"I don't recall you ever coming out this way before, Vivi. Are you sure that spell is sending us in the right direction?"
"Oh, gee, Mystery. I'm not entirely sure. I guess maybe you're right, and I should double check that magic spell that magically implanted our next stop into my brain."
"I...don't think I like your tone."
Satisfied to see Mystery chastised, Vivi returned her attention to the road ahead. It took them south, past the Palace of Rebirth and into the desert beyond. The sun was setting, knitting the sky into a pink and purple tapestry that slowly faded to dark. Ordinarily, Vivi loved sunsets like this, but she was too focused on her task at hand. Once she settled into "The Zone", as Arthur had liked to call it, she didn't stop to take in passing sights like most people would. The world descended into darkness faster than Vivi anticipated, and it took the sunset completely giving way to nightfall for Vivi to turn on her headlights.
"Not easy to navigate by starlight, is it?" Mystery smirked.
"Shut up. We're here."
Vivi pulled the car over to an old, abandoned truck stop. The welcome center building was still standing, but it was practically in ruins. The windows were all shattered, and the one remaining double door hung sadly on its last hinge. Trees grew in the back of the property, wild and forgotten, a new grove reclaiming an old outpost. It irritated Vivi, in a way that she didn't expect. The trees were young and beautiful, but their lack of uniform pruning made them look so unkempt, so uneven, so...wild, that their mere presence made Vivi feel like she needed to correct it.
It wasn't that unusual for Vivi to find small, inconsequential messes like this and be irritated by them, but this was new. The lack of order here was more than just vexing, it was distracting. Vivi averted her gaze from the gnarled trunks and wild branches and focused on the task at hand.
"Okay, Mystery, we're stopping here to get something for Duet and then we can keep going, I...think."
"What do you mean, you think?" Mystery cocked his head as he asked.
"I mean, the location is kinda...well, it's...blurring, sort of…" Vivi scratched her head as she fumbled over the words, trying to describe what was going on in her mind.
"Blurring? What do you mean, blurring? Are you losing the coordinates?"
"No, it's not that, I can still see the coordinates, it's just that they're...shifting. I think that maybe that our lead is moving?"
"Bitom." Mystery barked a small word under his breath before he started sniffing the ground and enlarged to his full kitsune form.
"I was afraid of this. We need to move, before the trail goes cold again. Whatever business we have here, let's get it done and move on."
"Right, right. We're looking for a small piece of metal, long and thin, but not bigger than my forearm." Vivi started searching the grounds herself with her flashlight before she asked, "By the way, what was that word you just said?"
"I-" Mystery looked away awkwardly before saying, "It's nothing, just a meaningless word."
"It didn't sound like a meaningless word to me, you sounded mad when you said it."
"It-it doesn't mean anything, I shouldn't have said it! Now, can we keep searching please?"
"Wow, sorry. Heh, you make it sound like you said some kind of ancient Egyptian curse word or something." Vivi chuckled as she looked around a tree's trunk.
"Enochian curse, actually…"
"Oh, would you look at that, I found the scent!" With that, Mystery bounded off over the hill and deeper into the grove behind the decrepit welcome center.
"Mystery! Ugh, wait up! I swear, if you get there before I do and break the stupid thing you're gonna-"
Vivi's voice was interrupted by a soft red glow flashing over the hill and an unearthly screech. Vivi's eyes widened as she recognized the pitch of the wail. Only one kind of creature made that noise.
"Crap, crap crap!" Vivi tilted into a full sprint as she crossed over the top of the hill to find…
...Mystery crouched down, in dog form, seemingly hiding. Quickly, but not so quickly as to draw attention, Vivi slid down the hill beside Mystery. She started to ask why he had suddenly changed, but was immediately greeted by a quick paw to the mouth to keep her quiet.
In a hushed whisper, Mystery said, "Look there, just beyond those trees. We aren't alone."
Vivi removed the paw and retorted, "First of all, your paws are gross and I'm giving you a bath when we get home. Second, yes I know, I heard the Hollows screeching, why are we hiding from them?"
