The dragon’s hot breath traced fiery heat over the virgin’s skin, her pale curves arching in unconstrained ecstasy as the very concept of resistance fled her body. There were little jeweled beads of sweat dotted over her belly and upper thighs, remnants of the struggle she had entered into against her own instincts and desires when the dragon had taken her, stripped her of the clothing that had formed an artificial barrier between their bodies, and feasted his hungry eyes upon her. Now, like the resistance they represented, they were being erased, shimmering and evaporating as the dragon blew gently against her body, his lips mere inches from her bare flesh as his large, muscular body moved over hers.
She had arrived unannounced and uninvited, a delicious morsel of a woman he had wasted no time in claiming. Now he was thoroughly exploring the innocent who had wandered between the worlds without thought or care for consequence.
This was what the dragon had desired for so very long, a human woman, with all the softness and vulnerability that entailed. He could see the blue veins tracing beneath her skin, her pulse throbbing in her throat. Everything about her was intoxicating and sweet, from the bright copper falls of her hair to the tips of her toes, which curled in response to his touch. Her red lips parted as she drew breath to speak, her emerald gaze welling with feminine desire.
“You must let me go,” she moaned.
The dragon answered in a deep masculine rumble that made the little hairs on her body react, goosebumps forming over her delectable skin. “Let you go? This is what you wanted, is it not? This is what you crossed the divide between worlds to obtain. You came to mate.”
“I came to study…”
“Study? Ha!” His white teeth flashed as he let out a dark chuckle. “Young virgins do not come to a dragon’s lair to study. They come to be deflowered and made virginal no longer.”
His fingers teased her in the spot no man had touched before, finding her wet and soft and hot. “This barrier between your thighs, this little scrap of skin. It is all that stands between you and the full realization of your womanhood. It is mine. I will take it, and you, as my own.”
The dragon’s captive whimpered as those long, skillful digits continued to strum and tease, making her writhe with pleasure. Her squirming served no purpose but to make her strain against the leash wound about the dragon’s hand, a leash that led directly to the collar at her throat, a mark of total ownership.
She had come from a civilized world, but there was nothing civilized about the creature that had captured her, the man who was also dragon. His golden gaze swept over her form with unyielding lust, the kind of need that would not be denied. His instinct was to command, to consume, to make her his own in every way possible, and that possession was just beginning…
Earlier that day…
Moving furtively, her long copper hair hidden under a dark hooded sweater, Kate swiped her pass card and walked into the building. Her reflection was briefly caught in the double glazing: wide hazel-green eyes in a round face, bow-shaped lips, and a smattering of redhead freckles over the bridge of her nose and the tops of her full cheeks.
It was three a.m. and nobody, not even the campus cops, was around. This was the time she did her best work, her most important work. She wasn’t supposed to be there, of course, but Kate had gotten used to skirting the rules in the name of getting what she wanted and needed. She was toting a big backpack that contained a bunch of items technically belonging to the college, stuff she took between her apartment and the lab so she could work on it wherever she was. The lab did have a few toys she didn’t have at home though, hence the late-night visit.
Technically what she was doing was stealing. Technically it was also breaking several federal restrictions on research. Technically… she’d be in a hell of a lot of trouble if she got caught. Fortunately, Kate was able to put all those technicalities aside and focus on the task at hand. She didn’t feel bad about breaking the law. She practically considered it her duty.
Real work, real science, that didn’t take place during daylight hours. It never had. Not since the fathers of science had begun their explorations of the physical world had their work been entirely legal. That was what Kate comforted herself with anyway. As an accelerated post-grad student, she had a lot of leeway and access, but the work she was truly passionate about was banned, hence the sneaking.
As she moved toward the lab, she clutched her notebook to her chest. None of her work was on a computer. It was all contained in the simple dog-eared exercise book that she never let out of her sight. Not even when she was showering. Then it went in a plastic bag and sat on a ledge above the water spray. Some people would have called that obsessive, but Kate knew it was necessary. If any of her peers saw what was in those pages, she’d be in deep trouble.
Thus far, she’d been lucky. She’d managed to avoid both detection and even any kind of suspicion. During the day she maintained a certain blandness that made her sort of sink into the background. Her appearance wasn’t too noteworthy in either direction, which helped. To others she appeared to be a curvy young woman with long copper hair usually tied back in a ponytail. Her dress was almost always a hooded sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers. She thought of herself as cute, when she had time to think about what she looked like, which wasn’t all that often.
