Chapter 1: Uninvited
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.
Chapter 2: Communication
Today's moods: Making up more ghost-eating witch lore, oops I put 70s music in a fic again, and oh no it's a four-parter now...
Also please check out this AMAZING fanart that Zellk did of witch Jaina: https://zellkasin.tumblr.com/post/631625804550373376/i-love-one-woman-and-her-name-is-jaina-reckless
It's like they were literally inside of my head and pulled her out and frankly I am a little scared.
Jaina returned to the back bedroom when the sun was still hovering on the horizon. Even that was a bit of a risk, but the taste of the adrenaline hit a little differently now. She could still feel it spark within her veins as she started pulling at the copper wire, lifting it from the electrical tape and scorch marks it had left behind on the wallpaper. Streaks of black followed the faded pattern of stripes and leaves here and there. A few of them pulled away in patches as Jaina rolled the wire around her hands, leaving chunks of dark ash on the floor.
“I think that maybe you and I haven’t gotten off to the best of starts. What we’re lacking, really, is communication,” Jaina offered.
The banshee had nothing to say to that. And honestly, it was probably for the best.
But that wasn’t going to keep Jaina from trying.
She’d made it all the way back to the door, and tugged the last strip of tape away from the wall with one good yank. She tossed the bundle of wire and adhesive into the hallway behind her, clapping the ash off her hands a few times for good measure.
“So let’s communicate,” Jaina continued as she followed the bundle for a moment, ducking into the room she had claimed for herself, and coming back only when she had retrieved two simple items.
A pen, which she uncapped and tested on the corner of a simple yellow steno pad, leaving behind a simple looping swirl in black ink.
Because if the ghost could manipulate, then it could write.
“I’ve never tried this before,” Jaina confessed aloud as she set the pad of paper down in the center of the empty room and set the pen gently on top of it. “Usually, I don’t have time for this flavor of fact finding. But for you, I will make an exception.”
She then kicked at the dust and ash and plaster on the floor. Tsking, she gave a shove with her magic to sweep a small area clean. Only then did she sit, cross-legged on the floorboards. Maple again. Funny, most houses this old were pine. Here, the floor felt less solid, but more severe. Colder on the bare bits of her thighs and calves that brushed it, but not near as bone-chilling as the last time her ghost had spoken to her.
“For you, I will listen,” Jaina told her.
She unfurled herself, as she had the first night she’d spent in the house after buying it. Spreading herself was so easy. The act of containing it was the hard part, really. Jaina always felt as if she could be everywhere at once. Watching. Acting. Experiencing. It was intoxicating, being so present and so large. Something more. Something greater.
But even as she crawled her presence throughout the room, then down the hall, over the shower drain, tumbling over the stairs, and out into the foyer, she couldn’t sense another. No ghost. No banshee. No singing or wailing.
“Where are you?” Jaina asked.
She wasn’t in the living room. She wasn’t in the kitchen. She wasn’t in the guest bath, or the mudroom. Not even on the porch.
“Sylvanas. Sylvanas Windrunner.”
It was a pretty name. Jaina liked the way it rolled off her tongue, past her teeth, shaping and molding against them until the sound was right.
But there was a power in names. Even mortal beings of the unextraordinary kind knew this. It was why customs like saying a person’s name and shaking their hand existed. Why you signed it to finalize a contract or a sale. Names were binding things. Just words, sure, but words that were given power when they were attached to people.
Or in this case, something that had once been a person.
Something that did not like being called, like some sort of dog. Jaina felt her snap to attention. The whole house reacted with the spirit, like a whip being cracked, snapping taut with tension, then releasing with fire and fury. It sent Jaina reeling back to herself, slamming her consciousness back into her body in a move so fast it almost felt like a reflex. Almost like fear.
But no. Not that. She wasn’t afraid of anything.
Jaina opened her eyes, and leaned over to see if anything had been written on the steno pad. Nothing. The pen was right where she left it.
“Now that I have your attention--” she started.
The pen rolled. Just slightly. Enough that it might have been something one would blame on the wind. A breeze lifting the page it was on. Only there was no breeze. Even if Jaina wanted to open the windows in here, they were long wedged shut--probably even painted over a few times by now, or their maybe mechanisms were too rusted to move properly.
And Jaina wasn’t one to blame the wind. She knew better.
“That’s it,” she encouraged. “I know who you are now. It’s only fair I offer you a proper introduction in return. I’m Jaina Proudmoore. A name for a name, banshee.”
A daring compromise, but a ghost couldn’t do much with her name. And it was worth very little, sadly. Jaina was too well-known, or perhaps too infamous for her name to have any real value. But she was used to bluffing with whatever shitty hand she had. It had served her well enough before.
The room felt stale. As stale as those unmovable windows could make it and more. Like the air itself was thick.
If the wires and the multimeter were up, and still functional, Jaina was pretty sure they’d be reacting. But she didn’t need them anymore. She knew where the ghost was. She knew how to call on it. How to anger it.
Now she just had to learn how to speak to it.
Jaina felt that thickness pass through her. It made her feel as though she weighed twice as much, but only for a moment. As if gravity’s effect of sticking her to the floorboards was amplified, then gone, and her left all the lighter for it.
The pen rolled again, then stood up straight as a soldier. Jaina watched as it drew a line, then another at the bottom of it, forming a clean right angle, right between a set of blue lines.
A letter “L”.
Jaina grinned. “Go on now.”
Another letter followed. Slowly, so annoyingly slowly. Another straight line, then three branching horizontally off of it. An “E”.
Let’s talk, maybe?
Despite how long this was taking, Jaina felt a familiar elation taking over. Progress, she realized, was her constant craving, and it was apparently satisfied by less violent means as well. Who would know? Certainly not Jaina. Certainly not after all this time, hunting and hunting. Always alone. Always hungry.
The next letter was forming. One slanted line, then another mirroring it. Another crossing between them. An “A”.
Her ghost had very neat handwriting. Precise and efficient. No, she shouldn’t be thinking of it as her ghost. Not anymore. Sylvanas. She had a name. One that she had responded to.
Before Jaina could try to puzzle out what other words could fit in, Sylvanas seemed to get the hang of writing, and finished the last two letters quickly. A “V” and another “E”.
Jaina leaned back, her thighs coming in contact with the cold floor yet again beneath her skirt. The black fabric swirled in the dust at the edge of her spot.
“Well, I already told you I wasn’t going to do that,” Jaina replied. “I’m afraid that option is off the table. So, do you have anything else to say?”
The pen moved once more. It politely skipped a line before writing again. L, E, A, V…
“No,” Jaina told her before she could even finish the E.
She could feel the air energize with the scream that was about to rip through it. The power. The force of it. So raw and intrinsic. And it was only getting stronger.
The scream would have shattered the psyche of a lesser being. And though Jaina winced at it when it finally tore free from the air around her--from the barest edge of an almost imagined silhouette of a woman, tall and elven and unmistakably beautiful--she did not break. She was never close to breaking.
To the trained eye, her own soft blue eyes just glowed slightly as she stood, lighting up as if she were one of her own electronic indicators. Truth be told, she hardly needed a multimeter, or a radio, or any other host of charged devices. Jaina herself was rippling with current, one that made more sense to her than it would to a twisting of wires and metal. She withstood the scream because she was able to absorb the power of it. Only a fraction, but just enough for her to taste it on the back of her tongue.
This one tasted like tears. Salty and wet. Like sobs that would render a throat dry and coughing.
“Are you quite finished?” Jaina asked the ghost. No. Sylvanas. “Don’t be rude, Sylvanas.”
She steeled herself for the next one. She didn’t even wince, as she was ready for it. Open to it. Like a lightning strike to her nervous system, but pleasant. No, more than that. Pleasurable. Deeply so.
This one tasted like bile. Foul, but Jaina relished it like candy.
Or at least she did, until she shook herself from that. No. That wasn’t what she was here for.
“I’ll let you think about it,” Jaina offered, turning on her heels and leaving the room entirely. Walking away. Giving up.
That, it turned out, tasted like a different kind of bile.
Jaina looked up to find a familiar little figure waving at her from the bike racks outside of the library. Little Anduin Wrynn seemed to be in the middle of unlocking his bicycle from them. A blue bookbag on his shoulders was slumped low on his back, no doubt filled with prizes from within the low brick building that Jaina had spent the morning seeking out.
“Mister Anduin,” she greeted him with a tip of her wide-brimmed hat. “Fancy seeing you here in town.”
And without his hulking father around, it would seem. Jaina scanned the street for Varian, expecting to have him come swooping in at any moment, but only noticed a few other kids down the street, headed toward the park. They paid neither her nor Anduin any mind.
“I go to school here,” he pointed out astutely.
Right, that likely had started up again. It was August, after all. Or no...September already. How the days had flown by.
It was a decent bike ride from the Wrynn property to here, but not overlong. Jaina gathered that Varian probably thought such physical exertion to be helpful for his young son. Probably because of how small he was, how slight and scrawny. She wondered how many other things the man put his boy through in hopes of making him into a little mirror of himself.
Such was the way with sons and fathers. Daughters and mothers too, Jaina thought with an inward cringe.
“At the library? Fascinating,” Jaina noted.
Anduin laughed. “No, in town. You know what I meant.”
“I did. Just joking. But you do visit the library?” Jaina asked.
Anduin nodded to this, then hefted his heavy bookbag higher onto his shoulders. “All the time. I got a book about mummies today. And some Hardy Boys books too.”
“Solid choices,” Jaina said with a nod of her own.
Anduin beamed at that. She was so certain she’d scared him off before. Damn. As easy as he was to charm, she could see how nosy he was. She could smell it on him. If she were a child-eating witch from the old fairy tales--a mockery of her reality, really--then Anduin would be the type of child she would eat first. Too curious. Too kind. Trouble incarnate.
But gullible, that was for certain. Were she to dare lie to him.
“I’m here to do some reading of my own, but of the much less exciting sort than yours,” she told him.
Another gaggle of kids on bikes was rolling up the street. Anduin’s eyes flicked to them, and one of the boys called out to him.
“I gotta go,” he explained as he went back to dragging his bike out of the rack. “But Miss Jaina, did you find the ghost yet?”
Ah. So he hadn’t forgotten their conversation. Of course he hadn’t. Jaina was nothing if an excellent judge of character. A curse and a blessing, really. One that had nothing to do with the magic she had been born with, or that which she had stolen from the restless spirits of this world.
“Yes,” Jaina answered.
“Did you eat it?” Anduin asked her. “And like, how do you eat it?”
“That is a very simple question, but one that has a complicated answer. To both questions, really. Go play with your friends, Mister Anduin. Ask me another time,” Jaina bade him.
“Will you tell me?” Anduin pressed as he mounted his bike.
“Eventually,” Jaina offered.
She felt the truth in the word as she spoke it. There was no getting out of it now. Well, unless she waited until he got too old, and lost interest in trying to grasp curious and wild things that he didn’t understand. Like mummies, or witches who ate ghosts and probably smelled like spaghetti and chocolate milk to him.
That was enough to get him to grin at her and speed off after the other kids.
“Your full name?” the librarian asked.
Funny, how Jaina hesitated to give this information out to an old woman, typing away at a new computer, when she had just given it freely to a powerful ghost.
But library cards, she supposed, were just as binding as any contract. Just as severe.
“Jaina Proudmoore,” she eventually answered.
“You need the whole thing? Not just an initial?” Jaina questioned.
The woman tapped impatiently at her keyboard. “That’s what the system asks for, ma’am. I’m just doing my job.”
