The dragon is framed for an instant against the sky. Then it dives, and from its open mouth comes a storm.
Then the panic begins. The townsfolk in the common room surge to their feet in a tumult that drowns even the sound of wings, overturning chairs and knocking the crockery from tables in their rush for the door.
“To the barricades!” Aleph roars above the confusion. “We must move!”
The party struggle through the crowd and out into the square, which is thick with people. Some are running towards the keep on the hill, but others have frozen in place, crouching beneath empty market stalls or cowering in shop doorways.
“You need to go to the keep!” Nubbins urges them. They don’t reply, cringing in mute horror. A town guard, spotting Aleph in the throng, rushes up to him. “There’s a—they sent a—” he stammers, pointing to the sky. The group follow his trembling finger upwards.
A dark form hangs in the air above them. Two immense wings, each one three times the size of a human. Four clawed limbs drawn close to a plated chest. A proud head topped with a vicious horn. The dragon is framed for an instant against the sky. Then it dives, and from its open mouth comes a storm.
Lightning strafes the houses; thunder shakes their windows. A tongue of white flame transfixes the weathervane on the tavern roof, which erupts in a firework of sparks and smoke. The dragon wheels and wings away, circling high over the town.
“Go now!” Nubbins urges again, as the echoes of the dragon’s roar die away. “Before it comes back!”
Shaken from their torpor, the remaining townsfolk stumble to their feet and run.
Gerard, who has been scanning the fleeing crowds in increasing panic, turns to the rest of the party.
“Have any of you seen Saph?” he cries above the din.
“I thought she was leaving for Candlekeep tonight!” Cyd yells.
“But did you see her leave? If she is still in town—”
“There is no time for this,” Aleph breaks in, eyes blazing. “We must get to the barricades: I do not know how long those manning them will be able to hold out.” The Warforged strides away, Cyd, Nubbins and Keothi on his heels. With a last, desperate look towards the keep, Gerard follows them.
The streets are filling with dust and smoke as they empty of people. As the group race towards the westernmost edge of town, the dragon arcs back across their path, striking houses and shops with crackling jets of lightning. Here and there, fires leap out from the grey haze, and the groaning of wooden beams tells of houses collapsing under the barrage.
The party run in a tight group, Nubbins bringing up the rear. As Aleph’s sense of urgency grows, however, the tiny gnome drops further and further behind. The Warforged is turning a corner in the road when a woman darts out of the smoke directly in front of him, bringing him up short. She is holding a short spear, but brandishes it with an unpractised air. A limping man follows her, towing two small children behind him. The woman looks relieved as she sees Aleph but before she has a chance to speak, a stone whizzes past her head, clattering off his shield.
“Kobolds,” Keothi mutters, descrying a band of short, reptilian figures stalking through the smog.
The light in Aleph’s eyes gutters like a failing candle. “Then the barricades have fallen,” he says. “As have the men and women defending them.”
There is no time for further eulogy. With a roar of rage, Aleph draws his javelin and launches it at the creatures, skewering one and scattering the rest. The kobolds fan out across the road, treading more warily now. Putting herself between the human family and their attackers, Cyd nocks an arrow and fires, taking another kobold through the chest.
Keothi leaps onto a nearby roof and lifts his staff above his head. The carved spider that adorns the top of the staff writhes as a stream of thick, white thread spews from its spinneret, engulfing half of the remaining kobolds in a mass of webbing that stretches across the path. Seeing that they are safe from pursuit, the family flee. Gerard sprints past them, aiming punches towards the gigantic spiderweb. A fusillade of radiant energy bursts from his closed fists, killing the kobolds where they hang suspended in the sticky strands.
Running footsteps ring from the cobblestones as Nubbins catches up with the group at last.
“Crown… of…. Madness!” he pants, dragging his fingers across the strings of his lute and producing a discordant jangle of notes. One kobold gets a gleam in her eye. A grin spreads across her face as she turns to her two surviving packmates, drawing a curved dagger from her belt. She grabs one by the snout, jerks his head back and slits his throat, laughing maniacally as she does so. The last kobold lets out a yip of terror and melts away into the smoke.
“What now?” Cyd asks as the party regroup, collecting their weapons and checking one another for injuries.
Aleph’s shoulders slump. “There is nothing more we can do here. We should fall back to the keep and defend the survivors.”
“Wait,” Keothi calls down from the roof. “Before we move, I have a plan that will deal with that dragon once and for all.”
Keothi kneels down in front of Impy, who does not look impressed.
“You understand the plan, Impy?” the goliath asks.
His familiar frowns. “It sounds like the plan is me getting smooshed.”
“Don’t think of it like that,” Keothi reassures him. “The dragon is unimaginably dangerous, but our key is a complete unknown.”
Impy takes the key and the padlock that Keothi holds out to him. “Neither of those things make for a good plan.”
“That is the spirit. Fly up now and turn invisible, then open the portal in front of the dragon. If he flies into it, maybe we can close it behind him, trapping him in the Far Realms.”
Impy rolls his eyes, but vanishes as requested. “Yeah,” he mutters, his voice coming from somewhere just above Keothi’s head, “or maybe he’ll bat me out of the sky before I can blink.”
Keothi nods. “Yes. Or maybe we will defeat him.”
“Sure. See you in an hour or two when you have to resummon me.”
Impy flies up into the path of the dragon, placing the key against the padlock in readiness. Any moment now.
The huge form draws close enough that Impy can see the deep blue of its scales, feel the displaced air from its powerful wingbeats. The dragon lifts its head, scenting the air, and trains one of its yellow eyes on him. Impy inches the key closer. Any… moment… now…
As he reaches the imp, the dragon raises an enormous clawed arm and scythes it downwards, batting the imp out of the air as though he were a fly.
“Oh, for fu-“ Impy does not have time to finish his thought as the claw makes contact, dispersing his corporeal form. The dragon sweeps onwards.
The key and padlock plummet to the ground, landing with a thud at Keothi’s feet.
“…Impy was unsuccessful,” the goliath concludes, jumping down from the roof. “We should depart for the keep now. Speedily. On an unrelated note,” he adds as the party take off, “I believe that dragons may be able to sense invisible creatures.”