"I wasn't talking about the Hollows."
Vivi blinked, confused, then followed Mystery's gaze out into the treeline. There were red blurs of light where the Hollowed Ones were, but there was something else, a darker shape among them, too difficult to make out in the dim starlight.
"What is it? I can't tell what that other shape is."
"It's a woman of some sort. I've never seen her before."
Vivi blinked, then stared through the trees, squinting her eyes to focus on the darker shape. It was moving too fast to focus on, until the shape stopped after the final Hollow was pinned against a tree by the shape. It screeched in pain as the shape stabbed it through with an old looking blade. Vivi gasped aloud, then quickly covered her mouth with both hands, too late.
The cloaked woman whirled around, searching for the source of the noise, even as the Hollow was dissolving into red dust. Vivi barely had time to blink before the woman blurred again and was suddenly in front of her. Vivi squeaked and jumped backwards, but the woman grabbed her arm with a grip of steel before she could escape.
Vivi reached for her purse to get her arm cannon, but then she heard a husky, but still feminine voice say, "I wouldn't."
A series of barks and growls from near the interloper's feet made her look down to see Mystery bristling at the strange woman. Amused, the woman said to Vivi, "Tell your guard dog to behave. Wouldn't want him to get hurt."
Lady, if you had any idea...Vivi replied, "How about first let go of my sleeve? I'm not one of those demons you-"
She cut off, abruptly, as she saw the woman's mask, but then recovered, saying, "Oh geez, a fangirl…"
The Woman cocked her head and waited for Vivi to elaborate: "I'll admit, you've got the act down pretty good, even down to the mask and that sword over there. What you use in the forging, Sidhe Iron? That's the only metal I can think of that would make a dent in a ghost like that."
The woman's eyes shifted behind the mask as she released Vivi's arm. A blink? "You know your Ectology."
"Yeah, well I've been kinda making a career of this, lady. Me and my...well, nevermind that." Vivi turned away as unwanted memories came back unbidden.
"Your friends." Vivi turned back in surprise as the woman guessed what she was thinking. "There were four of you once, I believe."
Vivi's eyes narrowed. "How did you know that?"
"I've been keeping tabs on you. You and a few other groups nearby. It behooves a huntress to watch for potential allies."
"Allies? For what?"
"I'm searching for a ghost. I believe it may be connected to these red spirits that have appeared in all corners of the region." Vivi had to hand it to the lady, she was really devoted to playing this character. Of course, there was no WAY she could really be THE Madame Jeanette; the rumors had said she had died decades ago. Real deal or no, however, the masked lady was obviously skilled. Maybe she would be useful as an ally.
Finally, Vivi made up her mind and said, "Well, hey, we're chasing those red goons too. If you like, we can travel together for a while."
The woman seemed to consider her proposal for a moment, then abruptly said, "Very well, I accept." She made a flicking motion with her wrist and her iron sword flew out of the trunk of the tree it was buried in and into her hand. She then started walking briskly in the direction of the van, as if she had known were it was all along.
Mystery waited until the woman was out of earshot to growl at Vivi "Have you taken leave of your senses, girl? We can't invite a random stranger to travel with us! What if she-"
"Mystery, relax. One, there's one of her and two of us, and you're more powerful than her even in you weakened state. Two, she seems to know stuff about the Hollowed Ones, so she might be helpful. At best, she's a glorified cosplayer with enough skills that we can count on her for help."
"She's dressed up like Madame Jeanette, a famous ghost hunter from about twenty years ago. I'm pretty sure she's dead, there's no way she's the ORIGINAL Madame Jeanette."
"Alright, and at worst?"
"At worst, you can eat her and we can forget all about it."
Mystery groaned before he said, "I hate the taste of humans though...they taste as bad as they smell. No offense."
"Oh whatever." Vivi and Mystery started to walk back to the van after the false Jeanette, before Vivi asked Mystery, "Hey, did we forget something?"
"Oh nothing important, I think."