The pity—ah, that was the hardest part. For a race of ambitious folk whose lives were validated by a masterful command of the scientific laws of the universe, to be pitied was unbearable. To be pitied was to be insulted. Gelbin chafed under the sympathy, and he knew that his people did too: as a leader, he had learned that it was wise to spare some thought for his own emotions since they often reflected what the rest of the gnomes felt, to some degree.
But the pity wasn't all, at least for the high tinker. Having to keep up the smile, the courageous cheer, and the gnomish wit in front of his people. Having had to project a constant and uninterrupted confidence in the tight quarters of old Tinker Town, when all he'd wanted to do was collapse to the ground and... and...
Gelbin took a shaky breath and staggered to the side, catching his shoulder against the metal wall with a dull thump. So many dead. So many!
Steeling himself, he clenched his fists and exhaled. He closed his eyes and counted prime numbers until the feelings retreated, once again, to that distant corner of his mind. Safe, reliable prime numbers. You could always depend on them. Trust them. Gelbin knew that he'd have to go back and deal with those feelings someday, but there was no time for that now. No time at all. The gnomes needed their high tinker at his best for the retaking of their homeland, and showing silly things like shame and regret would only seem like weakness. A wayfaring people who teetered on the brink of extinction could not afford a leader who displayed weakness.
At least, not again.
Shaking the thought from his head, Gelbin strode forward and began to assay the condition of his one-time home. Unlike his peers in the Alliance, the high tinker eschewed fancy living conditions in exchange for a practical abode. What use was a throne when you thought better on your feet? The well-worn network of hallways in sector 17 was a physical representation of Gelbin's creative process: library connected to drafting room connected to simple foundry connected to assembly chamber. Research, imagination, creation, engineering. This was where numbers had been rallied, partnered with iron, and sent marching forward. Literally.
These halls were where Gelbin had envisioned the first mechanostrider, which had allowed his diminutive people to match pace with the mighty human chargers. That creation had launched the young gnome's fame and set him on the path to leadership. The gyromatic micro-adjustor, the repair bot, the Deeprun Tram, even the prototype of the dwarven siege engine—all had begun as sketches and dreams in this study. All had been formed from the primordial ooze of Gelbin's imagination for the betterment of the gnomes.
"Which begs the question," he muttered, "can a hundred brilliant inventions make up for one terrible mistake?"
The darkness held his words, lined them with pain. Waiting for an answer that he already knew, the high tinker noticed something that made him smile. He was talking to himself. He hadn't done that since... well, since he had last lived in these tunnels. So maybe the returning neurosis was a good sign? Gelbin scratched at his neatly trimmed beard.
"If I'm finding hope in a psychotic relapse, things really are dire."
Moving through the assembly chamber, he ran a finger over a dusty bench and clicked his tongue. The years had not been kind. Even in the flickering light—its functioning illumination further testament to gnomish engineering—Gelbin could tell that his once-spotless study was going to need a serious and thorough squeeging.
He spied his trophy case against the far wall. It was something the high tinker had installed at the request of his apprentices, and only because he had needed someplace to put all these useless commendations. Like everything else, it was draped in a layer of dust.
The centerpiece of the large display was his first working mechanostrider prototype, standing proud and lanky amidst various medals and ribbons. Gelbin smiled, noting that even the latest, most advanced high-speed models hot from Ironforge still echoed the avian gait and kettle-bellied form of his original opus. What's more, he had heard reports from his agents in Northrend that the enigmatic mechagnomes had adopted his invention for their own mysterious purposes. What could be more flattering than having a race of machines use your machine to get around?
And while the mechanostrider had been the first (and arguably the most popular) of his inventions, the steady stream of unique, powerful, and violently practical creations that had issued from these halls had strengthened his people and proved the gnomes to be a vital asset to the Alliance of dwarves, humans, and elves. This was where Gelbin Mekkatorque had gone from mere inventor to high tinker of the gnomes. This was where Gelbin Mekkatorque had reached his greatest insights, birthed his most brilliant inventions, and received his brightest accolades from a people who celebrated creativity and craft above all else.
And this was where Gelbin Mekkatorque had foolishly trusted counsel from one he had considered a friend. This was where Gelbin Mekkatorque had sent the order that had killed most of his people, cost the survivors their homeland, and cast them into begging and ignominy.
He slammed a fist into the wall, raising a cloud of dust, and the lights overhead flickered in a visual echo of his frustration. The high tinker shook, clenching and unclenching his fingers. Then... he decided that he should just walk it off. He wandered from the assembly chamber to the foundry and then to the drafting room. There he stopped. Gelbin suddenly realized, with some surprise, that he had just displayed his first sign of actual anger now, years after the betrayal. And it had felt good, this uncharacteristic act of rage.
Perhaps the dwarves were rubbing off on him. Or maybe being home again, finally out from under the eyes of pitying benefactors and worrying citizens, he felt as if the curtains were drawn and he didn't have to be high tinker. Here, finally, he could be Gelbin. And Gelbin could feel sad; Gelbin could feel betrayed; and Gelbin could feel furious and heartbroken about the damnable injustice of it all.
He growled and swung at the wall again, relishing the blunt pain in his knuckles and the satisfying clang that reverberated through the iron hallways around him. If nothing else, spending time with the dwarves had made his people stronger, more comfortable with their physical prowess than ever before in the gnomes' scholarly history. The dwarves had mastered the indelicate art of melee combat in a world made up of beings who were often more than double their stature, while the gnomes had generally focused on escaping and avoiding such conflict. But these years of hardship and survival amongst their burlier allies had, for better or for worse, given the gnomes a combatant edge. Gelbin saw more gnomes wielding swords, donning armor, and talking back to Tall Folk than ever before.
"Well," he mumbled, "the talking back hasn't helped our already shrinking numbers."
The ringing from his violent assault on the wall was still echoing through the room, and the high tinker caught himself mid-thought. That didn't sound right.
Gelbin cocked his head and took a step back. Sector 17 had been carved into the sturdy northwestern reaches of Dun Morogh—a portion of that snowy range consisting largely of granite and shale. The ironclad hallways in this wing of Gnomeregan shouldn't respond to percussive force with that sort of resonance. Was his memory faulty?
Gelbin rapped his knuckles against the wall again, eyes closed. Again, the ringing carried with an almost bell-like tone.
Without taking his eyes from the wall, Gelbin backed up to the center of the room. His old troll-made chair, a delightfully primitive construction of bone and raptorhide, still sat in its familiar spot. The chair was a souvenir from the first gnome-assisted Alliance foray into a Horde encampment during the Second War, and Gelbin had kept the fierce-looking thing to remind himself of two important points. First, that his enemies lived in a world shaped from monsters' flesh and bone. And second, that even tusked, mossy-skinned savages needed a cozy place to sit sometimes. Although the high tinker rarely sat still while caught up in his inventions, he had used the chair as a makeshift cot after countless late nights of brainstorming. Its low profile and wide expanse of padded leather, intended for the relatively substantial troll posterior, had made for a perfect gnome gnap. He collapsed back into his chair's welcome softness with a worried sigh.
Had there been some new construction in this area since the exodus? Gelbin's suspicions were heightened now. He scanned the drafting room, checking for any signs of sabotage: loose wiring, misplaced panels, or unknown footprints in the dust. This entire sector had been scrutinized by his most able crew, but Mekkatorque had learned not to trust blindly. Especially when Thermaplugg was involved.
Sicco Thermaplugg. The name still brought a cold tightness to his stomach, a tension that could not be reasoned away. Gelbin had finally conjured up a term for this odd sensation: it was a feeling he was severely, frighteningly unfamiliar with. It was confusion. In this one rare instance, High Tinker Gelbin Mekkatorque was still very, very confused.
How could it have happened?