“Hey there! What the hell are you doing?”
Kate jumped nearly out of her skin as a flashlight rounded the corner and the beam landed on her. She’d been wrong about the campus police. At least one of them was around, and had just found her.
“This is a restricted area.” The guard’s voice boomed down the hall forcefully, making her recoil.
“I know!” She tucked her notebook under her arm and held her hands up as best she could, as if the man with the loud voice and the torch was actual police—which he absolutely wasn’t. “I’m allowed here. Sort of. I mean, I have permission for…”
“Oh, it’s you again,” the guard said, shining the light in her eyes, temporarily blinding her. Almost simultaneously, they realized that this was not the first time they’d run into one another. The security guard’s name was Ben or Burt or…
“Brian,” she said, catching a glance of his name tag. “Sorry, I just forgot something, and I really need it for my assignment…”
“It’s Saturday night,” the man behind the flashlight snorted, as if she might not be aware of the calendar week. “You should be at a party or something, shouldn’t you? Get yourself a boyfriend before it’s too late. Got to look after your love life. Now go on, get out of here.”
“You won’t report me?”
“Why would I bother?” The guard shrugged. “It’s not like they pay attention to anything I say. Go on and get home—or just plain out!”
“I just need to get a couple of things,” Kate stammered. “I have this project due and…”
“Fine,” the guard sighed. “Get what you need, then get out of here.”
She went into the lab and pulled a couple of pieces of equipment from her nook. This was definitely not allowed, but she needed them to perform her final trial—her first real run. She didn’t need to take too many things, just a small amount of radioactive material and a couple of decent-sized electromagnets, plus a little more material to transform them—along with the bits and pieces she already had set up back home—into something extraordinary.
As she worked to gather the necessary materials, the guard’s words about a love life made her smirk to herself. “Love life? Hah.”
She’d never had anything remotely resembling a love life. There hadn’t been time. She had her sights set on more than any man could offer her. The biggest scientific breakthrough of a generation had happened when she was months from graduating high school—the discovery of a parallel world, full of sentient dragons.
It had sounded ridiculous, until you saw the footage for yourself. The Mojave was still marked with the scars of the facility where the first and thus far only portal opened by humans had once stood. She’d watched, stunned from her little home in the Mid-West as the California power station that had been heralded as the answer to humanity’s energy crisis melted down the moment it was activated. In doing so, it had ripped a hole in the sky. That had been horrific enough—but then the dragons had come, pouring through the aperture that linked the human realm to the realm of humanity’s nightmares. California was still rebuilding from the damage that had been done by those sentient lizards, creatures that not only had fearsome animal forms, but which could allegedly take a human form as well.
The world was still reeling from the events of those days, and though the war was over, the dragons vanquished, the portal closed, the fear remained. There was a lot of research going on around the accident, but it was absolutely, highly, incredibly, federal prison illegal to attempt to open any kind of portal again.
And that was precisely what Kate was preparing to do tonight.
It wouldn’t be like the first portal though. That had been a giant, uncontrolled accident. She was certain that she could do it under controlled, repeatable circumstances that would not enlarge into great tears in the fabric of time and space, but would function more like doorways between the realms. Her math was solid, but even the most elegant equations could turn to chaos when translated into reality. Reality had a way of twisting at the very last second, turning and biting a scientist in the butt. That had happened in a spectacular and devastating way with the power plant, so Kate was exercising a fair bit of caution with her experiments.
She could still remember the hour and the day on which she had started down the path she now found herself at the end of.
As part of the attempt to clean up California, the government had started running tours around the remains of the power plant. Kate was the only teenage girl there on the day she went. She’d saved up money for her plane tickets, and the tour itself, working double shifts at the grocery store.
Having lost both her parents young, Kate had come up through the foster care system, bouncing between homes several times before her eighteenth birthday. Fortunately she was smart enough to be able to bury herself in her study and not pay too much attention to the emotional deficits all around her. Being quiet, studious, and determined were qualities that had saved her a thousand times over. Her hard work had paid off to the tune of a full ride to NYU. She’d been accepted to several other colleges, some of them with more cachet, but NYU was in New York and she wouldn’t have to do another shift at the grocery store as long as she was there. She’d worked in the dining hall instead all through undergrad, until finally getting a tutoring position. Really, her journey had started a hundred times in a hundred different ways, but she’d known for certain what she wanted to do when she had found herself walking where the portal had once been, on the very land across which dragons had once soared.
