"Good morning, Mr. Cobblestreet."
"And a fine morning to you, Mrs. Lightbottle!" Sam replied with a chipper smile and the slight doffing of his cap.
And a fine morning it was, he reflected as the two of them went on their way. The smell of grease and the feel of electricity was in the air as it was recycled through the airflow system. The bright fluorescent lighting shone down as workboot-clad feet tromped happily on metallic ground, and the sweet sound of canned music lilted gaily from hidden speakers in the city's walls. It was truly a good morning to be a gnome.
It was truly a great day to be alive and well within the safe and sturdy walls of New Gnomeregan.
Sam continued his regular patrol - or what had once been his regular patrol and had just recently become so again - deep within the lively metropolis that he and so many others of the gnomish race called home. It was his job as captain of the city guard to keep an eye out for ne'er-do-wells and nogoodniks, but he couldn't help feeling that no such unpleasantness could possibly be on tap this day. It was too beautiful . . . the city restored, the troggs go-
For just a moment, Sam's vision wavered. Nausea surged up from his stomach at the very though of the horrible beasts that had occupied fair Gnomeregan until not too long ago. The hatred for those . . . things . . . had festered in him for so long, it was suddenly hard to remember having felt any other way. His ears thundered, his eyes watered, and he could almost . . .
But as suddenly as it had come upon him, the feeling passed. He resumed walking, having lost only a few strides to the momentary spell. His cheerful mood had been marred, but only somewhat. And it was to be expected, really. Such terrible things would never really leave him or his people, no matter how far into the past they receded. All they could do was try to remain focused on the prosperity of today and banish the specters of yesterday as well as possible.
Stepping into an intersection, Sam took at right turn and suddenly found himself unsure of exactly where he was. The throngs of returned gnomes that had surrounded him merely moments ago were gone. The lights were dimmed, and the machines all around him sounded . . . well, not dead, but certainly dying.
It was the troggs. This was their fault. He knew it. He knew it. They'd gotten in again somehow. Filthy troggs. Filthy nasty barbaric disgusting scumbag EVIL GEARLESS SONS OF WHORES AND BASTARDS, THEY
Even through the building storm in his head, Sam still felt the sharp line of pain that had wrapped itself around his throat. He'd been right. They were back, and he had to get help. He had to let someone know. He had to tell Thermaplugg. He tried to shout, and then to scream, but it only came out as a messy gurgle. He clawed desperately at his neck with his grimy green fingers, but to no avail.
The wire cut through his flesh, and then through his windpipe, sending blackish blood spilling to the floor plating below. Darkness descended upon Sam for the final time.
Once certain that the leper gnome had ceased struggling, the shadowy figure dropped him to the ground and began a cursory examination. The sensors in the figure's goggles, a combination of the arcane and the technological, confirmed that all but a few autonomous life functions had cease, and even those would be gone in just a few moments. The corpse was carefully and quietly dragged out of the intersection and into a small side corridor before being dumped through an open doorway.
Hysterian Sojourner stared down at the body, the night vision capabilities of her goggles allowing her to pick out several details.
She had known this man, years ago. The last time she had seen him was when she had been a child, long before the events that had destroyed the city of Gnomeregan. He was wearing the tatters of a captain's uniform, but when the two of them had last met he had been similar to what the humans called a "beat guard". His patrol route had taken him by the Sojourner apartments in the residential sector, and he had often stopped by to chat with her parents on the rare occasions that the family was actually in the city. It was little surprise to find him still in the area, keeping up the habits he'd once held onto so dearly.
He'd been such a nice man. He'd given Hysterian a motorized lollipop once, an invention of his that he had been sure would pay for his children's techschool tuition and more.
But then the radiation bomb had been detonated. And those gnomes who hadn't died outright had turned into crazed monsters, virtually incapable of telling friend from foe, building insane death traps and other destructive machine, and living in filthy, diseased squalor.
They were more like goblins now, really.
Hysterian felt no sorrow for what she had just done. Sam Cobblestreet had died long ago. She'd simply dispatched the creature that had been walking around in his skin since then. The most gnomane thing to do had been to put it out of its misery. She wrapped her garrote back into place on her belt, slowly walked out of the room, shut the door, and activated the lock. The storage closet she had placed the corpse in had apparently been unused for quite some time, and it was possible this sign of her passage would be discovered only long after she had left the city.
Hyst normally wasn't like this, and she reflected on this change in her demeanor as she silently crept through the shadowy halls of Gnomeregan. She had killed, certainly, and sometimes quite often and without feeling even a little bad about it. One hardly got to be a death-dealing rogue without dealing a little death now and again. Stabbing a few backs. Slitting a few throats. Shivving a few ribs.