Jaina wanted to first be aghast that this woman would dare call her ma’am and not miss, for one. But that shock was enough to drive the name from her lips, “Fine, Cynthia.”
She expected some sort of reaction. Some small talk about how the woman had a grandchild with that name, or a cousin. Some bullshit like that.
Instead, she was met only with another question, “Address?”
“240 County Road F,” Jaina answered.
At least that deserved a comment. The woman looked around the edge of the giant square monitor she sat behind and asked, “The haunted place?”
Libraries were a familiar destination for Jaina. They had been her entire life. They might have changed a bit over time, mostly to become much less glamorous and more functional, but they served a hunter like her quite well. Even within the yellowed cinderblock walls of this one, sinking into an ugly chair of glossy wood and an obnoxious patterned fabric, she was able to quickly find what she needed.
And yes, just as she had promised the old librarian, she did indeed know how to work a microfilm machine. Another essential tool for a modern hunter. Even small towns like this did an excellent job at keeping their records--from mundane things such as garage sale advertisements and the scores of high school football games. Or more important things, like births and deaths. Crimes and murders.
An apologetic call to Modera that morning had gotten her the year that Sylvanas Windrunner died. 1978. Twenty years ago. A short time for Jaina. A long time for this town, surely.
But Jaina had a reel of the Daily Star, the town newspaper, from that year, loaded up and ready to go. She stared down the front page of January first, and let out a sigh. She only had the year. Maybe she should have waited for Modera to send her that package.
But what else was she going to do with her day? Harass Harlan down at the hardware store? Feed her chickens? Poke around the ruins of the old barn?
That was the thing about hunting. It was a lot of waiting for so little excitement. So little charge. So precious little.
“But you’re not hunting,” Jaina mumbled to herself under her breath as she started the film spinning across the plate, slowly, scanning briefly over the pages as they flew by, looking for a headline. A name.
Sylvanas Windrunner. She didn’t hunt things with names.
So what was she doing, then? Looking for topics of conversation? Yes, Sylvanas, what was it like to die? And why are you so pissed off about it?
And for that matter, why wasn’t Jaina hunting her anyway?
She banished that thought when she found her first page of obituaries. No Windrunner. Just old people dying peacefully in their sleep and leaving behind hordes of grandchildren.
Fuck. This was going to take ages.
Jaina only made it to mid-June before the librarian all but kicked her out. What kind of library closed at six in the evening? Apparently this one.
Jaina left it with nothing more than she came in with, save a brand new library card. A crude thing, printed on baby blue paper and laminated unevenly. Ah well. She would come back tomorrow to finish out the rest of 1978. Or maybe she’d swallow some of her pride and call Modera again tonight.
She’d parked by the restaurant across the street. Hers was, of course, the only BMW in the midst of countless pickup trucks. A little ‘92 black convertible that was starting to look its age. Jaina frowned. Maybe it was time to think about finding herself another set of wheels. That little car was so reliable, though.
What the fuck? Who was she anymore?
Just as Jaina spiraled into self-contemplation as she unlocked the driver’s side door, a whistle drew her attention to the restaurant’s porch. To the seven old women who sat in the rocking chairs that lined it, like ducks in a row. Ducks who wore stark contrasts of black and white. Ducks whose eyes shined in the light, just slightly. Ducks who would smell like cinnamon to Jaina, if she got close enough.
“I thought we told you to stay away from this place, Proudmoore,” the witch nearest to the door said, venom dripping from her tone, even though she didn’t bother to get up from her rocker.
“Funny you should say that. You know my name, precisely because you know one thing about me. Because you know I don’t like to play by the rules,” Jaina replied, leaning against the BMW and crossing her arms.
The next one in the line coughed out her reply to that, “We know your name because you’re still alive and smart enough to follow the rules that let you stay that way. Leave this place, Jaina Proudmoore. Do not come back.”
Jaina grinned. She grinned for so many reasons. Because she knew these hags would find her again. Because she had prepared for this moment. Because she knew that her eyes shined brighter than theirs did by tenfold. That they always would.
“Funny. You’re all very funny. But you’re right, you know,” Jaina told them. “To break the rules efficiently, one has to know them well. See, you can’t chase me off. Even if you chant my name over and over, like it matters. I bought the place. Go check at your lovely city hall over there. I own that house and the banshee you’re too scared to fight--as a full coven, no less. That’s a contract that I believe even the likes of you have to honor.”
The heads of the witches all turned back to the first in the line in rapid succession. Their leader. They balked, looking for her to refute the claim somehow.
Instead, the witch recoiled. “You’re as mad as they say. She’ll kill you. She’ll rend you flesh from bone, magic from spirit. You will be nothing but scraps. Nothing but dust.”
“No offense, my dear sisters, but I believe you’ve overestimated her,” Jaina told them.
The third in the line was the first to finally get up out of her rocker. The effort that it took was admirable. Such old bones. So underfed, living only on the scraps that this small town would give them from its few and far between tragedies.
It was a wonder she could move at all.
“You are a disgrace to your kind,” the woman spat. “No better than a whore walking the streets! And worse than that, you’re a fool.”
Jaina laughed. She had expected better from this lot. She didn’t even know their names. She hadn’t tried to find them out. Why bother? Small town witches meant nothing to her, and these just trying to get in her way. Just like every other witch she’d met in her life.
“You’re just angry that I’ve taken your prey out from under you,” Jaina commented, crossing her arms as she leaned more of her weight onto the car. “Look at all of you. So frail. You must be starved out here. You were probably planning to circle her like vultures, pecking at the poor thing until she was weak enough for you to eat.”
The fourth in line piped up this time, but hung her head low as she said, “We found her too late. The town had already taken their vengeance. It--”
“Shut up!” the fifth in line admonished her, smacking at her wearily with a cane that she was holding across her lap. “You’ve said too much already. This one wasn’t fit for the secrets of Dalaran. Do you think her worthy to know ours?”
Ah yes, there it was. Her staggering infamy. Jaina Proudmoore, the witch who was ejected from Dalaran. The witch who was given every opportunity in life to succeed and do well, and had chosen to burn them all down. So they even knew about that here, out in the corn fields and nothingness of this place.
“Even if you were to share your secrets, I wouldn’t share my hunt with you. If you know so much about me ladies, then you know that first and foremost,” Jaina told them.
“We have no desire to meet hell any earlier than need be,” the sixth witch in the line snapped at that. “We know what happens to those who hunt with you.”
And that too, Jaina would never escape. She sighed, but didn’t lose the laugh in her voice all the same. “Then I am afraid we are at an impasse. Good day, ladies. I have a banshee to get back to. I trust you haven’t used any of your precious magic to fuck with my car now, or are you that petty?”
The seventh followed her other sister in suit, standing as she pointed to Jaina. “Heretic! Fiend!”
“Begone!” the first witch shouted.
The others followed soon after, standing on their spindly legs, chanting the word at Jaina like a Greek chorus.
She rolled her eyes and stuck the key into the door of her car again, unlocking it.
“Hey!” a little voice shouted from across the street.
Jaina turned behind her to find little Anduin astride his bike, stopped out front of the library again, legs spread in a stance across the seat that belied so much anger, so much daring in his small frame.
“Leave Miss Jaina alone!” he cried at the old women.
Jaina wondered how they seemed to him. A gaggle of grannies that never appeared to get any older than they already were, who didn’t have any children or grandchildren of note to dote on them. They would always be together. Always seem just barely out of place. Yet this town had them, as so many others did. And no one seemed to understand why they found it so easy to accept that fact. Or just how much they owed the old women who would sit on their porches and sneer at them in their black frocks and white stockings, knowing exactly why they had reason to sneer.
The witches were probably not used to drawing that much notice. At least, certainly not from a little boy, who had every reason to steer clear of the “mean old ladies” in town. A brave little boy, certainly. A foolish one.
Jaina found that she was reconsidering her decision about little Anduin Wrynn. She wouldn’t eat him first, if she were to eat children instead of ghosts. He was moving further down the line of priorities now, for all his bold displays.
She waved at him as the chanting quieted, tipping her hat to him again as she said, “Thank you, Mister Anduin. Please ignore these ladies and go on home. I’ll be alright.”
And she was. Even as she slid into the black leather of her seat, warm from the sun of a summer lingering overlong. Jaina could take a heckling. A beating. She could take much more than that.
She was made of different stuff than these witches. She was made to be so much more than them.
Jaina was finding herself flowing into a little routine as the sun began to set. She stowed her BMW in the very nice garage--a framed steel outbuilding while the rest of the buildings on the property were wood. She rounded the back of the house without going inside to check on her chicks in their little coop near the back door. All four pecked eagerly at the handfuls of grain she tossed into their small, fenced area. A trip for chicken wire the day before had brought that about, and had seen her reunited with Harlan again, in all his infinite wisdom.
Her feathered charges were doing well, though they seemed to care more about the grain she scattered on the ground than her, or anything else, for that matter.
Then she came in the house through the back, checking lines of salt across the door frame for disturbances, which there were none. Sylvanas never tried to leave the house. Curious behavior, for a banshee, who was meant to go out and seek her path of death and destruction.
Then Jaina made herself dinner. Because even if she ate ghosts, her stomach would not be satisfied on such incorporeal things, and demanded real, physical sustenance. Such a bother. Today, she opted for boxed mac and cheese, simply because it was quick and easy. Not because it tasted good. Really, once one had tasted the essence of a spirit, no mortal food would suffice to do anything beyond satisfying hunger. Not anymore.
But, Jaina did what she always did. She did what she had to in order to survive, and to thrive. As was her right. As was her purpose.
And in thinking on said purpose, she threw her dishes in the sink to be dealt with later, or perhaps to be set upon by an enchanted sponge if she were feeling wasteful in that later time, and made her way upstairs. Just as the darkness fell over the world like a blanket. Just on the edge of night.
Because in all things, there was a balance. Day and night. Living and dead. Black and white. And no one knew that better than a witch.
Still, Jaina flipped on all the lights in her wake, from the stairs to the hall, and even into the back bedroom, where she stood above the steno pad she’d left on the floor.
She had to squat down to make sure. But yes, she wasn’t seeing things. Every square inch of it. Every bit of yellow paper was covered in words. Well, just one word, repeated over and over again.
“And here I thought you’d be reasonable if I let you think it over,” Jaina sighed.
She snatched up the pen and paper, finding that three more pages behind this one had been similarly marred. And even then, the ghost gave up. The last instance of the word trailed off, its lines quaking, halfway through the third page.
Jaina frowned. She would expect the whole pad to be filled, with this kind of behavior. Why give up? Why show weakness to someone you were trying so desperately to drive out?
“Sylvanas,” Jaina whispered. “What’s wrong with you?”
The pressure in the room changed so suddenly, dropping as if a Thunderstorm had literally formed in an instant above Jaina’s very head. But it was all around her. Within and without her. A ghost being called by its name.
But Sylvanas didn’t scream at her this time. She didn’t trumpet her impotent fury. Instead, she did what she had been doing since Jaina first started stalking the halls of this house, long before she held the deed.
She wailed. She cried as only banshees could. All rage and frustration. A grief that no one could measure.
Jaina could feel her more than she could see her, but the feeling of that shape was becoming distinct. Enough for Jaina to know that she was by the window. Why was she always by the window when she wailed?
The wall there had been particularly charred by her last electric tantrum. A foot wide strip of wall around where the wire had been was blackened with ash. And it was there that Jaina first saw the movement. A shape of light against the darkness. A hand, barely more than the suggestion of a few fingers and a thumb. These raked through the ash before they crawled up the wall in a straight line. Vertical. Then horizontal. Then vertical again. And three horizontal ones coming off of it.
