Goblin Cave returned to its manastone corridors, not all too distant from the place that had become the goblin's camp. It became used to manastone as it went, beginning to get a feel for the material, now that it was using it: how to burnish it to a blinding mirror gleam, or diffuse it out into a perfectly-uniform glow. How to thicken its veins to make it gleam brightly, or shrink them down to nothing to give the material a pallid, lightless glow.

Subtly, it brought in voidstone and lumenrock, letting it cast light and shadow across its passages, forming windows into nothing and slotted fences running up the walls, solely to add disorienting lighting across its corridors. It melded in black quartz, lining some walls with a thin layer, making it appear like black glass: murkily translucent to half an inch thick, with an uncanny lightless glow seeping through from beneath. It brought in its as-of-yet useless mana pipes, fracturing the mana flow through the passages into an incoherent mess... and then it had to remove half of them, so they weren't constantly distracting it as it kept digging. It polished some corridors to a frictionless sheen, icy and slick, and added stiff, geometric spikes to other, glass-sharp and wickedly piercing. It elaborated and combined, permuting through its possibilities, forming gridlike galleries of different materials and tones, all connected with stark rectilinear corridors branching out left, right, above, below, with no consideration whatsoever for navigability.

By the time it was satisfied, it had surrounded its initial floor 50 caverns with a complex lacework of barren manastone corridors, easily quadrupling the floor's volume. A few of the hallways dug close to the cavern surface, hiding behind a thin shell of rock — halfway up the canyon wall, hanging from the cavern ceiling, with one or two in the floor, only scarcely avoiding becoming pit traps. Then, on a whim, it went back and erratically placed bubbles of cavern within the corridor maze: an abrupt right-angle turn that let out in a tiny cavern with a bubbling spring and a sheet of hanging moss, only for the granite to facet apart into geometrical crystals at the edge of the cavern as it bled back into yet another long, featureless corridor.

The overall effort had taken months, which was good, because it had wanted something to keep it occupied while it waited for its goblins to settle down and grow to fruition. Their scurrying around was a constant itch, not unlike the constant low-level noise of its mana pipes.

While it had dug, the goblins had settled in somewhat: they'd formed a haphazard camp, using fungi stalks as building material for some simple lean-tos. One of them appeared to have understood that fungal spores gave rise to new growth in the proper conditions, and had spilled great gouts of spores across the spongy, soggy ground in a cavern lull, although there the mycelium was still growing and there were only tiny fruiting bodies. One more goblin had been killed in a fight, although not with the reincarnated goblin this time.

Insofar as the goblins established a power hierarchy, the reincarnated goblin was still at the top of it. Goblin Cave suspected that that might have actually set the goblin's development of anything like language back some: the former leader enjoyed yelling and pointing and attempting to order the other goblins around, which probably would have facilitated language growth more than the blank, unthinking gaze of the reincarnated goblin. As it was, they had mostly stalled at two-word phrases, still primarily about signaling local conditions — no abstraction, really.

The goblins had settled into something like a routine: forage for mushrooms, eat some mushrooms, then return to camp and eat more mushrooms. Goblin Cave wouldn't say that they were boring, precisely, but... well, it was glad that it had given the faux core a counter. The goblin who had delved it before ended up meeting with the rest of the goblins, flaunting its tiny shard of manastone, and after a few days it had returned to floor 51, wandering around in an attempt to find the sub-dungeon again. It had eventually found it, after a few trips, and managed to level up once and get a few other loot drops: more pitted chunks of manastone, a handful of manadust, a clear glass gem with a flickering manaspark inside. All mostly useless, but it had enjoyed showing off its treasure to the rest of the goblins and then bashing them over the head when they tried to steal them.

This had eventually lead to other goblins following it, trying to discover where it was getting the treasure, and so over time this had lead a few of the goblins to reach level 2, with the first dungeon-delver reaching level 3. But their paltry attempts at delving hadn't meaningfully slowed the counter's growth, and so — two months in, the timer ticked over, and the faux-core sent its creatures out into floor 51 and spawned replacements within its sub-dungeon. Given the size of floor 51, this was a drop in a bucket, but the dungeon continued breaking, pouring out another 6 lesser mana puppets every few hours, producing a continual trickle out and eventually up to floor 50. A level 1 mana goblin could defeat perhaps 2 or 3 lesser mana puppets before it would need to retreat, which meant that the initial encounter with the swarm initially swung in favor but eventually routed them, leaving to the goblins — now all at least level 2 — scattering in a panic throughout floor 50. A few of the more powerful goblins — the reincarnated one, the dungeon-delver, and so on — banded together and charged down to floor 51, killing mana puppets as they went, and together they eventually managed to push the faux core's counter down below the critical threshold.