But this calm, cool, rational chill that she felt . . . that was something different, and it seemed to her that it always settled on her when she entered this desecrated city. Because her family moved a great deal when she'd been young and she herself had continued moving about once she'd struck out on her own, Hyst hadn't spent a great deal of her life within these walls. But just like every gnome, she still felt a connection to this place. It was still somehow, fundamentally . . . home.
It was jarring, was what it was. A feeling of culture shock overlaying a horror that only the familiar made unfamiliar could supply. It wasn't just that evil itself now rested within the city's heart. It wasn't even necessarily the presence of invading armies of troggs, or the rumored alliance with iron dwarves. The worst part probably was that leper gnomes were simply not the best caretakers in the world. They were sloppy. And that just wasn't right.
The basic patch repairs that could be seen here in there amongst the machinery irked Hysterian. As an inventor of some small renown herself, the crude methods used in the obviously leper-made constructs she ran across clashed with her sensibilities. It was an affront to her and to all gnomekind. It was blasphemy. It was madness.
But enough of that, Hyst admonished herself, interrupting her train of thought. She had a mission to complete, and there was no point in getting needlessly distracted. It could get her killed. Or worse, noticed. And that would be embarrassing for a rogue like her.
The sector she was creeping through at the moment was one of the many residential areas in Gnomeregan, and she had to be especially careful not to be seen here. Not just by leper gnomes, troggs, or iron dwarves (if there actually were any), but by anyone else as well. This particular block of flats just happened to be close to the biggest of the so-called "clean rooms" that dotted the city, and that particular clean room was headed by a foul little nugget named Chas Thinbolter. Hyst primarily knew him through his rather nasty reputation, but on the very few occasions she had met him personally, she had seen no reason not to believe any of the stories.
Thinbolter made even the most anal retentive and detail obsessed gnomes want to tear out their gearboxes in frustration. His very existence seemed to carefully crafted around being a stickler for the rules. And if the rules said no authorized personnel were to proceed beyond this point, then by all that science and technology holds dear, they would not be crossing that point.
Hysterian disliked boundaries. It was one of the reasons she enjoyed learning how to pick locks . . . locks were specifically designed to either keep people out or keep people in, and Hyst wasn't particularly fond of either one of those scenarios. So when she heard getting into this section of Gnomeregan wouldn't be as simple as a precious gem or clever gadget being pressed into the hands of the right person, she'd found an alternative path. It had been a little more dirty and a little less giant spider-less than she'd hoped for, but it had gotten her in and she'd be damned if she was going to let any of Thinbolter's geek squad find her and throw her out.
After what had seemed like hours of creeping in the dark, Hysterian had finally reached her destination. It wasn't guarded, but then there was little to guard around here. It was highly unlikely that any of the lepers or troggs would find the treasure Hyst was searching for to be of any real value. But then that was just one of the many reasons to consider them insane monsters.
The door was unlocked, but rusted mostly shut. An explosive charge could easily loosen it, but the stealthy nature of Hyst's visit precluded the use of any such device. She didn't want to try and pry it open, either, because that might cause some rather nasty scraping metal noise of its own. She gave brief consideration to trying to find an air vent to crawl through, but the space between the door's edge and the jamb seemed just wide enough to be inviting. Hyst sucked in her gut and tried to flatten out as much as possible as she started squeezing through the gap. Her upper body was fortunately rather smallish to begin with, and she had already wrapped herself down a bit before she'd entered the city, a typical precaution of hers when she thought things might get physical during a job. Even so, she thought for a moment that she was stuck, but a brief struggle finally deposited her on the other side of the obstruction.
The reason for the door being a little open was immediately apparent. Anything that the lepers would have considered valuable had already been carted off, and what was left had been completely trashed. Hyst wasn't worried, however. There was no way they could have gotten hold of her objective. She quickly moved through the rooms within, absolutely sure in her step and zeroing in without hesitation on her destination.
In a small room, far in the back, she knelt next to one of the bulkheads and ran her fingers along the rusted metal. The secret panel that she quickly located was a cunning little door, but she deftly deactivated the trap that lay just on the other side. She could sense the mechanism powering down, even through an inch of hardened steel, which brought a smile to her face. The independant power source built into the panel had still been functioning. Good design, and a sure signal that her prize was still safe.
Pulling the panel away revealed a small bundle of cloth, the obvious edges of something inside imprinted on the weave. Hyst reached in, snagged it, and deposited it in her satchel. Mission accomplished, she returned to the forward room and once again pushed her way through the door.
As soon as she was fully free of the busted contraption, she stopped short and stared in surprise. What looked to be about twenty or thirty slightly glowing yellow eyes glared back at her, eyes filled with pure malevolence.
TO BE CONTINUED
I woulda gone ahead and finished it up tonight, but a neighbor stopped by and there was a phone call and my train of thought was pretty well derailed. I'm gonna try and get it done tomorrow, tho', so be prepared for the thrilling conclusion! In the meantime, hope y'all enjoy it!