The trogg roared, and the high tinker was spattered with saliva.
Then Gelbin smashed his fist into the trogg's mouth, shattering the front teeth and driving pieces of bone into the back of its throat. The trogg dropped him and staggered backward with a gurgling cry. Gelbin shook the blood off his hand, then opened it to reveal the iron hammer.
"Word of advice, friend. Never let a gnome near your teeth."
The trogg wiped the gore from its mouth, then turned as the other trogg arrived, blisters on its scorched skin. The two creatures were enraged, and Gelbin knew that he was seconds away from being torn apart. He took a step back and pressed down on the hastily constructed trigger.
Underground weights shifted; cables pulled taut; and a single rusty bolt snapped under the pressure. The tiles beneath the troggs' feet burst apart as a cable ripped up through the ground, pulling the axle behind it in an eruption of rock and metal. It sent the beasts flying backward to crash against the mangled desk, while simultaneously lifting the trick wall behind the high tinker.
His foes were down, and the exit was clear. It was time to leave. Gelbin tucked the tools into his belt. For a second he paused and actually debated going back for his old glasses. He could see them across the room, still tied to the grotesque remnant of a trogg foot by a length of wire. Chuckling at the thought, he turned to go.
Only he had waited too long. Now there were more troggs coming through the exit. Dozens of them. They crowded through the opening and circled around Gelbin, growling and snarling and licking their craggy teeth. He was out of ideas, and doubted that the troggs would be so kind as to lift him and his bloody hammer fist up to their faces.
But the troggs weren't advancing. They were waiting.
"I suppose I owe you an apology, Gelbin. I underestimated your boldness—should have sent four troggs."
The high-pitched laughter that followed was unnerving. From the sound of it, Sicco Thermaplugg had only fallen deeper into madness down here with these monsters. There was a clanging sound, the hiss of a steam engine, and Sicco appeared.
The mekgineer had created a new battle suit for himself. Gelbin had heard reports of Sicco driving some massive cauldron-shaped thing through the bowels of Gnomeregan these past few years, but this was something altogether different. An agile contraption, the human-sized construct strode past the waiting troggs with a hiss of hot vapor. Welded from malleable, decorative metals, it resembled one of those fancy human suits of armor made for parades and showing off to the commoners—only with Sicco's wrinkly little head poking out of the collar. The demented gnome had aged poorly in the last few years, and Gelbin barely recognized his old friend. Hollow cheeks, thin strands of white, cobweb hair, and the sickly green tinge that spoke of radiation and lunacy.
Sicco saw Gelbin's pitying look and took it for appreciation. Grinning, he spun in a tight circle and then bowed with a flourish.
"Impressive bit of engineering, isn't it? You know, I did several test runs with a more practical battlefield prototype, but it proved far too bulky... and susceptible to explosions. This suit is much more stable in that regard, much more appropriate for my station."
"Of course. It is only fitting that the king of the gnomes see eye to eye with the other rulers of the land. A difficult concept for a puny failure like you to grasp, I know."
Gelbin frowned. "The king of the gnomes, huh? So you've given up on winning an election, I presume. That's probably for the best, since the electorate might have a hard time voting for a candidate who's not a gnome."
Sicco looked startled for a second, and there was a hiss. The high tinker wasn't sure if the sound had come from the boiling steam engine in the belly of Sicco's suit, or if it had been an actual reptilian reply from his would-be usurper. Regardless, the noise fit Thermaplugg's scowl.
"I think begging for scraps at the dwarven table has driven you a little batty, Gelbin. Not a gnome? I am ten times the gnome you will ever be! While you sat back and coasted on your phony, unpredictable 'genius,' I was the one who had to actually work for recognition. Who spent weeks designing all the ballistic workings for your siege engines? I turned your lumbering metal beet truck into a mobile cannon! That work cemented our alliance with the dwarves. And did I get even a shred of thanks?"
Gelbin sighed. "Sicco, you were one of the brightest gnomes in Dun Morogh, and you seem to have forgotten that I was always very vocal about my gratitude for your work. You had creative, even brilliant ideas. But you were too sloppy. Too rough in your estimates and too quick in your refinement. I assigned you to ordnance design in hopes that you would step up to the task. But your ballistic calculations would have detonated my siege engines as they reloaded. I spent long hours reworking your figures before sending them off to Ironforge."
"What? Lies! If my work was so shoddy, then why let me take credit for the guns?"
"Because," said Gelbin, "you were my friend."
Sicco Thermaplugg took a step back, eyes wide. For a moment, his face softened into something resembling the bright young gnome whom Gelbin had befriended years ago. The gnome he had helped graduate from school, employed at his foundry, and lifted to a prominent role in the Tinkers' Court in spite of worrisome and increasingly flawed performance. Sicco blinked several times and brought a metal hand up to rub his forehead.
"Gelbin, I... I..."
And then he noticed the hand, the powerful gilded fingers that he alone had created. He brought the hand up as a fist, and Sicco's face twisted into a lunatic grin. Gelbin's friend was gone.
"Well, that soggy weakness is exactly why I decided to take the reins from you. The gnomes should be dominating this land with our unstoppable weapons, not trading them away to imbecilic allies. That's what goblins are for!"
The high tinker shook his head.