"Look, Mummy! A snow demon!" A little kid in the park pointed at Seph as she picked up a heap of fallen leaves. Her arms were full, so she could not wave back, so she blew a kiss at them instead.
"What's she doing? She's putting the leaves back."
Seph was indeed shoving the leaves back onto the trees. She couldn't resist showing off though. She flew a series of loop the loops, making some of the kids cheer.
There was an old gardener sweeping leaves into a pile. Seph swooped down. "Allow me," she grabbed the leaves and stuck them back on a tree.
"Hey!" the gardener's voice was croaky. He grimaced at her. The poor old guy had lost his teeth.
"It's alright, the leaves are sticking with the tree now." She patted his arm. "You did a great job, though. Here." She bought him a cup of soup at the soup stand. She recognised the soup seller from the time she had been here with Jason and she greeted her. "Hi, Deb."
Now for the park lake. It was already frozen over when Seph alighted beside it. A boy was tapping the icy surface.
Seph grabbed him by his skinny arms and pulled him back. "Hey! Careful. You could fall in, and I know how fragile you all are. That's only a thin sheet of ice. Can't say I approve of whoever did this."
He stared at her wide eyed. In that moment, when she saw his eyes wide and guileless, she was reminded irresistibly of Jason and she felt all warm and glowy inside.
"Hi… I'm Seph."
"Tod." She clasped his soft, pink hand. So warm. So full of life. But so fragile, too.
"So are you going to freeze it solid or what?" he demanded. Seph shook her head. She realised she had been staring at him like a fool.
"Noooo…" Seph rose into the air with a single beat of her strong wings and then propelled herself into the lake, smashing the ice. "Take that ice."
"Wait, what are you doing?" said the boy.
Seph grinned at him. "Now I'll keep the sun shining free!"
Seph rose high into the sky, higher and higher and cannoned into a cloud that blocked the sun from shining directly onto the lake, bursting it into wisps of fog that faded like morning dew.
She alighted by the boy and grinned at him. "If the sun shines right in your face, maybe he'll give you freckles." She thought of Jason. "That would be pretty."
"What? That's stupid."
"No, it's not," she said with a sniff. "The face I love most is freckled. I don't think I'll find a face without freckles pretty again."
"Right. Weren't you supposed to be starting Winter about now?"
"No. I'll see the Winter never starts."
She flew high into the air again. Time to bust some clouds. No demon would bring her down.
It was not long however, before Seph realised that she wasn't making progress. She could bust the odd cloud, but the other demons were constantly shipping in more. She lay on her belly on a cloud and cupped her face in her hands. With her demonic vision, she could see every tiny snowflake falling, each one an intricate crystal.
Then she snapped her taloned fingers. Of course! She could not hamper Winter at a local level, but she could stop it at the source.
Seph flew higher and higher, the clouds falling far below her. This high, the currents of air sang in her ears and caressed her skin. She reached the pinnacle of the highest mountain. There was the entrance to the Crystal Caverns. The source of Winter.
She swooped through the first cavern. Glittering stalactites hung from the ceiling. They began to fall as she flew past them. A security measure to prevent intruders and saboteurs.
In the corridor beyond, little blue fish popped up through holes in the floor. Another system of traps, but this one assumed that the intruders would be earthbound. The bluefish were fine if you didn't tread on them.
But then the walls of the tunnel cracked. A hideous green monster burst out of the wall. It was little more than a mouth on stubby legs, a huge, gaping maw with jagged fangs, with two bulging, bloodshot eyes attached. Without warning, its eyeballs bulged and then flew at Seph, like missiles. She dodged, and thwacked the monstrosity with her tail, making it stagger onto a bluefish. The spell of the bluefish worked quickly. The horror flickered and became encased in ice.
Finally, Seph reached the cavern of snowflakes. The benches were where talented demons fashioned the ice into all those wonderful shapes. A super smart demon was building a snowflake pattern now. He was a snow demon master smith, with a huge bulging forehead. Seph waved a greeting at him, but he was too engrossed in what he was doing. However, as she was about to leave the cavern, he beckoned to her and motioned that he wished to see her satchel. She handed it to him.
"Um… do you know why I'm here, Sir?" she said, wide eyed.
He did not reply, but looked through her bag, then gave it back to her, along with a pendant made of weirdly intricate crisscrossing crystals. A gift from a master craftsdemon is always significant, no matter how odd or unexplained it might seem. Seph thanked him, curtseying awkwardly, and hurried onwards.
This was it. She was near the Winter Cauldron itself. A pair of snow demons flanked the entrance.
"The way onwards is forbidden," said one, her piercing voice resounding throughout the cavern.
"You have no business to be here," said the other. He turned to his fellow guard. "This is the most boring job in the world. She's the only one dumb enough to trespass. It's all just standing around."
Seph considered a moment then chose her words carefully. "It must be tiring though, constantly keeping guard. I think you need some kind of token appreciation."
"What yer got?" said the demon.
Seph smiled and handed him her satchel. He began to rummage through it.
"You shouldn't be taking bribes," hissed the other guard.
Seph waited impassively while the demon rummaged through her satchel. Then he dropped it. He pointed at Seph. "Those will do."
"What, you want my pendant?" she said, clutching the pendant the craftsdemon had handed her.
"No, not that ugly thing. Your earrings."
"Oh. Fine." She took off her silver earrings and handed them to him. Then she slipped past as the guards began to bicker.
