.
“You’ll need her to fully manifest in order to trap her. You’re going to have a hell of a time doing that without a name,” Modera noted. “This is by the old Menethil place, right? They say he murdered the banshee before he died. It took the whole coven there to trap him, you know. It made the papers in Dalaran, even. It wasn’t so long ago. I could probably find the girl’s name for you.”
“This is already too much. No, Modera. I don’t want it, but you’re sweet. Thanks for thinking of me,” Jaina said, trying not to sound sickeningly sweet as she muttered the words.
It didn’t work. “Mean it next time,” Modera offered sternly. “Goodbye, Jaina. Send me a letter from your new address so I know where to look for your body.”
“I will send you one with my report on a successful banshee capture,” Jaina countered. “I’ll even go get a nice commemorative stamp for you. I hear old people love those.”
“Okay, fuck you very much. Goodbye, Jaina,” Modera repeated, then hung up the phone.
Jaina sighed as she hung up her end as well, placing the phone on the edge of the kitchen counter. It was an ugly, yellowish plastic. It looked out of place on the honest butcher block and peeling white paint of the kitchen cabinets. Country was very in, after all. This look was to die for. When the boxes were unpacked, Jaina could have this place looking ready for a magazine cover. But that phone would have to go.
Just as she looked away from it, it rang again. Maybe Modera had changed her mind? Or had she found the name already, the meddler…
Jaina picked up the receiver, but was greeted with nothing but a dial tone, then a slight hiss of static.
“Oh, so you think you’re funny?” she asked of the air.
The ghost didn’t have a reply.
“Good try. I told you. You don’t scare me,” Jaina told it again.
Well, not it. Her. Banshees were only ever women in life. Women who died unjustly, and whose spirits were trapped in the mortal realm as they sought to right the wrongs that were committed against them, and mourned for themselves. The most violent and destructive of all ghosts, but they rarely understood their own power.
The trick, really, was to do the deed before the ghost could know what it was capable of. That was how Jaina knew her target was a good one. This banshee couldn’t even manifest fully yet. It didn’t know how to seek its vengeance. It just wailed. And wailed. And wailed.
But now, it was already throwing things and ringing her phone. She was going to have to work quickly.
But Jaina loved a challenge. She relished it. Lived for it.
“We’re going to have fun, you and I,” she said to the banshee.
The afternoon found her at the hardware store. More of a farm and feed type place, but it would suffice. It only meant that Jaina had to fight the urge to impulse buy a handful of black chicks that were peeping away in a tub near the register. She had no place to house them, and was already delving too deep into farm life too soon.
Instead, she looked away from the little creatures, dark and lovely though they were, and set her purchases on the counter.
The clerk looked at them dubiously, then up at Jaina. Jaina with her black hat and black sunglasses. The silver that speckled her hair. Reeking of magic, but to him, it probably smelled like home cooking and beer. Such as it was to those who didn’t understand. Jaina had been told she smelled like everything from roses to lunch meat. People sure had an odd sense of comfort.
“You gonna ring me up, champ?” she asked.
“No offense, ma’am, but do you even know what half of this stuff is?” the young man asked.
Jaina sighed and pointed across her stack of goods. “Multimeter, alligator clips, painter’s light, rope, copper wire, electrical tape, a portable FM radio, and a hunting knife. It’s pretty obvious stuff.”
“Not the first thing,” the boy pointed out as he started scanning everything but the multimeter.
“I bought an old house with faulty wiring. You think a city girl like me is above fixing it herself?” Jaina challenged as she pulled her sunglasses down.
The boy wouldn’t see the glow in her blue eyes. He wouldn’t know the danger that swirled within her. How easily she could crush him. Obliterate him.
No, he just saw a lady that didn’t belong.
“Meant no offense, miss,” he relented as he finally scanned the multimeter. “I’m sure you’ll do a fine job.”
“Thanks, Harlan,” Jaina said as she read off his name tag. “I will.”