Then again to the ash, then again above it. Wailing all the while, as she spelled out the word “LEAVE” yet again, though this time in much larger scale. In the drag of fingers. A solidifying. A corporeal manifestation. Only partial, yes, but there. Jaina cursed herself for not bringing her camera with her. No doubt she could have gotten a much better picture of the whole ghost this time.
And with it perhaps an answer as to why she wanted that so badly. More even than the wail that charged her now, with the barest taste of bitterness on her tongue.
“I’m not leaving,” Jaina said as she stood to face the word that now emblazoned half of the back wall.
The outline of the hand disappeared, but the pressure remained. The letters smudged all at once. A wash of dry greyness left in their wake, streaking now across the stripes and leaves of what had once been the wallpaper here, in this room. Sylvanas’ room, no doubt.
What had happened here, back in ‘78? What had the witch on the porch before been so close to telling her?
“Pathetic, broken banshee,” Jaina cursed. “Tell me something useful! Anything!”
But Sylvanas did not. She only wailed. She wailed at the window. And she kept at it long after Jaina let her be. Long into the night when Jaina tried to sleep. When the wailing kept her up, and jarred her from the book she was pretending to read, until it felt like she was reading the same line over and over again. Until dawn. Until the only sound breaking the silence was a rooster crowing.
“I have no choice,” Jaina told him as she scooped the bird up from her lawn. “I am afraid that you must be Zeus. You are large. You are white as a lightning strike in the night. And you are a grade A asshole.”
Zeus, who had led her on a merry chase around the house, didn’t object further as he was dumped unceremoniously into the pen with Jaina’s quickly growing black chickens. Black chickens who, despite having mostly masculine names, were all supposed to be hens. So far, it seemed they were growing into hen-shaped things.
There was a balance to things, after all. White to black. Good to bad. Roosters to hens.
Even success to failure, as it were.
“Modera, I could kiss you,” Jaina almost shouted into the receiver.
“I take it you got my letter?” Modera asked on the other end. Gleeful and smug about it, as usual. “But please don’t. I prefer my women older, not younger.”
“Gross. And I would hardly consider it a letter. This, Modera, is worthy of being called a packet,” Jaina told her, waving the thick manilla envelope around as if Modera could somehow see it.
“If only you were as excited about all the packets you were given during your training. Well, then I suppose you wouldn’t need this one, would you?” Modera pondered. “Still, I’m glad it made its way to you. You would have saved me a small fortune in postage if you’d just get a computer and an email address.”
“Uck. They’re so--”
“I know, they’re so ugly and so expensive.”
Jaina rolled her eyes. It was true. Besides, the written word was so impersonal. So cold. Especially on a digital screen. “Like you paid for that postage anyway,” she scoffed.
“Well, I’m not hand delivering it, that’s for sure,” Modera informed her.
“You’re still coming to visit eventually. I caught a rooster today. You need to see him,” Jaina informed her.
“Excuse me? Caught? Like it was running wild?”
“It probably got loose from a neighboring farm. But it was crowing in my yard at dawn today. Fair game. My rooster now,” Jaina stated plainly.
“It’s official then. You really have lost your mind. I was wondering when it would happen, and how. Chasing chickens was not part of the betting pool we made for it,” Modera told her.
“And what was your money on then?”
“Prolonged phantom possession, but mostly for the illertation,” Modera noted with a snort.
“Never,” Jaina scoffed. “Phantoms are so boring. Barely worth hunting. Make me die to something fun, at least.”
“Not die, Jaina,” Modera said with a click of her tongue. “I don’t think you’ll ever really die. You’re too stubborn.”
“Thanks for believing in me,” Jaina sneered as she began to leaf through the packet of information.
“After all these years, you think I’d know better, but I’ve yet to learn. I still keep risking myself to help you. You, who says you don’t need any help,” Modera reminded her.
And that was true. All true. Modera was calling from Dalaran. From a city where normal people were not allowed and a city that they did not know about. It wasn’t on any maps. The phones routed through various real places to there, because even magic couldn’t solve the problem of long distance communication so easily as modern technology could. Even the return address on Modera’s envelope said “The University of Cleveland”.
Modera had certainly never set foot in Ohio, of all places.
No, she had been in Dalaran as long as Jaina had been alive, and far longer even than that. She’d been a teacher once, a mentor to aspiring young witches that were welcomed into the city of magic, but had since given that job up to pursue life as a researcher, helping to find ghosts for other witches to hunt.
Other witches with the blessing of the city. Other witches, who hunted in their covens, in designated territories. Not alone, roaming the world, breaking unspoken and bespoke laws alike, and looking for the ghosts that other witches had the sense to leave alone.
But just because Jaina was banned from entering Dalaran ever again, didn’t mean that anyone from Dalaran was necessarily banned from speaking to her. She had friends. Well. Acquaintances. Former colleagues. Peers. Modera wasn’t really in any danger due to her, right?
“Modera, are we friends?” Jaina asked, her curiosity genuine.
“Why do you ask? Not enough info in there for you? It was all I could find,” Modera challenged.
“No. Nevermind,” Jaina said. “This is lovely. Just perfect.”
This was the headline that Jaina had been trying to find before, printed and ready for her. A city newspaper, not the town one. And in July, so she never would have found it anyway. At least, not today.
“Body of Missing Radio DJ Found”
“A fucking radio DJ?” Jaina laughed.
“That was apparently Ms. Windrunner’s occupation at the time of her death, yes,” Modera replied, sounding more like a scolding teacher.
Perhaps they weren’t really friends. Perhaps Modera just still thought Jaina was teachable. What a mistake that was.
Jaina read on. Beneath the headline was a brief, but gruesome story. A badly decomposed body found by cadaver dogs in the remains of the partially-collapsed barn. A missing person case that had dragged on for months. The police had checked the house, finding nothing of not there, but had never thought to check the barn. None of that was surprising to Jaina, who lived off of death and the reports such as these that described it.
But the last paragraph was beyond surprising. So much so that she read it to Modera, “‘Authorities say they don’t have enough evidence to rule out foul play, but are now suspecting a suicide?’”
“Complete bullshit,” Modera noted.
“Obviously,” Jaina agreed.
Banshees didn’t come from suicides. They were spirits of vengeance. One could not take vengeance on oneself, no matter how many regrets one had about what was done.
“But it stuck. All the way from the coroner’s reports to the official closure of the case. They say she stabbed herself in the chest and bled out,” Modera told her.
“In her non-functional barn, where no one would think to look for her. And probably with no note. And stabbed herself in the chest? Are you kidding me? Do these people even know what is and isn’t physically possible?” Jaina questioned as she quickly rifled through the papers to confirm all of it.
“It’s deeper than that,” Modera explained. “Small town cover up, obviously. The police were working with her murderer.”
“And I’m going to guess you already know who that is?” Jaina asked.
“So certain of it that this town should hire me. I’m pretty sure it was Arthas Menethil,” Modera told her.
“You say that like it’s a name I should know?” Jaina wondered. It vaguely rang a bell, but not enough for Jaina to immediately snap to an answer.
“Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of him?” Modera said, seizing on that ignorance like a lion on a gazelle’s throat. She was nearly shouting as she went on, “It was everywhere a few years back! A big ass wraith he was, brought down by your local coven there, and three others all working together in a massive hunt. He even killed a few of them before they brought him down.”
“Modera,” Jaina said softly, stopping her before she could go any further. “If he’s a wraith, that means he’s dead. And on top of that, doubly dead if they ate him.”
“Of course they ate him. Too dangerous to deal with otherwise. You know how wraiths are,” Modera went on.
“Modera,” Jaina repeated again. “I know why my banshee is broken now.”
“Oh, yeah, so do I. She can’t get her vengeance. At least I’m pretty sure anyway. The town turned on Menethil in the 80s. Country justice got him killed the first time. Justice, some say, for Ms. Windrunner and many other people he screwed over. There’s no proof, of course, but that’s been the running theory,” Modera reported.
“So she is fading,” Jaina breathed.
“The best thing you can do for her is give her a good fight to go out on, Jaina. So really, maybe you are the right person for the job here after all,” Modera told her.
Jaina Proudmoore. The lone hunter. The hungry one. The prodigy turned pariah. Feared and hated. Admired but abhorred. Faced with a ghost she could for which she could do nothing except to consume it, yet finding herself unwilling to do the very thing that had earned her her infamy.
Balance had a sick way of rearing its ugly head sometimes.
Modera clucked at her silence, not understanding it at all. “I have a meeting I’m late for, Jaina. Call me back later, once you’ve read over my notes?”
“Yeah, I’ll call you back,” she replied.
Except she didn’t call her back. Later, or even very much later. Not even when she fed the chickens and closed up their coop for the night. Not even when she lamented living well outside of any pizza delivery possibilities and opted to have the last of her cereal for dinner instead.
Jaina didn’t call her friend back. Her teacher. Her acquaintance. Her co-conspirator. She read over every letter of the papers in that packet, though, studying them as she never had any text book or any tome of forbidden knowledge from the forbidden city that she was now forbidden to enter.
She wanted to be prepared for when the sun went down. For when she went into the back bedroom again.
There were no more words written in the ash when Jaina returned that night. Thankfully. Sylvanas couldn’t go on hogging all the good reagents. Not if Jaina was going to try something new. Well, something old. Something she hadn’t done in a while.
Jaina used her magic to will the blackness off the walls and into a little pile in her palm. She kept one eye on the window as she drew on the ground with two of her own fingers. A pentagram. Then a circle. Then candles at each point, lit with a snap of her fingers. A skull she pulled out of one of her yet to be unpacked boxes. She’d named him Horatio at one point or another in her past, when he’d seen more frequent use, and the blood runes that she’d drawn across his forehead were still as red as the day she’d written them.
“For the record,” Jaina said as she set Horatio down near the top point of the pentagram, just below the candle that burned there. “I’m still trying to have a conversation with you. This is me having a conversation.”
Why she felt the need to clarify that for a ghost was beyond her. Why it felt so necessary with this particular ghost was another thing entirely.
Jaina sat herself in the middle of the mark she’d made, surrounded by the candles, and flicked the light switch from across the room with a simple gesture of her hand. She set her hand on Horatio’s head, fingers falling into the smooth grooves of the human skull. Funny, how small it was when you took all the flesh off it. How small everyone was, in death.
“Sylvanas Windrunner,” Jaina breathed, her eyes fluttering closed. She spread herself, but kept it contained. Just within the pentagram and a little bit above her actual body. Just enough to make her so viscerally aware of the room. “I call upon thee.”
The words felt so strange, so hokey and miserable in her mouth. Jaina hadn’t used them in decades now. No, she used wires and microphones and radios and meters. And when she found what she was looking for with her modern tools, she didn’t stop to have a conversation.
For all that magic that she had and hoarded, she honestly didn’t use it much for hunting. So it felt strange, dripping her power into the skull, bit by bit. Summoning the dead with the dead.
“I ask for a sign,” Jaina implored, chanting on as the old incantation went.
The build of the pressure in the room was slow, not sudden this time. Like a moth drawn to a flame, flickering its way up to the porch light in the night. And Jaina must have seemed just like that to her now. Alight with her power. The whirling energy of countless ghosts threatening to spill out of her all at once.
“I ask for you to speak with...me.”
It was supposed to be an “us”. It was always us. Witches didn’t hunt alone.
