The southern ice fields spread out as far as the eye could see, a hauntingly beautiful expanse of deep blue water and glittering ice peaks that sparkled like diamonds under the ever-present summer sun. It was a harsh land, but it was theirs, and it was home. And since her father had united the tribes and taken command of the war effort, no Fire Navy ship had tainted their waters without paying for it in blood.
With a sigh, Katara suspended several more fish in globes of water and brought them onto the deck to join the growing pile beside her. Enough, she judged, to feed the crew for a while.
“Good catch today?” Sokka asked, walking over to lean on the railing beside her.
She bent some ice around the fish, deposited them in the icebox, and managed a slight smile. “We’ll eat well for the next week or so. Any word from Dad on that latest albatross-gull?”
“He caught a scoutship snooping around near Whaletail Island,” her brother replied. “Not much useful intel, although there were reports of the ‘Banished Prince’ passing by. Maybe he’ll try getting through the ice fields and we can take the bastard out.”
She laughed bitterly. “What, he thinks he’ll find the Avatar down here? The raiders took care of that.”
Fire Prince Ozai’s cruelly ironic task had become known across the world by now. Banished from the Fire Nation after committing an unspecified form of high treason—there were half a dozen theories about what exactly he'd done, each worse than the last—and sent to capture the Avatar. The Avatar, who was likely somewhere in the Fire Nation. It only made sense—the air Avatar had been killed with the rest of their people, the earth Avatar had likely died in the war, and as for the water Avatar before them—
Well, Gran Gran had told her about her friend Hama, an unusually powerful and spiritually-connected waterbender who’d been taken by the raiders. No one had ever confirmed whether she’d been the Avatar—there wasn’t much earth at the pole to try—but she’d been the hope of their people, for a time.
“I hope we get a shot at him,” she spat. “If we can take out one of the royal family—that’d be huge.”
“It would. It really would.”
“With that in mind…” she added, picking up the icebox and handing it to him, “mind taking this down to Taka? I should go get some practice in if we’re going prince-hunting.”
“What, I can’t join you? You wound me!” Sokka replied in a haughty, exaggerated tone.
“Ha ha. We can spar in a bit—for now, I just want to practice breaking stuff.” And before he could reply, Katara grabbed her spear and leapt over the side, running lightly across the water and alighting on a large ice floe.
She started off with some simple drills, practicing both pulling water from nearby sources and condensing it from the air to form tiny, lethal ice blades. Being the last southern waterbender had left her to teach herself, and between coming up with a few clever tricks of her own, using her spear to channel her attacks, and adapting some earthbending techniques she’d learned from Earth Kingdom resistance fighters, she had something of an edge over most warriors and Fire Nation soldiers, but the harsh reality was that she was nothing compared to the masters they’d once had.
The reminder of her people’s losses set her blood boiling with old, familiar anger, and she looked about for a better target than empty air. Her spear spun through the air, casting out an arc of ice shards that shattered against a conveniently-sized iceberg, followed by another, and another. Eventually, seizing the iceberg itself, she tried to tear it apart with a cry that was half fury, half deep and unrelenting pain.
The iceberg cracked with a loud grinding sound, and steam hissed out as the crack glowed bright blue-white. Shocked, she quickly stepped back, bringing her spear up into a defensive position as the crack widened, revealing some sort of…glowing orb? It didn’t look like a Fire Nation machine, but just to be safe, she flicked a shard of ice up into the air and back towards the Wavedancer, making it explode to form the pre-determined signal for potential problem over here.
The orb continued cracking, letting more steam hiss out, and as Sokka and several warriors arrived on a canoe, it shattered, and a beam of blue-white light shot up into the sky.
“What the hell did you break?” her brother yelled, but Katara was far more concerned about what had been inside the orb. Because, impossibly, tumbling onto the ice floe, was a tattooed child in the thin orange and yellow robes of the Air Nomads who’d been wiped out over a hundred years ago.
She cautiously edged towards the impossible child, who groaned and tried to blink condensation and polar sunlight out of their eyes. “Come…closer…”
She squatted down, keeping her spear at the ready. “Who are you? How did you get in there?”
“I need to tell you…something…important…”
She shuffled closer, wrapping water around her free hand in preparation for either healing or fighting. “What is it?”
