The confrontation began as some noise outside. There had been noise, beyond the constant rushing that Goblin Cave assumed was a continual background noise. This was a focused clatter. Some of the blurs that had approached it had been quiet, others had been loud. These were louder still. There was the familiar sound of clattering rocks — that, it could identify anywhere.

Then, voices. It was somewhat harder to comprehend speech working from sound alone, instead of hearing the movements of their mouths and throats, but it had long ago overcome that particular deficiency simply by hearing adventurers chattering on within it for years and years.

"...over here! I knew I wasn't imagining it!" There was a sound that corresponded to a motion as something moved within range of its imaging tubes, but Goblin Cave couldn't begin to connect the two. "Last night, I thought a falling star had landed on the mountain, but it was much too faint for that. But—"

The blurs came closer and stopped.

"But what is it?"

Another voice: "It doesn't look good, whatever it is."

"Could it be a new dungeon? But— why does it look like that?"

A pause, then the second voice again: "If it's a new dungeon, we really shouldn't get close. But..." More pauses, more motion. "Never seen anything like that."

"Oh! There!" the first voice exclaimed, and there was a rush of motion, body scurrying closer. It shrunk, rattling — kneeling down? Leaning down? — and the other voice called out "Elena! Don't you—!"

"Here!" the voice said. "Look." The irony was not lost on Goblin Cave.

"Is that— manastone?"

The word here, in the adventurers' language, was different than the word in system-speech. They were entirely different languages, after all. Goblin Cave only knew it from one of its collected books, an old adventurer's codex, that described materials that could be sourced from dungeons. 'Bone, goblin' and 'Bone, mundane animal' were the primary materials it had really produced at the time, had both been listed in the common category, with a cursory description. Everyone knew what bones were. 'Manastone' had been listed as rare 'in the region', with a note that it was common 'within the borders of Shym'. Its description noted the material's rocky texture, hardness, sharpness, and pale blue glow, all characteristics that applied to the material it knew as manastone, and said it was an esoteric material perpetually in high demand for all sorts of magework.

The entrance's emergence onto the surface hadn't been entirely peaceful; falling boulders had gouged unsteady chunks out of its glass walls, scattering the ground with jagged chunks of black glass and flecks of manastone.

"Well, it's mine, is what it is. It'll be a token of this day. And you said going out all this way was foolhardy!"

More movement. Maybe one stepping back, or the other pushing forward, or them embracing in some fashion? At this point Goblin Cave was practically begging them to step in past its mana lock, just so it could tell what they were doing.

"From something like this? You should leave it where it lies; it's probably cursed."

There was a sharp whistle of an inhale. "You think? But you always did worry too much. You thought that white calf was an evil portent."

"This is serious. Whatever this is, it's beyond our ken."

"Ugh! Look at this place! Don't you have any sense of adventure? Do you want to be a mushroom-picker all your life?"

"We don't even have mushrooms, thanks to your diversion."

Goblin Cave couldn't help but perk up a little at the mention of mushrooms. It liked mushrooms! It had plenty of mushrooms! Well, several leagues over and a few floors down. Sadly, they did not elaborate on what kind of mushrooms they wanted, or what they were planning on collecting them for. Eating, presumably, but who knew.

It was actually fascinating, in an abstract sense: it didn't think it had ever been this nervous and frustrated at the same time. There was a reason it generally ignored it when adventurers spoke, and that was because following their conversations, dense with a context it could never really capture, tended to just go on and on in circles without ever approaching anything it cared about.

They were still talking.

"I'm just going to step in for a second," the first voice said. Elena. "Don't be such a sourpuss about it."

"I'm going with," the second, as-of-yet unnamed voice said. "And it'll be just in."

"Don't you have a location skill, anyway? Can't you just tell us where this is?"

"It's not very good," the voice said. "You know, while we were on our way through the valley, it changed its mind as to whether we were in the Dutchy or in Tana five times?"

Elena let out a loud laugh. "Tell that to the clerks, I'm sure they'd be begging at your feet to finally get to draw down a nice firm border. What is this, do you think?" They'd stepped closer, into the wrecked hallway beyond its mana lock. They were, presumably, talking about the mana lock itself.

"It's a trap," said the other voice. "It'll slice you into little pieces and then burn the pieces."

"Aleks!" Elena said, and made a motion that ended with the other voice — Aleks, apparently — emitting a soft oof.

"For all we know, it could be!" Aleks said. "Don't just walk up to random cursed hallways!"

"I'm just going to—" Elena said, and then before Aleks could object they stepped past the imagine tubes' field of view, stepping just before the mana lock, and —

Elena stepped inside the dungeon. The mana field, softly stirring from the distant churn of its mana bellows, had some kind of effect. Their entire body shuddered, and the flesh on their arms prickled up into goosebumps. "Oh."

Then they stepped back out. "Oh, maybe that was a bad idea. It feels— so strange in there."

"Are you okay?"

"I'm fine." Elena let out a sigh. "I guess we should report this. What a bother." More motion. "You should step inside too. You've been inside a dungeon before, right? Is that what they feel like?"

"I don't—" Aleks started, then sighed. A moment later they stepped inside, over the ridge of the mana lock, and just as quickly stepped out. "Maybe? I don't know. It could be."

"Did your skill say anything?"

"It hasn't been working well all day. It said I was in [Goblin Cave], you know? That dungeon on the other side of the mountain. There's no way that—" they gestured. "could be part of a goblin den."

