The rain danced around her in a rhythmical array of splatters, each droplet spreading tiny ripples across the lake. Gleeful whistling filled her ears as the wind picked up again, and a shudder ran through her delicate body, reminding her of the strangely soothing cold of the early winter.
Akuma laughed as she skipped across the forest floor. For a moment, she paused, and her toes wriggled, digging into the earth beneath her. Then, with another burst of laughter, she took off again, her eyes glinting.
"Race you to the village, Yukiyo!" she giggled, clearing fallen trees and branches with practised ease. Behind her, she could hear Yukiyo's footsteps as he raced to catch up with her, but Akuma was too energetic to be beaten. Today: freedom. She and Yukiyo could finally cross the border that had protected her for her entire life. They could finally be set upon the world, to learn its secrets, to bathe in wonder at its beauty. By tomorrow, she would be away from the rest of the Majo Ichizoku, and she could finally see the real world for herself. The other Majo always said, after all, that no story could depict the complexity of the cities; the vast, endless eternity of the land.
They reached the village breathless and laughing. Akuma paused to catch her breath, looking back and grinning at her friend. Yukiyo looked a complete mess. His feet were caked in mud, and twigs and leaves had become ensnared in his frost white hair. She probably looked the same, but it didn't matter. By sunfall, there would be no elders to look down on them in scorn. She and Yukiyo would be long gone by then.
Ignoring the disdainful glances and bewildered stares, Akuma led the way through the village, passing the small, cosy huts of the other Majo. What would the cities look like? Or the castles - Akuma couldn't wait to see one. They sounded so huge the thought of being inside one seemed almost scary. Didn't the people inside get lost?
Akuma shoved open the door to her own hut, wiping her feet on the mat as she stepped inside. The familiar smell greeted her: a welcomed hint of incense as she padded across the floor. Behind her, Yukiyo did the same, closing the door softly beside him.
"How long do we have until we have to see Hisa?" His voice was calm, and soothing - like water. But it was also shy and quiet, like a gentle stream rather than a raging torrent.
Akuma raised the timepiece pendant from its silver chain around her neck, glancing at the hands of the small contraption.
"Another hour," she replied. "We should have stayed in the forest for longer."
"At least we have time to prepare. Hisa will be angry if we enter her hut like this."
It was a fair point. Hisa seemed to detest Akuma's constant lack of shoes and her generally untidy appearance. Usually, Akuma wouldn't wear shoes or actually make an effort to look presentable, but today wasn't the day to irritate the leader of the Majo. And humans made themselves presentable, apparently, so she'd at least try to brush the knots out of her hair and attempt to last all day wearing shoes to cover her feet.
Sighing in agreement, Akuma dragged the wooden chest from under her bed, already dreading the search. This chest - along with half of its contents - had belonged to her parents, but they were long since dead. She didn't really remember them, so it didn't make her heart ache when she thought of them. Instead, there was anger: the burning, almost empty sensation in her chest that told her she had to fight against the Majo Hanta. Witch hunters.
She had been raised her entire life to fight them, as they had been raised to kill the Majo. Most were eager to see them eradicated, but Akuma? She was determined to wipe them out. They deserved nothing better, the heartless murderers.
"Soon," Yukiyo muttered from behind her, reading her eyes with ease. "We'll find them soon."
Hisa's cold eyes met with hers the moment they entered the Majo Queen's hut.
"You are leaving, I presume? I see you've found a hairbrush and some shoes for once," she observed, with a raised eyebrow.
"Yes, Queen. We came to inform you of our departure," Akuma spoke with an awkward formality.
"Very well, then," Hisa replied. "I wish you luck. And remember, you must return within two months. You have a map and compass?"
"Indeed. We have a map and compass, and will not neglect to return within that time."
Hisa gave a sharp nod, regarding them with what seemed like distaste. It took all of Akuma's willpower to restrain a scowl in reply, and so she forced herself to look elsewhere: at Hisa's blades, lain carefully on her ivory table; at the polished wood of the walls; anything that could take her attention away.
"Personally, you were fools to reject taking an experienced guide. Try not to get yourself killed," Hisa told them coldly, and then, as an afterthought to Yukiyo, "You should wear a hood to conceal your hair. It's too different, and you'll get noticed far too easily."
Yukiyo nodded gracefully, though Akuma sensed his unease. Other people, in general, put him on edge.
"Thank you, Queen."
Hiso merely shrugged, waving her hand in dismissal. "You may leave."
"Thank you," Akuma said quickly, before Hisa could irritate her any more. Bowing stiffly, she turned, pushing through the door and not looking back. Yukiyo scrambled after her, anxious to leave Hisa's company. A few Majo stopped them and wished them luck as they passed through the village, smiling and telling them to return safely. Others watched from afar: some almost wistfully, others sneeringly. No doubt, they thought Akuma should have accepted a guide to help them survive. But freedom was sweet - too sweet for the restrictions of a guardian.
It would have been nice if Ame could have been here to bid them farewell. She'd looked after Akuma for a while after the death of her parents, and she'd regarded the Majo woman as a motherly figure ever since. But Ame was away, on an ambush task to trap and destroy some of the oblivious Majo Hanta as they had destroyed their kind. The more Ame killed, the better. Akuma couldn't wait to hear of their demise when she returned.
Because she would return, whether Hisa thought it possible or not. The human realm might be dangerous, but Akuma had been preparing for this her entire life.
And when she came back, with any luck, they would have been rid of at least ten Majo Hanta. They might be trained to slaughter her kind, but Akuma was stronger.
She had to be.