The swordsman entered the clearing first, with a groan that shook the evening birds from their bowers. Or perhaps it was his companion, fifty hands of flashing red scale and coiling smoke breath, that was the cause for their flight.
“This seems like an excellent spot,” the man remarked as he stretched his arms over his head. His companion, fifty hands of mute understanding, snorted a happy endorsement.
The two companions set about making camp. The man pitched his tent and built the bones of a fire that the dragon lit. Having concluded its terrestrial chores, the dragon slithered into the clearing’s spring-fed pond. Its scales turned an icy blue as it submerged them in the water. Once it had circled back on its tail, it raised its mighty head, droplets scattering like jewels from its beak. Before long, its scales began to burn their usual scarlet hue, and the spring began to release clouds of vapor.
The swordsman completed their camp by staking a wooden sign into the ground. Satisfied, he shed his winter furs and slipped into the water. They had discovered two years ago that the dragon’s scales, hot as hearthstones, could heat a small pool to therapeutic temperatures. It was a service they rendered now wherever they roamed, and the dragon’s first introduction to what the swordsman called “the gig economy.”
“Ah.” The man sighed with gusto as liquid warmth seeped its way into his bones. His companion grumbled agreement, stretching its long neck out to rest its muzzle on shore. Hard adventuring had seen an upgrade in luxury since crossing paths with the dragon. Their pool of acquaintances, too, increased with every stop near water they made. There was rarely a night they did not welcome other weary travelers, drawn by the campfire’s light, to their portable hot spring.
It was at about a half hour into their soak that a stream of bubbles scurried to the surface, followed by several more. The swordsman and the dragon both craned their heads and watched with interest as a singularly large bubble rose before them and broke open. Water streamed from reedy hair that framed a curious expression of regard.
“A good evening to you, my lady. Are we intruding?” the swordsman inquired.
Shining, globular eyes stared back at him unblinking. The pool’s ripples simulated a veil, and she did not raise herself higher. The swordsman and the dragon exchanged a glance.
“No need to be shy,” the man reassured her as he pointed to their sign. “As you can see we are clothing-optional.”
The naiad simmered, then rose from quiddity to prop her stick-like arms against the basin of the pool, imitating the swordsman in recline. She gurgled a sigh of contentment, bubbles breaking upon her lips, and let her head fall back against the embankment. Grinning, the swordsman likewise relaxed back into the dragon, who rumbled its contentment like a great cat.
They were minutes more into their soak when the first drop of freezing rain splashed across the dorsal of the man’s nose, sliced as if upon his sword. He blinked and drew himself up straight. Several more drops followed, then the heralded downpour. The dragon untucked one leathery wing and stretched it above the swordsman, who expressed his thanks. The naiad, rather redundantly, inched beneath the canopy as well to escape the deluge. The three companions settled in together to watch the world come alive with sparking raindrops. Warmth suffused them, steam wreathed them, easy fellowship found them, as the storm raged on.
— Miranda Ray