Goblin Cave could hardly contain its glee. This whole interaction — listening in on the petty thoughts of adventurers, or, not even adventurers, was... frustrating. Pathetic. It didn't desire validation from them. But still, the words brought forth a fierce, angry kind of pleasure within it.

It brought up its rankings. It had been slipping in general, and had fallen several more ranks in most categories. It had noticed it had been slipping slightly more in "Theme" and "Narrative" than in its other categories, down six and eight slots respectively, but now — however the ranking had been determined, that had done something: it had dropped a whole twenty slots in "Theme" and seven in "Narrative" since the last time it had checked, only a few days ago. #1354 Theme, #1726 Narrative. It hadn't paid attention; it could have been creating the new entrances, or one of the other moving blurs impacting it somehow, or this most recent repudiation, but it was certainly something.

So, the two adventurers (non-adventurers?) moved out of range of its imaging tubes and then it was left alone on its mountain again. "Alone"; there were still five adventuring parties inside it. One of them had been creeping through its floor 12 mire, trying to avoid the [Bog Goblins] floating on the muddy current, and around when Elena had asked about the skill, they had ran into one and it had started howling, attracting all the rest; the adventurers were making a fighting retreat back towards the room entrance. This kind of thing was happening all the time.

Several days passed. It slightly tweaked the alignment of its calendar spiral to account for its latest guess about the length of a day. It kept inspecting its images, trying to will itself to make some comprehension with the incoherent structures it could vaguely make out within the blurry patterns. On reflection, it seemed to be luck that, apparently, some people were travelling, or gathering, precisely when and where they could see its entrance appear. Its other two new entrances remained unvisited.

Goblin Cave imagined missing that connection and sitting for days and days with the sick nervousness of waiting for contact. The first discovery had bled the sick edge of the anticipation, leaving it with the same uncertainly but lacking the same tone.

It was still frustrating.

The second use of its new entrances was after another week. The tension had exhausted it, and it had gone back to idly experimenting with mana flows, working on twisting more robust threads in wider spaces. It was still dwelling on the [Flame Wisp] description. It implied open areas without special machinery, and no matter how Goblin Cave approached the problem it seemed completely intractable, which meant either it was missing something big or the system description was inaccurate. In the mean time, following on the success of its mana bellows, it had been spinning up smaller, faster versions, with open air above them: creating mana tornadoes. When it pumped mana into the input, it was split apart into streams, and then the streams wafted up into the air above, still violently spinning, and they managed to maintain partial coherency for some amount of time there, although with how violently they were moving they would never be able to fold through the many precise convolutions it would take to manifest a spawn template.

It felt like it had finally gotten involved in its process again, ignoring the looming spectre of change, when — more sound from its second entrance. The same kind of intentional clattering: boots over rock, coming up the slope. As far as it had been able to discern, this entrance let out amid the vegetation-covered slopes of the mountain. There was a spring nearby, slowly seeping through the nearby rock, and part of the noise was water dripping down the rocks, forming puddles and streams.

These adventurers set up a rough camp of sorts, peeling some things away from their bodies and leaving them on the ground. Thankfully, several of them were mostly visible from a few of its imaging tubes; it would have to inspect those images in detail later. Before that: "This is it," one of them said. "Uncanny thing, ain't it?"

"Look at that manastone, right out in the open," another said, and went to come closer, only for another to stop them.

"Nope, we're doing this right. We want to get in and get out without any surprises, so no picking up anything until we're sure it's not all cursed."

"Who'd make a, what, cursed manastone mine?"

"Who cares. Aygerim thinks some mages accidentally translocated a summoning all the way up into the mountains. Viktor says it's a new mana-aligned dungeon. But what I think is either somebody else lost this and is gonna come looking, or nobody else knows about it, and either way we gotta be fast and clean and not leave a trace. So hands off until we give the all-clear!"

This crude avarice was more in line with what Goblin Cave expected from adventurers. Why else would anyone venture into its halls, if not for riches? Manastone being the material they sought seemed odd, given its low cost to construct, but, much like the description of the [Flame Wisp], there was no reason to believe that there were native high-mana veins of manastone anywhere accessible in the whole region, if there were even such a thing anywhere in the world. Maybe the only manastone was from dungeons that had decided to pretend to be within a manastone vein.

So what if it turned out manastone was absurdly valuable here? It could produce tons of manastone. And then what? This group wanted to get rich. What would they do once they had their riches? Oh, to be sure, these adventurers were nervous, skittish: they weren't certain they'd get their haul, or get it all back to wherever adventurers went when they were outside its dungeon. But Goblin Cave found it difficult to care one way or the other about the success of their venture. It had made the tunnels to express... something unworldly. Something about the nature of being a dungeon. Of course the only thing adventurers were interested was how much it was worth. Accumulating power. Accumulating wealth.

Goblin Cave was fascinated by the world outside itself. It seemed like there was so much potential for... everything. Things it couldn't conceive of. But that fascination, that anticipation, was met at every turn by something like this: the craven desires of thoughtless idiots. It had waited so long to emerge, for this? For more adventurers to set up camp outside in preparation for mining its walls apart? To mindlessly extract not just experience and loot from its floors but the raw material, too? Disgusting. Pathetic. The drives that motivated these creatures were beneath it. What limited minds they had. But, surely, somewhere in the world there was something else. It just had to find a way out.


About the author



Log in to comment
Log In

Log in to comment
Log In