Whoever these strange people are, you certainly don't want to get involved. After one final, nervous look at the young lady with the sword -- which she is currently using to carve initials into a tree-trunk -- you take the path out of the clearing, with a sigh of relief.

Unlike the previous forest trail, this path seems well-travelled; it bears ruts from cart-tracks, and the dirt has been packed down by countless hooves and feet. As well, the trees have been cleared away, leaving only the odd sapling or forlorn bush at the side of the road.




The road leads you to small town, with brick-and-mortar buildings and cobbled streets. The denizens look at you oddly, before going on with their daily work. As you approach a well where women are drawing water, the conversations become hushed... until you pass by and the whispered chatter redoubles. Little children, their faces smeared with dirt and red-cheeked from cold, crowd around you in wide-eyed wonder.

"Did you really come from the Midnight Forest?"
"Weren't you scared?"
"Were there any thieves or brigands?"
"Did you get eaten by bears?"

The children scatter as quickly as they came. A kindly-looking man wearing a soft grey cloak approaches.

"Welcome, stranger," he says quietly. "We are told that you have come a long distance. No doubt to save us from the tragedy that threatens us."

You have no idea what the man is talking about.

The man takes you by the arm, and leads you towards the town square. "For too many years," he continues sadly, "we have been toiling under this cruel curse. If you can lift it, stranger, you will have the eternal gratitude of not only the Duke, but our entire town."

"Here we are," says your guide, gesturing at the door of a domicile significantly larger than the ones you have seen so far. Compared to the other houses, this is a veritable mansion. A man you assume to be the butler opens the door, gives you a curt nod, and gestures at a young servant to lead you into the house.

The servant keeps her face downcast as she silently leads you across the foyer, up a spiral staircase, and down a narrow hallway. She stops before a pair of doors, indicates that this is your destination, and departs. As she turns to leave, she whispers:
"Please, save our lady... You are our last hope."

Nervously, you enter the room, to find...

A cat.

A lovely cat, to be sure, with midnight-black fur like velvet. But the fact remains that it is a cat, sleeping on a rather exaggeratedly luxurious bed.

As you stand in the room, feeling completely lost, the cat opens its bright blue eyes and mews at you. Obligingly, you approach the bed and begin petting the cat. The cat appears to enjoy this attention immensely, and rolls over for a tummy-rub; a boon you are only too happy to grant. Now, this is something that you can understand.

With a tinkling sound universally associated with the transpiring of something magical, the cat vanishes, and is replaced by a lovely young lady wearing little black kitty-ears.

"Thank you, kind sir, for breaking the curse," says the young lady.

"..." is your only reply.

"A cruel sorceress, jealous of my father's wealth and power and large collection of books on dragons cast a spell upon me," explains the young lady, "turning me into a black cat. A lovely cat, with velvety midnight-black fur, but a cat nonetheless. The spell could only be broken if a brave hero, or some other such personage, gave me a purr-inducing tummy-rub."

The young lady looks sad for a moment.

"Unfortunately, nobody in the village had ever seen a cat before, and had no idea how to go about giving one a tummy-rub. Without your courage, dear sir, I might have remained a beautiful black cat for my entire life. And I was getting rather worried as to whether that would be a kitty- lifespan or a human one."

A silver-haired gentleman enters the room, and proffers his hand to you.

"I am the Duke of Doonesbury," he gravely says, "and I thank you for having saved my daughter from an eternity of craving catnip. Such a fate would have been tragic indded, considering that catnip does not grow in this region. Please, feel free to stay here as long as you wish, until you have decided what reward you would like for your heroic actions."

You look once more at the lovely young lady, who blushes and slips under the covers of her bed. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship....