A Gnomeregan gnome who acted against his kind was an impossibility, a fluke, an inconceivable aberration. Unlike the dwarves, the gnomes had no previous history of internecine violence. Theirs had been a past free of warlords and violent factions. Generally speaking, gnomes simply didn't fight gnomes. In a world of lions, tigers, furbolgs, and Tall Folk, his people had to rely on each other. It went without saying. That was why gnomes didn't need the primitive primogeniture that had caused so much bloodshed amongst other races of Azeroth, and had shifted away from monarchy centuries ago. Gnomes elected their leaders by common consent, based on the merits of their work. Merit that was entirely quantifiable in its benefits to the race. To act in a way harmful to one's kind, to lust after power in spite of the cost to one's people—that was something a dwarf would do, or an orc. It was undoubtedly human. But how could a gnome bring about the near extinction of the gnomes?
Sicco had claimed to have tested the radiation levels of the gas. He had claimed to have evidence of its terminal effects on the troggs, and he had shown Gelbin falsified numbers on its density and volumetric weight. The gas should have stayed in the quarantined thoroughfares and lower sections of Gnomeregan, poisoning the invaders as they emerged from the depths while the gnomes waited safely sealed away in the upper urban tunnels. At the time, this had seemed like the only way out of the unforeseen invasion, and it wouldn't require any help from the otherwise-occupied Alliance. The gnomes would take care of the gnomes. Thermaplugg had seemed so confident this stuff would do the trick.
But most of the troggs had just shambled through the gas, if anything, growing wilder as they became irradiated. And the gas had risen through Gnomeregan. It had sifted through Thermaplugg's vaunted Kleen Wind Domicilic Filters. And it had killed the gnomes who had sat waiting in their homes, choking on vile green clouds behind doors that the high tinker had promised would keep them safe. Gnomeregan had died that day. It had died because Gelbin Mekkatorque had trusted a friend to be a friend. Or at least to be a gnome.
Gelbin leaned back and closed his eyes. The tightness in his chest was almost painful, and for the millionth time he wondered if he should renounce his title and let somebody else be high tinker. Somebody less confused. Somebody who wouldn't make a fool mistake that would end up killing so many....
This time there was no holding back the despair, the thick wave of sorrow welling up from where it had been trapped for far too long. Gelbin took some quick breaths, counted prime numbers, gripped tightly onto the seat of his chair. But there was no stopping it this time. The grief swept past his defenses, burst through his chest in a ragged, throaty sob.
And alone in the dark stone silence of his abandoned study, High Tinker Gelbin Mekkatorque finally wept.
After the tears had dried, the trembling stilled, and the chill quiet returned to the room, Gelbin let out a shaky breath and straightened himself. He felt... empty... in a clean, hollowed-out sort of way. It wasn't a good feeling, exactly. But a much-needed one.
Time to get back to the surface, back to his people. He was already feeling selfish for taking so long with his own problems. Pushing down on the armrest, he started to rise.
There was something cold under his hand. Gelbin opened his eyes and looked down. Folded neatly on the arm of his chair were his favorite spectacles, the simple mithril-rimmed lenses he had gotten as a gift when he had graduated from Gearshaft University. Strong, reliable, comforting. They had held a constant position on his face for decades since—a position that had only been interrupted by the trogg invasion and the gnomes' subsequent hasty departure. Gelbin had been making do with a new pair of glasses in the meantime, something he'd scrapped together in Ironforge in his spare time while running between Tinker Town and Bronzebeard's throne. It was a feat his poor nose had been lamenting ever since. Smiling, the high tinker reached down to retrieve his long-lost eyewear.
"Now I can get back to being mysel—"
The glasses came off of the chair with an odd tension, and Gelbin froze. A cold memory slid from the back of his thoughts: these had been a graduation gift. A present from his friend and fellow graduate Sicco Thermaplugg.
And Gelbin would never have left his glasses sitting on the chair.
Too late, he noticed a thin wire wrapped around the nosepiece. It trailed down the side of the chair and into a tiny hole in the tile below, an almost invisible thread of metal. Truesilver, incredibly light but stronger than steel. Gelbin felt a small tug on the other end of the wire, the mechanical twitch of a released spring, and looked up just in time to see a heavy door slam shut over the entryway. There was a similar metallic clang in the exit hallway behind him.
New construction in sector 17? Apparently, there had been. Somebody had left a trap for the high tinker, and Gelbin had walked right into it. Who else would sit in this chair? Who would touch the high tinker's spectacles? As hidden gears grumbled behind the hollow walls, Gelbin found himself wondering if Captain Winklespring had been paid off, or if his team really had missed this sabotage.
There was a crackling static sound, an electric speaker coming to life, followed by a voice that had haunted the high tinker's dreams for years.
"You know, dear Gelbin, I had wondered if this bait would be too obvious for you—almost didn't believe it when my alarm went off. It looks as if I can always rely on your charming naiveté to outweigh your intellect."
Gelbin leapt to his feet, wiping at his eyes. For a moment he had the childish worry that perhaps Sicco had seen him crying, but the high tinker quickly shrugged it aside. The empty feeling of a moment ago was now replaced with something colder. Fear. Shame. They echoed his confusion in painful harmony. Gritting his teeth, Gelbin reached down to the belt loop where he usually carried his trusty Wrenchcalibur. Nothing. In his rush to see his old study, he had come entirely unarmed.
This was another thing he never did, not even walking around Ironforge. Was he losing his mind? Confusion, forgetfulness, and now this.
In a funny way, Thermaplugg was right. The high tinker had suspected a trap down here, had sensed that this area had been relinquished too easily. But... but how could Sicco willingly waste such an incredible amount of time and resources just to kill a single gnome, when the entire Alliance was at his door? Again, confusing.
"Focus, dammit!" Gelbin whispered to himself. He was going to die down here if he didn't pull it together. The high tinker had never felt so out of sorts, but he couldn't let his old friend know that if he wanted to live. Perhaps verbal sparring would keep Sicco's famously one-track mind occupied while Gelbin figured a way out of here. He cleared his throat.
"Obviously I gave you too much credit as a tactician, Sicco. It's no wonder my forces have been able to make so much headway against your entrenched army, a throng that outnumbers us three to one: you've been wasting your time on silly revenge games."
Quickly assaying the chamber, Gelbin fought to maintain focus. If Thermaplugg decided to flood the place with the same toxic gas he'd used against his people, there would be no escape. Gelbin knew this room well enough to appreciate that. Only two doors, both of them sealed off. He lifted the front of his tunic up to his face, looking around for telltale signs of the deadly green mist. Perhaps he could hold his breath long enough to exit through whatever vent his enemy had constructed to deliver the vile stuff.
Sicco Thermaplugg was laughing.