She had stood there in the ruins of the power station, wearing a radiation suit and listening to the guide’s voice coming through the speakers in the headset. The guide had a Texas twang and a real enthusiasm for his subject. He was a veteran of the dragon war, had flown planes against them and was full of stories, but what had caught Kate’s attention most was when he talked about the dragon realm, and the reason humans couldn’t survive there. A very particular type of radiation, native to that realm, was highly dangerous to humans.
“Radiation shreds DNA. Burns right through it. At first you don’t know you’ve been exposed. Then the sores break out. Then everything in your body breaks down bit by bit, because the cells can’t replicate anymore, you see? You can’t get near that realm unless you have some kind of protection. The dragons have a resistance to it.”
The guide had talked in a rough, no-nonsense sort of way, designed to shock the tour group. It had stayed with Kate and it had informed her courses of study. There was an inescapable chain of cause and effect from that moment to this one. Some might have called it destiny, but Kate was not inclined to think or speak that way. Her world view had no room for fate. She and she alone would decide her future.
Then eighteen-year-old Kate had left the invasion site with two missions for that future. One: she was going to enter the dragon realm. Two: she was going to survive it. Of course, she’d had to work on mission two before mission one, and throughout her undergrad she’d not been able to even get close to a solution. The breakthrough hadn’t happened until the first few months of postgrad study, when her supervisor had let her in on a well-guarded little secret: the college had dragon tissue samples recovered from dragon bodies that had fallen in the final battle. They weren’t supposed to. Technically it was illegal. Only the government was alleged to have access to dragon tissue, but there was a fair bit of overlap between high-level academics and government research and so a few hundred grams of deceased dragon had made its way into the laboratory freezer, where it sat looking entirely unassuming in an old ice cream container.
Kate had managed to take a little of the material and after several months of research, isolate a compound she believed capable of catching and binding radiation, rendering it harmless. Initial testing had indicated that it worked, to some degree at least. The radiation of the dragon realm was not quite like Earth radiation, so it would be a trial by fire when she did step beyond the barrier of her realm.
It was surprising to her that nobody else had done it as yet, but perhaps they had and were keeping it quiet. Or maybe they just hadn’t stumbled onto the secret as yet. Science was a strange thing; as much as hard work and advanced mathematics made it possible, there was the spark of almost divine revelation that accompanied so many major discoveries. Kate had felt it when she developed her formula, and she was feeling it again now.
She could hardly stop herself from giggling with excitement as she stashed the equipment in her bag and left the lab. In the next few hours, everything was going to change. She could feel it in the air, a sense of destiny that had kept her going through all the hard times when it would have been easier to give up and just let the world crush her. Even as a small girl, Kate had known that she was capable of great things. It was an attitude a lot of foster siblings had picked on her for, so it had hidden itself deep inside her, but she’d never lost sight of it and now it seemed to surround her, like a force field, or an invisible cloak, keeping her safe no matter what.
She scuttled back to her apartment, several blocks away from the college. It was a tiny little one-room place, but that wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for New York. She paid quite a premium to have the place to herself, but it was worth it for what she was about to do.
There was almost nothing nice about the place, but Kate had gotten used to ignoring her immediate surroundings in favor of concentrating on her work anyway. She could have lived somewhere nicer if she’d had roommates, but that never seemed to go well. She kept odd hours and did odd things and she absolutely couldn’t risk having her plans discovered by someone else. Living with other people always seemed to arouse suspicion, if not outright hostility.
The apartment had a little galley kitchen next to the bathroom, and it was there that Kate set up her equipment, hastily wiping down the counters where her precious creation was going to sit. The kitchen was perfect for it, thanks to the counters on either side, which provided two stationary points for the mass of wires and the heavy electromagnets and field generators to sit.
It took several more hours to get everything situated. The sun was shining through the grime of her windows as Kate rubbed her hands together, her eyes searching the wiring to make sure everything was perfect.
“Okay,” she breathed to herself. “This is it.”
Her finger hovered over the first switch, then flipped it. There was a low hum, but nothing happened yet. That was to be expected. The portal needed at least two points of contact to open—it was both the genius and the drawback of her design.
She turned to her right and hesitated, her breath catching in her throat. There were three options as to what would happen once she threw that switch. A portal to the dragon realm could open. Her calculations indicated that was possible. She could blow her apartment to smithereens. That was much less likely. Probably. And finally, there was the possibility that nothing would happen at all. She was afraid of that outcome most of all.