The pressure around her never fully intensified. Sylvanas noticed her, but was being cautious. Afraid, maybe. Whatever that was like. So Jaina added, “Or at least just listen.”
She could almost imagine her. Jaina’s imagination was somehow very vivid, despite how little of the ghost she had actually seen. But that didn’t stop her from picturing her trailing in and out of the darkness, the edges of her dress catching in the warmth of the candlelight. The outline of her graceful hands as they swung at her side with her broad, but light steps. The turn of her elegant elven face, all shadows and highlights in the flickering, fickle candlelight.
“You died some time in early 1978,” Jaina told her, piecing together what she had read aloud, for both herself and Sylvanas. “You went missing in March, so probably right around then. They didn’t find you until July, even though you were right outside. But you didn’t die there. You died in this room. Someone killed you here, cleaned it all up, and moved you there.”
Jaina could feel her. The shape of her. The notion of her. The idea of Sylvanas Windrunner, of the banshee she had left behind. She was listening.
“But the police ruled it a suicide. Even though you were stabbed through the heart. Even though a person typically can’t manage to do that themselves unless they fall on a knife. But they never found a knife,” Jaina told her.
In her mind’s eye, Sylvanas stopped her pacing. She settled, standing near the window, but looking at Jaina, instead of out at the backyard, as she did when she wailed.
“You were young and healthy. You had no reason to want to die. Every reason to want to continue living. And you didn’t understand what had happened. Or why. You just knew that you were angry, and that you couldn’t rest,” Jaina went on.
She remembered the catalogs and encyclopedias. She remembered the drills and sayings still, the little songs she would make up to remember the types of ghosts. Oh, there had been a time when she had studied, once. When she didn’t know everything. When the world was new and bright and the idea of being something abnormal, something powerful and wild, was just a dream for the future, not an increasingly mundane reality that she fought against with danger after danger.
“So your spirit became a banshee. Because the first and last thing on your mind as you died was how much you wanted to take down the fucker that killed you. Who was it, Sylvanas? Who killed you?” Jaina asked.
Because even with everything Modera had given her, she wasn’t certain. There was no evidence. Only the word of the town that Arthas Menethil was a scumbag. He’d owned this property then, and many other small farms in the area. He spent the late 70s trying to kick out all of his tenants--people who had worked that land for decades under his father. All to try to sell it all for development. For money.
People always did such stupid things for money. Like killing each other. Like turning each other into raging undead, that would only go on to kill more and more until they were satisfied enough to cross over peacefully.
But if it had been Arthas Menethil that killed her, then that opportunity would be forever lost to Sylvanas. It would have been lost for so long already.
“Just tell me. You know who it was. Tell me,” Jaina pleaded.
Her fingers on the skull were wet with sweat now, but cold as the energy of death itself poured from them. It pooled there, in the shadows of its eye sockets--in the hollow behind its teeth, where a lower jaw should have been attached. But Horatio had never had a lower jaw. At least not as long as Jaina had owned him.
“Please, Sylvanas. It’s important,” Jaina told her.
The pressure closed in then. Intense and heavy. The air in the room got stale and cold. When Jaina opened her eyes, the last thing she expected to see was the wisps of light that formed an elven face, bent down with her, just a few feet from her own.
It was only the hint of a manifestation. Just the barest of hints. An angular jaw. A small chin. Long ears and brows. Like smoke in the moonlight--just barely blue and mostly white. Except for her eyes. The eyes were no hint at all. They glowed a violent red. Like fire. Like a blood moon. Like chaos and fury given form.
Jaina sucked in a breath, and the air was so cold it hurt her teeth.
“Leave,” Sylvanas seemed to strain to say. A shadow of lips moved with the word, over smokey fangs, predatory and exaggerated far beyond what they would have been in life.
“No. Tell me,” Jaina implored.
She could feel the energy from the ghost starting to let loose. Unwinding, like a thread. Her body reacted instinctively, absorbing it like mother’s milk. Protecting her, yes, but also feeding her. Feeding her insatiable greed.
As if that served as a reminder, Jaina drew her power back from the skull, up her arm in a chilling blast of energy, and back to where she kept it contained within her very core. A writhing pit of potential, waiting somewhere above her stomach.
It would not have to wait long. Sylvanas struck quickly, having given all the warning she cared to give tonight. Smoke talons flashed before disappearing as they descended on Jaina. She could feel them before she saw them hit. Before they slashed neat holes in the white sleeves of her blouse.
But Jaina was ready for this. She’d been born ready. Born a witch. Born to fight violent ghosts. To consume them as her reward. To use their power to live forever, or at least as long as she could manage.
“No!” Jaina screamed as she reached within her, into that great reserve of power within her chest. Deep into that glowing reservoir. Her most prized possession.
And she brought it to bear against the ghost. Against something she could feel, but not fully see. On something that would listen, but would not speak. Onto a will of sheer defiance and rage.
Sylvanas had clearly never experienced such a thing before. She reeled from the blow, her presence stumbling back from Jaina as if pushed away by a thousand hands at once.
Jaina had used so little of what she had. Barely anything. Yet it still hurt to let any of it go. It hurt to let any significant amount go, when you didn’t know when you were going to get more. When it was the only thing keeping her from becoming like those crones in town--wretched and withered.
“You don’t scare me,” Jaina told her. “You don’t scare me, Sylvanas Windrunner.”
And to her credit, the ghost only let off a feeble scream before she left, going wherever it was that she did when she didn’t wail or sing or fight.
Wherever it was that she could find, hopefully, some measure of peace.
And to her further credit, Jaina didn’t notice the blood on her arms until she went to inspect the damage to her clothes in the bathroom mirror a few minutes later. It had been cold, after all. And her mind had been on other things.
Like self-preservation. And trying to understand why Sylvanas wouldn’t talk to her.
“Harlan, I have a confession,” Jaina said as she dumped her latest round of purchases onto the counter of the hardware store.
“What’s that miss?” Harlan asked as he started to ring her up, seemingly unbothered by the fact that she wasn’t wearing one of her usual blouses, but instead an old sleeveless thing.
Still white, of course. There were rules even Jaina didn’t break, after all.
And it had been very rude of her ghost to ruin her last clean blouse the day before laundry day. But Jaina supposed it was normal to be different. To look different, for a change. To change.
“Of all the things I’m making you ring up, I only really needed the batteries. And they’re less expensive at the Photo Stop. I’m sure you know that,” Jaina told him.
“I don’t pay much attention to that stuff, miss,” Harlan told her, but nodded along anyway.
“What I really came here for was some advice,” Jaina went on. “And honestly, of all people in this town, you’re probably the best person to ask it of.”
“I’ll do my best, miss,” Harlan said. He moved a pack of nails over the scanner, then a sheet of sandpaper.
Jaina had no intention of using either, or need for them. But she supposed they might come in handy. Homeownership was teaching her the value of small tools, if nothing else.
“It’s just that everywhere I look in this town, I don’t see anyone I could possibly imagine as being lucky in their love life. So, dear Harlan, if you were to have yourself a girlfriend, or even just a crush you liked very much, and she was giving you the silent treatment, what would you do?” Jaina asked of him, tilting her sunglasses down to look him in the eye and try to derive the hidden truth of his answer.
Whatever that may be.
Harlan was a plain young man. Big and strong, sure, and otherwise not unpleasantly constructed, but he had the same doe-eyed look as anyone else in this small town. Like the difference between a predator and its prey. The people here always seemed to be looking to their sides, not in front of them. Focused on what could be coming for them, rather than what they should be seeking ahead.
Harlan thought on the question for a minute, even as he passed a sponge roller and a can of white paint in front of the scanner. Then he finally answered, “Well miss, I’d do something to show her I cared. Do something nice for her, you know. Bring her some of her favorite flowers, or something else she liked.”
“You’re a real romantic,” Jaina said, smirking at his answer. But she meant it. She really did.
“Isn’t that how you’re supposed to treat a lady?” Harlan questioned.
Jaina nodded to this. “You’re right, Harlan. You’re always right.”
“I’m just trying my best, miss. Every day, I’m trying my best.”
It was already dark by the time Jaina got around to all the stops she had to make in town. The electronics and hobby shop was some place she could have spent another two hours in easily, but the old man there was already on the edge of tolerating her endless questions by the time she left. He only seemed to care to answer them when they were about model trains anyway, but his interests and Jaina’s sadly didn’t overlap much beyond that.
Still, he’d sold her a nice boombox. Not as nice as the one Sylvanas had ruined on that first night, but it had a cassette player. CDs were still beyond Jaina. She could adapt to the ever-forward march of technology, sure enough, but one step at a time. And she was still not ready to take that one.
So it was maybe ill-advised for her to enter the bedroom unannounced, unprotected by rings of salt--with only her magic as her defense. But she was excited. She was ready to end her losing streak.
“Harlan is a very nice boy, Sylvanas,” Jaina explained as she stooped to set the boombox on the floor. “I do hope he finds someone who appreciates him. Or maybe he already has. I should have asked.”
The ghost, as usual, had nothing to offer about such mundane subjects as Jaina’s favorite store clerks.
“You were a DJ,” Jaina went on. “You were a radio DJ in the era of some of the best music ever made. And trust me, I’ve been through a lot of eras and heard a lot of shitty music.”
She popped the cassette into its slot, listening for the telltale click as it fell into place on the reels within the machine. Jaina turned the volume knob up, and got ready to press the play button.
“So, let’s try this your way. Not mine. Not the old witch’s way. Your way,” Jaina offered as she pressed the button.
Deep notes of electric guitar scales filled the room, diving and plunging over the ash and plaster, over the wood and faded wallpaper. Over to the sealed-shut window, rattling against the glass of its panes.
“All our times have come,
Here but now they're gone.
Seasons don't fear the reaper,
Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain, we can be like they are.”
Jaina joined in on the chorus, whispering along to the first line, “Come on baby, don't fear the reaper.”
She’d even checked when the song was published. 1976. Old enough for Sylvanas to have known it, hell to have probably fielded her share of requests for it, all those years ago.
Jaina let the notes circle her, and let herself spread, closing her eyes and following the music as it poured through the house. Searching. Waiting.
It wasn’t until the scales came back in force, until the bridge, when Sylvanas took notice. And she made herself known faster than she ever had before. A rush of air, then a distinct lack of oxygen within it. But not cold this time.
No, she wasn’t angry. Not yet. She was curious.
“Do you remember this song?” Jaina asked as she opened her eyes. “Do you remember it, Sylvanas?”
But there was nothing for Jaina to see. Not yet. But she could feel her.
She was calm. Jaina had never felt her calm before. Her shape in Jaina’s mind was less jagged and feral. More slight and sleek. Nothing like the monsters whose claws still marked her upper arms in twin rakes of angry red skin.
And then Jaina saw her. All at once. All together. Not just in parts. Not a face or a hand or a pair of glowing eyes. A small figure, knelt by the boombox, outlined in brilliant white as if by moonlight, though the room was dark save the sliver of yellow light pouring in from the hall.
She was beautiful. Even more beautiful than she had been in the photograph Jaina kept hidden away under a jar of salt, lest it anger the spirit to see such evidence of her existence.
Jaina found her breath stolen from her, and not just from the oppressive stillness of the air. Because Sylvanas was looking up at her. Concern graced her features. And confusion. But not anger, even if those eyes still burned red above the tear marks that streaked forever below them.
