Love, love is a verb
Love is a doing word
Fearless on my breath
Older than Jaina herself, no doubt.
Yet she traced the flaking gilt of the letters on the cover as she picked up the phone and immediately called Modera, reading out the words before the woman on the other end of the line could even so much as greet her. “Studies on the Nature of Familiars?” Jaina asked, making sure to indicate the utter confusion the words brought her.
Familiars, as many things were, had been something of a myth. Something that she was, up until that moment, quite certain that mortals had invented in their stories about witches. Definitely not a real thing. Definitely of the same vein as the notion that they ate children and cursed crops and tempted virgins to dance in the woods and worship the devil.
Jaina had little time for such notions, and wondered why her friend--no, her contact, her informant, that was easier--had deemed today of all days the time to distract her with talk of black cats running evil errands.
To this, Modera only offered a deep sigh and her own question, “Did you even bother reading it yet?”
“Why would I?” Jaina wondered, flipping past the cover and some embellished title and dedication pages all the same, rolling her eyes as if Modera could see them.
“I figured you would want to know what you’re so intent in making out of your pretty ghost,” Modera told her.
No. Familiars weren’t real. She would have heard. She would have known. And to be made out of ghosts? No, this couldn’t be right.
Jaina started to flip frantically through the pages, looking for something concrete, something less ridiculous.
But her life these past few months had been nothing short of that.
“The practice has been banned,” Modera went on, softly, slowly, as if she knew the words would take a while to sink in. “Though that’s hardly ever stopped you. Something about the archmages declaring there were too many ethical issues. Something also about this being a ritual that usually only lone witches undertook, but you know we’re also not supposed to have any of those anymore either.”
Jaina was silent as she found a chapter heading: “The Binding Ritual”. A table of suitable ghost types. A bold-type warning, then another, and another.
“Lucky me,” Modera continued, “that I was able to find a home for this little evil book with the only lone witch I know, who could generally give a rat’s ass about ethics. So, you two did talk, right?”
Jaina stopped on a page with a diagram--a cold and clinical drawing of a ritual space and its components. “We talked,” she answered briefly.
Because it suddenly felt wrong to tell Modera just how they had talked. How soft and tenuous it all still felt. How she was as raw and stripped bare by the whole thing as the ghost she sought to subdue.
No. That felt wrong too. To calm? To soothe? Fuck. There was no soothing her. Jaina didn’t want that either.
She had no idea what she wanted anymore. Or at least it wasn’t something she could easily deliver to Modera in a quip or a snide remark.
Life had once been so simple. Jaina was like a wolf in the night. Hunt, kill, eat, move on to do it again. Survive in a world that did not want her to do it like this. Thrive despite it all, in spite of it all.
She wasn’t used to such layers of complication. Of attachment. Particularly of the emotional variety.
“I steal from a banned books library for you and you don’t even give me the tawdry details?” Modera questioned of her brevity.
“I didn’t ask you to do that,” Jaina reminded her.
But Modera didn’t skip a beat. She rarely did. “No, you needed me to.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jaina questioned back at her, and went back to idly flipping the pages of this apparently contentious book.
“Because I worry about you. Because I worry that one day, you’ll finally meet your match. Maybe you’ll care what happens to you, if you have someone to come home to. Someone to care about you more than you care about yourself,” Modera told her.
“I’m...I’m not that awful,” Jaina said. She wasn’t. She really wasn’t.
“I know you’re not,” Modera said. “Maybe one day, you’ll start acting like it.”
Jaina was used to being the one who knew things. She was used to having all the secrets inside of her already, waiting to be revealed.
She wasn’t used to a concept coming at her fresh from the yellowing pages of an old book. She wasn’t used to tracing along margins, eyes sharp on words that she was seeing in combination for the first time. Even once, when she had been young and naive, she hadn’t been ignorant. Jaina didn’t like this feeling of being unaware. Of being new and raw, like a chick freshly hatched from its egg, still dripping and completely unsure of how to live.
Yet she poured over Modera’s book on the living room sofa as if it were water, and she were dying of thirst. Knowledge, she had learned long ago, was power, and she would have both. She was just used to already having it.
She also wasn’t used to having an audience to her frustrations. An audience that alerted itself to her in the form of a cold shiver running up her spine, and a wave of air pressure changing in the room.
“I don’t want to fade away,” Sylvanas had said the night before, toward the end of their conversation. Her hand had never left Jaina’s, and only then had it lost the power that kept it from slipping right through it.
Jaina had seen ghosts afraid before. But before that moment, it was her that caused the fear. For even the restless dead could understand when they were about to meet their final end. Or at least, so she thought.
“Then I won’t let you,” Jaina had answered her then.
Only she was now finding out it wasn’t so simple a request.
“Sylvanas,” she acknowledged, putting away her newfound uncertainty for the time being. “Are you reading over my shoulder?”
It wasn’t likely that the ghost would be able to manifest a proper response. It was still early afternoon. The sun was still high and bright in the south-facing windows of the room.
Still, it felt wrong now, not to give her the chance.
Jaina just shrugged it off and smiled a bit to herself when the ghost remained silent, but her chill and pressure still weighed heavy on the room.
So she did something else entirely new for her. A day of many firsts indeed. Jaina explained herself, “A friend of mine sent me a book about what we’ll have to do to keep you from fading away. It’s a little more...complex--” Complex was hardly the word for it. Final, maybe. Frightening, even, to anyone with a lick of sense in their heads. But not Jaina. “It’s more complicated than I thought it would be. But I’ll figure it out.”
It had been a very long time since she’d figured anything out like this. Or talked to anyone about figuring things out.
Or talked with anyone who lived in the same house as her. Well, only technically lived.
Perhaps minimal input was a good place for this to start. Especially with the sour taste her too candid conversation with Modera had left in her mouth.
Perhaps it wasn’t so bad to entertain thoughts of the cushion next to her being occupied, one day. Of an afgan being draped across legs that sometimes tangled, sometimes just barely brushed one another. Of a book resting on a different lap. Of gazes caught over those pages.
“Did you like to read, Sylvanas?” Jaina asked, but this time she wished she could have an answer. “You’ll have to tell me what someday. Hobby magazines? Silver age comics? Naturalist classics? Ancient poetry? Would you drink tea or coffee while you puzzled over Thoreau or chuckled at the funny papers?”
And what of her, wishing for this? Wanting to be near it? Wanting it from a woman who could neither drink or hold a book beyond chucking it across the room in a blind fury. Wanting it from a woman who wanted only to have these things again, forever denied to her.
Well, maybe not forever.
Jaina was still figuring it out.
She gently turned the page of her own book, hoping it would answer her on whether or not her ghost would have to live on as some sort of sly cat or obnoxious crow for the rest of their days. Their days, as they would remain bound forever for as long as Jaina could manage to live.
And she had honestly never really planned on dying. Not since the day she learned that eternal life was an option.
“I’m going to imagine it was coffee. Coffee that you made better than anyone else at the radio station. Honestly I hope so. Nathanos’ coffee was abysmal. And for the books...old adventure stories, I think. The Jungle Book. The Swiss Family Robinson. Rikki Tikki Tavi,” Jaina answered for her.
And so she read into the evening, imagining the smell of coffee and the quiet sound of turning pages. Imagining hands brushing her elbow from time to time, cold, but not unwanted.
Imagining that it was possible she might enjoy not having to spend eternity alone.
“My favorite was Robin Hood,” Sylvanas told her, hours later when Jaina came up to the back bedroom, when the moon had begun to track high into the night sky.
She was merely a suggestion of a woman’s shape at the window. More moonlight than spirit, really. A breath let out too hard and too fast might disperse her.
Was this the price she paid for remembering this answer, all this time? Waiting to give it? Wanting so much?
“Alleria would read an old library book we got from a thrift store for me. Mom worked nights, so I remember falling asleep in Alleria’s bed to Robin Hood and waking up in mine,” Sylvanas went on.
“So many reasons that you wait for her,” was all Jaina could say to that.
“What year is it?”
Jaina hadn’t expected this sort of awareness. Not yet. Not when Sylvanas had still been raging and wailing just a few nights before. Not when their only contact before holding hands the night before had been the sinking of feral, ethereal claws into the flesh of her arms. The scars were still shiny and pink, the wounds just barely closed.
“1998,” Jaina answered all the same. Because eventually, Sylvanas would find out. Better she hear it from her.
Jaina felt her confusion like a pulse. A ripple in her energy. So noticeable to her, but Sylvanas herself probably wasn’t aware. It tasted strange, like milk gone off. Like the way dry red wine smelled--more must and fire than fruit.
But Sylvanas didn’t scream. She didn’t wail. She contained it. She controlled herself. A power of subtly that was, as Jaina might guess, her own discovery for the day.
“Damn,” she said instead.
“I find that fact hard to swallow as well, sometimes,” Jaina offered.
The questions, it seemed, would come rapid fire now that Sylvanas knew she could get answers, “Does it? You look so young. Younger than me. But you’re not, are you?”
“I was born in 1888,” Jaina replied.
And yet, that was young for a witch. Oh, how she wished she could somehow explain it all so easily. How she could relay memories of Edwardian England, of trotting along with her mother and father at the seaside, not understanding, not knowing. Not aware of the world of witches and ghosts and magic and the like. Believing them to be just as fanciful of the tales of Robin Hood, which she might have had read to her from the same old book, with its funny pictures.
