||| Disclaimer

I do not own any of the characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender and do not intend for this work to be used for commercial purposes.

||| Author's Note

I'm not altogether familiar with Avatar, but I've started watching and I like some of the characters, particularly Katara. This may be a little inaccurate then, but it's fun for me to write. Just a bit of a damsel in distress story, made better by the fact that Katara's a strong character. As for the heat...it tires everyone out, so that's where it comes from.

||| Chapter One

Darkness. A black, deeper than the cloudiest night surrounded her, featureless and grim. Katara winced, bursts of color flaring in her vision as she tried to shake off the drugged haze filling her thoughts. She felt nauseous, a horrible, dizzying vertigo gripping her body.

I...I'm not falling. I can't be falling, she told herself, before another wrenching, swooping sensation flooded her being, followed by another. Katara froze, paralyzed by a fear she had never known as the continued vertigo assailed her senses, disorienting her already clouded mind. She had always been able to see something, to make out at least her height, but in the murk…

At length, the terror subsided, leaving Katara panting and trembling on the floor. Given a moment of reprieve and with her thoughts clearing, she began to take notice of her surroundings for the first time. She was lying on her back, cushioned by some coarse straw. Blind in the murk, she reached out with a quivering hand, picking up several stalks and feeling their lengths. They were smooth and utterly dry, containing no water.

I don't...sense any water, actually, she realized, casting out with her abilities into the void around her. Not a drop of liquid water was to be found. Moments later, she felt a dry heat in the air, sapping all moisture from within the chamber. Despite the heat, which although bearable was immensely uncomfortable, Katara felt an icy fear wash over her.

Even her sweat had evaporated, the dryness of the air suppressing or whisking away the natural waters of her body. My waterbending.... It was a sense of loss that Katara had rarely felt, even at the height of a lunar eclipse. She felt intensely vulnerable, alone, helpless.

She staggered to her feet, fighting against a renewed rush of dizziness. Yet she had expected some form of recognition or orientation from standing-- instead, she only became more lost, with only her feet in contact with the mercifully solid ground.

As she came to her full height, however, Katara went tumbling back down almost as quickly, striking her head on the low ceiling. The girl curled up on the thin straw, giving a soft whimper of pain as the throbbing mixed in with lingering effects of some drug, incapacitating her completely.

It was some time later when she regained control of her body, shaking fitfully as she tried to cope with the enduring ache. The heat seemed to be even greater now, sapping the energy from her limbs and further upsetting her tender head. Her breathing was quick and shallow, and she remained lying down as she began to recuperate.

This heat...it's...I can't think... Disjointed thoughts flitted through her exhausted mind, the sweltering warmth depriving her of vitality and will. Her eyes fluttered, drifting shut against her best efforts, and she slipped into unconsciousness.

The darkness is even worse than the heat, she decided almost immediately upon waking up. She rubbed her eyes wearily, straining to make out some form or feature. Yet no matter how hard she searched, there was simply nothing to be seen—not even the faintest glimmer of light.

"Eeeeargh!" The frustrated shout echoed hollowly in the enclosed space as Katara sat bolt upright, lost in the void. She wanted to move, to see, anything. Before she could leap to her feet, however, the painful memory of the low ceiling flashed into her mind, and she threw an arm up instead.

Her fingers brushed against hard, brittle rock, bringing a shower of dust and stone chips upon her head. Katara coughed, trying feebly to blow away the flying detritus when she froze, all thought of the dust forgotten. Tentatively, hand trembling, she reached upwards, feeling the chamber roof.

It…it wasn't that low before! Katara began to panic as a gentle pressure began to push on her outstretched arm, forcing her weakened elbow to buckle. The feeling had been so slight, but the implications were clear.

"I've got to get out of here," she whispered, feeling her heart clench with icy fear as she pictured the rock slab coming down upon her. "If only I knew earthbending…" Her voice petered out with a squeak of fright as the ground began to shake. As soon as they had started, the tremors ceased.

Almost afraid to try, Katara pushed into the darkness. The stone had descended again.

The rock veritably shook to the sound of screaming.

Zuko grimaced as the tank was jostled by another deep rut, the machinery behind him belching a plume of steam in protest as the vehicle continued rumbling along. I'd almost rather walk….but I need speed!