After that, the surfeit of loot meant the delver goblin couldn't hoot and cackle while waving its glowing rocks around mockingly in front of the other goblins, and it got frustrated enough to push its way through the entire dungeon and become the first to slay the [Common Mana Puppet] that was its boss, obtaining the smallest sliver of lumenrock for its trouble. It had tried to grab the faux-core itself and haul it out to the goblin village, but it was fused into place more solidly than it could dislodge.

Goblin Cave had considered intervening, either to shatter the core free or to dig a second floor of the sub-dungeon, but at the time it had been fully occupied forming a complex floating maze of voidstone chambers and hadn't bothered. Let things unfold as they may.

Then, after another few months, the sub-dungeon broke again. The second time was much easier and less productive; the goblins more-or-less instantly swarmed down and overwhelmed the spawns.

All-in-all, it was a fairly satisfying evolution. The goblins had begun making primitive manastone jewlery — one of them wore an amulet of fungal thread with a particularly smooth and shiny manastone at the center — and using it to decorate their lean-tos. Their level spread ranged from 2 to 4, which was fairly impressive for grinding level 1 mobs over and over — more reason to dig out a second floor eventually.

During that time, its ranking had changed slightly: "Difficulty" had risen one, from 1094th to 1093rd; "Narrative" had fallen two, from 1709th to 1711th. It was tempting to think that something it had done was responsible, but it was impossible to say, really. Also, several dungeons had been created or been destroyed, leading to a total of one net new dungeon in its region, bringing the total to 2282.

It was progress.

The mana goblin's souls were bloated with excess; it would have to figure out how to harvest them sooner or later. When it had spawned in the goblins initially, it hadn't bothered to make sure the goblins were reproductively viable, although statistically with a population of a dozen it was likely there were some viable couplings. As it turned out, the goblins didn't particularly seem to mind either way, although eventually they managed on the correct configuration that lead to their spores infesting a mass of disgorged goblin eggs. The entire process was nearly as sordidly biological as the process of eating. It was for the best that the goblins themselves had been experimenting with reproduction; this meant it had some fertilized goblin eggsacs to try to partition their souls into.

Excess was all relative, though — it was enough for one or two more oversouled mana goblins: a tremendous amount of soul by historic measurements, but still extremely scant for its current purpose. Still, that meant that if it had a proper tribe of a hundred seventy-some, they would all be generating enough excess soul that it would be able to reap nearly seven souls per month. In practice the number was considerably smaller, since the maximal yield would require killing all the goblins and reinstantiating them. It would need to coax their budding souls apart and direct the flow into any fertilized eggs it had around, to get them actually reproducing. It would also need to make the sub-dungeon more lethal, so that they had the opportunity to actually die.

It also had no clue if mana goblins bred true — the system description said they needed to be infused with mana to be produced, and made no suggestion that mana goblin eggs did that on their own. Normally it would handle that by dumping the eggs in a mana chamber or something, but the goblins had gotten quite attached to their eggs.

In its break between finishing its expanded floor 50 and starting work on its expanded floor 49, Goblin Cave took the time to attempt to hook up a soul flow. It tethered all the goblin's souls to the eggs it had chosen to keep and applied a fractional amount of suction, so that the gestating eggs sucked up the excess souls as they grew. It was not particularly sure that that was enough flow, or that it had done it in time, but — what would happen, would happen.

It also took a moment to inspect its faux-core. The idea of having a sub-core that did its own digging was too amusing to pass up, and it had spent a lot of time thinking of the mechanics as it had dug out floor 50. Its earlier floors had been absolutely pathetic, after all, and it was perfectly willing to replicate that kind of pathetic layout. In the end, it gave the control node very simple instructions: randomly dig out a room, or a hallway, or a corner, attached to its deepest point. Place down markers for mobs; Goblin Cave itself would have to manage setting up the spawning for the time being. And move the faux-core back, deeper, in the meandering mess it was sure to construct.

What it wanted to do was try to shove a soul into a control node and see if that did anything. That was easier said than done. The mechanics of it seemed possible, but the way a control node was stitched together between the world and the system layer made altering its structure much more complicated; it wasn't just a simple loop of mana harmonics, the way a spawn template was. Also... its lower floors could hardly stand the dozen mobs it had despawned to make room for the goblins. Once it had paid back that soul deficit and its goblin soul farm was in operation, then it could bother trying to solve that particular problem.

In many ways, this brought it back to its enjoyment of setting up ecological cycles. The autonomy of the goblins was an interesting wrinkle that made everything much more complex. And, of course, if it wanted to replicate fully whatever system it was itself enmeshed into, it would need many more moving parts. sub-Gods to handle ensouling its creatures as necessary, some kind of auto-balancing core-creation framework — the complexity of even an imitation system was utterly beyond it. But it was something to aspire to, a way to comprehend its own situation by modeling it.

It would take time, but it needed to dig out an additional 49 floors meanwhile. And then— well, once it reached the surface, again, it would need to address many of its other problems. But for once it was eager to get going on them, which was a feeling it hadn't felt in a long while.


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