How she wished she could explain how her world shattered when her father died and her mother revealed her secret. A secret that she hadn’t wished to pass on to her child, but Jaina was a girl, and it was a chance she’d taken knowingly. Knowing that any daughter of hers would be a witch, just as she was. No matter how much she tried to pretend.
How she wished to tell Sylvanas of Dalaran--of the magic city that floated in the sky, beyond the comprehension of mortals, though these days it had to make sure to dodge airplanes and circumvent the advances of radar and satellites. How she wished she could explain how free she felt in her magic as she was learning it, but how trapped she became when she understood the rules that would be placed on her, and how she would be forced to use it in ways that others saw fit.
How she wished she could express why it made sense to come to America after that. Because Europe was full of magic, but crowded and claimed. How the New World was still full of witches, but came with many new ghosts, and just as many old ones that were best left alone, unless one was fearless.
How she wished she could explain to Sylvanas that she was born in 1888, and why that made her have to be fearless to look so young still. To eat and live so well.
Jaina supposed that there would be time for that, eventually. Time in which Sylvanas did not have to be a cat or a crow or a loathsome toad.
No, they had both learned a lot that day.
“Damn,” Sylvanas answered again.
“We shall have to find you Robin Hood books again, then,” Jaina told her.
Because it suddenly felt like talking about the ritual was less important than this. That, if she’d studied that tome correctly, this was actually quite important.
So she joined Sylvanas at the window.
“Mister Anduin, fancy meeting you here.”
The boy beamed at her from across the aisle, seemingly stifling a laugh too loud for the hallowed halls of the town library.
Only once he had it under control did he walk as quickly and as quietly as he could over to Jaina and whispered to her, “Miss Jaina, this section is for kid’s books.”
“Funny, I could have sworn it was for cookbooks,” she told him, waiting to see if she could get another stifled laugh out of the youth. She only went on when she did, smiling as she watched him giggle into his hand. “Could you imagine? Me, in a flowered apron, baking pies? No, Mister Anduin. I am actually looking for a kid’s book, as it were.”
“Can I help?” the sweet boy offered.
He was too good. Too good for this world. Too good for the tumultuous changes of 1998 and too good for this tiny town. Too smart for this little library, for the faded jeans he wore and the bike he’d have to ride home because his father wanted him to grow up strong.
“I might have neglected to go look up the number, but I seem to be in over my head. Can you see if you can find a book called ‘The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood’?” Jaina asked of him. She couldn’t remember the author. Such things tended not to hold much interest in the mind of children, after all.
The lack of information was hardly daunting to him. Anduin nodded, then produced it within a minute of poking around the shelves.
“That was fast,” Jaina noted as she took the book he so proudly offered.
“I’ve checked it out a lot,” Anduin told her. “I like Robin Hood.”
“Me too,” Jaina told him with a grin she felt she should be hiding behind her hand with how loud it felt.
Jaina left the book on the window sill in Alleria’s room, noting that she called it Alleria’s room in her head now. In the middle of the day, when Sylvanas wasn’t around to remind her. Or at least, wasn’t strong enough. But Jaina felt her.
She felt her everywhere now. It should have made her skin crawl, the feeling of eyes always on her back. But it didn’t. It felt only curious. Like the way her chickens would cock their little black heads at her when she had no more grain in hand to feed them. No more seed to scatter on the ground. Well, not Zeus. He screamed his protests. The black hens, though, would only seem to question her silently. To wonder why there wasn’t more, but also where she kept it. Where she went when she left them in their oasis of coop and chicken wire, just outside the backdoor to the farmhouse.
Sylvanas felt like their little beady eyes, only with far more intelligence behind hers. A sudden awareness of the world, one surprising for a ghost. That was part of what made ghosts so dangerous--how little they knew. They were creatures of emotion more than anything else. Anger, rage, grief. Happy ghosts were not a thing Jaina had encountered yet.
But calm, observant ones, were another thing entirely.
Jaina smiled to herself, hoping Sylvanas was observant enough to notice the book. Whether or not she could turn its pages would be a question for the night. A test that Jaina had to admit to herself had a two-fold purpose.
She needed to know if Sylvanas could manifest strongly enough on her own to endure the ritual. Strongly, so she hoped, without her own blinding banshee rage. Jaina knew little about catching ghosts with kindness. She had relied on that anger herself for so long. Anger that still roiled around inside her, a pool of magic and ghosts that was a cold weight in her stomach.
But she still had a few more days to wait out those thoughts. The chill of both that realization and of her awareness of what her body held in was more than enough to remind her that her next objective that afternoon had been a warm shower. Yes, that sounded nice, didn’t it?
Now that it was renovated, the lone full bath of the house was spacious and timeless. No tacky polished brass or bold colors. If there was one thing that one learned after living for over a century, it was that trends came and went far too quickly. Clean white porcelain tile and clawfoot tubs were beautiful forever.
Even more so with a stark black shower curtain hanging over them.
Jaina rid herself of her own black and whites shortly after stepping in, faced again with the fact that she was, indeed, somewhat human beneath them. So much so that there was no way for a mortal to tell. They couldn’t see the glow of her eyes. They never bothered to ask why she smelled like something that they found soothing and comforting all the time. Even to herself, amidst the warm water and the flowery smell of her shampoo as she lathered it into her hair, she still smelled cinnamon on her skin.
Cinnamon, because it reminded her of her father. Of sitting in his office at the spice trader’s. Of mulled wine at Christmas. Even of the biscuits he took with his tea.
Jaina stood for a while under the warm water, thinking about things and people and places she had not thought about in a long time. About a big, kind man who would hug her tightly and read Robin Hood to her, his breath smelling of cinnamon.
When she eventually turned off the tap, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to reach for the white towel or the black one. They hung side by side on the rack, bought in such combination of colors both out of instinct and out of a desire to match the rest of her renovations. The whole house was slowly turning white and black within.
White, to remind a witch of her capacity to do good. Black, to remind her of the necessity of her evils.
Because in order to fit into this new and changing world, it had been deemed that all witches would have to wear both colors, and be reminded of both aspects of their lives. Rules that even Jaina lived by, when she chose to ignore others, though most days, she deserved to be clad all in black.
She chose the white towel this time.
And then she felt it again. A coolness against her spine, but this time, high on her neck. She might dare to imagine it as a hand tracing down her bare back, counting the notches of her spine, but it wasn’t that close.
And it wasn’t that far either.
“You know, I can sense when you’re watching me,” Jaina told her ghost, grinning as she dried the last bit of lingering water from her skin.
She felt her flinch too. Not completely disappearing, but receding none the less. Like a child with her hand caught in the cookie jar.
“You can watch me whenever you wish, Sylvanas,” Jaind told her.
She wondered if the ghost would like what she saw, if she knew exactly what kept that body so young and pristine. What kept Jaina looking...hmm, what had Harlan said? Twenty-five? Yes, that would do. When really she had been on this earth for over a century.
Even where she might start to take even longer showers, knowing she was being studied so.
Even as she felt Sylvanas’ presence draw closer again before she could find a clean white blouse and black skirt to slip back into.
That night, Sylvanas did not show herself, but “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood” was open on the window sill when Jaina came to check. And each time she did, each hour through the night, it was on a different page. Open to a differently little silly woodcut, just the same as she remembered them.
She would watch them turn as dawn neared, and she started to sweep up the rest of the mess she’d left behind in the room. Gone were the charred bits of wire and wallpaper by the time the sun came up. Only clean floorboards remained. She’d even done her best with the walls, scrubbing them clean down to the jagged bits of green-striped wallpaper and regrettably bare and scarred drywall.
All the while, Sylvanas never screamed or wailed, but the pages kept turning. She didn’t protest the cleanup or even note if she appreciated it. The pages just kept quietly flipping. Until Jaina finished the last bit of wall, and looked to find the book now reversed, lying face down on its front cover.
With quiet nights, there would come loud days. Jaina found that, just like any spirit, her banshee seemed to fluctuate in strength from day to day. Only each fluctuation seemed to peak higher, now that Samhain was drawing near.
The real question was if it would ever be high enough.
A concern that Sylvanas herself wasn’t yet aware of as she flexed that power, flipping the kitchen radio to Nathanos’ show on WRGR yet again.
“Fine,” Jaina relented from the sink and the dishes she was washing, thankfully drowning out most of the annoying noises Nathanos was playing instead of just getting on with more music. “We’ll listen to him. Did he do the whole ‘hound dog’ bit when you were still around? I don’t know how you could stand the man.”
“He was an idiot, but he was our idiot,” Came a reply almost too clear to be true.
So much so that it made Jaina instantly shut the sink off, and stand there with still soapy hands, looking behind her.
Sylvanas simply did not talk during the day. Not like this. Even a textbook banshee was said to never be active at night. Not that she was exactly textbook herself. Still, it was enough to make Jaina question her sanity for a moment.
Only until Sylvanas carried on, “Once you get to know him, he’s a good guy. He’s probably so old now.”
“His hair’s greying,” was all Jaina could think to answer to that.