“What’s the knife for, miss?” he asked as he scanned it last.
“Can’t be too careful around here, can’t I?” Jaina questioned. “There’s just as many woods as there are corn fields. Who knows what’s out there?”
“I suppose you’re right, miss.”
“I am, Harlan. I am.”
The wiring in the house had been faulty, at one time. More lies with truths, though poor Harlan was barely old enough for that. She’d had it fixed before moving in. All part of the requirements to occupy, of course. The first handyman she’d tried to hire had refused when she gave him the address. The second had only spent one day on the job before telling her she had to find someone else. The third was from out of town, and still quoted her double what it was worth. At least he had finished the work without a fuss.
And if he’d pissed himself all over her new floors, he’d cleaned up after himself.
Jaina unspooled the copper wire along the walls of the back bedroom. She started at noon exactly, when the world was brightest and the ghosts that stalked it were at their weakest. She was reckless, not suicidal, as Modera had accused. Jaina was always careful. That was why she was so good at what she did.
And she didn’t shun the advent of modern technology either. It was 1998, for heaven’s sake. She wasn’t going to rely on candles and animal skulls when electricity was a far more effective way of detecting the paranormal.
She followed her wire with the roll of electrical tape, plastering it to the wall every few feet or so with another small strip of the stick black tape, until she had looped it all the way around and made a crude circuit that ended with her new multimeter connected to it, just next to the door.
“Let’s see if you make sparks,” Jaina said as she turned on the device and set it to measure the current.
Nothing. Just background electricity that flickered the numbers on the low side. She’d expected as much. It was still too early.
“I suppose that’ll change when you start your wailing tonight. Maybe I’ll get lucky and get you to sing me to sleep, hmm?” Jaina asked.
Her quarry had no response. No, not in the light of day. After all, Jaina’s contractors had only complained when they were stupid enough to work here at night.
She flipped the switch on the meter off, smiling at her handiwork as she went to fix some lunch.
It seemed her ghost had a better understanding of its ability to interact with electricity than even Jaina did. That night, it learned how to flicker the lights. Either that, or Jaina needed to find that contractor’s number again.
“You’re a cheeky one, you know that?” Jaina noted, looking up from the book she was enjoying on her new sofa. Her new sofa, encircled with a ring of salt.
Still, she didn’t get up. She didn’t even look up from her page. She kept reading.
And then the lights flickered again.
“So scary,” Jaina responded, rolling her eyes. “Watch me run. Do you see me running away because of how scary you are?”
The lights cut out all together.
“Now that was just rude,” Jaina said, looking up finally into the velvety darkness. “I was reading.”
The lights didn’t come back on.
“Is this because you’re upset about your room? Listen, you had to realize that I’d start re-decorating eventually,” Jaina informed the ghost.
She could feel the energy of the scream crackle through the air, but could not hear it. Jaina cursed herself for not bringing out the new radio she’d bought earlier. She didn’t think the ghost was capable of having so much of a reaction yet.
“Tantrum about it all you want. You can’t even scream right,” Jaina taunted.
The lights flickered back on. Once, then turned off again. Twice. Three times. And on the fourth, they got brighter and hotter. On the fifth, Jaina could hear the scream that charged them. It was ear-piercing. Loud and high-pitched and full of rage. Powerful and tantalizing as it was painful.
Even so, she didn’t move to cover her ears.
The blub in the ceiling, which was just outside of the salt ring, shook on its wire until it burst, shattering all over the floor, steeping the room in darkness once more.
Jaina sighed, setting her book in her lap, and conjuring a globe of pale blue magelight for herself in one hand as she gestured with her other hand. The pieces of glass swept themselves up from the floor, forming an illuminated trail of shards, glowing in the cool light of Jaina’s magic.
“You didn’t have to go and make a mess, but I can respect your commitment,” Jaina said in answer to that.
