Nightmares waking, grinning glee

Despite the utter cold, Ned lay sweating like a pig in his bed. Blankets lay disheveled on the floor where they'd been thrown. The 'fair maiden' whom he'd bedded some hours earlier rested peacefully in the bed next to him. The last few remnants of wine were clearly visible by the moonlight, occupying the bottom tenth of a bottle which was nearly as tall as he was. By all accounts, it was the last fleeting moments of an evening well spent.

Yet Ned felt no satisfaction. No joy. Only apprehension and the undeniable sense that something was terribly wrong.

The forest beyond town. The tall folk, they all pretended not to notice it creeping in, as if ready to engulf them all. But they all knew. They all felt the terrible wrongness in the air, becoming more insufferable with every waking moment. And the nightmares... oh, the nightmares. So vivid and terrible. Not even the fog of drunkenness could take the edge off of the things he'd seen nightly.

He'd left his home so long ago, seeking adventure and freedom. Somehow that journey had taken him to the spine of the world of all places. And here he'd sat and stagnated. His beard had grown and turned grey, then white. Though he stood firm and capable still, it was only a matter of time before time itself robbed him of that.

Had fate finally decided to intervene?

Ned giggled. It was the kind of sound that would make civilized folk uncomfortable and put hardened warriors on edge. He could barely contain himself!

The next morning, he woke early. This wasn't unusual for the hardworking gnome. What was, and would be remarked on by his neighbors, was the pep in his step and not-entirely-pleasant grin on his face. The tip of his pointy red cap swayed back and forth as he trotted down the road, axe in hand and pack laden with adventuring gear.

Into the forest he went. Twisting and gnarled, they weren't trees that surrounded him, so much as the bastardizations of such. As if sketched by a child who obviously wasn't destined to have many friends. With a grunt, he swung his axe and cleaved an offending branch from his path. For a change, Snagga cleanly cut through it as if slicing through warm butter.

Pushing his luck, he swung at a second branch. Snagga immediately transformed into a plastic wiffleball bat and bounced back at him. Annoyed, he shook the toy several times until it turned back.

"Piece of junk," he muttered under his breath.

“Anyone got anything to light this?” he heard somebody say up ahead.

Apparently he wasn't alone out here. Fellow adventurers, perhaps?

"Here, let me see it," another voice said.

His gnomish eyes could make out humanoid shapes in the gloom ahead. Then there was a spark. Then another. Eventually, one of them stood up and held a torch aloft. Two boys and a young lady. The boys he plainly didn't recognize. But the girl... she might have rebuffed his advances once or twice at the tavern. Not that he was offended... much.

"Are we still going?" one of the boys- an elf, said.

"Ey' I see I'm not the only one drawn to this malevolent place," Ned said, approaching the party of three.

Comically, they all looked around for a moment before realizing they had to lower their collective gaze.

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