There was no manifestation of her, other than a vague sense of her presence and the cold, dense air it provided. No outlined shape or wisp of errant white smoke. Just a voice, clear and easy. A conversation. A rarity.
“Does Anya still do nights?” Sylvanas asked.
“I don’t know,” Jaina answered truthfully. “I haven’t put it on in the evening.”
“Right, you’re usually looking for me by then,” Sylvanas noted. Far too aware. Far too observant. Far too calm about it as well. “Can you leave it on tonight?”
Because she couldn’t say no to that. She was too busy being in awe. Too busy trying to absorb getting to know the woman that Sylvanas was first hand, and not through someone else’s eyes.
“Thanks. And thank you for the book. That was the same one Alleria used to read to me,” Sylvanas told her, a smile not present for her eyes to see, but easily heard in her words.
Jaina so very much wanted to tell her that her father had read it to her too. That there was a connection for them beyond tales of make-believe thieves. She wanted very much to tell her everything and nothing at all. To ask her what her favorite part was. To ask her if she liked the silly pictures too.
But by the time Jaina could manage to try and phrase it in a way that didn’t sound so alien coming from her own mouth, she could feel that Sylvanas was gone. The room was too warm, the air too light, and the moment gone entirely.
Anya still did nights. She certainly sounded like a woman who enjoyed her career as a rock DJ, and was perhaps even born for such work. A mixture of Janis Joplin and a cackling hyena. Her jokes were terrible, but she laughed at them anyway.
It didn’t take long for Sylvanas to notice her.
“Anya,” came a simple acknowledgement.
Jaina had moved the boombox into the living room. It played from a perch on the mantle of the old fireplace while she sat and read over the book on familiars yet again, this time taking notes on one of the steno pads from the pack she’d first bought for Sylvanas to write in. Only this one wasn’t full of the word “LEAVE” and her ghost had since changed her mind.
“I guess she still does the night show,” Jaina said, letting the grin that threatened to pull at her lips give way. It was odd, smiling for someone else. Hoping she would see.
“She still thinks she’s hilarious,” Sylvanas noted.
Jaina could see her now. Slowly but surely, she approached her, walking but floating. A wisp of white smoke, then an outline of a woman, then coalescing into a statuesque figure--nearly colorless. Black and white and grey. Beautiful beyond words. Nearly solid by the time she stopped just short of Jaina’s knees.
“You can see me,” Sylvanas said, one of her long ears cocking slowly, curiously.
“Not always,” Jaina told her. “I couldn’t see you this morning.”
“Why can you see me now?” Sylvanas asked, leaning in a little closer.
“Several reasons,” Jaina found herself breathing out. Her lips were suddenly dry, and she ran her tongue over them both to resolve this and to buy herself some time to explain. “You’re more powerful at night, for one. I’m sure you know that by now. And secondly, that really depends on you, how much you want to be seen. Did...did you want me to see you?”
It was almost as good as the picture she’d captured, the first time she’d seen her in any detail. Sylvanas was nearly a solid thing now, white and grey as if she were made of marble, but floating just off the ground like she were lighter than air. Her dress, really just a mass of equally weightless rags, wasn’t quite so uniform this close up. In fact, Jaina could see shades of real clothes within the ghostly fabric. Embroidered jeans. Clashing two-tone hues that could have been a baseball tee. And on her neck, a silver chain with a stone that hinted at maybe being a deep blue. A sapphire. Precious jewelry that likely lingered on her body, forgotten as it decomposed out in the barn, but sentimental enough to her for her spirit to preserve.
“I guess I did,” Sylvanas answered, finally.
She looked at the couch, and around the room. No longer stacked with boxes, as Jaina had managed to find homes for most of her things. A bookshelf was full on the other side of the hearth. Crisp curtains framed the windows. A rug covered the scratches in the floor that marked their first real battle, but the salt circle had long since been swept away. Because Jaina was cautious, but knew that curiosity had now fully replaced rage. At least she was certain now, if she hadn’t been before.
“Can you really save me?”
The question hit her hard, like a sudden downpour of icy rain. Uncertainty wasn’t a coat she wore well. Confidence had been what sustained her for all these years. Yet that was exactly what Jaina lacked right now. Exactly why she was taking notes, like she was yet again an eager student back in Dalaran. Because she wasn’t sure. She didn’t know.
So it was better to defer that answer. That wasn’t a lie, at least. Just a lack of the truth. “I want you to understand that ‘save’ is perhaps the wrong word,” Jaina told her. “I cannot bring you back to life.”
Jaina could just about swear that Sylvanas’ reply came along with the same rhythm as the song she sung during her wails, but perhaps she was imagining things, “I know. I am a thing dead, but not gone. You cannot make me what I am not. I know now.”
“All I can do is keep you just that,” Jaina said, swallowing a throat that suddenly felt too tight to let the words out. “But, there is something you should know.”
“What is that?” Sylvanas asked, stopping in her slow wandering. Her eyes trained back to Jaina, hawklike and sharp.
How terrifying it should have been to have been hunted by her. How most would wither under that gaze, screaming into the night the second they saw the only real color left to this ghost--that unflinching crimson gaze. It only made Jaina wonder what color her eyes had been before.
“You would be bound to me,” Jaina said. No. Confessed. It felt like a confession. Like a burden. For no one in this world wished to be bound to her. No coven would have her. No archmage worth his salt would vouch for her to return to Dalaran. Even her mother had stopped writing decades ago. “Your days would last only as long as mine, which can last as long as my magic does. You would need to stay close to me, but you could go where I did and leave this place again. We could go see Nathanos and Anya.”
“Would they see me?” Sylvanas wondered.
That, the book had strictly said was ill-advised. It recommended making familiars out of spirits dead much longer than Sylvanas had been, so that their loved ones would not chance to encounter them as they traveled with their witches, back outside of their haunt again.
But Sylvanas didn’t have the luxury of waiting thirty-odd more years for her friends to die off, and Jaina had never really cared much for recommendations.
“I think so,” Jaina answered honestly, because she wasn’t sure. Because she knew Sylvanas didn’t have to be a cat or a crow or some loathsome creature, and could look as she did in life, but she could also be any of those things if she wanted.
And the book assumed one understood how that all worked, rather than explaining it.
“But that doesn’t bother you? That you would have to stay with me?” Jaina continued.
“I don’t think I’d want to be alone,” Sylvanas said. “Without someone who knew, who understood. You went out of your way to understand. To know what happened to me.”
She had. She went so far as to interrupt radio shows and sit in the library reading through microfiche. She even took her fair share of lectures from Modera, and somehow got into the hobby of home renovation during it all.
These were hardly the habits of a witch who traveled through the world alone, moving from place to place, kill to kill, meal to meal. Lest she forget that she’d come here hoping to feast in the first place.
She’d first come here in the spring of that year, driving up the backroads after midnight. How her heart had raced when she first heard Sylvanas’ wail. When she first tasted the power of her. Power that she should have feared.
Power that now awed her, on ready display before her as Sylvanas manifested as fully as she ever had, leaning in again to ask her next question, “Does it bother you that I would be with you?”
Her answer should have been yes. She hunted alone. She didn’t need anyone. She didn’t want anyone.
But that wasn’t the truth, and Jaina was fresh out of lies for the night. She wanted Sylvanas. She wanted her so much. She wanted someone. She wanted to talk about Robin Hood and read together on the couch and share their memories of better days. Of days when they weren’t alone, weren’t wanting. Because they were both hungry things. And no matter how many spirits she consumed, Jaina would always be hungry. She would always starve like this. And she was so very tired of the hunger.
“No. All I’ve learned about you tells me that you care deeply for others, for your friends. I would count myself lucky to be such a friend,” Jaina answered.
But she didn’t tell Sylvanas why she stared at her lips as she said that. At the dark contrast of them against her ghastly skin. She wouldn’t tell her, not yet, what the book had to say about how one should bind a familiar to themselves. Because there were other ways. But apparently, if said spirit could manifest physically, then physical contact was encouraged. As much as possible.
And Jaina had discovered she had a new hunger. Well, an old one she had banished in favor of others. A hunger she had known as a young witch in Dalaran, surrounded by beautiful ageless women full of ancient ghosts and wonderful stories. Women who typically preferred to seek pleasure with each other, lest they take the risk that Jaina’s mother had, and create more of their kind. More competition, really.
Because it had been a very long time since Jaina had kissed anyone, so much so that she wouldn’t banish the thought of kissing a ghost she had meant to devour an entirely different way. A beautiful, curious ghost, who was leaning over her again, examining her like she was the prey this time.
It was enough to make a century-old wish blush, just a little.
“Then that settles it. We’ll take care of one another,” Sylvanas offered, leaning back again, and wandering over to the boombox as Anya’s voice once again rang tinny from the speakers.
It had been an even longer time since someone had taken care of Jaina, in any capacity.
She only had one item for him. A slim little plastic pack she hesitated to lay on the conveyor belt that led to his register, lest he try to end their conversation too soon.
Because honestly she didn’t need these furniture sliders. The bed she’d ordered probably had felt on the feet of it already, but she couldn’t be sure, and she hadn’t gone through all the trouble of cleaning that lovely wood floor only to scratch it up again.