“You look surprised to see me again, Harlan,” Jaina noted as she came up to the counter of the hardware store the next morning.
“Should I be?” Harlan asked back.
“You’re too smart for this town,” she told him plainly. “But I didn’t come here for conversation. I came here for lightbulbs.”
“I see that, miss.” Harlan said as the register beeped. “That’ll be four ninety seven.”
“Highway robbery, Harlan,” Jaina told him as she handed him a five. “Keep your three pennies.”
Jaina checked the multimeter just after sunset. The current was still barely registering, but higher than before.
When she turned on the radio, that time on the end table next to the safety of a salt circle around her new brass bed in the adjoining room, she kept it on the static between 98.7 and 98.9. Just where she’d heard the banshee’s song before.
And she got back to her book, reading by her bedside lamp. Patient, but impatient. Waiting. Any great hunter knew that their job was mostly comprised of waiting. Even Jaina was capable of waiting. Well, if the prize was worth it, that is.
She’d left the multimeter on tonight. And she heard it beep with a high current warning before she heard the song.
Soft and low and mournful. So sad. So tragic. So dramatic.
But it was pretty, wasn’t it?
Or it was until Jaina found herself humming along to it. That, apparently, the banshee could not abide.
Her radio, and her bedside lamp with its pretty little flower motif shade, didn’t make it through the night.
“I know what this looks like, Harlan.”
“I swear I’m not in love with you,” Jaina declared.
“You’re not my type, miss,” Harlan informed her as he rang up the new portable radio, then a much less attractive lamp, and then another box of lightbulbs.
“How assured of you. Well, I hope the right one comes along for you eventually, even if she’s not me,” Jaina told him.
“Do you have a coop at your place?” Harlan asked as he gently passed the cardboard box containing the last four little all black chicks to the other side of the register.
“I will now,” Jaina told him as she handed the slip for the one she’d picked out in the yard and garden section.
Now with Harlan’s recommended additions of a bag of chick feed and a little plastic and wire mesh brooder, Jaina decided to spend the night on the couch with her new charges. The little chickens were piled together, black beaks tucked into their downy black feathers as they slept. Jaina had never thought herself capable of motherly instincts until that moment, but she would die if anything happened to them. To little Hades, Persephone, Chiron, or Cerberus.
“You hear that, banshee? You can’t get smart on me now. I’m a single mother,” Jaina informed her.
No lightbulbs were sacrificed that night. No little black chicks either. The banshee didn’t even bother to sing them to sleep, or spark up her room that night.
All together, a disappointing evening, if it weren’t for the chickens.
And what would Harlan think, when he didn’t see Jaina again the next morning?
“You know, you really need one of those cell phones if you keep wandering around the world so much,” Modera declared.
“They’re still so expensive. Not to mention ugly. Plus there’s no way I’d get signal on one all the way out here,” Jaina told her.
“And here I thought you were ‘fully embracing the modern age’. Well whatever. Your ghost, they call her the Dark Lady,” Modera said. Jaina could hear the papers shuffling in her friend’s hands on the other end of the line.
“I told you. No names,” Jaina doubled down.
“That’s obviously not her name,” Modera scoffed. “That’s just what the local coven refers to her as. They scoped the place when she was first sighted. Supposedly it was a clear murder case, but mishandled by the local police. Typical banshee stuff, you get the idea.”
“Lalala, I’m not listening,” Jaina answered, making a show of noisily storing books onto a shelf that was just barely within reach of the phone’s cord.
“If you didn’t want to listen, you’d just hang up on me, you brat. Anyway, they classified her as a nine. A nine, Jaina. You’re taking on a nine by yourself,” Modera told her.
“They’re out of their minds,” Jaina informed her. “A nine? Are you kidding me? All she does is wail. She can barely manipulate.”
“Wait, she’s manipulating?”
“Just throwing shit and making me buy far too many lightbulbs,” Jaina reported.