“Just do it,” she lectured herself. “Do it!”
Her finger hit the switch, the current flowed…
It was a dud. It didn’t work. She wasn’t a pioneering scientist. She wasn’t the next Marie Curie. She was just a silly woman standing in the middle of a gross old kitchen with tears in her eyes and mold growing on a half-eaten Thai takeout.
“Dammit!” She slammed her palm down on the counter, making the yet to be washed cutlery dance.
And then it happened. A small spark in the air between the electromagnetic devices. A little pinprick that lit a spark of hope in her. She scuttled back, keeping out of its way just in case it did turn out to be volatile. Her protection was an armchair she had salvaged from the side of the street. She didn’t know what material it was made of, but she knew it was old and resilient.
Over about thirty seconds to a minute, the portal blossomed before her astounded eyes. There, in her poky little kitchen, was a gateway to another world. She could see bright green grass extending from the base of the portal out into a meadow, and beyond that… she couldn’t quite make it out.
“Oh. My. God.” She murmured the words softly to herself. “This is it. I’ve done it.”
Unlike the initial portals that had ripped the sky apart, this portal was stable and small. It stood like an open doorway, inviting her through.
“I really didn’t think that would work,” she said to herself. She’d worked the math out a million ways, but the odds of the real world conforming to mathematical expectations were always much lower than, well, the odds would imply.
Should she go rushing through the portal to dance in the beckoning fields of green? It was tempting, but Kate knew the dangers of the dragon realm—well, some of them anyway—and she was definitely not a fool. Transiting through the portal could have dangers of its own.
“I need a test subject,” she murmured to herself, looking around the remainder of her kitchen. Something gleaming caught her eye.
She grabbed the spatula and tossed it through the portal, just in case it burst into flames or exploded or something. It plonked down on the grass and sat there with the warm sun of another world making it gleam.
In an instant, Kate was jealous of the spatula. It had taken the one small step before she did. Still, it was best to be cautious about these things. There were dragons on the other side of that glowing portal. None were in immediate sight though. She wondered if there were any nearby. It would be just her luck to have opened her portal to a completely uninhabited part of the dragon realm and end up not meeting any dragons at all.
Of course, there was the possibility that there were more than dragons through that doorway. A certainty, really. A world that supported dragons as an apex species had to have other creatures to support them. Some of them were likely to be aggressive.
There was literally no information regarding the flora and fauna of the dragon realm, let alone its basic geography. The view she had in the middle of her kitchen was the most in-depth look anyone had ever had into the dragon realm.
“The first human in the dragon world,” she intoned. “Well, the first one to survive the irradiated environment. Hopefully.”
She turned to the little carry case of vials all strapped in nice and neatly. They contained the formula she had been working on for years, a potentially revolutionary treatment that, when ingested, provided prophylaxis against radiation exposure for about a month. She uncorked one of the vials, put the opening to her lips, and slurped it down. It tasted vile, like battery acid mixed with mud, but she choked it down regardless. She’d taken a dose a day earlier too, figuring it would be good to give the formula a chance to saturate her tissues. This was just a top up, a good luck shot for the road. She felt a little heady charge from it, a buzz that emboldened her as she looked toward the gleaming door between worlds.
With no reason to wait anymore, Kate grabbed a few supplies and shoved them in a backpack. Her notebook was first, of course, followed swiftly by a bottle of water, more vials of her personal radiation treatment in case she needed it, and some snacks. Not much really, but she didn’t need much. Unlike most intrepid explorers, Kate was able to push the boundaries of human experience from inside her apartment.
“This is it,” she said to herself, wishing she had a better soundbite, even for herself. Something along the lines of one small step for man… or something like that. She was nervous. Her stomach was fluttering and her heart was pounding in her chest. That really was another world she was looking at. A world in which dragons lived.
“Don’t think about it,” she told herself. “Just do it.”
With a corporate slogan on her lips, Kate stepped through the portal, and into another world.
The grass was soft beneath her sneakers, and when she turned around she saw the portal behind her, a doorway to a dingy kitchen standing in the middle of some of the most beautiful wild landscape she had ever laid eyes on. It looked small and ugly, standing in direct opposition to this brilliant land that was bright and seemed to go on forever.
