Two days gave it hardly any time. Goblin Cave resented the time pressure. Left to its own devices... there was a heat in it, a fire. A focus, to peel reality back to reveal its underpinnings, to lay everything bare. It would take it time; of course it would take time. Thought, comprehension. Understanding unfolded like a budding fungus.

Its fungal shore, down on floor 51, was only starting to become established. The mycelium weave was digging into the bare rock, mingling with the broken down material from prior fruiting bodies to form a dense, muddy silt atop the bare rock, and fresh mycelium wound its way through the muck, expanding its growth moment by moment, spore by spore. It had taken years to get this far. Patience bore fruit.

And now it had two days until the adventurers would come back. It should have said two months. Two years! It had innumerable avenues of study to pursue, and none of them would make meaningful progress in that interval. It wanted... it wasn't that it wanted to be left alone, precisely, although that was the dominant emotion. It wanted to find something meaningful, something of value, in the wider world, but from what it had seen so far it had very low hopes of getting that from adventurers. It wanted to verify its assumptions about the nature of delving, reified as its own sub-core and goblin delvers. It wanted to stop being bothered by the constant stressors of crude, tedious adventurers. It wanted to understand why system-space was the way it was.

If there was any consolation, it was that that confrontation had further tanked its 'Theme' and 'Narrative' rankings. It would have to ask about that on the revisit.

There were several steps it could take. Goblin Cave spawned in an [Invisible Servant], with a minuscule soul, and used its reincarnation ability to give it a few spells. It had been a [Luminous Torchwick] (tier 4, light), a magically-infused evolution of its common candlewick fungus; from that Goblin Cave gave it [Create Light]. Goblin Cave was tempted to siphon off excess soul from its budding goblins, but, of course, the process of separating out that much soul would take far more than two days to complete. It needed to do something about that; some kind of transient soul chamber where it could separate off excess soul in various-sized parcels, so that it would have access to it immediately. Yet more projects to contemplate and complete. More than mana cost or respawn cycles or experience, time was rapidly becoming its bottleneck.

Goblin Cave had the invisible servant stand where the adventurers had stood, and commanded it to cast [Create Light]. The magelight swirled into existence, letting out a long plume of light downwind of the mana flow. That was already different. Goblin Cave adjusted the mana pipes influencing its bellows: adding and removing choppiness, speed, timbre, intensity. The manalight reacted to the flow, and eventually when Goblin Cave made the flow rapid and choppy and strong it burst apart, but the shattered threads smoothly recombined into the overall flow without anything like the branch-loop explosion it had observed the adventurers produce.

It wasn't a pleasant feeling, but it was still knowledge. Something about foreign mana sources was likely critical to the interaction. Something about the turbulence at the interface. Did that mean it could spawn wisps at its entrances? Perhaps, but not unless the world's mana itself cast a spell at it. Could it make a creature with foreign mana? It wasn't sure how to even begin to approach that.

Well, it currently had creatures made from foreign mana inside it. The spawned flame wisps had continued floating around its mana bellows, and Goblin Cave had shepherded them into an isolated, low-flow chamber before it had started its experimentation, not wanting to rupture them in the same way it planned on rupturing the manalight. They floated there, tier 1, the most valuable and irreplaceable thing currently in its dungeon. Goblin Cave couldn't command them or check their status; they weren't dungeon spawns. But being made from mostly its own mana, they didn't provoke the same churning, itching sensation that adventurers did. Maybe faintly? Maybe it was imagining it.

Adventurers still counted; there were more than a dozen inside it currently. But their spells had never done much of anything aside from dissipate, so presumably the mana flow it had going was another piece of the puzzle. In fact, now that it had some comparison for foreign reaction of mana within it, the dissipation of spells within its old dungeon — the mana interaction that it had always seen to the point of finding it completely usual — looked suspiciously flat. Like the natural, slow and still state of its mana flow was some kind of mana-suppression flow: damping and enfolding foreign mana, swiftly leeching the energy from it and letting it dissipate into ownerless motes that could, eventually, be partially recouped into its own mana flow. Goblin Cave had never found the interaction particularly interesting, but now that it had a point of comparison a whole host of intricacies were revealed.

