"We've done a security sweep of the upper floors in sector 17, sir. The place seems fairly untouched since our, uh, departure. Granted, everything stinks of trogg...."
"Mmmm, yes—that delightful mixture of mold, mange, and sour monkey. Puts one off of his lunch, I know."
Cog Captain Herk Winklespring grimaced, going slightly pale at his commander's description. The scent was obviously taking its toll on morale.
"And your team is equipped with my latest-model High-Velocity Nostril Squeeges?"
"Yessir. The smell... well, you can taste it, sir. Regardless of how well-squeeged your nostrils are." Winklespring tilted his head back, displaying a large, handsome pair of gnome nostrils that were, indeed, well-squeeged. "I've had two members of my squad request transfer to Troll Patrol over in Anvilmar, and my medic wants to know if we offer stink leave."
High Tinker Gelbin Mekkatorque sighed, pushed his glasses back onto his forehead, and slid his forefinger and thumb down along the sides of his own prominent nose. These new glasses hurt, and adjusting them was first on a list of thousands of tasks he planned to tackle when this engagement was through. He hadn't slept the night before, and the flesh where his lenses had perched was feeling raw and tender. Retaking Gnomeregan was turning out to be much more than a simple military action.
Take this stench, for instance. One of the problems with a vast subterranean mechanical city—one of hundreds, actually—was ventilation. At full capacity, the network of fans, vents, and filters had required a team of fifteen technicians working shifts around the clock to keep Gnomeregan smelling fresh and clean. Years of un-squeeged trogg funk had congealed into layers of musky, impenetrable grime that was proving harder to remove than the invaders themselves.
Download high-resolution "Don't worry, Captain. I've got the whiz kids down in the Alchemy Corps prototyping my Unpungent Reekaway Cannons this week. Should help to blast that nasty smell from our halls. Why don't you and your squad take the rest of the day off, go grab some pints down at the Thunderbrew?"
The other gnome smiled, saluted, and gave a quick nod.
Mekkatorque turned back to the blueprints laid out on the table behind him and pulled his glasses back in place, wincing. While some sections of Gnomeregan were still being viciously contested, others had fallen into his hands with surprising ease. Of course, assistance from the Alliance had been catalytic in that respect, but Gelbin wasn't so sure. The Hall of Gears had seemed almost... abandoned. It was unlike his old enemy to surrender territory so easily.
Gelbin was interrupted by somebody clearing his throat, and turned again. The cog captain was still standing there, wringing his hands.
"I'm sorry, was there more, Captain?"
"Well, yes, High Tinker, sir. If you don't mind my asking..."
"Not at all. Speak up."
"Right, sir. It's just that some of the boys were wondering, and I was too, why we've been sent to reconnoiter that sector. I mean, it's nowhere near the front line and doesn't seem to hold any resources—or any real strategic value at all. Just looks like some crazy old geezer's library. Sir."
"An 'old geezer's library,' you say?"
Captain Winklespring smiled conspiratorially. "Ha, that was my impression anyway, sir—stacks of old books, crumpled papers, and something that looked like a coney burrow built out of pie tins—"
"Well, I suppose the Deeprun Tram scale mock-up does kind of look that way...."
"Those were my quarters, Captain."
"Your... your quarters, sir? Oh. Oh. My apologies, High Tinker. I didn't mean to—"
"Not quite what you'd expect for someone in my exalted station, eh?" Gelbin chuckled and leaned forward to pat the flustered captain on the shoulder. "Don't worry about it, Winklespring. I may have held a lofty seat in the Tinkers' Court, but all of my real working, thinking, and inventing was done in that crazy old geezer's library. Now, on your way out, would you let Sergeant Copperbolt know that I'm ready to survey the area? Thanks for your strong work, Captain."
Gelbin waited until his security team had turned and disappeared around the corner before he let the smile drop from his face. His shoulders slumped with a breathy exhalation that was both a sigh and a curse.
This was hard. Hard returning to his study. His nook. This was the place he'd pictured whenever he'd heard the word home, even after so many years away. Years living under the charity and forbearance of allies who, for all their noble sentiment, still looked upon him with pity.