Standing less than an arm’s length from the portal, Kate turned back around and simply looked, letting her eyes feast on this new world. The most eye-catching element was a mountain rising in the distance. It was a singular feature, not part of a range as she’d usually expect to see on Earth, and surrounded by water that could have been an ocean or a large lake. Once again, that was strange. What kind of geological process could create a single mountain in an otherwise relatively flat plain? There were some rolling hills behind her that obscured her view of the land in the other direction, but none at all near the mountain.
“Either the laws of tectonics are different here too, or that mountain is up to something,” she muttered to herself. It was silly, of course, to think of a mountain as being suspicious, but Kate was given to occasional bouts of silliness—such as the kind that had brought her across realms.
Movement at the corner of her eye distracted her from the suspicious mountain and she lifted and turned her head to see something flying in the skies not too far from the peak. At first she thought it was a bird, but as it swung lower and the shape of it became more apparent, she realized that it was not a small bird relatively close, but a very large, not-at-all-a-bird, quite far away.
Silhouetted against the sky were arched wings, a powerful body lined with ridges and scales, a long tail against which the back legs were stretched, creating an aerodynamic figure, and front legs too. The head of the creature was large, set upon a powerful and sinuous neck.
Kate clapped her hands over her mouth and let out a little squeal of excitement. This was the culmination of years of dreaming and dedicated study. She was actually looking at a dragon in flight. They were real, and she truly had found the realm in which they reigned.
Part of her had always been a little skeptical, even when she was working with the dragon tissue. It was hard to believe that the flesh she was handling belonged to a mythical creature. Plenty of people thought the dragons had been a hoax from the beginning, that it was all some government psy-ops or cover-up or something. The video evidence had only heightened their suspicions—after all, in a world where you could make anything look real, everything could be fake.
A second dragon entered her field of vision, heading toward the first. Kate watched as they flew into a circling pattern around one another, a beautiful dance of flight that left her awed as they began to dart and swirl and fly back and forth almost as if they were dog fighting like a pair of fighter planes. She watched, enthralled with the way they moved. They lost a lot of height during several of their maneuvers, bringing their powerful, mystical bodies closer to her.
They moved through the air in a similar way to dolphins moving through water, with a natural alacrity that was astonishing and beautiful to behold. She was stuck there, just staring at them, not even caring that the angle was giving her a serious crick in the neck.
Time passed without her noticing, but she suddenly saw that the dragons were growing bigger, drawing closer as they dipped through the sky. They didn’t seem to be as interested in one another anymore. They seemed to be checking out a target on the ground.
Kate suddenly realized that she was not just watching them. They were watching her. She had been spotted from thousands of feet in the air, like a rabbit by a hawk, and they were coming for her, wings back, tails straight, necks extended in a fast dive.
Elation turned to fear. Would they be hostile? They were more than capable of killing on sight, of that she had no doubt. What if they mistook her for food, or what if she became prey? She bolted for the portal, her feet almost failing to carry her across the short distance as fast as the dragons covered vertical miles. She threw herself back into her kitchen and killed the power just as the ground beyond her world shuddered with the impact of two heavy creatures making a hard landing, great dragon heads and slitted eyes rolling in the direction of the glowing aperture.
The portal shut down a millisecond later, leaving her panting, elated, and covered in a sheen of sweat.
“Holy…” She stared at the wall where the dragon world had once been. Now it was nothing but a grease-spattered, yellow-painted wall. It was almost a shock to see it, as if her typical reality had just asserted itself even more violently than the dragons that had come for her.
For a few minutes, she had walked in another world—and she couldn’t wait to do it again.
Her little kitchen victory dance knocked the dish soap into the sink and made grumpy Mrs. Morris downstairs bang on the ceiling with her broom, but even the thudding disapproval of the world’s touchiest neighbor couldn’t impinge on Kate’s pure triumph.
“I did it! I really did it!”
There was a whole world waiting for her at the flick of a switch, and she could go there any time she pleased. Of course, she would have to plan a longer expedition, but there was no reason why she couldn’t go back sooner for a little while, just to look… she already missed the world, which seemed brighter and so much bigger than the one she inhabited.
“That’s because your world is this apartment and the lab,” she lectured herself. “Or, it was, at least.”
It took some time for her pulse and breathing rates to return to normal. When they did, and she was able to think a little more clearly, she took a shower and checked herself carefully. She monitored herself carefully for any signs of radiation exposure. Welts, burns, rashes. Nothing seemed to be present, though it could take some hours for any symptoms to show. She was confident though. The dragon compounds provided protection on a cellular level, and at the rate of radiation exposure in the dragon realm, the effects would have been more or less immediate, she was fairly sure.