Prologue

They were surrounded. Katara felt the sweat running down her face as she stood braced with her back to Aang and Zuko. The three were clustered in a defensive circle in the midst of a swarm of Fire Nation attackers. She quickly swiped a hand across her forehead, using the moisture to bend a whip of water into the front line of firebenders.

"On three," whispered Zuko, "Aang, fly up and away. That'll distract them enough for me to run through and get away. Can you take Katara?"

"I can run, too," she breathed back. Aang shook his head, taking her arm.

"It's safer in the air," he replied, and she nodded silently rather than arguing at such a critical moment. Suddenly, Zuko grasped his two companions on the shoulders and forced them to the ground. Fireballs roared over their heads, obscuring the battleground for a moment. But a moment might be enough.

"Three!" yelled Zuko, punching a jet of flames into the surrounding army and breaking into a sprint. Katara clung to Aang as he pushed off and she was lifted into the sky by his glider. As soon as they had cleared the army, she loosened her grip, landing with a roll so that she could help Zuko fight his way to their meeting place. She pulled a supply of water from a patch of unsinged grass and readied herself. As several firebenders approached, she loosed a water whip at them, and at the same time their backups were felled as Sokka's boomerang hit their helmets with huge clangs.

"Run, Katara!" called Sokka from his position on higher ground. He reached up and caught his boomerang as it looped back to him, then threw it immediately to take out a soldier close at Zuko's heels. Seeing that the friendly firebender was nearly out of the fray, she too turned and dashed towards the cliffs, where she knew Toph was waiting. As soon as she reached the base of the bluff, she felt the earth move beneath her. A huge pillar of rock erupted under her feet, launching her into the air and up to where Sokka stood. Aang knelt farther behind him, finishing last-minute preparations to ready Appa for escape. Toph also stood there in a battle stance, sensing the Fire Nation soldiers' positions and knocking them over with rocks. She was also poised to launch Zuko up to join them as soon as he reached the cliff base.

Katara joined Sokka at the edge of the cliff. She could barely spot Zuko in the sea of red and black cloth beneath her. He was running fast, outstripping the soldiers in their heavy armor but impeded because he had to keep turning to send fireballs back at his pursuers. Sokka continued his boomerang attacks, but as the whole army now had a single target, there were still plenty of soldiers chasing the fire prince.

It happened as though in slow motion. One minute, Zuko was spinning gracefully in a firebending kick, and the next he was falling. Katara didn't know if he had tripped on a stone or if he lost his balance trying to dodge some of the fire missiles sent his way. All she could see was Zuko tumbling towards the ground, instantly surrounded again by dozens of soldiers. One of the men kicked Zuko fiercely in the head, and after that he did not struggle. Even as the firebenders were pelted with attacks of earth, water, and boomerang, the majority of them began swarming towards the cliffs, while a few began to drag Zuko to the ships waiting in the nearby river port.

"No!" shouted Katara furiously. She launched herself from the cliff, trusting Toph to help her land safely, but instead the earthbender caused her to be propelled back to Appa.

"We have to go, Katara," Aang said desperately. "We can't win this one."

"We can't leave Zuko," she protested. "We can't abandon one of our group!"

"It was his idea." Toph's voice was sharp but tinged with pain. "He predicted this. He said his father put a price on him as well as on Aang, and he told us to protect the Avatar even if he was captured." She was right, Zuko had said that: They won't kill me; I'm too valuable. They will want me alive. But that did not change the reality of the situation.

Katara was furious. "None of us thought he was serious! We never thought this would happen. I won't just -" Her words were cut off by a huge jet of fire launched over the cliff. She hit the ground hard in a haze of noxious fumes and was dragged up, coughing, by Sokka's firm grip on her arm. He heaved her up into Appa's saddle, and the bison took off immediately. Katara wiped the smoke from her streaming eyes, peering desperately down. She couldn't see Zuko anymore, but a single Fire Nation ship was rapidly departing towards the sea.

"Follow them!" she called - or tried to, but there seemed to be something wrong with her voice. She coughed again, hacking. She couldn't catch her breath, and she fell to her hands and knees as she gasped for air. Someone rolled her onto her back, but she couldn't open her eyes wide enough to see who. As she strived for control over her rebelling lungs, the faint light her squinted eyes received faded to a deep, spiraling black. She had enough time for a brief thought that she hoped she would wake up from this sleep.