The pale eye of the sun looked out over a placid sea, shining from the sides of icebergs and old snow. The polar waste was silent and cold, seeming at first as if no life could survive there. A closer look however soon revealed otter-penguins diving from the high ice cliffs, tiger-seals lying silent on the sea floor, and the small dark shape of a canoe sitting on the calm water.
“I think we’re near where the fish run now,” one of the people inside the canoe said, peering over the side into the depths. He was a boy of about fifteen, the sides of his head shaved and the rest of his hair pulled up into the wolf-tail of a Water Tribe warrior. “Do you think you can use your freaky water magic to keep us steady?”
The other, a girl a few years younger than her brother, snorted, crossing her arms. “It’s waterbending, Sokka. And I’m not going to need to do anything – there’s no wind.”
“Remind me why you’re here again Katara?” the boy said, beginning to strip out of his furs. “I could be catching fish by myself, I don’t need a babysitter, especially not my little sister.”
“I’m here to stop you loosing another canoe, and to practise my waterbending. Hama said I had a lot of talent, but I need to learn how to use it in the real world if I’m ever going to become a master!”
“Yeah, whatever,” Sokka said, rolling his eyes. He was naked now, aside from a short loincloth, but the freezing temperatures seemed to be having no effect on him. He picked up a grey pelt that had been tucked into the floor of the canoe and wrapped it around himself. The change was sudden and almost seamless. Where a human boy had been standing, there was now the sleek form of a seal. With a sinuous movement, he was over the side and diving into the waters with hardly a splash.
While her brother fished, periodically coming up to deposit his catch into the canoe, Katara practised streaming water from a globe into a whip and then into various other shapes that caught the pale light and sparkled in the air. Then she split the water and froze it into dozens of deadly, icy needles, sending them shooting out fifty feet before they splashed back into the sea.
Finally Sokka pulled himself back over the side, nudging Katara playfully. She laughed and dumped water over his head in retaliation. If seals could look aggravated, Sokka would have. He shed his pelt and was just opening his mouth to say something when the whole canoe shuddered and leapt forward. The pair had to clutch on to one another for balance, and Sokka nearly fell into the pile of fish.
“Katara, do something!”
“I’m trying!” The current had caught them unexpectedly, and her waterbending simply wasn’t skilled enough yet to pull them out of it. Each time she tried the canoe bucked even more and threatened to break apart from the strain she was putting it under. They were moving faster than ever now, and the broken ice was starting to get thicker, big chunks of it coming threateningly close on all sides.
Sokka grabbed the paddle and began digging it in the water. “If you can’t get us out, then help me steer,” he shouted.
Immediately grasping his meaning Katara started to work with the current, using it to push them away from the worst of the danger. For a moment she thought they would make it through the ice field unscathed, but then she saw how the ice was being pushed together directly in their path. It was going to crush them and there was nothing she could do. Grabbing her own pelt and stuffing it down the front of her parka, she leapt forwards and grabbed hold of her brother.
“We’ll have to jump,” she said, “now, before it’s too late.”
The ice was upon them, bearing down on the sides of the canoe with a horrible crunch. They were sent flying through the air, and Sokka let out a cry of pain as they thudded onto the solid surface. Katara gasped and twisted to look at him. He was curled up, clutching his pelt to his bare skin with one hand, and cradling his leg with the other.
“My foot,” he said through gritted teeth. “The ice caught it for a second.”
Katara scrambled over to him, picking up a handful of water without even thinking about it and running it over his foot. She worried her lip between her teeth.
“I think it might be broken,” she said. “And... I’m sorry Sokka, I don’t know how to fix it. Hama only taught me the basics, she said I wasn’t old enough...”
“It’s okay,” her brother said. His eyes were screwed tight shut, and he was obviously trying not to let her know how bad the pain was. He didn’t need to; she could see it in the warped and discoloured lines of his chi.
“It’s not okay! I should be able to fix you,” Katara said, getting to her feet and gesturing wildly at the broad expanse of ocean all around them. “How are we going to get home if you can’t swim? This is all my fault. If I had been paying attention, that current would never have caught us, and you would never have gotten hurt!” Each word was punctuated with angry motions of her hands, and behind her the water began to move with her, raising itself in choppy motions.
“Uh, Katara?” Sokka said, opening his eyes. “Really, it’s not that bad. You should, uh, probably calm down a bit.”
It was too late. The nearby iceberg had already started to crack, and as Katara threw up her hands for the last time, it broke apart with a deafening sound of splintering ice. Katara spun around to see a wave of displaced water come rushing towards them, her eyes widening. She flung herself down, wrapping her arms around Sokka and bending a hurried loop of ice over them to hold them down. The sea washed over them, cold as the depths of polar night, before receding once more. Katara raised her head. Where the iceberg had been, a massive sphere of ice rocked gently back and forth. And it was glowing.