“I have one more relationship question for you, as your advice has been so exponentially simple, yet helpful,” Jaina told him.
“I’m not sure why,” Harlan answered with a broad-shouldered shrug, “but okay.”
“Have you ever had to break a girl’s heart? Let’s say, hypothetically, you’d never liked her very much, until you realized that she was into whatever it was you’re into. Wrestling? You look like a wrestling man,” Jaina guessed.
Harlan shook his head. “Nah. I like football.”
“Of course you do. Well let’s say you found out she was a big fan of your favorite team. And you cheered them on together and got to know her and very much liked her then,” Jaina went on.
“I don’t see what the problem here is, Miss,” Harlan told her.
“What if you were afraid she would find out that you hadn’t very much liked her in the beginning? That you down-right hated her?”
“My mother taught me that hate is a strong word,” Harlan said, suddenly very serious as he looked down at Jaina with furrowed brows.
“You know what I mean,” she prodded. “Would you tell her, somehow? Before she could find out?”
“My mom also says that honesty is the best policy, miss. Even so, I’d never keep secrets from a girl. I don’t have time for secrets,” Harlan stated with a curt nod.
“Right, two jobs doesn’t leave time for one to ponder the nature of the truth often, does it?” Jaina asked, but didn’t wait for an answer. “But you yet again prove yourself to be wise and a fantastic catch.”
“If you say so, miss.”
Jaina finally slid the pack of felt circles onto the belt, and Harlan snatched them up, scanning them with the effortless grace of a man who stood behind a register six days a week.
“Harlan,” Jaina prodded yet again.
“Will you miss our chats, if I ever run out of hardware things to buy?” she asked.
“I don’t suspect you will,” he answered with a little chuckle as he tossed the pack into a plastic bag.
Puzzled, Jaina tipped the brim of her hat up to better see his face as she questioned, “Why is that?”
“You bought the haunted house. That place is a mess,” Harlan told her.
“Word travels fast, I see,” Jaina coughed at her sudden exposure. The armor of her anonymity with this man dropped, so fast and heavy that it would have clattered onto the cement of the floor if it was true metal, and not an imagined thing.
“You’ve been in town for months, miss. Asking all kinds of questions, driving your nice little car and wearing your fancy hats,” Harlan went on. “Everybody knows about you.”
What was it with this town and its people and their newfound capacity to leave her speechless. Jaina didn’t understand. She wasn’t used to being much more than a ghost herself, a fleeting memory, if anything, to anyone.
“I’ll see you again soon, I’m sure,” Harlan said with a self-satisfied grin. “That’ll be two twenty-seven.”
The bed was delivered right on time that afternoon. A simple frame of stained oak, along with a plush mattress and its boxspring. It did indeed need furniture slides for its unshod feet. Jaina was pleased at how quickly she put it together.
And pleased that Sylvanas thought to question her even a little before sunset that evening, “A bed?”
Yes, a bed. Jaina was busy putting sheets on it. A deep forest green. They would look good with the oak, and with the creamy-colored comforter and its knit pattern of leaves. And the remains of the striped wallpaper too.
“You might like to sleep in one,” Jaina told her.
“I don’t sleep,” Sylvanas replied, materializing partially at the window, in a more transparent version of the full shade she had been the night before.
“You might,” Jaina said. Because she wasn’t sure. Because the book didn’t give much in the way of specifics on the after of it all. On the potential eternity she sought to craft for them.
Jaina had still never been so certain of an uncertain thing in her life.
“You don’t know?” Sylvanas pried.
And it made Jaina wince. The truth, as it turned out, did hurt. She wasn’t used to hurting. To feeling like this. To not knowing. To not understanding.
“No,” Jaina admitted. “What we mean to do has been forbidden for some time. Before even I was born. All I know is from that book my friend sent me.”
Sylvanas kept looking out the window, not even turning to her as she asked, “What will happen to you, then, for doing something forbidden?”
“Probably nothing of consequence,” Jaina managed a laugh. “I’ve been doing forbidden things for so long. What’s one more?”
She wondered, then, if it would all be enough. If this singular spot of color in her house of black and white, this oasis of green, would be enough. If Sylvanas would regret the choice she might so soon make, one day, when she understood all that Jaina really was. All that she ran from.
Because there would be no hiding it from her, after a time.
But Jaina decided--that night as she pulled the comforter up tight and high, leaving only a few inches of green to peek out from beneath it before she piled matching green pillows on top--that there was time yet for more hurtful truths to rear their ugly heads.
Because death had hurt Sylvanas enough. The alternative should not. It should be full of comfortable queen-sized beds and clean rooms and a house that was not completely foreign to her. Of rest, real rest. And though she wasn’t sure any of it was possible, Jaina knew that she wished as much for her.
And she knew without looking that way that Sylvanas was watching her now, perhaps having a hard time voicing her own painful truths that night, for all the silence that stretched between them.
So Jaina went to work assembling the matching nightstand instead of contemplating further, and Sylvanas faded, just as her unasked questions did.
Sylvanas was aware of her inconsistency, as Jaina would soon find out. As the first flash of bitterness hit her tongue, and a wail sounded from upstairs, but this time soft and mournful. Not quite so piercing as it had once been.
But demanding enough to have Jaina up at the bedroom door, looking through the sunset that filtered into the room and asking, “What? What’s wrong?”
There was nothing to see. Just a dim room, ruddied by the dying sun. A window, unoccupied, save for the sound that emanated from that direction, and the energy that traveled with it. Painful. Forlorn.
Jaina once used to drown her tea in sugar. And now, she wasn’t entirely sure when she had acquired a taste for such bitter, doleful things.
“I’m here,” she breathed.
As if that could make anything better. As if she would ever be the balm to anyone’s wounds. Much less a ghost. Much less a dead thing, confronting its deadness each and every passing night.
The wail stopped, but Sylvanas neither spoke nor manifested. Her presence hung silent and heavy in the room.
So heavy that Jaina eventually ran downstairs. She came back, of course, this time armed with the last of her fresh steno pads and a pen whose ink she hadn’t worn out yet.
Her hand was rediscovering old pains and calluses these days, taking notes again. Learning was a painful thing in more than one way, after all.
She set them on the window sill, next to the library book that was probably overdue now. Just another bit of infamy for her in town. Her clothes, her BMW, her strange ways, and now a poor reputation with the local library.
“It’s alright,” Jaina found herself whispering as she backed up until the back of her thighs hit the bed. The room was small. There wasn’t much space she could give Sylvanas, but she would do her best. “It’s alright if you’re not strong enough to talk today.”
It wasn’t. It was concerning. Deeply concerning. The days were ticking away until Samhain. Most witches with any sense would take this time away from their hunting, away from the dead when they were closest to the living. Away from the dead when they were at their most powerful and fearsome.
But Sylvanas was hardly any of these things. She flickered in and out of intensity as the days drew on, not consistent in her strength. A dying thing dying again. A distant star threatening to wink out of existence.
The words came slow and tentative. Each letter a labor, but the pen moved. It scratched across the paper until it left behind the message, then dropped, rolling off the window sill. It was a single word, but different from before.
“HELP,” in the same neat, perfect letters, right between blue lines.
“I’m trying,” Jaina said, bent over the steno pad now. Her fingernails biting into the thick coats of paint that covered the old window.
She had never tried so hard. Never for anyone else. Never even to impress her father by knowing the name of the tall ships that sailed by the window of her own childhood bedroom. Never even to mind her manners for her mother, or later to prove she was wrong to try to hide her power from her as she took her to Dalaran for the first time. Never to try to show off in Modera’s class and earn an eye roll or three.
Because there had never been anyone else. Never anyone she wanted more of, and not to push away. Never anyone she cared to help. Never anyone she wanted to give of herself to.
Not like this.
“I’m trying,” Jaina repeated, trying to assure her. Trying to explain with just as few words as Sylvanas had.
But mostly trying to assure herself.
“So how did you like the book?”
“You memorized my number?” Jaina asked back.
Modera sighed, as she ever did, into her end of the receiver. “You’ve only been calling me from it for months now. The same one, and not a payphone here or a hotel room there. Really, Jaina, I think such novelty warrants my attention, don’t you?”
“Fuck off,” Jaina spat with a little laugh.
“Fine, I’ll hang up,” Modera threatened, but with a laugh of her own.
“You can after you answer a few questions for me,” Jaina told her.
“Ah, look who is suddenly an inquisitive student again,” Modera chuckled fully this time. “Give you subject matter that is strictly forbidden and suddenly you’re all ears.”
“When was it forbidden anyway?”
“With all the rest. Part of the Salem laws, of course,” Modera told her.
Right. Rules that tried to organize the world’s remaining witches and keep them safe from being hunted themselves. Safe from revealing themselves to mortals. Jaina supposed that a familiar might be a tad obvious of a tell. Too bad, really.
“Ah, I see,” was her response to that.
“If you’re looking for more books, that’s all I have,” Modera went on. “The rest were destroyed, and frankly it was more of a folk practice, passed on through oral tradition in the old world. You’d be better off booking a flight and finding a very old witch willing to talk to you if you wanted more.”
“Which we know wouldn’t happen,” Jaina said.
“Not in this universe, no,” Modera agreed. “So as an only mildly old witch, I will do my best to answer.”
