When Gwen stepped through the London portal back to Georgia, the last person she was expecting to see was Kelsey. The willowy brunette sneered at her as she appeared from the portal door.
"Went to London without me, did you?" she said, pouting. "I thought this was going to be our summer."
"I had to run an errand, Kels," Gwen said, appeasing her best friend. "Trust me, if I'd had a choice, we would be three seasons into Friends by now." Noticing Kelsey was alone, Gwen looked around her house. "How'd you get in here anyways?"
Ariel wasn't fond of Kelsey. He thought she knew too much, though Gwen suspected that was partially her fault. Kelsey, with her incessant need to be kept busy at all times, would chide Gwen for disappearing without notice. After one particularly nasty fight, Gwen gave in and confessed to Kelsey all about her errands and secret portals. Kelsey had been thrilled, making Gwen promise to take her to the Caribbean one day.
"What does it matter?" Gwen had asked. "It'll be just as cold and snowy as Savannah."
"Are you daft?" Kelsey said, taking off her coat as they walked through the frosted Georgia streets. "We're Winter Children. Duh." She bent down, rolled up a snowball with her bare hands, and, giggling, tossed it at Gwen's face. They had received stern looks from the elder teachers when they'd walked into school dripping in melted snow, but Gwen didn't care. She was thrilled to finally have her friend back.
"I snuck in," Kelsey said, responding to Gwen's earlier question. "I was waiting outside, deciding whether your birthday was important enough to risk running into your uncle, when he got some call and left. I took my chance and snuck into your room, only to find out you'd ditched me to go party in London."
"I wasn't par-"
"Now, come on," Kelsey interrupted her, grabbing her wrist. "We've got a surprise party to get to." She stopped in thought and shrugged. "Well, guess it's not a surprise anymore."
"You're kidding." Gwen followed her, leaving Ariel's pie by the door and hoping he would understand that it meant she'd gone out.
"Do I look like I'm kidding?" Kelsey narrowed her eyes at her. "You better act surprised, Pierce, or Cody is going to kill me."
Thirty minutes later, Gwen was being hauled into her ex-boyfriend's house, mentally bracing herself for the awkward interaction she knew was to come. Gwen had dated Cody since the beginning of freshman year, and it had all been rainbows and butterflies until mid-last year when Gwen realized she'd gotten... bored. She'd broken up with him, and he insisted that they remain close friends, even though Gwen knew he still harbored feelings for her. She tried not to think about it as she watched his curly blonde head drift towards her.
"Hey, Pierce," Cody said, hugging her. "Happy birthday."
"Thanks," she said, as she stepped away from him, taking in the sight of his warm brown eyes.
"I know you don't really like celebrating your birthday, but I thought, you know, if I got everyone together, maybe you'd enjoy at least this one," he said, hopeful that he'd done the right thing. Though Gwen knew Cody had good intentions, there wasn't anything that could make her enjoy her own birthday.
Seventeen years ago, Gwen had killed her own mother in childbirth, and, distraught, her father had left them, never bothering to contact her. Her mother's last request had been for Ariel to protect her and raise her as his own. That was, at least, the story that Ariel had told her. Like most things, however, when Gwen tried to ask him questions about her parents, Ariel refused to answer. The only thing he told her was that the day her mother died, summer went with her. Historically, this was accurate; the Dark Days began exactly seventeen years ago on her birthday, but Gwen knew that this was only a coincidence, a fairytale that Ariel would tell her when she was a child. The truth was, Gwen had just been incredibly unlucky.
"I'm sure I will," Gwen said, smiling at Cody. He returned the grin, happy to have been able to humor her. Gwen's phone rang, and as she reached for it, she saw Cody's smile falter.
"I'll see you around then," Cody said, giving her one last wistful glance before turning away. Gwen sighed, wishing she had been able to give Cody what he wanted. He was a great guy after all, but she knew it would never have worked out between them. She looked down at her phone, and, seeing it was Ariel, she stepped into an empty room and picked it up.
"Gwen, darling, where are you?" Ariel's voice sounded urgent, worried, and suddenly Gwen was aware that something was wrong.
"Cody and Kelsey threw me a party. Why? What's going on?"
"You need to come home right now." He didn't need to say much else; the threat was implied.
"But I just got here," Gwen said, thinking of how much Kelsey would berate her for leaving, and how deeply it would upset Cody. True, the party wasn't what she wanted, but she knew they had tried so hard to please her.
"Now, Gwen. I don't want to have to ask again."
"But what -" Before Gwen could finish, she heard screams coming from the living room. Curious, she opened the door and found herself face to face with a raging blizzard. Impossible. People were running from side to side, shutting windows and doors, trying to piece together what was happening, but the snow outside was resting peacefully. The blizzard had come from nowhere. "No way," Gwen said, quickly shutting the door behind her.
"Is everything ok over there?" her uncle asked, his voice tinted with concern.
"I don't know how to put this, but there's a blizzard," Gwen said. "Inside the house."
"Unbelievable." Gwen could hear him pacing on the other end. "I didn't think he'd find you so quickly."
"You didn't think who would find me so quickly?"
"Ok dear," Ariel said, ignoring her. "You need to portal back here immediately."
Gwen could have laughed at the sheer absurdity of the request. "Cody doesn't have a portal. Normal people usually don't."
Ariel sighed, impatient that he had to explain this to her. "Nobody has a portal, Gwen. They don't exist. The portal is you." She processed this. There was no way portals didn't exist; she'd gone through the one in her living room more times than she could count. She tried to convince herself that Ariel couldn't possibly be telling the truth, and yet she knew he never lied. "You need to find a door," he continued. "Any door. Put your hand on the handle, think of home, and open it."
"That's ridiculous, portals don't just appear like that."