“It’s okay Sokka, don’t try to get up.” The voice seemed to be coming from a long way away, but it was very familiar. Sokka opened his eyes, blinking away the darkness, and tried to focus. The roof of the tent above him was blurry, and the woman leaning over him even more so, but he recognised the sweet smell of burning herbs and the soft musical notes of the hanging ivory carvings knocking together.
“Hama,” he said, surprised at how weak his voice came out. “What happened?”
“Well first you broke half the bones in your foot, and then your foolish waterbender sister nearly gave you hypothermia getting that boy out of the ice. Even a selkie can only take so much cold without their pelt on.”
“Boy? What boy?” He tried to raise himself into a sitting position, but a sudden stab of pain made him collapse back down with a yelp.
“Don’t worry about that now. The bones have been set and I’ve started the healing process, but there is only so much waterbending can do. You need to rest.”
“But... Hama,” Sokka said, knowing he sounded like he was whining.
“No.” Hama’s fingers flicked him painfully over the nose, and then the soft glow of her healing power was doing its work again, sending him softly off to sleep. He dreamed of cutting through the water, his father big and powerful beside him, showing him how to catch fish and the best way to lure the polar wolf-bear too close to their breathing holes before they shed their skins and picked up their spears. Playing ice-ball with his little sister, their mother watching on and keeping them safe. Hiding under the ice from Fire Nation patrols. It was a long time before he woke up again.
It didn’t surprise him that of all the peoples not yet conquered by the Fire Nation, the Avatar had chosen the Water Tribes to hide with. The Seal People were notoriously hard to fight. Zuko had been at sea long enough to hear the sailor’s stories of beautiful men and women who lured the unwary out onto thin ice where they fell through into the deadly waters below and of searching for enemy waterbenders only to find whole villages deserted, their inhabitants long disappeared beneath the waves. Luckily for him, Lieutenant Jee had been on numerous campaigns in the Southern Seas before his unwise tongue had landed him on this crew of rejects. He knew how to catch seals.
“No, Gran-Gran, I can’t. I’m not going to leave Sokka behind.”
Most of the tribe had already changed and slipped away through the tunnels in the ice, mothers shepherding their children along, supporting them through the long swim. Only Katara, Gran-Gran, Hama and Sokka remained, and Sokka still wasn’t yet healed enough to be able to make it.
“I know you care greatly for your brother, Katara, but we cannot take the chance that a patrol was close enough to see that flare. Hama will be able to hide and protect your brother.”
“Gran-Gran... I’m sorry, but I’m not going anywhere. Even if I don’t know as much as Hama yet, she’s been teaching me a lot. I can fight. I’m not helpless!”
“I never said you were.” Kanna sighed, and stepped forward to envelop her grand-daughter in her arms. “I’m not going to force you to run away, my little water-bender. I know you have to do what you think is right.”
Katara smiled “Thanks Gran-Gran. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”
Sokka was woken this time by the ice beneath his furs shuddering. He scrambled upright, managing to avoid putting any weight on his injured foot, eyes wide. There were weird metallic noises coming from outside, a long drawn-out hiss like an ice-rattler and then a massive thump of something really heavy hitting the ground. He hopped over to the doorway and pushed the furs aside, peering out. There was a big dark shape half-shrouded in fog to the sea-ward side of the village. He gulped. Fire Nation.
He didn’t have time to look for much longer before he was pulled away by someone’s hand on the back of his parka. It was Hama, and for the first time that he could remember she looked worried.
“Your sister is still out there somewhere,” she said quietly. “She was getting more fuel for the fire when they arrived.”
“She’ll be okay though, right? I mean, if they find her, she can just change and swim away.”
Hama didn’t reply, but the thin set of her lips didn’t seem like a good sign. Sokka sat back down on his furs with a clumsy thump.
“Why are these guys even here anyway? It’s been years since the last Fire Nation raid this far south. We’re too small for them to bother with, and they don’t know we have any waterbenders left.”
“It’s that Airbender boy your sister found, frozen in the ice with his great furry beast. They went out to the old ship together, and he set off a signal flare.”
“An Airbender? What? And a flare? You mean on purpose?”
Hama shrugged. She didn’t seem too keen on giving him any real answers. She took up a position by the entrance to keep an eye on whatever was happening. Sokka fidgeted, wanting to do something, but knowing he could hardly walk on his own. He was meant to be a warrior and he couldn’t even fight. Couldn’t protect his little sister, wherever she was.
“Search the huts!” someone shouted outside. “The Avatar must be here somewhere – the Airbenders were never shapeshifters.”
“Be careful,” someone else added. “They would have left more than this pup to defend him.”