She looked up at Jaina and shut off the music. She stopped the cassette, then moved her hand to another switch. Her very corporeal hand, which took on a bluish cast as it solidified over the switch. She flicked it, red eyes still trained on Jaina, and filled the room with static. Then she turned the knob next to it. Adjusting the stations. The FM radio.
Until it landed on a song in the middle. A song Jaina knew well. Sylvanas stopped there, and let it play.
“All your life you've never seen,
A woman taken by the wind.
Would you stay if she promised you heaven?
Will you ever win?
Will you ever win?”
“Rhiannon,” Jaina whispered along with the chorus. “This is a great song. One of my favorites.”
Sylvanas seemed relieved. So much so that whatever determination was holding her so steady began to fade, and she did along with it, breathing out a sigh she didn’t need to breathe.
“Sylvanas, no. Stay with me,” Jaina pleaded. “You’re right. You understand. I’m a witch. My name isn’t Rhiannon. I gave you my name. It’s Jaina.”
But Sylvanas seemed resigned. She knew her limits. She knew them well. This manifestation had clearly taken a lot of effort for her.
“I can help you. Maybe,” Jaina said frantically, kneeling beside the image of the elf in her tattered dress. An image that was rapidly fading into the night. “I don’t know. I should help you. That’s what I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to help you cross over if I can. And if I can’t…”
She would eat her. She would take her essence for herself. Hide it within her. Squirrel it away. She would take everything that was left of this ghost, the last remnant of Sylvanas Windrunner left in this world. As she had done so many times without ever offering to help. Without bothering to find out why those spirits would linger.
Because there were good witches that made it their mission to help those restless souls pass easily to the afterlife, and then there bad witches that didn’t bother to try that first. Greedy, hungry witches, like Jaina Proudmoore. Witches that lived only to hunt.
“Please,” Jaina begged.
She had never really begged for anything in her life.
“Leave, Jaina,” Sylvanas whispered before she faded back to the darkness.
Chapter 3: Zombie
On this week's episode of "My Strange Google Search History": The history and mechanics of FM radio...
Jaina got in the habit of leaving the radio on. In the kitchen. In the living room. At night in her bedroom. She tried static. She tried various FM and AM stations. But the noise and music and talk and commercials always flowed as they should--without interruption or interference.
By the third day, she was worried. Worried that Sylvanas had faded more than she'd thought, and that she didn't have enough energy to manipulate anymore.
But no, Jaina would know. She would feel it. She wasn't sure how, but she would. She was so sure.
And there was definitely still some sort of presence in the house, even if it felt like it was just listening and watching, rather than wailing and fighting. Sylvanas wasn’t trying to scare her anymore, but Jaina wasn’t sure if that was because she had given up on it, or for some other possibilities she refused to entertain.
Instead, she struggled with the why of it. Why this woman and her story--what precious little Jaina knew of it--compelled her so. Why she wanted to hear her speak. Why she wanted so badly to see her again.
Jaina decided to blame it on an old part of herself she thought she’d been rid of long ago. A young, bleeding heart of a witch, who thought that there were different ways to prove herself other than how much power she could hold within her. That magic was not the end goal, but the service it allowed her to provide. A fool. A fool who would believe just what she’d been told, rather than seeking out the answers on her own.
And Jaina hated her for coming back into her life again. So she took it out on herself by sanding down the nasty, flaking paint of the kitchen cabinets. By sweating and grunting through it, even if it would hardly tire her. She focused on painting them with a smooth new coat of white. Sleek was in, after all, and it looked better with the butcher block.
Home renovation was swiftly becoming a hobby. A hobby that was getting out of control, as with all things Jaina did. Control had never been one of her strong points.
Jaina was hanging the cabinet doors back up in the evening, caution to the wind. No salt circles. No heightened awareness. The front door open to the cool air outside. Even her hat was a thing forgotten, laid on the kitchen counter. Her braided hair, normally hidden beneath it, threatened escape from its confines with wisps and flyaways, flickering silver and streaks of gold. There was no need for caution. Not here. Not now. Not when Sylvanas seemed to have given up.
But there was no satisfaction in that. Jaina was used to conquering her foes and immediately reaping the benefits. She wasn’t sure how to feel now, as this latest one sulked, dejected, in the shadowed corners of this house that were beyond even her perception.
So Jaina took to being satisfied with the cabinets instead. With the door being hung straight and level. With the smooth white paint and how the painter’s tape pulled off the glass fronts, revealing neat corners and lines. Perhaps this was a better way to settle her eternal restlessness, rather than waiting with a book for things to happen.
As she stood back, admiring the last cabinet with her hands on her hips, the radio played on. As it had been for the last three days. Since she started taking this kitchen apart. Jaina had found a few local stations that were tolerable, or at least not filled with fire and brimstone preachers. The one she had tuned in now played oldies, though upon first listening to it, the very idea of an oldies station made Jaina frown. Things moved so fast these days. There was a time once, where she’d danced to some of these songs in Dalaran. When the world below wasn’t aware that their songs and their trends were starting to be consumed by a magical city they had no understanding of, but one that was starting to drop its hesitancy toward adopting their technology.
But that was long, long time ago. At least, for a relatively young witch.
Just as Jaina’s attention snapped back to the present, so did the music. A rush of garbled sound rolled past as the dial of the radio rolled with it. Into a song from not that long ago.
A wail of electric guitar, followed by a single phrase, then the same repeated: “Got a black magic woman.”
Jaina smiled. “Good evening, Sylvanas.”
The ghost didn’t respond. Jaina could feel her presence, though. Not like it had been before. Not in cold or in pressure or lack of oxygen. Almost a warmth, really. But one that had nothing to do with temperature.
Still, she took her hat back from its resting place on the counter and set it on her head. Still, she spread her awareness, just a little. Still, she planned routes to safety, even as she closed the front door. Couldn’t be too careful. Never such a thing as too careful.
Even if her ghost was singing for her now, in her own way.
Jaina found her footsteps falling in time with the beat as she made her way back to the kitchen again. She leaned on the counter, admiring her work yet again as she mused, “I like this song too.”
But it would be the only one Sylvanas would play for her that night.
She got one a day, at first. Songs about witches and wicked women, usually. About spells and secrets. Things that regular, mortal beings thought they understood enough to compose about.
A lot of them would make her laugh. Jaina would only talk to Sylvanas after the song had changed. When she knew she was listening.
“Witchy Woman” interrupted a commercial for the local auto body shop when Jaina was back at it again, this time putting up a new mirror in the upstairs bathroom. And this time, during the day.
“It’s all got very little to do with the moon, you know,” Jaina explained, setting the level on the frame of the new mirror. Her mouth twisted into a confused frown when the bubble didn’t center, but was still straying to the left.
It looked straight? Or maybe not.
“I can’t fly either, with or without a broom,” Jaina reported as she grabbed the corner of the mirror to nudge it along toward rightness. “Pretty bullshit, if you ask me.”
She was hanging curtain rods when the radio changed from a news report to “Season of the Witch”.
“This one has it right,” Jaina told Sylvanas. “To anyone else, I’m just a little strange. Enough in passing to shrug it off, but you’ll think about me hours later.”
She let that statement hang in the air a moment. Cool and heavy in the mid-September evening.
As Jaina climbed down from the stepladder, admiring the black and white checkered curtain that now bordered the sides of the kitchen window, she asked, “Do you think about me hours later, Sylvanas?”
There was no answer, yet again, but the following day, she started getting two songs.
And on one particular morning, when the chill of the night didn’t quite leave the air with the rising sun, she got three.
“Voodoo Child” at breakfast.
“Magic Man” when she was braiding up her hair again after a shower.
And then, “Dark Lady” just as she was about to switch off the radio and get ready to leave for town.
“That’s you, not me,” Jaina told Sylvanas, musing near the radio in the kitchen. This one seemed to be the one she tripped the most.
And strangely enough, it was the room that Jaina had changed the most. It was now unrecognizable from the dank, dirty and abandoned husk of a room that she’d first purchased.
“At least that’s what the coven of witches here call you,” Jaina went on. “I wonder what you did to them, to earn such a moniker?”
Sylvanas, as usual, had no response.
Jaina let the song play out, busying herself as she tidied up the room. She rinsed out a glass in the sink, put away a now dry pot. She pulled at the checked curtains until they lay flat against the wall in the way she wanted them to. Only when the song was over did she shut the radio off.
“I’m going into town. I’ll be back in a bit,” she said.
As if there were someone truly hearing her. As if they cared.
As if she might ask them if they wanted anything while she was out. The question was on the tip of her tongue. A reflex from a time long past. A time when she hadn’t been on her own.
Instead, she just breathed, “Goodbye, Sylvanas.”
The radio turned back on before she could close the door behind her. No song. Not this time. Probably just the same station it had left off on, this time playing a break with a male DJ droning on about something.
But it was enough to keep Jaina smiling all the way to the hardware store.
“Harlan, my favorite international man of mystery.”
“Miss,” he replied simply.
He had never asked for her name. Never tried to pry. Harlan’s curiosity, which she seldom mustered anymore, was purely of the physical kind. Puzzled looks. Picking up and examining all the strange things she bought and wondering at their purpose, but never questioning them aloud.
“Two questions for you,” she ventured as he started to ring up her latest collection of items.
“Shoot,” Harlan replied simply.
“First, do you have any recommendations for cleaning grout?”
Harlan puzzled that one over for a moment before offering a shrug. “We’ve got all kinds of stuff for that, but my ma always made me do it with bleach water and elbow grease. If you catch my drift, miss.”
“A woman after my own heart,” Jaina mused. “Okay then, second question. I’m not sure if you recall our last conversation about what you’d do about your crush giving you the silent treatment…”
“I do,” he told her with a little nod.
“Observant and knowledgeable about cleaning products. You really are the best catch in this town, aren’t you,” Jaina noted. “But as an addition to that question--say the object of your affection is warming up to you again. Maybe still a little mad, but will at least look you in the eye now. What do you do to seal the deal? Get her back into your arms?”
Harlan thought on this one longer. Even as his meaty hands busied themselves with tossing Jaina’s items into plastic bags, his eyes were far away.
“Probably just listen to her,” he told her, eventually. “If she’s mad at me, she’s got a reason to be. She’ll say it eventually, you know? Then I’ll know how to do better.”
“Tell me you’re not single,” Jaina demanded, taking the first of the two bags he was handing her.
“I don’t have time for a girl right now, miss,” Harlan told her. “No offense.”
“Oh. I’m not making a pass at you. You’re a nice boy, but you’re too young for me,” Jaina assured him. “I’m just letting you know that whenever you do have time for a girl, that she’ll be very lucky.”
Harlan smiled as he handed her the second bag. Not a store employee smile, no teeth and all muscle memory. No, a real, genuine smile.
“Thank you, miss.”
“Harlan, one last question, if you don’t mind?” Jaina asked, turning back around after she’d taken one step toward the door.
“Not at all, miss,” he replied, still grinning.
“Be honest. How old do you think I am?” Jaina questioned. “You don’t need to worry about offending me. I assure you that’s not possible.”
“It’s not right to ask a lady her age, but since you’re asking me, maybe twenty-five?” Harlan ventured, his expression dropping into confusion.
Jaina captured his grin, taking it for her own. Taking and taking, as was her specialty. “Thanks. Take care, Harlan.”
“You too, miss,” he replied with a little wave as Jaina finally turned and left the store.
So Jaina started listening a little harder. She never shut the radio off, and was sure to stay within earshot of one. Even as she replaced the door handles and hinges with new, shiny brass. Even as she scrubbed away at the blacked bathroom grout with a bucket of bleach water, a hard brush, and her own special brand of elbow grease.
