Goblin Cave was quite interested in how adventurers perceived its mana. It was clearly different in some way from whatever mana flows existed out in the open, and apparently the soft fluttering of its simple mana bellows was different enough from, what? Every dungeon these people had ever visited?
Ultimately it was constrained by its senses. It could never feel what a mana flow was like outside of itself, because the act of sensing mana involved its own mana flow. The strange turbulence at its unlocked entrance was the closest it got, and that was a continual choppy flow that could have been caused by any number of different kinds of flows breaking against its own mana structure.
As this new group of adventurers cautiously made their way forward into its cubic-crystal corridor, Goblin Cave contemplated what other kinds of mana flows could even exist. It seemed entirely possible that all its experiments with mana flow only touched on a tiny corner of what was possible — all of its mana, including the chaotic, turbulent flow from its mana pipes, was still its own mana, and it could sense through it. Mana controlled by other entities, like the mana woven around spellcasters' spells, had a different... tone to it, and not one it could imagine how to replicate. But also, that 'tone' apparently wasn't what adventurers felt when they stepped within it, or else this latest group wouldn't have confidently declared that its new tunnels weren't a dungeon. The mana flow wasn't that dissimilar, it didn't think... but that was assuming whatever senses an adventurer had to detect mana were anywhere at all similar to its own.
Goblin Cave was half tempted to just ask. But... that seemed even more profoundly risky than anything else it had done to date. It would try to discern through experimentation first, at least.
The group passed through several of its attenuating mana locks, each time pausing to reacclimate themselves to the differential, and then finally hit the loop of its primitive mana bellows. Goblin Cave had left one of the mana pipes open, so that the flow there was more turbulent, mostly to see if it could discern anything from the adventurers' reaction.
As it turned out, they didn't like the howling, dissonant mana flow any more than it did. One pressed through the mana lock, slowly, and then gasped and jerked back halfway through, panting. "Chaotic mana. Polluted, maybe? But..." they mumbled out a low-level spell, [Mana Ward], that clung to their hand as they eased it through the barrier again. They cast again: [Mana Filter], a higher-level spell that selectively warped mana flows. "It's not high-energy, and the aspects don't fit the inverse-square pattern from pollution decay. It's full-spectrum."
The adventurers discussed things with each other. "If it's polluted, is there a hex here? Maybe this whole thing is a containment hall."
"There's been no locks or gates. Somebody hauled one of those things right out of here. Anybody could walk right in. If it's trying to contain a hex, it's not doing a good job."
"We might be too late for that, if so. We're not the first to survey this place, obviously; it's possible any foci was already taken, and this is just the aftershock."
The leader shook their head. "It's possible, but we have no real evidence. Nothing about this place makes sense, so until we have a firmer grasp, don't invest in speculation, please." A pause. "Let's keep moving."
They had said 'disordered', as opposed to the 'unfocused' mana referenced in the [Flame Wisp] description. 'Borne from unfocused mana in mana-rich regions'. Presumably they had to be different things, if only because it still hadn't manage to spawn any [Flame Wisps], but it doubted either term had a precise technical meaning. 'Polluted' and 'hex' seemed interesting: it sounded like there were things that... output mana? Restructured mana? In much more high-energy amounts than its mana pipes.
As far as it was concerned, mana flows were fairly simple: raw mana built up in the system layer and wound its way down to refill mana pools — its own, adventurers', whatever. An excess of raw mana, due to not enough mana use, or an increase in the flow from system space, eventually structured itself as a nascent dungeon core and was projected out from system space into the physical world. It had produced a handful of enchanted objects as dungeon loot over the years, but they were generally inert without mana from another source flowing through them. But were there other options? An enchanted item with its own mana pool seemed possible, at least. Dungeon cores, as far as it could tell with its sample size of one, were highly organized, crystalline excretions of mana. That was the only way to create the correct kind of structure to pierce through out of system space. But if there was some kind of chaotic structure...
It had no idea. System space was, ultimately, untouchable; it could no more experiment with its system connection fields than it could reach out and sense other mana directly: the very modalities it used to think, act, and experience prevented it from reaching outside itself.
As always, it seemed like it could think up a thousand possibilities, and had no way to determine which, if any were true. Or it was missing huge portions of what was happening, lacking context to actually comprehend what it was doing. Frustrating.
The adventurers hit the main loop of its primitive mana bellows and increased their mana shielding to compensate. That actually threw off its flow; Goblin Cave hadn't really designed it to have adventurer-sized obstructions. That added enough resonance, with the addition of nine other mana sources all in different flavors, that the current started to interfere with itself and form messy eddies, breaking down its steady rhythm. Which was interesting — it hadn't exactly had a lot of ability to experiment with other mana sources — but it was also frustrating. What a mess of engineering.
The adventurers at first followed the mana flow, and then when they realized the corridor looped around they expressed shock and puzzlement. More talking amongst themselves. That lead to them trying the various offshoot paths leading to its mana pipes, which they got very excited about.
"Is this... diffracting the mana flow?" one of them said, peering straight into the output filter. Goblin Cave hadn't really designed them to be easy to visually inspect; it could see their internals all the time, after all. The adventurers were getting a view of two spinning gratings, with the interference pattern between them revealing slivers of a dark chamber spotted with glowing spikes.