"Just do it, Gwen," he said through gritted teeth.
Gwen hesitated, still clouded with disbelief, and wondered what could possibly be so urgent that Ariel, who never raised his voice, was so angry. Though she was sure it wouldn't work, she reached her hand forward, grabbed the door handle, thought of home and pulled.
Just as she suspected, she was still in Cody's house. The blizzard raged on, and most of the guests had disappeared. Only one person stood in the midst of it. He was motionless, as if the snow didn't affect him. Instead, it flowed around him, from him, like he commanded it. He turned, and though Gwen couldn't make out his face through the whirling snow, she knew his eyes had locked on hers. He pounced towards her, and she closed the door with a gasp.
"Ariel," she panted. "It didn't work. There's a man here. I think he's coming."
"Calm down," Ariel said. "You need to believe it will work, or the portal won't come."
From outside, she heard footsteps approaching, and a threatening voice call her name. Gwen gulped, put her hand on the handle again and closed her eyes. She imagined the warmth of home, the couch she used to nap on when she was a little girl, the wooden kitchen where she would make cookies with Ariel, her bed, soft and inviting, and then, pooling all these thoughts together and sending them at the door, she pulled it.
When she opened her eyes, she was surprised to find herself staring into Ariel's relieved face. Her uncle grabbed her towards him, embraced her, and leaned his chin on her blonde head. Gwen wasn't in the mood for hugging - she was deathly curious - but she wrapped her arms around him just the same. Then, suddenly, Ariel stepped back, his face alert. Apparently, whatever threat had been following them was not over yet.
"Princess, I need you to hide in the closet," Ariel said, nodding towards the portal door she had just come out of.
Gwen frowned. "If I go in there, I'll end up back at Cody's."
"I told you, love. You're the portal." Right. She still had to get used to that. "Now, please," Ariel said, opening the door to prove it hid only a dusty, old closet. She'd never seen it before. Ariel had always convinced her that beyond that door lay her ticket to the world. She'd never once considered the possibility that the portal had been her doing, mostly because she didn't think she could grasp what that would mean for her. But now, as she stepped into the closet, the question hung in her head. What was she?
There was a knock on their front door, and Ariel, wrinkling his gray brows, turned towards it in alarm. "Don't make any noise, and don't open the door," Ariel whispered to her, as he shut it in her face. Gwen sank towards the floor, her face in her hands, and hoped that her uncle would be alright.
Seconds later, she heard the front door creak open. "Ariel, old friend, you've been holding out on me," said the same threatening voice from Cody's. Gwen couldn't fathom how he'd found her so fast, but then she realized that he too could probably open portals or fly or do some other equally impossible thing.
"What do you want, Seph?" Ariel asked, his voice more powerful than Gwen had ever heard it. She imagined the intruder cowering at it, and felt a certain pride for her uncle.
"You know what I want," Seph said. "For all these years, you've been hiding her, knowing we've been losing forces, knowing that she is the only one who can help us, and you've said nothing. Everyone thinks she's dead. People are losing hope."
"This is what Orla wanted," Ariel responded. "You, of all people, know how persuasive she could be."
For a second, Seph said nothing. "Orla is gone." His voice was softer, reminiscent almost. "Our small section of the Otherworld is all we have left, and we are losing it, Ariel."
"I've given you weapons, money, strategies... everything you've asked for, I've provided." Gwen's breath caught in her throat. All those errands, all that money, it was for this man. This crazy man who her uncle was apparently in cahoots with.
"Except the girl," Seph said.
"Except the girl," Ariel agreed. "She was never part of the deal."
"We will die without her." Gwen was certain they spoke of her, given that Ariel had taken precautions to hide her in a closet, but she couldn't believe any of it was true. Who would die without her? "And she," Seph added, "will die without us."
"You've felt it, haven't you?" Seph asked. "The reason you've been contacting us less is because she's getting weaker, isn't it?" There was a silence that confirmed everything Seth had said. "A child of summer cannot thrive in the dead of winter."
"I will not have her fight your war."
"My war?" Seph sounded indignant. "I will live whether we win or lose. It is she who may not survive the loss. We can protect her, Ariel. At least with us, she stands a chance."
Gwen had never felt more lost. This stranger who had come after her with threatening words and furious blizzards was trying to save her? It made no sense, and she was tired of sticking to the sidelines and listening to people make decisions about her life. Ariel had refused to give her answers, but maybe this Seph would. Ignoring Ariel's voice in her mind telling her that she was making a terrible decision, she stood up and opened the door.
She watched as Ariel turned towards her in disappointment, dropping his forehead hopelessly into his hand. His position of power deteriorated as soon as she appeared. Seph, on the other hand, smirked, and Gwen was surprised to find that she recognized him.
"You," she said, remembering the guy who had followed her in London.
"And you," he responded as he approached her. His eyes still held a hint of disbelief. "I must say, the resemblance is uncanny."
"Do not dare," Ariel said, stepping between him and Gwen.
Seph rolled his eyes. "Never in a million years," he said in disgust. "I've learned from my mistakes."
"What is going on?" Gwen asked, unable to hold her anger in any longer. "Who are you?"
Seph turned towards Ariel. "You've told her nothing?"
Ariel shrugged. "It was the only way to keep her from Rhiannon."
Seph's piercing blue eyes bore into Gwen's as he bowed. "I am Sepherin, leader of the Seelie Rebel Army."
Gwen looked at her uncle. "The what?"
"The Seelie Rebel Army," Seph repeated, annoyed.
"Yes, I heard what you said, but I don't speak crazy."
"You've really told her nothing." Seph sighed. "You are Gwenyth Pierce of the Summer Court," he said, as if this explained anything. Gwen narrowed her eyes at him, still confused. He cleared his throat and clarified. "You, Gwen, are fae."