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Goblin Cave watched the mana goblin skulk through the shadows. It seemed alert, aware of its environment, potentially cognizant and making choices about what to do next. Its brain was certainly firing more actively than any of its other goblins, and its body/soul connection was vastly more complex than the connection of any of its other mobs.

Goblin Cave hadn't had much reason to speak -- no one to speak to -- but it decided to try.

SPEAK, IF YOU CAN HEAR THIS.

The goblin jerked, looking back and forth. For a moment its gaze went to its other mana goblin, still standing mostly-motionless on the edge of its shallow lake, before looking away.

Goblin Cave had spoke in system-language. It tried again in the human tongue the adventurers spoke. The goblin reacted again, this time with a -- scared? angry? frustrated? -- hiss, and it scuttled away faster, making its way towards the cavern wall. Goblin Cave didn't actually know any goblin languages. It had no clue if the goblin knew any goblin languages. As far as it was concerned, its mobs 'knew' about their skills, and that was it.

This was... it was hard to say. It felt embarrassed, maybe? Was this something every other dungeon discovered early on on their existence? If so, it had been very foolish for a very long time. But... it, as a pitiful level 1 core, would have never been able to amass the capacity of soul required to spawn in an 'oversouled' level 1 goblin. Conversely, if it took a tier 36 soul instantiated with a tier 1 mob, it could have done this decades ago. It had just never thought to. Even now, it was impossible for it to say, really, if it had chanced upon the 'correct' amount of soul. It had no comparison; while it could absolutely feel souls shifting away when adventurers died within it, it couldn't measure them at all. Those souls weren't its own; they belonged, presumably, to the adventurer's gods.

That was the other question: the books it had scavenged spoke of the gods as beings of immense power, living in their own domains: paradises not of this world, or torments beyond mortal ken, or what have you. Though it was possible this discovery it had made wasn't one all dungeons made, it was possible that it was a discovery that drew a line between a mere dungeon core and a nascent god.

The thought made a quiver of fear ripple through it. It had always thought of gods as... distant beings, hardly interacting with the world as it knew it. But if they were indeed beings like itself-- their power! Here, it could hardly manage to spawn in a single oversouled goblin; dozens of adventurers walked its halls even now, and over time -- hundreds, thousands of adventurers passed through it. And it was only one of thousands of dungeons within its region. The power to spawn that many mobs abruptly put the gods on a scale with it, and it was clear that if that was so, they were massively more powerful than itself.

Like the whole flock of concerns it had burst into the awareness of, Goblin Cave resolved to not think about the situation unless it could meaningfully impact things. Currently, all it could do was experiment further.

Immediately, there were two factors it could control: the amount of soul it placed in the oversouled creature, and the capacity of that soul's past lives it exposed to the new spawn. It had previously used reincarnations primarily on boss mobs -- cycling the same soul through the same spawn over and over -- since that seemed to aid in the mob using its skills in well-timed, cost-efficient ways.

It looked over at its first mana goblin, the one it had spawned in with the manually-constructed template. It despawned it with a thought, flesh unweaving into mana, soul going free to be caught up in its usual respawn cycles. Then... it scanned through its floors, plucking out various mobs that wouldn't be missed. Its lower floors were already uncomfortably low-population, given their size, and taking away a whole host of high-tier mobs didn't particularly make it feel more secure. But it was all worthwhile in the pursuit of knowledge.

A [Goblin Warlord] (tier 8) from floor 15, a dense thicket of skullchoke netfungus (tier 13) from floor 22, its secondary [Hobgoblin Shaman] (tier 19) from its floor 37 village, a [Lesser Blood Orc] (tier 27) from floor 44, each with souls befitting their tier: all these it plucked from their posts and dissolved them apart, catching their souls and easing them into newly-spawned [Mana Goblins], spawned in disparate locations across its haphazard floor 51.

It was difficult to quantify the results. The former-warlord sat down, which its goblins already did some times, but it didn't take any other actions immediately. The former-skullchoke stood there aimlessly, head drifting side-to-side minutely. The former-shaman blinked slowly, taking a few tottering steps. The former-blood-orc behaved in mostly the same way its initial test had: jerking, whipping its head around, and scrambling across the barren cavern floor. They all had various levels of brain activity, although the first two seemed barely more active than its usual goblins.