They tried [Ranged Touch], a low-level non-combat spell, in an attempt to map out the inside of the pipe, but the chaotic mana flow, aimed directly opposite the spell cast, immediately shredded it apart. Goblin Cave hadn't really considered it as much, but in practice, it wasn't surprising that adventurers would have trouble casting. Spells were internally structured within their own mana flow, but anything that touched the outside world needed to interpenetrate the mana flows external to their body, and here — the flow was choppy and turbulent enough, at the very neck of a shrill mana pipe, to break apart low-level, low-power spells.
"There has to be an access port somewhere, unless whoever built this translocated the whole thing into place in one piece," one of them said, as they abandoned trying to inspect it through the lattice. That was, more-or-less, what Goblin Cave had done. It was at least glad they didn't try to rip the plates off and inspect it that way.
After a few more mana pipes, about half of them active, they stumbled across the narrow path to its calendar spiral. On reflection... it had made the path there, and the spiral itself, adventurer-sized, even though it never really intended anyone to visit it. Because... it had gotten very used to making everything adventurer sized. Oh, certainly, there were advantages to mana flow for larger spaces; if it isolated its core away in a sealed chamber it messed with its mana flow to have the mana source for its entire dungeon needing to waft through solid rock before it emerged anywhere else. And of course, its mobs had to move around, so it had dug bigger and bigger as it had unlocked orcs, cyclopi, and ogres. But mostly it was because it had grown entirely used to building everything for adventurers.
The spiral seemed to impress them. It went fairly deep — three weeks deep, with twenty-one floors, now — and the open center made them stare down at the precise loops. Goblin Cave had been thinking of revising the whole structure into a torus — a ring of images, folded into a daily circuit, but that daily circuit would slowly convolve around a second curve, to produce a spiral along a spiral that would mark out a single year. It would need at least a year to figure that out, though.
In any case, the calendar spiral was currently walkable, and so one trio walked down it, single file. "Are these... recordings?" one asked, peering at a fist-sized chunk of manastone imaging. "Made out of... pure manastone? It's hard to make out, but I think this is the hallway outside," they said, pointing: "You can see, there's that big boulder to the right of the entrance, but..."
Eventually they made it to the part where the thieves showed up, nine winds down, and the associated chunk of missing time. Goblin Cave was still upset about that. "Ah," one of them said, who had been inspecting each frame with a handheld magnifying lens. "It looks like they hauled out all that manastone through this entrance? You can see, there's not any loose rubble after this." They gestured at the gap. "The artifact had those lenses in it, right? I think they're being recorded onto this, so this would correspond to when these people removed it."
"But it was replaced in..." another member of the trio measured in steps, walking the length of the gap. "What, five hours? They just had another one lying around?"
"Looking at the entrance now, it looks like they had several lying around."
And so on. They ended up descending all the way down, curious to see how the spiral ended. Its control node, unthinking, mindlessly dug out more of the spiral with each interval recorded. There was a shout when their own images started to appear in the recording, only a quarter-turn from the flat granite wall that made up the end of the spiral, and then, as they watched, the control node captured another image and began digging. With adventurers so close, the mana cost was... considerable, although their mana shielding helped limit the excess cost a little. Goblin Cave wished they would walk up the spiral already, but instead they stayed there for a full three recording intervals, timing out the process.
"This definitely seems like dungeon magic," one of them said. They dispelled their mana ward, making the mana cost of digging even higher. "I can't feel any spell effects that would be doing this."
"Dungeon magic doesn't work with people around," one of the others said.
"That's only theorized," the first responded.
They did eventually leave, and put up their mana wards again, although that one person's cloud of diffuse mana billowed around mucking up its mana flows for several more intervals.
The adventurers made their way past its primitive mana bellows, and began the slow, sloping descent into its actual mana bellows. They seemed a little taken aback by the walls changing: it hadn't had time to fully resurface all of it, only the entryway, so this was still the smooth, fragile, apparently-peelable surface it had first created. They summoned up some magelights with [Create Light], and the mana currents needed to sustain that sent vague ripples down the corridor, spilling into its mana bellows and mucking about.
They proceeded slowly, apparently more intimidated by the long, linear descent than anything else they'd seen thus far. It was true, the corridors went on for a while. It had dug them up and out from the top of its mana bellows and then just kept going until it hit the surface. Some dungeon-building instinct wanted to fold the corridor up, add rooms, spawn in some monsters, but so far it had managed to resist.
Then they reached the actual mana bellows. The corridor let out into a boxy cubic room, a pressure lull of nearly-static mana that helped stabilize the pump's circuit, but of course with the injection of nine new mana flows the entire system was starting to desynchronize. It had seemed very impressive when Goblin Cave had first built it, but on reflection it hadn't engineered it to withstand adventurers within it. It wasn't used to thinking of them as actively impinging on its own mana flows, precisely; it wasn't as if it had any active mana machinery in its initial caves.
Goblin Cave was just thinking how it would have to try out some new designs, figure out some way to replicate the disruptive nature of other beings' mana clouds within its designs, when the group stepped out of the static room and into the direct path of the mana flow. They shuddered, even through their mana wards, and one of their magelights, then a second, popped in messy clouds of diffuse mana. The spray of mana cords tangled with each other and disrupted the pump's flow, reordering themselves as they did so, forming a haze of looping, branching cords in a fierce tangle, and then —
a half-dozen [Flame Wisps] popped into existence, budding themselves out from the eddies in the mana flow.