The bubbling and seething Winter Cauldron lay before her in the next cavern, taking up most of the cavern floor. This was where the water came from to make the winter snow. How to halt it though…? A bluefish popped out of the ground near her. Of course. These things had a freezing spell in their spines. She thwacked it with her tail and it went plop, right into the cauldron. It did not seem to be having any effect though. She beat her wings once and rose into the air. Another bluefish popped out of the icy floor of the cavern. Seph took out a piece of stonehide leather and seized the bluefish in it, wrapping it up completely so she could put it in her satchel without it being able to get out and work its freezing spell. If the first one didn't work, she would have to chuck more in the cauldron.
Seph paced around the ledge that surrounded the great pool. The bluefish she had put in wasn't doing anything apparently. Maybe chucking ice into the cauldron would accelerate the freezing spell. She picked her way round to the other side of the cavern, and cracked a huge, ice stalagmite from the floor. She raised it into the air, but then her wrists were seized in an iron grip and she dropped it.
Seph's heart thudded in her breast. She looked up. A Greater Demon glared down at her. Seph's chieftain, Dysnomia, the head of Winter. "How dare you trespass here, little demonling?" The eerie lights of the cavern shone off her green nose and cheeks. She had horns which most elephants would be proud to call tusks. She fixed Seph with an angry stare and Seph found herself wilting.
"What do you mean by that senseless repetition of an alphabetical letter?" Snapped the Greater Demon.
Seph had had some rehearsed excuse in mind in case she was caught, but she forgot about it under the chief's accusing stare. "I can't let Winter start, my love is really ill, and my heart can't take it," she gabbled.
"That is not for you to decide. The seasons are inevitable."
She picked Seph up in her mighty talons and swept out of the cavern, through the other side of the mountain where she released her. "Go. Concern yourself not with matters that are above you. And no this. I will be watching."
Chastened, Seph fluttered away, aware of the chief's eyes on her back.
Scary as meeting Dysnomia had been, Seph was more worried about having to tell Jan that she had failed. How could she break it to her?
She still hadn't decided when she alighted on the garden path and Jan was already there.
"Are you alright, dear?" said Jan when she saw Seph's face.
"No," said Seph, shaking her head.
Back in Jason's room, Seph crouched, huddled beside his bed, her wings folded. He reached out and caressed her horns "Glad you came back. Things get boring without you around. And too quiet."
"I might as well have stayed, dear. I failed. Winter is coming."
"Live for the moment, Seph. I'm here. You're with me. Isn't that what we want?"
She turned and leaned her face close to his. She stared into his green eyes. "If this moment could last forever."
Jan came in at that point with a plate of raw goat meat cut into cubes.
"Sorry, Jan. Don't think I can eat anything at the moment," murmured Seph.
"It's blood raw," said Jason. "Just how you like it. Now remember the time you tried to eat a banana …?"
"Ha. Yeah. I found out the gross way that I couldn't digest it."
"You always find a different way to make me laugh. There's never been a girl as great as you."
She pulled a funny face at him. "Well laughter is something I won't fail at."
They nuzzled their noses together, because they were feeling silly. For a moment, Seph could forget her sadness.
At that moment, the penetrating voices of Kel and Char arose from the garden.
"No, Char, you can't burst through the walls. Just behave yourself and use the stairs." That was Kel.
Seph rolled her eyes. "Char's such a nut."
When Char and Kel entered the bedroom, they were accompanied by Shyarah, another of Seph's snow demon friends.
"How are you both feeling, guys?" said Shyarah, placing her talons on both their shoulders.
"Whatever, Shy," mumbled Seph, not looking at her.
Jason smiled up at Shy as she smoothed his pillow.
"There you are, dear," said Shy, smiling down at him. Shy had an unusually soft voice for a demon.
"Seph," hissed Char. "You've become… a party pooper!"
"Whatever, Char," said Seph.
"Now look here," began Kel.
"Let me handle this," said Shy. "Now Seph, blundering about and behaving irresponsibly was no way to behave. You don't get to decide if Winter comes. You should have come to me if you wanted to help Jason. I'm the one who's training to be a healer. And I may have found an answer."
"What? What answer?" Seph felt a wild hope.
"It's this…" Shy began, but at that moment, Char noticed the plate of raw goat meat and began to guzzle it down noisily, giving shrieks of delight.
"Can't you behave yourself just for one moment…?" Seph snarled at her.
Char's green cheeks were bulging, so she could only make a muffled sound.
"Don't quarrel," said Kel sternly. "We came to tell you that there may be a cure for Seasonal Affected Disorder. The fabled flowers of Icetor. But if they exist, then finding them will be a difficult and dangerous quest, even for us demons."
Seph leapt to her feet. "Never mind the danger. I'm ready to start now."
And so the four snow demons set out on their quest, flying high into the northern mountains.
"I didn't think you'd ever leave, Seph," chimed Char. "What with how long you spent hugging and kissing Jason goodbye." She made an annoying kissy face.
"It's difficult letting him go," said Seph with a small smile.
"Well I think such a special friendship between a snow demon and a human being is a beautiful thing," said Shy. "Now first, we must go through the Twisted Forest…" They reached a plateau where a forest of gnarled black trees lay before them. The demon girls glided above the rutted forest path. The dark was no problem to their keen eyes. "Now we must be very wary," said Shy. "The forest may be infested with a cockatrice – a dragon with the head of a chicken."
Char gave an ear-splitting cackle. "Ohhh, that would look so silly."
"It's nothing to laugh at," said Shy. "They have a terrible power – a stare that petrifies."
At that moment, there was an eerie sound. A hollow gobbling sound that echoed around the forest. Shy reared up sharply and halted as she saw a statue in front of them. The perfect stone statue of a human boy…