In the space of a heartbeat, the stranger went from semiconscious and woozy to loud and obnoxiously cheerful. “WILL YOU GO PENGUIN-SLEDDING WITH ME?”
Reacting on instinct and frayed nerves, she jerked back and yanked up an ice wall between them. “Tui and La—”
Thankfully, no one laughed. Except the maybe-airbender, who seemed to think the entire world was a joke. “Hahahaha! Your face!”
Sokka reached down and helped her to her feet, squeezing her hand in a silent show of support. “How long were you in that thing? Don’t you know it’s a bad idea to startle a warrior like that?”
“A warrior? Why would you need warriors when you can just talk to people? Oh wow! I’ve never seen a ship like that!”
Katara pinched the bridge of her nose to ward off a growing headache. Sure, the Wavedancer, constructed half from wood and half from salvaged metal, painted in splotches of blue and white to camouflage it against the sea, was a relatively new design. But why would you need warriors??? What year did this child think it was?
“So, want to tell us how you survived?” Katara asked cautiously. “No one’s seen an Air Nomad in a hundred years?”
“What do you mean, a hundred years? Survived what?”
“Oh, Tui and La,” Sokka groaned. “You don’t know? How can you not know?”
“Know what? Oh! Appa!”
The warriors all looked at each other with various degrees of incredulity as the probably-airbender ran back to the iceberg to face-plant into a gigantic furry creature. “What do we do?” Katara hissed.
“We can’t just leave a little kid out here,” Sokka whispered uneasily. “Or, I suppose, the giant fluffy thing said kid seems very attached to.”
She eyed the fluffy thing, then their ship. Wavedancer was small and fast, like most of the Water Tribe’s ships; fitting the fluffy creature on the deck would be difficult and dangerous. “I’m not so sure about taking a stranger back to the town.”
“Me either, but it’s there or Kiyoshi Island, and enough trade comes through there that word would get out—”
“SMOKE ON THE HORIZON!”
She looked at Sokka, and knew he’d come to the same conclusion she had. They couldn’t assault a Fire Navy ship with the Air Nomad and his fluffy creature in tow, or tell the two of them to simply hide among the ice and leave them to the mercy of the polar sea.
Sokka groaned. “Back to the town it is. We better not regret this. Alright, strange airbender kid, come on. Bring the thing if you have to.”
The southern ice fields spread out as far as the eye could see, a vast expanse of deadly icebergs that supposedly promised death for any Fire Navy ship daring enough to enter. How the Water Tribe could live out there, Ozai had no idea. It was just lucky the southern raiders had struck while the annoyingly-determined barbarians were still a bunch of scattered tribes fighting themselves as much as the Fire Nation; at some point in the last decade they had united under Chief Hakoda, who had proven to be a terrifyingly effective leader. Plenty of admirals shuddered at the thought of facing that man in command of an army of waterbenders, rather than only that one admittedly powerful girl who’d reportedly sunk a battlecruiser single-handedly; and his fleet had somehow managed to completely evade the air wing sent to destroy them and their remaining settlements during Sozin’s Comet, as well as any future attempts. Those damned ships of theirs were simply too small, scattered, fast, and well-camouflaged to target properly.
Hakoda and the girl needed to die, of course, but the exiled Prince could admire their tenacity and tactical skill.
“Are you sure you want to go in there, my Prince? The icebergs, and the barbarians—”
He gave the man a withering glare. “Perhaps, captain, you should worry less about the icebergs and the barbarians, who’ve already made up their minds about killing you, and more about me, who’s still mulling it over.”
“R-Right away, your highness!”
Weak fool. Ice is nothing to a proper firebender.
Eight long years of exile, and still nothing. The throne had nearly been his, but his father had had the audacity to survive inconveniently long, and his fool of a brother had returned to take the throne. It had not been long after that before his perfectly legal attempts to usurp the old fool had failed and Iroh had scarred and banished him, ordering him to find the Avatar and drag them back in chains in order to “restore his honor”.
Pah. He had more honor than Iroh the Tea-Loving Fool any day.
The disfiguring brand Iroh had left across the left side of his face itched, and Ozai seethed. I will have my vengeance. One day, brother, I’ll give you one to match before I destroy you…
The southern sky flashed brilliant white for a second, and as he blinked spots out of his eyes, he saw a beam of blue-white light stretching up to the heavens.
A cruel grin split the Banished Prince’s face. “Helmsman! Set a course for the light!”