Jaina had never been quite sure how old Modera was. Older than her, certainly, and perhaps older than the Salem laws. Perhaps old enough to remember a time when nothing was forbidden. Old enough, certainly, to have retired from hunting. To refuse a coven. To instead teach in Dalaran, and help other witches with their hunting.
Perhaps older than she thought, maybe.
“It seems like I’ll need her to fully manifest to complete the ritual,” Jaina started. “What if that doesn’t happen?”
“Then you can’t do it,” Modera answered plainly. “That’s why it’s performed on Samhain, to give you the best chance. If your banshee has faded so much that she can’t become a physical manifestation anymore, then I don’t think this will do the trick for you. Is that what you’re concerned about?”
“Yes,” Jaina answered. The word came out as a hot breath against the receiver, cradled close to her face as she stood in the kitchen. An honest whisper.
So honest that Modera could even hear it. “That’s not something you can control, Jaina. At least, not entirely. Don’t take it on yourself if this doesn’t work like you want it to. I know you’re not used to not getting what you want, but this isn’t something you can intimidate or demand from.”
“What do you mean, not entirely?” Jaina asked.
“Fuck, you’re so smitten. This is so sweet,” Modera laughed again.
“Shut up, Modera. Tell me what you mean,” Jaina pressed.
“What I mean is that you might give her a good reason to try. I know you said you two talked. You won’t tell me what about, but I assume she’s onboard for all this,” Modera pried.
Jaina wasn’t sure how to answer that. She twirled the cord of the receiver around her fingers once, twice, a third time, until the pressure of it started to make her fingertips whiten from lack of circulation. Blood flow that felt undeserved in that moment, surely.
“She is,” Jaina decided to lie. Because Sylvanas did want this, but she hadn’t explained the full extent of it to her yet. Because she was trying to decide when that should come--before or after she told her what it was that witches like her would usually do to ghosts?
“Then show her what she can expect to have, rejoining the mortal world, in some aspects at least,” Modera offered.
“The book doesn’t talk about what happens after. Only that she would gain a physical form and would be bound to me,” Jaina told her.
“I can tell you that she’ll like it better than being a ghost,” Modera said. “Interacting with solid objects on a regular basis again will be refreshing, I’m sure.”
“But what do you mean then? Can she sleep? Eat? Taste? Smell?”
“Modera, please. Tell me,” Jaina begged. She didn’t like begging, but she would do it. Here and now.
“I never had a familiar myself, you know,” Modera noted. “But I always found them intriguing. Let’s say that a friend of a friend had one. A lovely little thing that would often take the form of a raven, but I understand that he was a handsome young man when he wanted to be. I used to feed him scraps when I went to visit her.”
Jaina balked. Not exactly the answer she hoped for. She couldn’t imagine Sylvanas being overly pleased with snatching offcuts of meat in her talons. But no, only sometimes? Why couldn’t anyone be clear about all this?
“One day, I went knocking at her door and no one answered,” Modera continued. “Her wards were always miserable, so I just let myself in after a time. I found her and her raven, only he had a lovely head of black hair instead of feathers, running down his strong bare back as he lay over her.”
“You voyeur,” Jaina chided. “Did you let yourself out?”
“Immediately,” Modera snorted. “I came for tea, not to watch her get fucked. Still, I must then assume that there is something of that bond that I didn’t quite know until that day. Perhaps a further incentive to it that this dry little book didn’t cover.”
“Are you telling me to seduce a ghost?” Jaina spat out, uncoiling the cord from her now pale fingers.
“I thought that’s what you wanted, is it not?” Modera offered.
“Why do I keep calling you?” Jaina questioned, “if all you want to do is torture me?”
“Because that’s what friends are for, Jaina.”
Jaina waved at Varian’s truck as it drove by. The sturdy farmer did not wave back. Whether it was because he just wasn’t feeling that neighborly that day, or he disliked the pumpkins she was putting out on her porch, Jaina couldn’t be sure.
Maybe it was because his son would smile more readily at her than him, whenever they ran into one another. Maybe it was because she’d cram Anduin’s little bike into the trunk of the BMW and drive him home from town sometimes, or at least as far as her house. He’d have to keep up appearances and bike the rest of the way to his, after all.
To Jaina, it felt right, being both hated and enchanting on some level. The black and white again. It would never let her escape, not now that it was starting to feel like home.
Not now that she went back inside from the chill October afternoon, and found a ghost trying to lean over her kitchen counter. Sylvanas looked annoyed as she wound up hovering just above the surface. She looked like she wanted very much to appear in a way that she could not.
“Oh, hi there,” Jaina said as she shut the door behind herself.
She shouldn’t have been surprised. It was so close now to Samhain. Just days. Precious, terrible days.
But she hadn’t seen Sylvanas this clearly in at least a week. Her hair and dress of rags streaming behind her in some sort of ghostly wind. Yet trying to lean over the island’s butcher block as if she were just waiting for dinner to finish cooking, or for someone to open a beer for her.
“Hey,” Sylvanas offered, greeting her with an air of casual seriousness.
“I can see you,” Jaina decided to inform her. “Did you want to talk?”
“I can talk today,” Sylvanas answered. “But I can’t always. Why?”
“I don’t know exactly,” Jaina told her. It bothered them both, apparently, how much of an inexact science her existence was. “My guess is that it has to do with how much you are fading.”
“I have been able to think, though,” Sylvanas told her. “Really think.”
“That’s...that’s good,” Jaina offered.
She wasn’t sure why she kept her back to the door, pressed against it even. The brass doorknob digging into her back.
“Why are you waiting?”
The question had her trying to take another step back. No, this wasn’t fear. It was dread. They were different things.
But it was time to clear the air. Dread or not.
“We have to do it on Samhain--Halloween. You call it Halloween,” Jaina stammered a correction. Samhain was a term too old for mortals as Sylvanas had once been.
“Why?” Sylvanas asked.
No, demanded. Turning to Jaina with her blood red eyes. Confusion reigned over them today, over ears that lay low against her flowing hair, their pointed tips lost into transparent mist.
“Because that will be when you are strongest. It’s the day that the dead are closest to the realm of the living,” Jaina told her.
“And you’re not afraid? I hurt you before,” Sylvanas acknowledged, pointing with a set of fingers, unnaturally clawed, to Jaina’s arms.
Arms she didn’t realize she was gripping through her shirt sleeves. Scars she tried not to look at every time she could see her bare skin. Scars that still hadn’t healed. It hadn’t been long enough.
“I’m not afraid of anything,” Jaina told her, letting go of herself and taking a step forward to prove it to both of them.
“That’s not true. Everyone is afraid of something,” Sylvanas told her.
“Not me,” Jaina said.
Sylvanas looked over her, red eyes traveling from head to foot and back again, searching for the lie. But there wasn’t one. Jaina wasn’t afraid. She was so sure of that. Even now, with everything changing around her, she still knew that to be true.
“You wouldn’t hurt me again,” Jaina went on. “I know it.”
“But I did before,” Sylvanas said, looking away, red eyes now fixed on the butcher block in shame. “I remember that.”
“I wanted to make you angry then. That was the price I paid for it,” Jaina told her. “But it’s in the past now. We don’t need to repeat it.”
“Why did you want to make me angry?” Sylvanas questioned, but still wouldn’t look at her.
I wanted you to manifest enough for me to eat you. For me to trap you. For me to take the essence of what was left of you into myself and use it to empower my magic. To taste your rage and sadness for the delicacy it was. To feel alive through your death.
That was the truth of it. It had been for so many other ghosts. So many more whose names she had never learned, whose friends she hadn’t met, whose town she hadn’t made a home in. But this was different now. And possibly forever.
Jaina had once told Nathanos that she had come here to change. She didn’t know how swift and violent that change would be. Not until she had finally come to the moment to explain it.
“I wanted to end you. To hunt you. Witches can also do that. We...we eat ghosts. We take them for our magic. But we can also help them,” Jaina told her. Told the truth.
“How many ghosts have you helped?” Sylvanas asked, finally looking back up at her.
“None,” Jaina answered.
“And how many have you...eaten?”
“I don’t know. Too many to count,” Jaina replied. Also the truth. She had counted, once. Kept a little tally like some sort of serial killer. Stopped only out of laziness, not for fear of bad taste.
“Why me then?” Sylvanas questioned. “Why start with me?”
Truths, Jaina learned, were even more painful when you had to convince yourself of them. “Because I changed my mind. I got to know you. I thought you did not deserve such a fate.”
“Even after you had delivered it to so many others,” Sylvanas said flatly.
“I...I don’t know if I can do that again. Not like before. Not now. Not after meeting you,” Jaina told her.
Part of her had always known that her ghastly meals were once people. That they had once had their own stories and struggles. Their own connections. Their own loves. But it was easy enough to remove oneself from that. Or it had been, once.
But if Jaina were to leave this place and go off hunting again, she would start to wonder. Every time. What story did this spirit have? Who had it left behind? Why did it linger here, one foot in the land of the living, the other in the land of the dead?
She would want to know.
“What day is it?” Sylvanas asked after the silence that stood between them.
“What day is it?” Sylvanas asked again. “I have a hard time keeping track. I’m trying, but…”
“It’s October twenty-eighth,” Jaina told her.