It was getting distracted. It needed... it supposed it needed to see if the flame wisp's mana use felt different. They were currently just off-gassing: radiating shed parts of their own mana system, and drawing fresh mana from... where? Goblin Cave didn't think they were drawing from its mana pool; they didn't show up in its system interface, at least. It was quite possible they were on timers: mana pool slowly dissipating without renewal, until they burst apart into nothingness, and getting them to use mana would just hasten the process. Or they could be drawing mana from a separate system linkage, the way adventurers did.

Goblin Cave would be sad to see them go. It wouldn't feel great if it immediately killed the first successful non-dungeon spawn it achieved.

Goblin Cave spawned in a goblin in the room over, and commanded it to attack the wisps, in the hopes of provoking a defense response. The goblin snarled, clawing in the direction of the wisps, and then just bobbed higher, floating up out of reach. The goblin leapt, its air-current pushing the wisp out of its own path. For a moment, Goblin Cave despaired of achieving anything with this. The goblin kept trying to catch them and failing. Then one of the flame wisps flickered, hue changing, and spit out a bead of arcing flame that curved to the side, homing in on the goblin, and hit its side with a sizzle. Mindless, thoughtless, the spawned goblin continued trying to attack, heedless of its injury. A few of the other flame wisps joined in and repeated the motion, spitting out beads of fire.

Their mana felt... slightly different? It seemed more likely to form eddies in its mana flow, instead of smoothly melding together. The slightest turbulence in the interface. Goblin Cave might have been imagining that, too. Goblin Cave tried directing a mana flow through the room, to see if that would produce a second generation of wisps, but it didn't have time to redirect things before the collective brunt of the wisps killed the goblin, and they stopped casting. Goblin Cave reflexively went to check if the wisps gained experience for it — a leveled wisp would have a deeper mana pool and thus more potential to produce its slightly-differently-flavored mana — but, of course, Goblin Cave couldn't access their system status.

If different mana... flavors were critical to this interaction, how could it source that? Certainly, some low-level mages delved it, and they cast spells. But the mana discharge was transient. Could it capture that, somehow? Restructure its mana flows to allow, what? Foreign mana to eddy down into some kind of collection reservoir? What would that even look like? It would have to be devoid of its own mana, which meant it could never look inside them, so it would somehow need an access that it could sink mana into (how?) and an output that it could pull mana from when needed (how?), as well as something inside it that prevented the mana threads from decaying apart into nothingness. Goblin Cave didn't know how it could do any of that, much less if it was possible in the first place. Just telling adventurers to cast spells at the right time seemed considerably easier, if it could actually get any adventurers to do as they were told. Goblin Cave supposed it could keep bribing them with manastone, since they apparently wanted it so much.

With a deep sense of irony, Goblin Cave spawned in a [Flame Wisp]. It had never actually done that before; it seemed like an abandonment of its goal, to just spawn one in like that. But now it needed a comparison. The other flame wisps didn't react much, and it didn't tell its flame wisp to attack, so they all floated there in a cloud plus one. The flame wisp was indeed a low-tier trash mob: nine units of mana to its name, with a spell, [Spark], that cost one unit. High enough mana regeneration that it could cast in bursts and only wait a few minutes to regenerate; this cloud of seven could cast near-continuously if they rotated their casts.

Goblin Cave could see its utility in a dungeon, especially with their ability to float above melee attackers and blanket the field with sparks. But what was their utility outside of one? Why did this thing exist, instead of so many others? Was this the only fire-aligned elemental this weak? Why this shape and no other?

Thinking of its idea of a foreign mana storage, Goblin Cave spun out some new constructions. Something... reflective? To try to bounce mana off its surface, maybe? A target plate for a spell, if it could get adventurers to target it. Or something like its mana pump, that slowly sucked in ambient mana? Ultimately, the all-pervading flow of its own mana became a liability: any foreign mana would muddle with and intermingle with its own, dissipating before it could be collected.

It could make something like a switch: a plate in a recess, with mechanical components to... open a door, or something, behind it. But a spell cast onto the plate would be an imparting of foreign mana, and if it could suck up the mana and direct it along a different path...

All of this was well beyond Goblin Cave's abilities. It had managed some success with creating mechanisms to spin out mana threads, but they still fell far short of the density and complexity it would need for its original goal of recreating a spawn template. And, of course, none of this was at all of use for its upcoming return visit. But what would be? What mechanism could it create that would sense knowledge? What mana flow could it wield to reveal truth?

And so, like that, the next two days passed, until the adventurers, the survey team, returned from their encampment.


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