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A Shadow in the night
Shadow took a hesitant step forward, then, skirting around the low brick wall that ran along the property, padded cautiously up to the tall oak tree that stood a few paces from the wall. Huge was too little a word to describe the Oak that had stood on that spot for thousands of years, reaching easily seventy meters up into the sky, roots sprouting twenty meters away from the base of the thick, thick trunk. The Oak was so large it could house a… suddenly a dragon swooped down from the top of the tree. Its golden scales glittered and rippled under the full moon. Though large and heavy, the dragon landed lightly on the ground a meter away from Shadow, who took an anxious step backwards, neatly avoiding his tail and tripping over one of the trees many exposed roots in the process. The dragon opened its jaws to reveal huge teeth, the smallest six inches long, and said in a voice that sounded like wind over rocks, “You took your time”. Shadow gulped and hurriedly gave his chest a few licks before answering. “Well, it wassn’t easy, not very and there was a lot of ssslinking about to be done b-but I think you will be most pleassed with the findings.”
The dragon stared at the small black cat sitting in front of him and growled, “Well what are you waiting for? Go and get it!” Shadow almost tripped over again at the prospect of getting away and muttered “Yes ssir.” before turning on his heels and pelting towards a nearby forest. Once there he stopped and waited for his racing heart to cease beating quite so fast. After regaining his usual cat like composure Shadow weaved through the trees, ducked the low hanging branches and slithered on his belly under bushes until he reached the edge of the forest to look down a hill.
Ahead lay a small town with lights twinkling from many of the windows. Shadow took one last look at the forest behind him to make sure there was nothing following behind and stepped delicately down the steep, rocky hill and then made his way to the village. When he reached the village gates, a burly centaur looked him up and down before allowing him to pass with the wave of a spear. It was dark but Shadow reached the familiar tavern in a few minutes. Once inside the hot, dirty room, he headed straight to the bar and jumped up onto one of the stools. The old, hairy bar keeper looked at him, “The usual?” “Yess,” replied Shadow. The bar keeper mixed together a glass of milk and a shot of whiskey and passed it along the counter. “Which room iss our gentleman in tonight?” asked Shadow quietly. The barkeeper looked around and lowered his head, “Room 13, up the stairs and third to the left.” he muttered. Shadow nodded and slid an envelope that seemed to have had come from nowhere over to the barkeeper. The barkeeper slipped the envelope into the pocket of his robes and went to serve another customer.
Shadow drank the rest of his drink and mulled over the events of the past week. The dragon that had found him sleeping off the tiredness that comes with running away from yet another victim of theft. Being hired to steal a huge ruby with magical properties from a visiting wizard with a simple condition - if he brought back the ruby he would live. The long search that had included spying, bribing, running, cheating and more spying. Actually that part hadn’t bothered him as that was what he did for a living. There were the occasional whiffs of information that had come stumbling in from one of his sources. And the relief that had come when the great gemstone was at last located to be in the possession of a tall wizard that had come, like all the others to the magic festival. That was where the barkeeper had come in handy, for it was he who had told Shadow of the rumors that followed the tall wizard concerning a ruby, he who had located the wizard and it was he who had told Shadow any spare bits of information as they came in. The barkeeper certainly was wise, thought Shadow finishing his drink; He put his bets on the right beast.
Now, at last, just as it seemed late enough that most of the creatures in the inn were sleeping, the village clock chimed twelve, jarring Shadow from his thoughts. He jumped down from the stool and made his quiet way up the stairs in the corner of the room and turned left. The numbers 1 and 3 were illuminated in a green glow as the barkeeper had said they would be. Shadow put his ear to the door but heard nothing. He tried to reach up and touch the doorknob but something invisible was pushing his paw aside. Magic. Well, it’s to be expected, Shadow thought, I might be some time here.
There were no lights in the corridor so only someone with extremely sharp eyes could have seen a small black cat. For a while he sat outside the door seemingly doing nothing, a cat’s magic is different to a wizard’s. It is quiet, powerful and unnoticed. After a while, the door knob started to turn and the door slipped open just a crack. Shadow put his paw in the crack, pulled it open and went through. The room was oddly ordinary and under furnished. A chair in the corner, a bed near the window, a beaten up desk in another corner. Shadow shut the door behind him and sniffed. There. A pouch hung around the sleeping wizard’s neck, it smelt of magic. Quietly, Shadow padded over the bed. The wizard stirred. Shadow froze. The wizard was still again. More slowly this time, he continued to the bed and fixed his eyes on the pouch. It began to glow so brightly that Shadow was afraid the wizard would wake up. Finally, the pouch opened and a ruby tumbled out and hit the floor with a bump. Darting forward Shadow grabbed the ruby in his mouth, ran to the window that magically burst open for him and jumped out into the small garden below. Crouching in a holly bush, he waited, his head swimming. I did it!
The wizard stuck his head out and looked around, an expression of fury on his face. Shadow waited until it seemed safe and slunk along the base of the wall. But before he could get out onto the street a shout littered the air and a bolt of light narrowly missed Shadow’s tail. He had been spotted. All stealth forgotten, Shadow sprinted out into the street and raced towards the gate of the village with the wizard in pursuit. The centaur on guard didn’t have time to so much as lift his spear as Shadow streaked by and ran to the hill. Swiftly dodging the light cast by the wizard he shot up the rocky hill. Almost there. Almost there. The wizard didn’t have the nimbleness of a cat on the rocks and was lagging behind but the bolts were as consistent as ever. Through the forest. Almost there.
The dragon swooped down suddenly and picked Shadow up in its claws just as one of the bolts hit its mark. The pain was excruciating. Shadow’s back legs felt as if they were on fire, which he thought numbly, they probably are. The dragon flapped a few more times and came to land at the very top of the Oak. It put Shadow down gently and demanded, “Do you have it?” Shadow nodded and coughed out the ruby. Somehow he had been able to keep the stone in his mouth. The dragon bent over him and breathed on his legs. A magical warmth spread through his hind legs and the pain subsided. “Thanksss,” Shadow said. Then as he opened his mouth again to ask how he would be getting down, the ruby made a strange noise. Looking closely, Shadow could see that the stone was rounded in a perfect sphere. A strange mark had been carved into it.

Shadow stared; it was the mark of a dragon. The ruby made the strange squeaking noise again and started to crack. Suddenly Shadow understood. The ruby was an egg and the dragon had wanted it stolen back because it would hatch soon. It dawned on Shadow that for the first time in his thieving life, he has stolen for the good of someone else, even though he hadn’t known it at the time.
The ruby cracked in two and a small, blood-red creature emerged. The dragon turned away from the baby and dipped its head at Shadow. The two creatures surveyed each other for a few seconds then Shadow dipped his head in return. The Dragon blinked its beautiful topaz eyes and pushed the remainder of the ruby shell towards Shadow. A present. Shadow understood that it was time to be leaving. With one last look at the baby dragon, he gathered the ruby shell in his mouth, turned around and began the long climb down to the bottom of the Oak. When he reached the ground with no wizard in sight, he padded out to the forest, just a shadow in the night.

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