And she realized that her version of listening included a lot of talking too. But that was fine. It was nice to talk to someone, even if they didn’t really reply.
“It feels good to make a change I can see,” she said as she got up from her knees.
Today, she’d opted to wear slacks, rolled up to mid-calf to avoid the bleach, but still shielding her knees from the hard floor of the hallway. A less than traditional choice, but still black to the white of her shirt. And far more practical for getting involved in all matters of home improvement.
“I’d say that ghosts don’t normally like to see their houses change, but you’ve been so calm lately. Did you think it was time for someone to come along and fix things up, or have you just given up on me, I wonder?” Jaina asked.
Sylvanas, as usual, had no response. Still, Jaina listened for it. This time, to a distant, crackly FM station broadcasting classical music. She found she liked working to it.
In fact, she found she liked working like this. Burning away at her boundless energy. Not actually sapping any of her precious magic reserves, of course, but making the eat at her patience less. It was better, at least, than the endless waiting.
Better still than contemplating what she was waiting for.
She had learned that Sylvanas took her time in responding. And that her responses didn’t necessarily make sense. If anything, they were maybe more to say that she was listening too. Noticing. Observing.
To anyone else, the constant feeling of being watched would have been just as frightening as objects flying around the room or haunted screams drifting down a darkened corridor. But not to Jaina.
No, it turned out she liked being listened to.
And that day, her acknowledgement came in the form of an interruption to a violin concerto. A rapid spin of the radio dial, then a persistent strum of electric guitars, and a man singing, “I put a spell on you, because you're mine.”
“Your old hippie is showing,” Jaina replied to that. “But no, I haven’t put any spells on you. You’re free to haunt as you choose. Even if it’s just to DJ for me.”
She kept scrubbing away, listening to the song as it finished up. She always let them play out before going back to change the station away again. And as Jaina stood to do so, she tried to remember where she’d found the classical station this time. Somewhere in the 107’s, maybe?
No matter what she did, she made sure to stay away from what they were now calling “classic” rock. Those were what Sylvanas would roll back to, always. Though why the rock was classic, Jaina was hardly sure. It felt like rock and roll had just started to get any radio play yesterday.
She knew that wasn’t the case. She knew it in her bones. But it was getting hard now. Time was blending together. Bending. Shaping to a mind that had not necessarily been meant to experience as much of it as it had. And Jaina was doing her best to bend along with it. To do it her own way, as she always had.
Jaina spun the dial away. She was still fine tuning it back to her place in another violin concerto when it spun back, still between her hovering fingers.
But this time not to a song. To the DJ giving the outro for the last song.
“Happy hump day, guys and gals. It’s your favorite morning DJ, Hound Dog Nate. And that was ‘I Put a Spell on You’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival,’” the man announced.
“Feeling mischievous again today, are we?” Jaina asked as she gripped the dial firmly again, and cranked it back away from the classic rock station. “Or was it because I called you out on being so calm?”
Her hand went cold in a shock. Like she’d dipped it in ice water. Or really, like she’d been bitten by a rat made of liquid nitrogen. Cold and sudden enough for Jaina to snatch her hand back as the dial spun back again.
Back to that annoying man, still talking, “--October Seventh. It’s a balmy sixty degrees and sunny here at 98.5 FM WRGR and--”
“Why?” was all Jaina could ask as she rubbed warmth back into her frozen fingers. “Why are you keeping it here? You didn’t have to be so nasty about it, you know. I thought we were developing an understanding.”
The volume knob moved this time, slowly upward, until the man’s voice was echoing off the newly cleaned tiles of the bathroom. “But that’s enough of me. Let’s get back to the music. You’re listening to the morning grind with Hound Dog Nate!” at this point, an awful sound effect of a barking dog played, “And I’ve got three more spooky Halloween tunes coming up for you right now.”
Jaina checked the station on the radio’s sliding display, and it was indeed 98.5 FM. Just below the frequency that she’d first heard Sylvanas sing at. Just where this very station would get lost to the static.
“Was this your station?” Jaina asked.
Which proved difficult, as “Werewolves of London” was now blaring at full volume.
“Sylvanas, please! Was this your station?” she shouted over the howling of the vocals.
The radio cut off entirely. Not breaking. Not flying apart in a shower of sparks. No, nothing that dramatic. Sylvanas had merely turned it off.
Jaina listened. She listened to the ringing in her ears, the echoes of the last note against the tiles, down the bathtub’s drain. She listened until there was nothing but her own breathing, and her heart, hammering against her ribs.
And it wasn’t until she’d calmed its beating that she muttered, “We have to come up with a better way of communicating, you and I.”
It only took another morning of listening to that infernal man and a phone book for Jaina to find what she needed. WRGR was indeed a local station, and had been in operation since the early seventies. Hound Dog Nate, whomever that was, ran the morning show. And Sylvanas was getting very insistent about tuning in to all of his broadcasts now. Not just particular songs.
She didn’t seem to care about any of the other DJs. Just this man.
“Were you lovers or something?” Jaina wondered.
“Was he your boss?” she asked when the previous question got no response.
It seemed as though Jaina would have to go to WRGR herself to ask. Because there wasn’t even a whisper. No words etched in ash on the walls. No screams. No sparks. Just a radio that always tuned itself to the same station every morning. A radio that always made her listen to a man who thought his soundboard of dog noises was the height of comedy, or coolness, or something.
And for some reason, she even felt the need to keep tuning in from her car as she drove out to the station. She’d thought it would be closer to town, but the road kept stretching on. On and into the woods, eventually. A rare bit of land not claimed by farming, surrounding the local river. Only then did she reach the end of the road, and the little wooden building that sat in a clearing at the end of it, next to a giant antenna that reached above the tops of the nearby trees. WRGR was painted in chipping white letters on the siding.
If it weren’t for that, and the antenna, the place could have been some hermit’s cabin. Just a little house in the woods.
Jaina wasn’t all that surprised to find the front door had been left unlocked. What she was surprised to find was that the only inhabitant of the building appeared to be an old hunting dog. Maybe a bloodhound. Jaina didn’t know. But he didn’t seem to take much notice of her. He sat up a little from his position on a well-worn couch in what would normally be the living room, and perked up one long ear, sniffing at her once or twice.
And then he laid back down. Just slowly enough for Jaina to catch a glint from his collar, a bone-shaped tag that read the word “Bo” in bold letters.
Jaina didn’t have the same enchanting effect on animals as she did on people, clearly. Either that, or this particular radio station employee was not feeling his job as security that morning.
It was only in the silence between her and the dog that she finally heard the music. It was coming from what would have been a bedroom. Well, what might still be, for all she knew.
And then, a familiar voice, “You made it to Friday, and you’re listening to Hound Dog Nate in the mornings with 98.5 WRGR, the Ranger! We’re about to kick off another set of today’s and yesterday’s rock hits. But first--you know I’ve gotta do it folks--you’re going to have to sit through some commercials.”
After a brief delay, sound switched over to yet another advertisement for the local gravel pit. Why the hell did they feel the need to advertise a gravel pit on the radio?
Jaina didn’t know why or really care. She just knew that Sylvanas seemed to center her efforts on this man, whoever he was.
She found the studio in a bedroom with an open door. Hound Dog Nate was a man in his forties or fifties, a story told by the grey in his beard and the paunch of his belly as he leaned back behind a desk strewn with radio equipment. Another old dog was at his feet, but this one at least did Jaina the honor of growling softly at her as she knocked on the door frame.
And Hound Dog Nate, for what it was worth, almost fell right out of his chair.
“Jesus!” he shouted as he tried to keep the headphones he was wearing steady on his ears as he righted himself in said chair. “Who the fuck are you?”
Jaina leaned on the door frame as she watched him collect himself. “A friend of a fan, I guess you could say. Jaina Proudmoore. I’m afraid I don’t know the etiquette of interrupting radio DJs, but a commercial break seemed as good a time as any.”
Nate seemed to recover himself enough at that. He let the headphones slide down around his neck, then bent to the dog at his feet, still growling. “Hush Bess, be nice to the lady,” he bade her. He then turned up to Jaina when the dog stopped growling. “Nathanos Marris, or Hound Dog Nate. Whatever you prefer. I’d get up to shake your hand or some bullshit, but I’ve got thirty seconds before I need to be on air again. So please take that time to tell me why you’re in my radio station in the middle of my show?”
“I am afraid that will require more than thirty seconds,” Jaina informed him.
Nathanos grumbled at this, casting one annoyed look at Jaina, as if it would make her go away or wither before him so he wouldn’t have to deal with her. When she didn’t budge, he sighed and said, “Then shut up for a minute.”
Jaina complied, watching as he fiddled with the control board in front of him and leaned up toward the mic, turning on his less gruff-sounding radio voice to say, “Enough of that! Let’s get back to the music. As a treat, not a trick, you guys can have another solid six song set. 98.5 WRGR FM.”
He fiddled with a few more controls, until the speakers that lined the room were playing some newer song Jaina wasn’t particularly familiar with.
Nathanos leaned back from the mic again with a glare in her direction. “You’ve got thirty minutes now. Is that enough?”
“Maybe,” Jaina replied with a grin. “Let me start with a question of my own. Did you know Sylvanas Windrunner?”
“Fuck,” was Nathanos’ reply to that.
He leaned back in his chair again, stretching a little. The dog at his feet stirred again, whining with a seeming concern for her master. Nathanos stared at the ceiling for a moment before he finally pushed the chair back and stood up. In all his glory, he reeked of a man who had once been something more. Something more than dirty jeans and the frayed cuffs of a dark green sweatshirt that bound his wrists.
“I’m gonna need a cup of coffee before I talk about her,” he finally said. “Mind if we take this to the kitchen?”
The kitchen was straight out of the seventies. Clearly not remodeled since the station’s inception. All brown and yellow and orange, colors clashing indifferent to one another. Even the mugs Nathanos was pouring the coffee into were a middling shade between brown and orange. He offered one to Jaina, not bothering to ask how she took it. He was already sipping his own black.
Jaina never understood how men with beards could stand to eat or drink. Hair in the way of their mouths. Foul. Disgusting.
She was very much hoping that her first theory about Sylvanas and this man being lovers was wrong. She could do so much better, her ghost.
“Nobody has said that name to me in a very long time,” Nathanos finally said as he put his own mug down on the counter.
“That’s generally what happens with dead people,” Jaina noted. “They tend to get forgotten after a while.”
She took a sip of the coffee and found it as disgusting as Nathanos’ overgrown beard was to her, and nearly as thick. Clearly, running the morning show required a special kind of fuel for this man. She did her best not to gag as she set her own cup down.
“I could never forget her,” Nathanos replied, shaking his head. “Despite what the cops wanted. I’m gonna guess you’re here because you know something about her, or all the shit that went down. But you’re so young. I don’t get it.”
“I bought her house,” Jaina told him. It had been made immediately clear to her that Nathanos was the type of man that didn’t need the lies other adults craved.He didn’t seem to have the time for them. And as disgusting as he and his beard and his coffee were, she found that fact, at least, refreshing. “And I’ve been finding out a bit here and there about the previous inhabitants. Someone told me she worked here.”
Nevermind that said someone was Sylvanas herself. Omission was not lying. It was tactful, really. And Jaina still wasn’t sure if that was even true.
“Worked here?” Nathanos asked with a chuckle. “She owned the station back then, and did the afternoon show. I worked for her.”
“Who owns it now?” Jaina ventured.