In many ways, the most encouraging result from all these tests was the utter lack of system response. No acknowledgment that Goblin Cave had done anything expected or anticipated.

It would be difficult to say what kind of response it was expecting. It would have to pay attention to the goblins as time went on. But before it did anything else, it had one last idea to try: it reached out and despawned one of its cyclopses on floor 47. Tier 37. Then, it prepared to spawn in another mana goblin, it looked at the soul's history -- cyclops, lesser orc, warg, warg, bloodwick, and so on back for a few thousand iterations -- and pushed its recall up until the mana cost became prohibitive, activating a mishmash of skills the soul had obtained in prior lives. It spawned in the mana goblin.

It immediately toppled to the floor screeching, wildly thrashing its limbs as it howled and sobbed. Its body spasmed, jerking erratically, before it lost consciousness.

Interesting.

Goblin Cave left the goblin there; it would either die and it could recoup the soul and try again, or it would eventually wake up.

Some of the other goblins were close enough to hear the howling: it was very interesting to see their responses. To see any response that it hadn't intentionally puppeted out of its mobs. Mostly they looked around and moved faster.

Was the soul, here, activating some latent goblin mind? It couldn't even begin to speculate. As far as it knew, 'soul' was a simple numeric value attached to each spawn, below which it wouldn't function as a dungeon mob. Was the soul another artificial construct, tuned to make actions appear natural? This was ultimately a hole without end: if its spawns were artificial, it could have its goblins reproduce naturally. If the gobins' actions were artificial, it could imbue them with massive souls. If the souls were artificial... Goblin Cave was just as much a part of the world as anything else. Who was to say its actions were any less natural than any others?

The answer, of course, was itself; it could say. It was impossible to say if this was more playing with toys -- assembling products from parts provided to it, and calling that act 'creation'. But it was something more than it had been doing. Regardless of whether this was true creation or not, it was a step. And it was a step that let it see further, down a multitude of forking paths: Was this 'goblin nature'? If so, what would the result of a [Lesser Mana Puppet] with an oversouled spawn? Or a patch of fungus? Or one of its own control nodes? What 'nature' was in those things? How was a 'nature' determined? What of the goblin, unconscious and injured, from its reincarnation test? Maybe it had overdone it, but that response was a vast difference from the vague acknowledgment of new skills available, which was the only other result tweaking the soul memory had ever produced.

What of its dungeon ranking? "Narrative" or otherwise, these goblins were something new, and as far as the system was concerned they were still perfectly standard dungeon mobs, so insofar as anything it created impacted its rankings, the goblins would as well. But... if they were living, thinking beings, they would likely not go unheeding to their deaths in the same way its level 1 goblins died and died and died. That may allow for interesting tactical developments, or simply to profoundly less effective dungeon mobs. It would need to discover some way to communicate with its oversouled goblins if it ever planned on placing them where adventurers could reach.

There was a massive constellation of interconnected consequences already unfolding from its actions. And, much like having fungi grow on the shores of its new lake, those consequences would happen on their own timetable, without much input from it. More waiting.

But at least it had more interesting things to look at while it waited.

The primary problem, as its primary problem had always been, was just that it didn't have enough spawns: not enough souls, not enough pressure to keep them spawning. If it wanted more of these oversouled goblins, that would require... orders of magnitude more soul than it had available. And that was for a tier 1 creature.

When it leveled, it had tended to focus its skills on precisely those areas already: more spawns, faster spawns, more soul, faster soul transference. But now it was facing a problem that would require vastly more soul and more respawns to handle, with no clear way to resolve it.

It felt like all of its experimentations so far had provided it, not with answers, but with new problems that it was increasingly ill-equipped to face. That being said, its recent musings had been the first time it had been engaged in the process of creation in a long while.

It looked down at floor 51, now host to a half-dozen mana puppets, a half-dozen mana goblins, a single water slime, and two mutant goblins. All level 1. A travesty of a floor in any other consideration, with absolutely no defensive properties, but it still felt a glow of satisfaction. It was, perhaps, the beginning of something new.

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xaphiriron

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