“Jaina...for a banshee to do that--”
“I know how it works, Modera. I could write a book on it. Several books, actually,” Jaina cut her off. “Every ghost is different. You can’t measure apples to oranges. Who cares if she’s manipulating already?”
“You should,” Modera stated bluntly. “Fuck. She’s powerful and she’s pissed, Jaina. She’s going to kill you.”
“I’m careful. I’m always careful. She hasn’t laid a finger on me yet. Pretty sure she doesn’t know how and won’t for some time. Relax, Modera. Let’s talk about fun things for once. I got bit by Cerberus today. That was fun.”
“Don’t tell me you adopted a dog,” Modera sighed.
“Worse, chickens,” Jaina informed her. “I am quickly converting to farm life.”
Modera groaned so loudly into the phone that Jaina almost thought the ghost might be interfering for a moment. “Fuck your chickens, Jaina. You crazy bitch. I called you to tell you something I just found out from another report. Something I think you’ll love. Maybe something that might help you get this banshee before it kills you, or at least give you something to be afraid of.”
“Get to it already,” Jaina replied as she shelved yet another book. “The suspense is killing me.”
“One of our teams captured a banshee on photograph using just a conventional camera with 400 ISO film. She was only partially manifested too. Apparently, they’re slow enough for that,” Modera reported.
“Oh really now? Do go on, please. Include all the gory technical details,” Jaina pleaded.
Modera sighed yet again. “You’re so predictable.”
“No, Modera. I’m having fun. This is fun.”
“Harlan, we meet again,” Jaina noted as she walked up to the counter of an entirely different store, only to find the same young man clad in that company’s polo shirt, instead of the hardware store’s. “Unless my favorite register boy has an identical twin?”
“I’m afraid not, miss. I just work at the Photo Stop on Saturdays,” Harlan informed her.
“I shall make a point of visiting this establishment on different days then,” Jaina told him, but still handed over her rolls of 400 ISO film. Thankfully she already had a camera it would work in. “I wouldn’t want to make this even more awkward.”
“It’s no trouble, miss,” Harlan said as he scanned the film.
“That’s kind of you.”
“That’ll be fifty-five thirty-three, miss.”
“You always know what to say, Harlan.”
The chicks were growing fast. Jaina had settled them in their coop that night, freshly constructed with only a little bit of magical help when the directions just didn’t make sense anymore after step fourteen. Their fluffy down was starting to make way for sleek black pin feathers.
That was all well and good for Jaina. She decided that motherhood was a burden too vast for her to bear. And she needed them out of the house that night. For her conscience, more than anything else.
And yes, she did have one. Not quite what it used to be, but it was still there.
“Let’s see if you deserve to be classified so high, Dark Lady,” Jaina said as she re-entered the house from the back door.
The kitchen didn’t respond to her. Plates and glasses remained stored in their cupboards, on shelves now newly lined with contact paper, printed with simple drawings of herbs and flowers. The spice rack didn’t rattle. The earthenware canisters she’d found at a roadside antique shop didn’t burst. The pots hanging on their rack above the stove didn’t even clang together menacingly.
Jaina should be exhausted from her efforts to make the kitchen look so homey, but she wasn’t. The energy that coursed through her made it hard even to sleep when real fatigue did come calling, but she wouldn’t trade it for anything. That energy, that power. It was hers. Stolen, yes, but stolen through her own will and cleverness. On her own. With no one’s help. No one holding her back.
Armed with her camera and a fresh roll of that high quality film, Jaina made her way up the stairs, unflinching as they creaked loudly beneath her weight.
No salt circles today. No caution. It was time to start taking some risks. And the very thought of that made her very blood sing. Yes. This was how it should be. A hunt. Life and death. Life versus death, even.
“You should see how the place is coming along,” Jaina began to taunt as she made her way to the back bedroom. “I think tomorrow, I’ll clear out your weeds and start a garden. It’s a little late in the year for it, but I bet I could get some nice herbs still. I’m thinking lots of sage.”