Sylvanas nodded to this, then floated off toward the stairs, becoming more and more transparent as she went.
“Sylvanas,” Jaina breathed, following after the wisps of smoke she was unravelling into.
“I have time to think,” her ghost replied, not waiting for her as she went up the stairs and turned into nothing.
Jaina did not see her again the next night. Or the night after that. Or the one after that. The radio station didn’t change, despite her leaving it on an apparently much hated country station in just about every room.
Still, she readied what she would need for the ritual. Candles, enough to make Harlan raise an eyebrow as she nearly cleaned out the hardware store’s meager stock. Herbs, some from her own yard, others she would have to make due with dried ones in jars from the local grocery store, and an added purchase of another large container of salt, just in case. Ribbon would have to come from the craft shop, which Jaina hadn’t yet had the occasion to visit. Judging by the knowing look the woman gave her as she checked out, her fame had spread here as well. She’d made a comment about how that was a pretty sapphire blue through that smirk of hers even. Jaina hadn’t really thought about the color until then, until she stumbled in counting out her change and had to start over again.
She was still setting this all up, rustling components of an ancient, banned spell from plastic bags and onto her living room floor, when a knock came at her door.
A knock that saw her dropping sprigs of rosemary to find out who it could be.
“Trick or treat!” came as her answer when she opened the door.
Anduin was by himself, bedecked in unraveled bandages--his blonde hair peeking out from the gaps in a mummy costume he’d probably wound around himself as best he could.
And he was alone. No friends. No father. Just him and a very empty pillowcase on a cold Halloween evening.
“Why Mister Anduin, don’t you look fetching?” Jaina answered, trying not to let any concern for the youth show as she appraised him. “Or should I say, Pharoah Wrynn-ah-kahmen.”
The boy laughed at that, pleased with her acknowledgement. “Thanks. I made it myself.”
“You don’t say?” Jaina wondered, though she had never doubted this.
“Yeah,” Anduin said. “I’m going to town to trick or treat with my friends, but I figured you would have good candy, and that you’d want to see my costume.”
“Of course, candy,” Jaina said, casting a glance back at the kitchen. “Forgive me for not having it ready, I honestly wasn’t expecting trick or treaters out here, but I appreciate your visit. I always do. Wait right there, my young pharaoh.”
She left him holding the front door as she rustled through the kitchen, finding an errant candy bar she’d forgotten about in the pantry before returning to drop it into his pillowcase.
Anduin beamed up at her. “King size! See! I knew you’d have the good stuff.”
Jaina, for all her distraction of the last few days, couldn’t help but smile back at him. “Why? Because I’m a witch who lives in a haunted house?”
Anduin laughed again and shook his head. “No, because you like Halloween. You asked me about my costume and you have pumpkins outside your door.”
“And what about the rest?” Jaina asked.
“That’s all make-believe, Miss Jaina. It’s not real. My dad says so,” Anduin told her.
“Don’t be so sure, not on tonight of all nights,” Jaina replied. “But be safe tonight, all right? Watch for cars as much as you watch for your make-believe things, yes?”
“I will,” Anduin promised with a vigorous nod, such as the kind only children and their steadfast confidence could give.
“Happy Halloween, Mister Anduin,” Jaina said with a wave as he let go of the door.
“Happy Halloween, Miss Jaina,” Anduin chirped as he headed for the bike he’d left lying unceremoniously in her driveway. “And thanks for the candy!”
Jaina expected to be picking up scattered rosemary when she turned back into the living room.
She did not expect Sylvanas to be the one picking it up.
“What’s all this?” she asked, as if her being there or holding the rosemary in solid hands was not a revelation in and of itself.
As if she didn’t know or care that she stood now as an entirely different manifestation than she had before. Her feet on the ground. Her legs clad in those embroidered jeans. Her torso in a baseball shirt, stained with a river of dark blood that streamed down from her heart. Pale skin not devoid of color, but just devoid of that blood. Solid down to the tips of her ears, down to the pale gold hair that rested on her shoulders now with real weight, real substance to its strands.
She looked as she must have the day she died. Even the silver chain of her necklace was glinting in the lamplight, down to where it hid the sapphire beneath her collar.
“Is it for us?” Sylvanas asked when she didn’t get an answer. Because Jaina was too busy staring at her.
“I can see you,” Jaina told her instead of giving her that.
“I know you can,” Sylvanas said. “I understand now why we had to wait until tonight. So, is this for us?”
“Yes,” Jaina answered through a hard swallow. “Though I doubt it’s all necessary. These things rarely are. But I didn’t want to take any chances. Not with you.”
She was even more beautiful like this. Tall and strong. Maybe close to thirty. Somewhere around there. Enough that maturity had written lines of concern around her eyes. Her features were sharp and elegant, unmistakably elven. The hands that gripped the rosemary were gentle with the small sprigs of herbs, but looked like they could fire a gun, build a radio station, give the man who dared to kill her a limp he would live with long after she was gone.
Her eyes were still red, though more of a deeper shade than before. Not so far from the blood that stained her shirt, still shining as though it was wet and fresh.
All this, as Sylvanas had so kindly called it, was a ritual circle like many Jaina had seen before, but rarely made herself. She hardly needed them, and had since started to rely on technology for her needs as it became available. This one was quite excessive, with woven willow branches and too many candles, not yet lit. With the couch pushed back against the wall to make enough room for her to draw out the designs as they had been diagrammed in the book, as she had copied them countless times onto her steno pads.
Sylvanas, for all her ability to reply as she pleased that moment, had nothing to say to that, and held out the fallen herbs to Jaina.
Jaina, who made a point of brushing her fingertips with her knuckles as she took them. They were cold, but they were solid. A full physical manifestation. She could hardly believe it.
This was more even than she would need to trap and eat her. But that had long since been off the table. It hadn’t been an option from the moment she saw her.
“Do you still want to do this?” Jaina asked as she took the herbs and bent down to place them within their designated part of the circle.
“Whose kid was that?” Sylvanas asked instead, dodging the question. “At the door.”
“Um. Varian Wrynn. That’s his son. Anduin. Did you know him?” Jaina wondered at her sudden curiosity.
“He was just a kid like that,” Sylvanas told her. “About that old.”
“Are you...are you having a hard time with how long it’s been?” Jaina asked.
It hadn’t really crossed her mind. She was so used to a world that ebbed and flowed and changed around her while she remained the same. Static to its frantic forward progress was a state she was used to. Sylvanas, maybe not so much.
“No,” Sylvanas answered. “It’s just weird. Why can I think like this again? I couldn’t until you came here.”
Jaina had no answer for that. She had a feeling. Only a feeling. Only that she and Sylvanas might have already started to tie themselves together. Only that this ritual was really just a formalization. A ceremony, really. A wedding. A funeral. A birthday. All those in one.
Perhaps it was better to call it a hope, rather than a feeling.
“I’m not sure,” Jaina finally told her. “But I’m glad you can. It’s important that you agree to this, Sylvanas. What we mean to do tonight cannot be undone.”
“My only other choice is another sort of death, it seems,” Sylvanas said with a weary shake of her head. Her blonde hair fell around her shoulders so perfectly. “But no, I won’t regret this, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’m not sure what you’re offering me, and I don’t think you are either, but it has to be better than this torment. Anything will be. And you’ve already made it better.”
“I have?” Jaina wondered.
She assumed the opposite. What with her baiting Sylvanas’ anger, then so fickle in changing her mind. With her renovations and her own changes. Not allowing this place to rot. Not letting any of them fall apart.
“I think that it’s because of you I can think again, that I found my strength today,” Sylvanas told her, holding out her arms in front of her to admire the solidness of her own hands. “I can’t tell you why. But I think it was you.”
Jaina had never been so honored and so dumbfounded at the same time. She wanted to reach out for those hands. She wanted them so very much in hers. She wanted it all to be true.
She wanted more than anything not to be so alone anymore.
And that was perhaps the hardest change for her to process, the most difficult truth to swallow.
“When can we start?” Sylvanas asked, putting her hands down and looking at the circle.
“Sunset. We have to wait for sunset. That’s when Samhain really begins,” Jaina told her.
Sylvanas responded with a little smile. A smirk, even. A devastating smirk. She pointed to the window.
And to the fact that the sun had indeed slipped beneath the western horizon, casting the world into darkness. Into Halloween night, with all its fears and promises.
“Is this still something you want to do?” Sylvanas asked, ears perking with curiosity.
“I wouldn’t have made all this mess if I didn’t,” Jaina told her. “And for the record, I think you’ve helped me too. Already.”
“I think so too,” Sylvanas told her with another of her stunning smirks.
After an awkward scramble for matches that she couldn’t find, Jaina decided that tonight of all nights was a time she could let go of some of her magic. Plus, the way Sylvanas looked at her after she lit the candles in the room with a sweep of her hand, as well as shut of the electric light with a small gesture at the end, was worth it.
“What else can you do?” Sylvanas asked in the candlelight.
“Whatever I need to,” Jaina answered, rather cryptically.
Because magic was hard to explain. Very hard. She would do her best, someday. There would be a someday, maybe.
“Where do I stand?” Sylvanas asked.
To that, Jaina only offered her hand.