“Me,” Nathanos said. “She wouldn’t trust anyone else with it. I had to fight the courts for years, but it’s mine now. She didn’t have a will. And who would? She was so young.”
Nathanos sighed and took another deep sip from his mug of coffee sludge.
“Did that ‘someone’ tell you what happened to her?” he asked after a moment.
“Only that she died under mysterious circumstances. That and everyone thinks she’s haunting my house,” Jaina scoffed, looking to prod him to explain it on his own terms.
And prod she did. “Mysterious circumstances my ass. She was murdered! And the police covered it up.” Nathanos coughed out a breath that smelled of coffee and cigarettes. Delightful, really. “Of course everyone in town believes the bullshit and lies still. So is that what you came here for? To get crazy old Hound Dog’s story so you could laugh at me like them?”
Jaina shook her head. “Now, now, Nathanos, was it? I’m here to get the whole story. And only out of my own curiosity. If I’m to live with a ghost, then I should know about her, right?”
“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” Nathanos spat.
Jaina, who had the remains of at least a thousand ghosts swirling around inside of her at any given time, shrugged and replied, “Whatever you say. Even so. I’m just curious. I will listen to whatever story you have to tell.”
Nathanos grumbled at that, checking a watch that he revealed under one tattered sleeve. He craned his head, as if listening down the hall to the song that was still playing. “Come on back to the control room then, this might take a while.”
Jaina had a feeling he made this trip up and down the hall many times. The line of grey dirt in the burnt orange carpeting agreed with her. Coffee at one end, his clear and steadfast dedication to the radio station on the other end. A true parable of mortal life, really.
Nathanos returned to his chair without a word, flicking a few more switches and knobs on the control board as he sat. Another song queued up right after the last one, smooth as anything.
Jaina was left to find herself a seat on the only other chair in the room, a folding one across the desk that maybe served to act for guests. Maybe not. Maybe it had been a very long time since this station had seen any guests.
Just as she was about to ask a question, he ducked down and reached beneath the desk and the mountain of equipment that separated them. Jaina could hear a drawer slide on its rails. Nathanos pulled a piece of paper from its confines and handed it to her--over the sliders and buttons, but under the microphone and its mount.
“This was her. Sylvanas, that is,” he said in explanation.
Jaina took what she now realized was a photograph. She flipped it over to reveal a woman in an army uniform in black and white. A stunningly beautiful elven woman, with a gun in her hand and smirk on her face, but distant, sad eyes.
Just as beautiful as her ghost, really. Jaina couldn’t decide if this version was more or less terrifying. She hadn’t expected the army uniform.
“When was this?”
“Vietnam,” was all Nathanos answered, as if the singular word explained everything.
And it did. It explained him. It explained the power of Sylvanas’ lament and her destructive nature. It explained a lot, really. Maybe not everything, but a lot.
“We were Rangers,” Nathanos went on. “Sylv was an army brat who wanted to try her hand at the family career. I was just an idiot who got drafted.”
And yes, that had to be Nathanos sitting beneath her, offering his own tired smile. A smile too tired for a man so young. He barely even had any beard to speak of in the photo--really more of an overgrown mustache.
“When we came back, I had no place to go home to. My folks wanted nothing to do with me. So she had me come work for her here, when she started the station, along with a bunch of other people from our unit. She was a radio operator, and loved the stuff, so she used some savings to make it into a civilian job for herself. WRGR was the first FM station in the county,” Nathanos explained.
Jaina had nearly been too busy staring at the picture to notice that the old dog who’d growled at her before was now coming to sniff at her knees. Peacefully now. Curiously, maybe.
She wondered if she smelled good to animals too? What would a dog think of her? Kibble and cat poop? Steak and crotch?
Jaina didn’t want to entertain the thought, so she feigned disinterest in the beast. Nor did she want to think of how she smelled to Nathanos. No doubt a mirror of his own stench of coffee and cheap menthols.
Jaina handed the picture back over the controls. She could see the relief in Nathanos’ eyes when he placed it safely back in the drawer again.
Even Bess seemed calmed by this action, and returned to her place by her master’s feet, satisfied at her sniffing.
“Here I thought you were going to talk about how she died. I appreciate you taking the time to introduce me first, actually,” Jaina said as she sat back in the folding chair with a metallic squeak.
“It’s what you said before, Jaina,” Nathanos started before asking, “Is it okay if I call you that?”
“As long as you don’t expect me to call you Hound Dog in return,” she answered.
And that finally got a little chuckle from him. Blessedly. “Nah. That was just my old army nickname. We used to call Sylvanas the General, even if she was really just a sergeant. Bossy, that one was. Anyway--it’s like you said before. Dead people get forgotten. But now one more person will remember her, and that’s the best I can do for her these days.”
“A noble cause,” Jaina said with a nod. How dare this man make her like him all of the sudden?
“She did a lot for me, and for this town. And they’ve forgotten her for it,” Nathanos went on, anger creeping back into his tone again. He flipped a few more switches as the songs transitioned again, and Jaina found herself oddly admiring his ability to keep up with both a conversation and the flow of his work.
“Is that so?” Jaina prodded.
“I don’t know why, but she was proud of this piece of shit town. And she took care of people, you know? She kept living in that little rental you own now, even after she made decent money from the station. She coulda bought it from Menethil herself if she didn’t give every red cent she had to one cause or another. An animal shelter one day, some old widow the next, and a fellow vet the day after that,” Nathanos rambled.
“I’ve heard about him,” Jaina said, trying to be brief to lead him on some more.
“Fucker,” Nathanos spat. “He would have bought up the whole town if he could. Sold it for oil rights. At least that was his plan. Sylvanas and her family had been renting that land from the Menethils for a long time. They had no problem with his dad, but as soon as Arthas took over for him, he tried to kick her out. Any way he could, except to actually evict her. Rural evictions are a thing apparently, at least around here. Hell, they might still be in court if he tried that. But I know he killed her for it. I know he did, regardless of what the damn police say.”
“Why didn’t she just leave? Surely there were other houses or farms for rent?” Jaina asked.
Nathanos paused for a second, making a show of fiddling with the buttons on the controls again to buy time, even though the song wasn’t ready to change yet. He sighed, finally looking up at Jaina again as he said, “It wasn’t for her, really. I mean it was and it wasn’t. Her sister was over in Vietnam with us too, but she didn’t come back. She was taken as a POW. Sylvanas was so sure she’d come back looking for her one day. She wanted to be waiting right where Alleria could find her.”
“She waited a long time,” Jaina noted.
“She’d still be waiting today, if she was still alive. She loved her sisters. Vereesa skipped town and had a bunch of kids or something, so hoping for Alleria to come back was kind of all she had left. Otherwise, she probably would have moved to be by Vereesa, or not even bothered to come back here,” Nanthanos replied.
“So you think that’s what happened then? Menethil killed her when she wouldn’t leave?” Jaina pressed.
“Arthas always walked with a limp after that day. I’m pretty sure she gave it to him. She’d go down fighting, I know it. And she didn’t kill herself. That’s for fucking certain. She’d never do that,” Nathanos asserted, leaning back again with crossed arms.
Jaina knew as much. Even without knowing the woman. Still, every bit of knowledge she’d gained about her only supported that notion. “Why would the police say that then?” she asked.
“Because it was obviously Menethil, and he owned half the town. Daddy’s golden boy. You know the type, or at least you look like you do,” Nathanos offered with a shrug.
“I do,” Jaina assured him. “And I understand your suspicions. Still, you think someone would come forward? I understand the town turned on him. I hear he met his own violent end.”
“You’ll hear a thousand versions of it too. Everyone and their dog taking credit for it, no offense, Bess,” Nathanos said as he bent to ruffle the old hound’s ears. “I don’t know who killed him and I really don’t care. Bastard had it coming. Long story short was that he got the same treatment. Obviously murdered, but police somehow couldn’t find a killer. Usually, cold case hunters like you come looking for his story, not Sylvanas’.”
“I told you, that’s not what I’m here for. I don’t have any cameras or tape recorders. I assure you I’m not trying to make you part of any gruesome documentary,” Jaina told him, holding her empty hands up as proof.
“Yeah, I see that. But what the hell is a girl like you doing out here? Really?” Nathanos asked.
Jaina thought about her answer this time. So much so that she answered with only one word, “Changing.”
“Uh huh,” Nathanos said to that. He then seemed to listen to the music for a moment, and held up a finger to his lips. He leaned up to the microphone and moved some sliders on the board again before speaking in his radio voice. “Oh, hey there. That was a quick half an hour, wasn’t it? You’re listening to 98.5 WRGR, the Ranger, with Hound Dog Nate. How about we have a few more songs to power you up to five o’clock. You’ve earned it.”
Jaina waited for the music to fade back in before she asked, “Do you ever get tired of saying the same thing over and over?”
“We all say the same things over and over, even if no one is listening,” Nathanos told her. “I just pay my bills doing it. And keep my friend’s radio station alive.”
“You’re a good man, Nathanos,” Jaina told him. “And a busy one. I’ve taken enough of your time. Thank you for telling me about her.”
“If you ever want to chat without all this shit in the way,” Nathanos offered as he gestured to the bevy of equipment between them, “I’m usually drinking at the Brill Inn in the evenings. Though you don’t really look like much of a local bar kind of girl.”
On the contrary, Jaina loved local bars. They were full of ghost stories. And there was nothing like a few cheap beers to loosen lips about said ghost stories.
She stood, offering her hand out for Nathanos to shake. “I hear they have good food there. You might see me, if I get hungry.”
Nathanos raised one thick eyebrow at her, but didn’t remark otherwise, remaining neutral, if a bit snide in his tone as he said, “Well, see you around, Jaina.”
As Jaina drove away through the trees, the music playing over her car radio from WRGR faded out at the end of a song. A good man, if a little bit foul-smelling and unkempt, spoke up from the silence and said, “This next one goes out to someone who was kind enough to remind me that dead things don’t necessarily have to stay forgotten. Wherever you are, or wherever you go, thanks for that. Here’s ‘Zombie’, by the Cranberries.”
Jaina hadn’t heard this one yet. It was a newer song. At least, newer for her. She decided she liked it very much.
“Mister Anduin,” Jaina addressed the boy, who was on his bike, parallel to her slowing car as she was about to pull into her driveway.
“Miss Jaina,” he answered, breathless as he too slowed on his own commute, no doubt riding home from school.
Why his father thought it was a good idea for him to ride his bike nearly two miles was beyond Jaina. She wondered if she’d see him struggling through the snow in it in the winter time, and if he would accept a clandestined ride home in her car if that ever happened.
“You do Halloween around here, right?” she asked him. And when the boy nodded, she continued, “Tell me, what are you dressing up as for Halloween? Inquiring minds want to know.”
“I haven’t decided yet,” he informed her as he stopped the bike by standing up on it. “I was gonna be a mummy, because I really liked that book I told you about last time, but then my friends were being Power Rangers and needed a white Power Ranger. But my dad says that’s stupid. And my uncle said I should be a werewolf.”
Jaina had no idea what a Power Ranger was, but could speak to at least one of those things. “Werewolves are disgusting creatures, don’t listen to him,” she told him. “You should be whatever you want. Whatever scares you, but not too much. Just enough to be fun.”
Anduin beamed at that. “Miss Jaina?”
“Yes, Mister Anduin?”
“Are werewolves real?” Anduin asked.
“Why would you think that I would know that?” she asked back.
“You know a lot of things,” Anduin answered.
Jaina returned his smile. “I do. Maybe too many things. You should get home before your dad gets worried.”
