"'Silly revenge games'? Gelbin, do you have any idea what your death will do to the gnomes? They have kept you at the helm in spite of everything I've done to discredit you. The little fools love their high tinker. Your death is going to rip their hearts out."
Gelbin's reply was cut off by the click of a switch being thrown. Dead silence, and then a mechanical groaning, the sound of heavy iron cables straining against spring-powered wheels. The wall in front of him—the very wall he'd struck—began to lift up into the ceiling. There was a rush of warm, moist air, and Gelbin realized what form his assassination would take. It smelled like mold, mange, and sour monkey.
The trogg emerged from the shadows with a wet growl. Powerfully built, with muscular arms hanging almost to the floor, it moved with the confident swagger of a predator that knows its prey is trapped.
The high tinker had commanded engagements against these beasts before, but he had never been so close to one; his security team would never allow it (a team he had foolishly ordered to wait for him outside the sector). The trogg was easily twice Gelbin's size, and had a network of scars running across the pebbled skin of its chest. Jagged, bony protrusions slanted out from the creature's shoulders and elbows, deformed growths that bore testament to its rocky heritage. Gelbin had heard rumors that the troggs were a twisted branch of the dwarven race; although he would never admit it to his gracious hosts, he could see the similarity in the shaggy beard, stout form, and thick, cabled bands of muscle that seemed to have been carved from granite. But that was where the similarities ended. The trogg had a sloped, apelike posture, with the heavy browridges and pronounced canines of a predator.
Gelbin thought back to his combat training. One trogg was usually a match for four or five gnomes, assuming they were armed and experienced in subterranean warfare. A proven tactician himself, Mekkatorque knew that even without steam-powered armor and Wrenchcalibur at his side, he could still put up a decent fight. The gnome took a step forward and scanned the room. Maybe if he could get to the other side of the study quick enough, there would be a stool that could become a makeshift weapon. If he could keep the trogg at bay, perhaps he would be able to escape through the opening it had just come through. It would be risky, but it was the best—
Two more troggs shambled into the light. The first one grunted guttural commands to the other two, and they moved to either side of their prey with a feral swiftness that belied their bulk.
The wall lowered behind them with a foreboding clang, and Gelbin felt a sad clarity: he was going to die here. There was no way out of Thermaplugg's trap. Sicco was finishing the job he'd begun in the halls of Gnomeregan years before. The city would finally and unquestionably belong to the monster who pretended to be a gnome. Gelbin dropped to his knees and closed his eyes.
He was tired of the pity, tired of the daily reminders that he had lost his kingdom simply because he'd been a gnome. He was tired of the damned confusion. The shuffling sound of troggs grew near, and Gelbin Mekkatorque whispered goodbye to his beloved Gnomeregan. To his people.
"The little fools love their high tinker."
After all of this, they love their high tinker.
Gelbin opened his eyes and looked down. He saw that he still held his glasses, saw the razor-thin truesilver wire extending to the floor. Almost instinctively, his engineering mind took over, and imagined blueprints spread open across his vision.
The tripwire led to what was obviously a weighted spring trigger. This was linked to a heavy axle that was counterweighted by the cables that had lifted the wall on a pair of what had sounded like rusting iron hinges—Sicco had always been sloppy in his construction. The rest was fairly simple engineering, actually, and Gelbin found it ironic that even Sicco the un-gnome relied on gnomish technology to achieve his dark ends. A technology that Gelbin had adapted, that Gelbin had innovated, and that Gelbin had mastered for the protection and salvation of his people.
Gelbin Mekkatorque was a gnome in his flaws and in his triumphs. That was why his people loved him. That was why he was still high tinker. And that was why he was still fighting for the gnomes, even after so much shame, darkness, and confusion.
And suddenly he wasn't confused anymore.
Rolling to his side, Gelbin dodged the first trogg's fist as it barreled toward him. The creature's stony knuckles cracked into the tile floor, sending shards whistling past his ear. Gelbin was on his feet the next second, sprinting toward the back of the study. A plan was forming in his mind.
"So tell me, Sicco. If my death delivers such an obvious advantage to you, why wait until now? Wouldn't it have been much easier to kill me back when I trusted you?"
It was hard talking and running at the same time, but Gelbin knew he had to keep Thermaplugg distracted if this was going to work.
Thinking that their prey was moving to some hidden escape, the two troggs at his flanks charged ahead to block him. Gelbin had anticipated this, and he took the few seconds it granted him to reel in the remaining truesilver wire around his glasses.
The first trogg was almost upon him again, and Gelbin turned to run directly at the howling beast. It hadn't expected this, and lunged over empty air as Gelbin ducked, slid between its legs, rolled to his feet, and kept running.
Roaring, it turned and lumbered after him. The other two troggs, excited by their brother's noises, let out howls and circled around. They weren't dumb animals, Gelbin knew. They were content to let the first trogg tire him out, and then they'd move in for the easy meal. Sicco's voice sputtered overhead.
"What? You're not dead yet?"
Gelbin smiled as he ran. His opponent had just revealed that, while he could hear inside the chamber, he couldn't see what was transpiring.
The angry trogg was fast—faster than Gelbin had imagined—and the gnome could feel its horrible breath on his neck. His own breath was coming in gasps, and Gelbin focused on the drafting table only a few more yards in front of him.