And finally felt Sylvanas’ settle in hers. With no hesitation. No claws. Just cool calluses. From tools or guitars or whatever. It didn’t matter. It was solid. As real as it had ever been. As close to living as she could ever be again.
A Samhain miracle, at that.
She led them to the center of the circle, holding out her free hand for Sylvanas’ as she looked up at her. Jaina hadn’t expected her to be taller for some reason, but she decided she liked it.
Sylvanas took her other hand.
And Jaina held them up, parallel, so that they pressed forearm to forearm. Hot to cold. Black of her shirt sleeve to the near white of Sylvanas’ blood-drained skin. Jaina had opted for a change of pace that night, as her skirt was the white garment now.
“Repeat what I say, but only if you agree to it,” Jaina told her.
“Okay,” Sylvanas said. Her voice still came out with an odd dual-tone, even in this more solid version of herself. But as soft as it was then, it sounded almost normal.
Jaina let her magic out. She let it drain into the circle, surrounding them, enveloping them in stolen power. Power she hadn’t known she had a reason for stealing until that night.
Power that snatched the deep blue ribbon from its spools on the mantle, and wrapped it around their arms, first the right pair, then the left, but leaving them separate. Rituals were always so strange and obscure. Apparently, that was important.
Jaina had spent days pondering the symbolism of it all. The reasons. But now, she didn’t dare question it. She barely dared to so much as breathe as the ribbon wound them together.
“I bind myself to thee, spirit to spirit,” Jaina spoke as the ribbons pulled themselves taut.
“I bind myself to thee, spirit to spirit,” Sylvanas repeated without so much as a blink. She was ready for this. She had done her thinking.
“I give myself to thee, my power is your power,” Jaina went on.
“I give myself to thee, my power is your power,” Sylvanas said, once again with no hesitation.
Jaina wanted to stop and ask her why. Ask the same question she had before. Why her? Why now? Why, when she knew what Jaina really was? How many lost souls like her she had brought to their final end? Why?
But the room began to smell fragrant. Beyond Jaina’s own cinnamon. Beyond the faint hint of iron that the bloodied Sylvanas was this close up. There was rosemary and sage. Placating herbs for angry spirits. But then there was sandalwood and ginger. Potent herbs meant to help with channeling spells. And then thyme and fennel, which Jaina had never been sure of the usefulness of, save that they smelled savory and inviting--like sausages cooking in the next room over.
“I hold myself to thee, body to body,” Jaina started again.
“I hold myself to thee, body to body,” Sylvanas repeated.
Jaina wasn’t sure if it was the magic surrounding them that pressed them closer, or the strength of the ribbons as their ends pulled off into the darkness beyond the candlelight, or if Sylvanas had simply moved toward her. Either way, she was overwhelmed by the smell of iron and herbs. By the feeling of calm. By the coolness of hands against hers. By acceptance.
Acceptance that she had no right to.
“I intertwine my fate with yours.”
“I intertwine my fate with yours.”
“For as long as we walk this world, together.”
“For as long as we talk this world, together.”
The last word of the spell rang out, softened though by the blanket of magic around them. Like fresh snow, it seemed to absorb the sound. To devour it. To take it.
Jaina was expecting something. Anything, really. A jolting feeling. A pain. A pleasure. A flash of light. A hum of magic. Any sort of sign, really.
But the magic didn’t give her anything as it came streaming back to her, reeled in like an empty hook at the end of a fisherman’s line.
As the ribbons fell away with it, tangling limp at their feet, it left Sylvanas similarly disappointed. “Was that it?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Jaina told her. “I...I did everything that we were supposed to. I had all the herbs. All the circles are drawn. The candles. The ribbon.”
“I thought you said it didn’t matter?” Sylvanas questioned.
Their hands were still in place, held up just above Sylvanas’ broad shoulders. They were pressed close together, so much so that if the blood on Sylvanas’ shirt was real, it would have strained into the black silk of Jaina’s blouse.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Jaina said. Even her words were coming doubled now. Because it felt like this wasn’t over. It couldn’t be. “I tried. I really did.”
“I know. I know you did. I watched you,” Sylvanas told her.
This wasn’t fear she felt. No. Jaina was fearless. This was just panic. Anxiety. Any other word. She had worked for this. She had worked too hard for it to mean nothing.
“I don’t know,” she repeated.
But Sylvanas had not let go of her hands. She held them fast. Held them as she leaned over and kissed her.
Kissed her with lips that were soft and substantial, but barely so. Made of a mockery of flesh, of mist frozen into shape, only temporarily. Only for tonight.
The first kiss Jaina had experienced in decades, and it came from a ghost. A desperate, beautiful ghost.
“Why?” Jaina asked her when she pulled away.
“What if we have to do more?” Sylvanas asked back. “What if we wanted to do more?”
“But...wait, you wanted to?”
The smirk was even more soul-rending this close. “You’re very attractive, Jaina, in case you haven’t noticed. You ask like it’s a punishment. If we’re to be together forever, you’re saying you wouldn’t want me to kiss you?”
“I...I would very much like that, but I didn’t think you would,” Jaina told her. Truthfully, the idea that her fleeting notions and daydreams were even remotely returned was preposterous.
But she should have known. From Sylvanas’ interest. From the way she was always watching her. From the time Jaina caught her doing it when she was in the shower. From a million other little things that now were so obvious to her.
“Then we should do more, do you think?” Sylvanas asked. “Even if it doesn’t work? Even if it doesn’t help? Because I don’t know if we can, other than tonight. Because I want to. You want to, right?”
Jaina dropped her hands, instead wrapping her arms around the other woman’s torso. Holding her as close as she could. Tonight, and hopefully many nights after.
But she didn’t know. She wasn’t sure. Because magic was an inexact and surprising thing. It couldn’t be explained or measured. It didn’t always work the way one expected it to. And Jaina had always, always hated that.
“Then we will,” she said as she held Sylvanas to her, and kissed her for herself.
All doubts melted into cold lips. Lips that became tepid as they played across her own. Arms that wrapped around her too. Arms that steered her toward the couch against the wall, out of the circle.
Jaina wanted to object. Wanted to say that they shouldn’t leave. But that didn’t feel right. This--this felt right. This closeness, this taste. Better than any ribbon could bind them. Sweeter than any scream she’d ever taken.
This was a change she could make. A type of different she could be with ease.
And Sylvanas seemed to agree. With lips and tongue and a hint of elven teeth.
If Jaina were paying more attention, if she was not distracted yet again today, but this time by the reawakening of desire she had long ago banished, given up like a ghost, she might have realized that the blood on Sylvanas’ shirt wasn’t sticking to hers. Because it was gone now. Because it had never been there. Because it was just a memory, a thing dead and gone.
Jaina might have realized that the misty quality of Sylvanas’ flesh was disappearing, along with its coolness. But she was very, very distracting.
She might have realized all this, but she was too busy being sat down on the couch, guided by strong arms and hands, substantial things. But also fantastic things. Arms that had no right to be strong enough to lift her as they did. A graceful neck that had no right to be able to bend as it did to kiss across from shoulder to shoulder. A form that could change, that wasn’t bound by the weight of death, by the sentence of an unresolved, vengeful soul.
Sylvanas sank to her knees onto a floor just as real as she was. To the good honest maple, older even than Jaina, but not so old as the thing Sylvanas was becoming.
Jaina didn’t note any of this as those lips moved from her shoulders and down to her chest. To the buttons that Sylvanas so deftly undid just before placing a kiss on the flesh they revealed.
Jaina had imagined that it might feel like she herself was dying. But that hadn’t scared her. It didn’t seem like it would be pleasant, but pain was a temporary thing. She assumed she would have to share some of Sylvanas’ death with her, in this binding.
But this didn’t feel like death. It felt wonderful. Intimate and sudden. Her heart was racing. She’d never felt more alive, really. More than after any successful hunt, any display of her sheer power, any defiance.
Jaina decided that she would very much not mind at all if this ghost of hers would like to strip her bare on the couch every Samhain. Slowly, methodically. Savoring. Because she was savoring it too.
Savoring the feeling of her hands wandering through silken hair. If she could keep her eyes from fluttering, she might see that it was more golden now. Just a little. She might blame it on the candles. That made more sense. It all made more sense than this.
Yet less. Because the only thing that made sense now was how Sylvanas’ head came back up between her legs once she had rendered them free of the last bit of clothing. No more black and white. No more rules and rituals.
Jaina liked things better without rules anyway.
She liked the feeling of long ears brushing the insides of her tights, of warm breath against them too.
“You smell amazing,” Sylvanas muttered as she turned to place a kiss where her ear had flicked just before.
“Like what?” Jaina panted. She had to know. It came out hard and fast, a demand.
“Mulled wine. Cinnamon. Like Christmas,” Sylvanas replied, turning to kiss the other thigh.
Jaina laughed. She laughed in a way she could never explain. Of course. Of course it was cinnamon for her too.
But she drowned that laugh in a kiss, as she pulled Sylvanas halfway up to meet her. A kiss that lingered and lingered. A warmth that built and built between them.
It was fitting then, that Sylvanas only broke it to kiss her way down Jaina’s stomach. Down to where she had been before, and more. Until she was seeking more. Until their roles had reversed rather poignantly. If Jaina were not so distracted by this, she might have laughed again that she was a witch being eaten by a ghost, as it were.