The hall light flickered.
And Jaina smiled.
“You’d hate that, wouldn’t you? You want this place to rot away like you did. Like you are. You’re fading. I can sense it,” Jaina told the banshee.
That was completely true. No lie at all. No exaggeration. This kind of spirit was like a star, it would burst into being, terrifying and loud, and fade little by little as time went on. Eroding. Dimming. Unfulfilled and wailing. Such was the life of a banshee.
“You never figured out how to get your vengeance. Probably too late for it now, you know,” Jaina went on. “So you’re going to pout about me renovating. It’s all you can do.”
Jaina knelt by the door to the back bedroom. She switched the multimeter on with her free hand, and felt her heart jump as the numbers raced across the little digital screen. Up and down. To impossible peaks and valleys.
Yet the lights remained steady. And it wasn’t fear that made Jaina’s heart pump faster. It was excitement.
“Sing for me, banshee,” Jaina commanded.
She was greeted only with a scream. Visceral and blaring. As if it was in her very ears, ringing between them within her skull.
Even Jaina had to wince at that.
The sound wasn’t aided by any stereo speakers or amplifiers. It was real. Very real. And very close.
It was real enough to crack a piece of plaster off from the ceiling of the back bedroom, sending it smashing into the floorboards and scattering dust to the corners of the room.
The lights began to flicker in earnest.
“You can’t hurt me,” Jaina taunted on, scrolling the wheel to ready her camera with one thumb as she stood up straight in the doorway. “You can’t do anything but scream.”
And scream she did again. Just as loud and just as fierce. This time, Jaina could taste the frustration. The magic of her. It was like salt sweat and blood iron. Death and hatred. Rage and blind fear.
It was delicious. She wanted more.
“See? I’m still here, banshee. I told you. I’m not afraid,” Jaina said.
She took a picture of the room in its flickering light. Then another, with the flash this time. Jaina was quite certain that the only thing she captured was the dust settling.
“You’re nothing to be afraid of,” Jaina told her. “Sputtering out like a candle running out of wick. Better that I eat you before you just fade into nothing. Wouldn’t want to be wasteful, now would we?”
Jaina could feel the energy in the room building up for another scream. The multimeter beeped another high current warning, then one after the other. The lights flickered until they dimmed, then stopped, leaving Jaina in darkness.
And the cold came after, as if winter itself had descended upon her. Well, her and a three foot radius around her.
As Jaina blew out a trail of fogged breath, she snapped a picture. The light of the flash lit up the room for not even half a second. It was so brief, so sudden, but Jaina thought she might have seen a dark shape by the window.
She snapped another picture, and this time, the shape was approaching the door.
But the scream never came. The air stayed cold. The tension was thick enough to cut with a knife. The multimeter beeped frantically until even it was rendered useless by the building energy, and let out a final warning before it died in a low, electronic wail.
Jaina took another picture. This time, she was certain, as the shape was right in front of her.
A dual-toned voice whispered, as if leaning right into her ear, “Get out.”
“No,” Jaina answered.
Only then did the banshee scream. More plaster tore itself from the ceiling, and Jaina could feel the cold start to wrap around her chest. It felt like fingers of frost were seeking out her heart. Too much.
This was too much even for her. She wasn’t afraid. She was never afraid. But, she didn’t want to die. Not yet. Not tonight.
Jaina considered it a win, still, when she made it back to the safety of her bed, leaping into the salt circle. She didn’t sleep that night, but it was fine. She didn’t need to. She wouldn’t need to for days now. Not with that kind of energy surrounding her.
In fact, it was all she could do to stay still. She wanted to run. She wanted to dance. She wanted to sing.
But mostly, she wanted more.
“You’re no Harlan,” Jaina said.
The clerk at the Photo Stop looked at her curiously. She was, indeed, no Harlan. A middle-aged woman with no name tag to speak of. A pity. Jaina always liked to know the names of the living. It made them easier to control, easier to master.