It felt like Sokka’s blood had turned to ice. “Katara,” he said, pushing himself to his feet again. “I have to go help her!”
“No,” Hama said, barring his way with her outstretched arm. “You are in no condition to take on trained firebenders. We will wait until they have split their forces, and then I will rescue your sister.” Her eyes narrowed. Sokka didn’t like it, but he knew she made sense. They had to be sneaky.
As it turned out, they didn’t get much of a chance to be sneaky at all. As the soldiers began to spread out, there was a sudden commotion, and the noise of fighting. Sokka pushed forwards trying to see what was going on.
It was a boy, dressed in orange and yellow and armed with a staff. He was facing off against a Fire Nation teenager with a ponytail, matching bursts of air to his of fire. Katara was standing off to the side, being held still by some middle-aged guy with a knife to her throat and her pelt in his other hand. Sokka ground his teeth together, wanting to get out there and show that bastard what the Water Tribe could do.
The kid was saying something to the teenager, looking over at Katara. Obviously they liked what they heard, because the man let her go, pushing her forward and tossing her pelt to her. The teenager, who seemed to be in charge, called something to the other soldiers, and a pair of them grabbed the Airbender and pushed him in the direction of his ship. He didn’t fight.
You have a lot of explaining to do Katara, Sokka thought to himself angrily as she watched them leave, looking like she might cry. I’ve missed a lot while I was sleeping.
The ship was small and cramped on the inside, and smelt of metal and smoke. The soldiers didn’t push him around, but he could feel their eyes on him. They sure were being careful. Maybe they had never seen an Airbender before either, just like Katara’s village hadn’t. Maybe they didn’t know what he could do. Maybe it wouldn’t be so hard for him to escape after all.
Aang really didn’t know what to think of these guys. The last time he had been in the Fire Nation, Kuzon had gone flying with him, looping around and dancing in the sky, and they had soared over a happy and peaceful countryside. None of his memories fit with the idea of a war. Wars didn’t just happen all of a sudden – at least he didn’t think so. The monks hadn’t told him much about war, except to say that the Avatar was meant to stop there being wars between the four peoples, and to tell him stories about what past Avatars had done, and he guessed he hadn’t been paying as much attention as he should have.
The soldiers stopped outside a small door with a lock on it, and he knew he was going to have to do something or he would be trapped inside, and he had never tried to pick a lock with Airbending before. It would probably take way too long, and it might be too far by then to fly back to the village. He cleared his mind and took a deep breath, feeling the flow of chi in his body, and channelled it out in a massive exhalation which slammed the man in front into the door and sent Aang flying back along the corridor. The other soldier took most of the force when they hit the stairs, and with a jump, he was free.
There was another door straight ahead leading into the main bulk of the ship, and a quick kick of concentrated air burst it open. He had to find his staff before his guards recovered and raised the alarm. He hoped he hadn’t hurt them too much hitting them off stuff, but they were probably okay. Now his only problem was that he had absolutely no idea where he was going. That prince guy – Zuko, one of the firebenders had called him – said it would be in his quarters, but that could be anywhere.
He ran into some more soldiers almost immediately, but they looked as surprised to see him as he was to see them. They weren’t very helpful anyway, so he zoomed past them and kept on searching. He managed to get his hands free by cutting the rope on one of those spiky helmets the firebenders wore, which made it a lot easier to open doors. The first couple were empty, but he heard deep, loud snoring coming from the next one. It didn’t sound much like it could be coming from Zuko, but it was worth a try. He opened the door.
It wasn’t Zuko. Great coils of shimmering red-gold scales filled the room, and a massive maned head was breathing out plumes of smoke with each rumbling breath. There was no way the dragon would have fit through the entrance, so it had to be a shapeshifter. That kind of made Aang feel even worse. Kuzon would never have had anything to do with a bunch of nasty, aggressive people like these, so this dragon couldn’t be a very nice dragon at all.
“Sorry,” he said, and backed away, closing the door as he went.
He was so caught up in thinking about the dragon that he nearly missed spotting his staff as he sped past the open door. It was propped up against a metal table that was bolted to the floor. He was just going to grab it and get out of there, but before he could, something caught his eye. There was a locked wooden box sitting on top of the table. It looked old and expensive, with carvings all over the sides. He was just reaching out to examine the lock when the door slammed shut behind him.
“Get your hands off of that,” someone said. He sounded angry. Really angry.
“So, uh, I just came to get my staff, and now I’ve got it so I’ll be going now...” he said quickly, turning around. Oh man. It was Prince Zuko. He was in so much trouble.
“You’re not going anywhere Avatar,” Zuko said, dropping into a fighting stance, his odd, mis-matched eyes glaring. Aang hadn’t had much of a chance of notice it earlier – the scar was much more obvious – but his left eye was so gold it was almost luminous, and the pupil in the middle didn’t look quite human. In the low light, it almost seemed to have narrowed to a slit.