But Sylvanas was very talented with her mouth. And her tongue was very long. Maybe a little too long. But Jaina was not complaining. She was only holding her tighter to herself. Only wrapping her hands in more of that soft, wonderful hair.
Because she didn’t want this to end. Even though she was quickly reaching her peak. It wasn’t about that. It had never been about that.
This closeness. This intimacy. How had she gone so long without it? Rejecting it? She could never make herself feel like this. And Sylvanas wanted this. She wanted her. She needed her too, but she wanted her.
Jaina had never felt so powerful as when she unravelled, gasping. She had never felt so free. She had never felt so revered as she finally managed to open her eyes to watch as Sylvanas brought her down gently, kissing away the mess she had made of her.
“You’ve done that before,” Jaina panted as Sylvanas noticed and smiled up at her, eyes red and shining, but soft now.
“Ask Anya, or any of the other girls at the station,” Sylvanas noted smugly.
“Did Nathanos know?” Jaina laughed.
“I don’t think he ever got the hint, no,” Sylvanas chuckled.
“Come here,” Jaina demanded, but this time softer. She didn’t have any hardness in her. Not now. She felt as if she were made of jello. Or mist. Misty jello.
Sylvanas got off her knees and into Jaina’s lap. The weight of her should have been somewhat surprising, but it wasn’t. It was, but Jaina didn’t register it. Her new hunger demanded to be sated before it would allow her brain to examine the details.
Because the only detail she cared about was gathering Sylvanas to her. Pulling that too tight baseball tee off her. Shimmying her out of those seventies jeans. Not asking herself enough questions to push her back and check for a stab wound in her heart, to wonder where the blood that had covered her before went.
Because she just wanted her close. As close she could be. As close as she might have her, only for that night.
Because she still thought that it might only be tonight.
Jaina set her lips to skin that seemed to ripple beneath her touches, but explained it to herself as the night lingering on, and its power over her companion fading. Not that the flesh had changed, and could change some more.
Could change into a cat or a rat. A crow or a raven. An owl or a mouse. A creature, neither alive nor dead. A thing of magic and little certainty. A being with very little rules to its existence, save its bond to the witch who had made it. Who had saved it.
Jaina’s own heartbeat echoed frantically in her ears. She smelled cinnamon and sweat and candle flame. Sylvanas sighed contentedly into her ear, then moaned softly as one of Jaina’s hands made its way between her legs.
Even finding her warm and wet there, Jaina didn’t stop to question it. She just knew that she very much wanted to return the favor. That she wanted, for once, for someone else to matter more than her.
And even decades removed from the practice as she was, it turned out that she remembered, just as Sylvanas had, how to please another woman. Witch or ghost or mortal, her fingers didn’t know the difference. There was none. Not when that woman was crying out against her neck, panting through her own release.
This was a magic of its own kind. A magic that stretched over them as Jaina twisted and laid down on the couch, dragging a still shuddering Sylvanas on top of her.
“You’ve done that before,” Sylvanas eventually recovered enough to laugh out.
“Ask all the other witches in the college at Dalaran,” Jaina answered.
“What’s Dalaran?” Sylvanas asked as she burrowed her face in Jaina’s neck, kissing as she went.
“I’ll tell you someday,” Jaina offered.
“What if we don’t have a someday?” Sylvanas asked again, pausing in her attentions to lean herself up on Jaina chest and look her in the eye.
Jaina knew then, in that moment, that wasn’t fearless. Not anymore. Because Sylvanas was right. Everyone was afraid of something. For some people it was specific things, creepy crawlies like spiders or snakes. For others, it was broader concepts--death, failure, sickness.
But as for Jaina, she had only one real fear. And it was that she would wake up alone again that next morning. And the morning after that. Because she knew now that she didn’t have to be, and that she couldn’t go back to that life. Not anymore.
“Then I shall tell you tonight,” Jaina started, pulling Sylvanas back to her, skin touching as much skin as she would allow. “But know that we don’t like Dalaran. It’s a silly place full of old people who think they know better than us.”
So she held Sylvanas close and answered every question she asked. She ran fingers along her back and through her hair and over her lips. She made her tremble and shake between questions, just as many times as Sylvanas did the same for her. And she hoped. She prayed.
Jaina was afraid, but she wouldn’t dare tell anyone that. She wouldn’t dare let it show that night? And why would she bother? Sylvanas already knew. She’d known before she had herself.
She was afraid if she let go of Sylvanas, that she would disappear forever, so she didn’t let go until the sun had nearly risen. Until sleep claimed her and her arms slackened.
Until it claimed both of them.
“Honestly Andy, I don’t think Miss Jaina is going to have anything for you,” Varian said as he put the truck into park. “Are you sure you don’t want to go straight into town?”
Anduin shook his head. He knew better. He knew so much better. He knew about mummies and how to tie all kinds of knots. He knew what was good and what was bad. He knew how to spell Mississippi. And he knew his dad didn’t like Miss Jaina, but he did. He liked her very much.
“She gave me a king size Snickers, dad,” he informed Varian. “She’ll have something to donate. You don’t have to go with me if you don’t want to.”
“It’s not that, buddy. Miss Jaina’s just...well she’s not like us,” Varian tried to explain.
“That doesn’t mean she won’t want to give leftover candy to the soldiers,” Anduin noted as he unbuckled his seatbelt, and took matters into his own hands, opening the heavy passenger door of the truck for himself.
If his father had any further objections, then he didn’t bother to voice them. Not with Anduin already sliding out of the truck, bucket in hand.
But he also didn’t get out of the truck to go with him. Anduin was pretty sure his dad was afraid of Miss Jaina, but he wasn’t. She was always nice to him.
He knocked on the black door to the white farmhouse. It had been white too, once, but Miss Jaina painted it black. Anduin liked it better that way. He might have painted it blue, though. Like his room. Like his favorite Hot Wheels.
It took a while for Miss Jaina to answer the door, but he could hear her walking around. His dad had told him that patience was a virtue, and that was one thing that Anduin thought was smart of him to say. He didn’t always say smart things, but sometimes he did. Sometimes, Anduin even listened to them.
So he waited, rocking back and forth on his heels on the front porch, poking at the pumpkins.
“Mister Anduin,” Jaina greeted him when she finally did open the door. “I believe Halloween was yesterday?”
Her cheeks were red and her hair wasn’t in the braid she usually wore. Mostly, Anduin noticed the absence of her big hat. The one that made her look like the witch she told him she was. That he couldn’t decide if he believed she was or not.
He didn’t make a remark about it either way, remembering instead that he was there for a reason. The same one that was every November first. “It was, but I was here to ask if you had any leftover Halloween candy you’d like to donate. My troop goes around town to collect it every year. We send it to our soldiers overseas in care packages,” he explained.
The scout uniform he so proudly wore today should have been explanation enough, really, but maybe scouts didn’t do this whereve Miss Jaina was from. Wherever she was before she bought this haunted house and moved next door to him.
“What a noble cause,” Jaina said with a smile. “I’m sure I can find something. Just wait right there, Mister Anduin.”
Anduin nodded up at her, holding the door she left ajar for him while she went back into the kitchen.
And now that she wasn’t blocking the door frame, he could see inside. Miss Jaina’s house was always really clean. It always smelled nice. Like fruit snacks.
But he’d never seen the lady that was sitting at her kitchen island before. A pretty elf lady in funny clothes, but not clothes like Miss Jaina wore. Clothes like old cartoons. Like Scooby Doo.
She winked at him. Her eyes were red, but she had a pretty smile.
Jaina came back with a handful of things, but no more king size Snickers. Anduin held up his bucket for her to put them in regardless. “Thank you, Miss Jaina. I’m sure this will help brighten up a soldier’s day,” he told her.
“We should all strive to make each other’s days brighter as much as you do, Mister Anduin. Good luck with your collection today,” she offered.
Anduin nodded to that. Miss Jaina was very smart. She always said smart things. Another reason to like her.
She started to shut the door, and Anduin started to walk away. But then he turned around and asked, “Miss Jaina who is your friend?”
“In your kitchen,” Anduin elaborated.
“Ah, yes, my friend,” Jaina said, grinning through the crack in the door as she held it open.
“I’ve never seen her before, but I think it’s good you have friends. I hope you have a nice time with your friend,” he told her. “Good night, Miss Jaina.”
“Good night, Mister Anduin,” she bade him before shutting the door for real this time.
Anduin hummed happily to himself as he jogged back to his dad’s truck, crawling back into the high passenger’s seat next to his dad and proudly showing off Jaina’s donation to him.
“See, she did have candy,” Anduin said as he buckled himself back in. “And she said it was ‘a noble cause’.”
“You were right then, buddy,” Varian admitted, chuckling a little and shaking his head. He started the truck up again, and the engine rattled to life. “Ready to go into town now?”
“Yup,” Anduin told him when he finally got his seatbelt to latch.
Varian turned around to look out the back window and back down Jaina’s driveway again and back to the road. Anduin wondered if he would turn around in time to see Miss Jaina and her friend dancing in the living room window, but if he did, then he didn’t say anything.
But Miss Jaina looked very happy, and her friend was very pretty.