Perhaps they were not so different to ghosts after all.
“Sorry,” she apologized, not meaning it, of course. “I’m here to pick up photos. Should be under Proudmoore?”
“Weren’t you just here an hour ago?” the woman questioned.
“You’re a one hour photo counter. You tell me, ma’am,” Jaina challenged.
With a barely hidden roll of her eyes, the woman turned and went to the filing box where the packages of developed photos were. Sure enough, Jaina’s were there, ready and waiting.
“My savior,” Jaina commented as the woman handled the fat envelope over.
“Uh huh. Have a nice day, miss.”
“Modera,” was all Jaina offered in greeting.
“Hello to you too, Jaina,” Modera snapped back. “How’s life at the farm this morning. Are we planting wheat today? Buying a tractor?”
No, none of that. Jaina was too busy staring at a photograph. “What’s her name, Modera?”
“My banshee. What’s her name?”
“I thought you didn’t want the name. Isn’t that one of your ridiculous self-imposed rules. Not to name what you eat? You went on a whole thing about cows and chickens before, or did you forget already?” Modera accused.
“I changed my mind,” Jaina said simply. “What’s her name?”
“Who are you and what have you done with Jaina Proudmoore, the bitch witch of the east? The one who’s too good for a coven and too good to bend to the rules of Dalaran?” Modera wondered.
“Modera, please. I know you know it. I know you looked up everything that you could the second that we hung up the first time. Just tell me,” Jaina pleaded.
Jaina wasn’t usually one to plead. Or ask for anything. She usually just took what she needed.
But desperate times called for desperate measures.
There was a long pause on the line before Modera answered, “If you just plan to use it to anger her and get her to manifest for you, then I don’t think I should give it to you. You’re a pain in the ass, Jaina, but you’re my pain in the ass. I don’t want you to kill yourself over this.”
“Modera, please. Just tell me.”
Jaina thumbed the corner of the picture in her hand, then immediately cursed herself for smudging it with her fingerprints. “Modera, I don’t think I want to eat her.”
“Can you please just tell me the name?”
Another pause. And then, a sigh. “Sylvanas. Sylvanas Windrunner.”
“So she is an elf,” Jaina said with a sigh of her own. A breath she hadn’t realized she was holding in.
“Did you see her?”
“Even better, I got a picture of her,” Jaina told her.
“She’s beautiful, Modera. Absolutely beautiful,” Jaina reported.
The picture she was holding was the final one she had taken. Ghastly, still as it might be to some, Jaina meant what she’d said. The ghost was beautiful. Pale and gaunt though she was. Her eyes stained with trails of black tears beneath them. Her long hair floating in some ethereal breeze, along with the rags that made her banshee’s dress, which ended in a fading mist. Her elven brows fixed in an expression of deep anger, furrowing down. Her ears pinned back into the darkness in a way that made Jaina unsure if they were what she thought, or just a trick of the fuzzy image of the spirit she had managed to capture.
She was definitely dead. Definitely something to be feared. But still stunning. Especially to someone who understood exactly what she was. Especially to someone who was not afraid.
“And you’re not going to eat your ghost now, because she’s hot?” Modera questioned.
“You make me sound so shallow,” Jaina groaned.
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing right now,” Modera groaned along with her.
“I just think that maybe this warrants some more investigation. Maybe you’re right, Modera. I should know what’s on the menu before I pick my main course,” Jaina tried to defend herself.
“I can’t fucking believe you,” Modera repeated.
“I’m hanging up. My address is 240 County Road F. I know you know the town and state already. Feel free to mail me what you have on her, or better yet, drop by for tea with me and Ms. Windrunner here,” Jaina offered.
“This is so fucking stupid, Jaina,” Modera continued.
“Bye bye now,” Jaina said as she made good on her promise and hung up the phone.