Certainly, he was getting that—the tank, for all of its jostling was moving at a steady clip, and although he was well aware that he could be heard and seen for miles, there was no need for stealth; he was just within Fire Nation borders, near the Earth Kingdom. The fighting had long since passed this isolated, mountainous region, unsuited for both Fire Nation tanks and the ostrich horses favored by the Earth Kingdom.

"All the better," he remarked to himself. For a moment, he expected to hear some tart reply from his Uncle. Then he caught himself, bowing his head slightly. The events at Ba Sing Se still troubled him, and he knew that his Uncle wouldn't be with him for a long time yet.

If at all, he added sourly, returning his gaze to the road ahead. It had been almost a day already, and his destination remained far ahead. And, Zuko thought, hearing the gears begin to slow, it'll take a lot more energy to get me there. Almost unconsciously, flame burst from his hands as he threw open the boiler, the fire exploding upwards as energy coursed through his palms.

The woods reverberated to a high-pitched squeal of steam.

"Please…" The whisper escaped into the darkness, unheard except for Katara's slumped figure. A tear rolled down her cheek, before evaporating almost instantly with the faintest hiss. Her breathing was labored, and the constant, burning heat was making her nauseous. Her body shook as she continued to crawl blindly, searching for a wall, or some point of reference.

Her eyes registered the light before a breath of air swept into her, cooler by only a tiny amount, but filling her with a sense of bliss. Accustomed to the darkness, she gave a groan as she was blinded. Her vision was filled with pure white, and she could not help but fall back, nearly cracking her head on the lowering ceiling before landing on her side. A quiet rasp met her ears, accompanied by light, irregular footfalls.

"Help! Thank you, whoever you are!" she sobbed in relief, feeling the crushing grip on her heart lifting in an instant. "Thank you, thank you…"

It was a moment before she realized that the rattling, rasping sound she heard was a sound she had seemed to hear all too often lately—the sound of chains. Before the gasp left her lips, Katara was already scrabbling backwards.

"No…please….no!" She lashed out with her arm, only to cry out as a thin hand grabbed her firmly, fastening a manacle around one arm. Katara twisted, trying to wrench the chain from her attacker, but a firm tug forced her to stop, a sudden jerk spinning her in the opposite direction. Instinctively throwing out her hand to regain her balance, Katara screamed as she felt the other manacle close around her wrist.

A sudden flare of light appeared in her vision, colored sparks bursting at this new assault. Katara felt an intense heat on the insides of her arms, flinching as she heard the hiss of melting metal. In an instant it ceased, along with what she could only assume to be fire. A mad, reedy laugh drifted back into her ears, followed by a loud slam as the blinding light was shut away.

She lay on her side, panting heavily. The light had seemed to come from everywhere, after her seclusion in the cave. She had no better idea now than before about where the exit was.

The seconds passed by while she tried to collect her thoughts. Sit up, just sit up Katara! When she tried to pull herself into a sitting position, however, her arms refused to budge. She began to panic as the chains flashed back into her memory, and she began to cry as she struggled, feeling absolutely no slack in the cuffs.

"This can't be happening…how much worse can this get?" She bit her lip, choking back the words that had inevitably floated into her mind.

It can always get worse…

…or could it? Zuko gave an exasperated groan upon seeing the landslide ahead of him, blocking the already barely-usable road. Opening the weapons hatch, the firebender sent a blast of flame at the piled debris, blowing a decently-sized crater into the mass. Smoke rose lazily from the impact, before being dispersed by the light breeze.

Any more helpful proverbs, Uncle? he added, his thought sounding dry, even to him. Doubtless, Iroh would have had some words of wisdom. Zuko's lip curled slightly with the semblance of a smile.

Iroh also would not appreciate his solution to this particular problem, he noted after a brief moment of reflection. He slammed the drive lever forward, wincing as an ear-piercing crash came from behind as the tank's wheels began to dig deeply into the earth, picking up speed as it lurched forwards.

The prince slammed both the hatches and the view slit before bracing himself against the back wall. The hit was not long in coming as the tank careened into, then through the piled rock. A sizable dent abruptly appeared in the front plating, before the wheels struck level ground once more.

Instantly, Zuko hit the brakes and tore the shutter open, watching as the vehicle ground to a halt just before the precipice edge. Although he would never admit it to himself, he breathed a sigh of relief.

His good eye drifted upwards, before snapping fully open in mild alarm. The mountain he had been heading for was belching smoke and flame, and with vibrations from the tank subsiding, he could feel the bigger tremors from the volcano ahead.

The mountain's active…and it shouldn't be, unless…