Aang dodged the first few fire blasts Zuko threw at him, but he didn’t make it easy. Sometimes he had trained to fight with Kuzon, but his friend had never actually been trying to hurt him. This was different; he could feel the heat every time the flames shot past him, and it scared him. He didn’t know what to do except keep getting out of the way.
He managed to get in behind Zuko and that made things easier, the firebender getting more and more frustrated that he couldn’t hit him. He had his staff, all he needed was to distract the prince long enough to get out of the door and away. They broke apart, and Aang spotted the mattress lying on the floor nearby. He grinned, having an idea. He flicked his staff, using it to manipulate a great gust of air that picked it up and used it to push Zuko into the wall, and then into the ceiling. Then he made a break for it.
He didn’t get very far. He was barely out of the ship and aloft when a sudden weight fastened itself onto his leg. He looked down to see the prince had managed to leap after him far enough to grab onto his ankle. Wow. Zuko was really determined. He tried hard, but he just couldn’t get enough lift to keep them in the air, and they hit the deck, his glider snapping shut and half the breath knocked out of him.
They were both back on their feet within seconds, but before Zuko could attack again, a low bellow split the air.
“Appa!” Aang said, his eyes lighting up. And Appa couldn’t have come by himself, which meant Katara had to be with him. She had come to help him escape!
Zuko used his sudden distraction to his advantage though, sending a plume of flame at him, forcing him to spin his staff wildly to dissipate it. The firebender drove him back and back until he was trapped against the side of the ship, and then one final blast overbalanced him, and he tipped over, down into the dark sea below.
He hit the water, and everything went black for quite some time.
When he came too, Appa had landed on the deck, and Katara was cradling him in her arms for the second time that day.
“Hey,” he said weakly. “What happened?”
“I think it must have been your Avatar spirit,” Katara said, sounding kind of shaken. “Can you stand? We need to get out of here.”
“Yeah, yeah I’m good.” He felt pretty floppy, but he managed to get to his feet and take the few staggering steps to Appa’s side, where the bison helped him up onto his back with his middle leg. A vaguely familiar boy was sitting in the howdah, his foot wrapped up and splinted.
“Hi,” he said, waving.
He turned to look back at the deck in time to see Katara freeze three soldiers to the ground and use a tentacle of water to grab his staff from where it had fallen some way away. She ran up Appa’s tail onto his back, shouting “Yip, yip,” at the top of her voice. Appa leapt into the air, still a little slow. He was probably still tired after all that time in the ice.
“Wow, Katara,” he said, grinning at her. “You’re a really good Waterbender. You were amazing back there!”
“I’m not anywhere near as good as Mistress Hama,” she said, blushing slightly.
“Guys,” the boy said, sounding panicked, “I don’t think we’re in the clear yet.” He was pointing back at the ship, a ball of fire was now arcing towards them. Aang scrambled to his feet and leapt to the base of Appa’s tail, extending the end of his glider just enough to create a powerful shockwave that deflected the fireball away and into the side of the ice cliff. Slush poured down on the ship, halting it in its tracks, and they were away and free.
“Okay,” Sokka said, once they were well clear of the Fire Nation ship. “So you’re the Avatar, apparently, and you were frozen in a block of ice for a hundred years, and you have a giant flying monster. And all of this happened while I was asleep. I miss anything out?”
“Um, just that I haven’t really mastered any of the other elements yet...” Aang shrugged, looking a little sheepish. “You’re Katara’s brother, right? You looked really sick out on the ice, but I guess you’re much better now. I didn’t recognise you with clothes on. Sorry you couldn’t come penguin sledding with us, it was really fun.”
Well, that wasn’t awkward at all. Sokka wasn’t really sure what to make of this kid. He’d heard legends about the Avatar, everyone had, but he had imagined someone older, someone who seemed formidable and powerful, not a happy-go-lucky little guy who had only ever known times of peace, and didn’t really seem to have much of a clue that there was a war on.
“So are we going back to your village?” Aang asked.
“No,” Katara said. “Everyone there is going to relocate, and Hama is going with them to help them build. She’s not going to have time to teach you Waterbending, and anyway, it won’t be safe. The Fire Nation would find you sooner or later. Our plan is to go to our sister Tribe in the North Pole – there’s a city there, and they say it’s really well defended.”
“Okay!” Aang said, seemingly equally happy with this idea. “Boy, this is going to be a great trip! I’ve been all over the world before, I’ve got to show you some of the best sights on the way.” He pulled a map out from one of the bags at the back of the howdah. “We’re gonna go here, and here, and here...”
Oh man, Sokka thought, the world is totally screwed, isn’t it.