“Right,” Anduin said with a nod. He sat back down and put his feet on the pedals. “I’m gonna be a mummy, I think,” he told her before he started back down the road again.
“Jaina? Jaina! Fuck! I thought you were dead! I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out the most polite way to ask your local coven to search for your body,” Modera shouted over the receiver.
“I never thought you the clingy type, Modera,” Jaina scolded her. “Do I need to call you nightly? Tuck you into bed with my stories?”
“Oh, fuck right off. I’m just glad you’re alive. I’d hate to have to explain this to your mother,” Modera countered.
“I did not call you to talk about my mother and you know it,” Jaina groaned. She was in the kitchen, leaned against the fresh white cabinets, twirling the cord on the new black wall phone she’d purchased for this room and installed herself earlier that week.
But yes, it had been a good while since she’d called Modera last. Two weeks? No, three. No, a month. Somehow, a whole month.
“Then what did you call me to talk about? Reporting your successful banshee kill?” Modera inquired.
“Nope,” Jaina answered.
“Well shit, did you give up on her? Now you’re going to have to sell a haunted house. What’s the word the kids say these days? Bummer?”
“No on that too,” Jaina informed her.
“What the hell are you doing then, Jaina?” Modera questioned.
A question she asked herself a lot, these days. One she didn’t really have the best answer for yet. So sarcasm would have to work. “Oh, you know, blending in with the locals. Raising my chickens. Drinking light beer. Watching NASCAR.”
“Horrific,” Modera said with a snort. “But really, what are you doing?”
“Modera,” Jaina started. “Have you ever had a ghost you wanted to keep around?”
On the other end of the line, Jaina could hear a heavy sigh, and a shuffling of papers as they made way for Modera’s head to rest against the surface of her desk. Maybe not so gently. “Are you kidding me? Are you seriously fucking with me right now?”
“I know there’s a ritual for it. I remember something from one of your lectures,” Jaina told her.
“No. I’m not doing this. You’re not doing this. You and I? We’re not doing this,” Modera informed her.
“Then hang up on me. Go ahead,” Jaina dared her. “I’ll find what I need one way or the other. You know that.”
Modera groaned again. “First off, do you even know if your ghost wants that?”
“Is that important?” Jaina asked.
“Of course it’s important,” Modera replied.
“I mean, is it necessary for the spell?” Jaina pressed.
“Jaina,” Modera breathed. “This isn’t about you anymore. If you want to do this, then these are things you have to know. Not for the spell. That doesn’t fucking matter. You need to know them for the sentient being you are going to allow to walk the world for a virtual eternity--bound forever to you. Don’t you care? Do you want to make yourself a prisoner?”
“Bound to me?”
Truth be told, her recollection of said lecture was fuzzy at best. There were times that Jaina wished she’d kept her notes from her days as a student in Dalaran. Days she wished she hadn’t forsaken everything that had come before her days of endless hunting. Well, everything but Modera. For some reason, she still always picked up the phone.
“No. I’m not buying into your prodding for more information with your innocent little one word questions. I’m not some mortal in a pub whose scary stories you can buy for the price of one of your now apparently beloved light beers,” Modera said. “I’m serious, Jaina. I won’t talk to you about this until you tell me that your ghost wants to continue to exist, and doesn’t mind doing so at your will and behest. And I don’t have to tell you that I’ll know you’re lying to me.”
“My dating options for a ghost are fairly limited, Modera,” Jaina countered, unphased by the ultimatum. “I can’t exactly take her to the movies. Or anywhere, really. She doesn’t leave the house.”
“You’re the worst,” Modera told her.
“Only sometimes,” Jaina replied. “Will you tell me, though, if I can get her to agree?”
“Do it before Samhain,” Modera warned. “You don’t have a lot of time.”
“But you’ll tell me?” Jaina insisted.
“Only because I’ve never heard you like this before. Why not just eat her? Get it over with?” Modera asked.
“Because she’s beautiful,” Jaina answered. “And because it would be a shame to let her end like that, or to fade away.”
“I’m not sure who you are and what you’ve done with Jaina Proudmoore. Honestly. Be quick then,” Modera told her. “You have to get her to at least talk to you.”
“Sylvanas Windrunner,” Jaina invoked.
She still very much liked that name, and how it rolled off her tongue. Maybe even a bit more now. Now that she could picture her in life, in army fatigues in some foreign jungle, or laughing in the wood paneled halls at WRGR, walking over the orange carpet before Nathanos had worn his nasty little trail in it.
But for all that, she didn’t know her. Modera was right. She knew next to nothing about this woman, and the spirit that she’d left behind. Next to nothing about her hopes and her dreams. Her desires. Her fears.
Jaina only knew how she died, and that she shouldn’t have.
This time, Jaina came into the back bedroom room with nothing. Just herself. No circles or pentagrams. No radios or wires. Just her arms stretched out, and her senses extending just beyond her finger tips. Exposed. Vulnerable. But ready.
“I’ve tried to talk to you. I’ve tried listening. But now, I think it’s time for you to hear me,” Jaina told her.
She could feel her. She could almost always feel her now. But Sylvanas was close. Close and watching.
“I know what happened to you,” Jaina stated. She let her eyes fall closed, despite the temptation to keep them open to see what this would evoke from the restless spirit. “I knew most of it already before I talked with Nathanos, but he helped me fill in the gaps. So thank you for that.”
That name brought with it just an edge of biting cold. As if the window had somehow managed to get itself unstuck and opened to the chill of the autumn night. Not freezing. Just cold. Just present. Very present.
“Your landlord, Arthas Menethil, came here, offering you yet another deal to get you to leave this place without him trying to take you to court. You turned him down, like you did every time,” Jaina started.
At that, a hiss echoed in the room. Something feral and raw, like the scratches on Jaina’s arms that had only just healed. An edge of madness, of rage so vast that there was nothing else left.
“And you shut the door behind him, thinking you were rid of him for the night. Then you went back up to this room to think it over. Like you always did. Because this wasn’t your room. It was your sister’s. This is Alleria’s room,” Jaina went on.
She tried to picture it in her mind. Not knowing the woman, of course, or her tastes. But she knew the leaves on the wallpaper. She knew the window that faced out to the backyard and the treeline beyond it. To the border of the little farm, a creek that separated it from a neighbor’s fields. She imagined it woodsy and full of plants. Plants that Sylvanas would water every day and think of her sister.
“You would wait for her by the window. Because she was the type of person that would come marching in from the trees, and not up to the front door,” Jaina said.
She ventured a peek then, enough to see the frost collecting in the corners of said window. Enough to see the fingerprints that streaked along it, disappearing as quickly as they came.
Jaina left her eyes open, but kept at it, “And he surprised you. He had a key, after all. It didn’t matter that you locked the door. He surprised you when you were lost in thought. But only just. Because he stabbed you through the heart, not in the back.”
Another hiss. Almost a restrained scream. Just a hint of pressure. A crisp of cold air. A frustration muted, contained. Contained because Sylvanas really did want to listen.
“You caught him, and you fought him,” Jaina said. “You fought like hell, just like you always had. But you were much smaller than him. He overpowered you. Not before you fucked up his knee. He never walked right after, if that helps.”
Was that a laugh? It was something. A noise that passed her ear like it was traveling through water. Wavering and unsteady. Drunk and incomplete.
But it was something.
“And he killed you here. He probably left you to bleed out alone, coward that he was, and only came back to clean up later when he was sure you’d be dead. Sometime between then and the end of the morning radio show, when he knew Nathanos would do something if you didn’t show up at the station,” Jaina told her. “He dragged you out to the barn and left you to rot there. He knew what he was doing and how to leave very little evidence behind. In fact, he’d probably done this before, hadn’t he?”
Another hiss. Definitely a hiss. Jaina was sure this time.
“What was it then? What made you decide to stay? Did you want to keep waiting for Alleria? Were you mad that he moved you out of this room and into the barn? Did you want to stop him from killing again?” Jaina asked.
She felt the pressure building again. What little light the moon cast into the room from the window seemed to dim, yet there were no clouds in the sky. Jaina’s nerves were alight as they prepared to resist and leech the blast of energy that was about to be delivered at her, or maybe just at the world in general.
But Jaina was going to give her a real reason to scream. Because if she was going to do this. If she was going to change, then she was going to change one thing first. No more lies. No more omissions. No, she was going to be honest. More white than black, for once. Well, once again.
She blazed her own inner energies, surrounding herself with the precious magic as shield. She would need it.
“He’s dead, Sylvanas. The town took its justice. I don’t know who killed him. I do know it happened over ten years ago. And I do know that there’s nothing left of him like there is of you. I can assure you of that,” Jaina declared.
And then the scream came. As justified as it was intense. Like a blast of winter. Like a thousand knives through a thousand hearts. Jaina blocked them with a thousand shields of her own making, but not before feeling the pain of each wound. The hopelessness of it all.
But that didn’t scare her. She wasn’t sure what would. But it wasn’t this.
Jaina shouted over that scream, straining. “Do you know what will happen to you? If you keep at this frenzy and furor? This violence, now that there’s no one left to face it? You’ll fade away forever, Sylvanas. There will be nothing left of you.”
Another scream, just as powerful as the last. Just as painful. Just as dangerous. Jaina ground her heels into the floor, and stood through it still.
“I’m not leaving. I’m not leaving because I don’t want you to fade away. I can help you. I can be a bridge,” Jaina roared over the din.
Sylvanas didn’t stop the scream, but she didn’t start another. She let it fade, like the sliders on a radio control board, cross fading one song into the next.
Jaina made sure that next song was hers. “Tell me. Is it so terrible, being a ghost? I can end your suffering too. If that’s what you want. Only if it’s what you want.”
Only then did Sylvanas ever speak her first full sentence to Jaina. A voice echoed from near the window. Soft. Defeated. “Is there no rest for me?”
“No,” Jaina answered. “Only oblivion.”
A banshee’s scream was different from a wail. The scream was an offensive action, designed to split mortal eardrums and render then mad, deaf, and defenseless. A wail, well, that was just what banshees did with their free time. A natural action, one that wasn’t designed for combat. Maybe relief? Jaina couldn’t be sure.
She hadn’t cared before. She hadn’t had a reason to care. So why did it hurt almost as much as the scream had when Sylvanas began to wail?
“I can’t give you rest,” Jaina told her. “I can’t give you peace or vengeance. All I can give you is a chance to continue on as you are now. To not fade away.”
“What are you?” Sylvanas asked through her wail, her voice a lilting song of woe.
Jaina ventured a step toward the window, then another. “I told you,” she said. “I’m a witch. I’m something like you. Not quite mortal. Not quite a dead or dying thing. Something in-between.”
She could see her now. Just an outline, so faint in the moonlight. Slender and graceful, but so fragile. Wisps of energy barely holding themselves together. A fading thing, close to dying its true death.
“Can we talk?” Jaina asked.
She held her hand out as she stepped up to the window. She wasn’t sure why. Maybe as a sign of good faith. An olive branch. Fuck. She was no good at this.
Outside, the night was dark, but there was just enough light to see the edge of the trees. Just past the backyard and into the night.
Jaina felt the cold before she realized what had happened. Before she realized she was holding a hand in hers. A flimsy, spectral hand, cold as ice, but with long, lithe fingers that sought to wrap themselves in hers. And for some reason, they were able to take hold of it. They did not pass through, but instead, held on.
She looked up to find a pair of haunting red eyes looking at her, not out into the night, as Sylvanas finally answered, “Okay. We can talk.”