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A note from xaphiriron

This story now has the 'Profanity' tag for a character swearing, and presumably other character swearing additionally in the future.

VERY WELL, Goblin Cave wrote. It was getting very bored of these adventurers, negative mana notwithstanding, and more interested in the experimentation portion of the interaction. CAST [CREATE LIGHT]. AT LEAST ONE OF YOU. I WILL INCREASE THE FLOW TURBULENCE UNTIL SPELL RUPTURE OCCURS AGAIN.

The caster nodded and stepped forward; everyone else stepped back. They cast [Create Light], while the rest took a few steps back, away from the main current of the mana bellows. A magelight manifested in front of them, considerably more solid than the others. Goblin Cave had intentionally turned the turbulence of the mana bellows down, so there was only a light flow with no eddying, and as the magelight manifested it engaged some of its mana pumps, shifting the flow through its chambers. A more intense mana flow hit the light and it started to plume, forming a long streaking tail, and at the interface eddies started to form. Goblin Cave felt that... what it needed was a certain kind of rhythm, a long, side-to-side flow that folded over itself, so that when its mana flow met that of the magelight it would branch properly. It was focusing on the hazy interstice where the mana flows met. What it wanted, what it thought would work, was to have a folded sheet of mana tug across and envelop the manalight explosion, but to do that — this adventurer was clearly high-level, in that their manalight was already withstanding greater forces than those that had popped the prior two. (Maybe, it thought, having two casts break was a critical part of the process? Well, this would help determine that.) But correspondingly, the adventurer was outputting much more mana to try to keep the cast stable.

Goblin Cave increased the amplitude further, slowly varying the frequency by shifting a half-dozen pipes back and forth, forming an erratic current that eddied over itself. Its wave-edge crests caught against the foreign mana, stripping some off in plumes of branching, intermingling crests, again and again. The adventurer casting staggered, pumping in a final burst of mana to try to keep the spell stable, before it detonated with a shockingly audible whuff, erupting in spiraling cords. The entire room went hazy in its vision, foreign mana tangling everywhere, and in the vortices left behind a dozen more [Flame Wisps] manifested, riding the choppy current. More importantly, while the room was cloudy with mana, Goblin Cave opened a new mana pipe, funneling in the mingled mess of dissipating mana, and spun it out through its experimental mana funnel. It hadn't made any progress with any other part of a theoretical mana storage device, but it had devised one thing: a kind of hollow cone with a spiralling groove on the inside made from layered segments of serpent obsidian and mithril. This projected a kind of... repelling surface, keeping the mana from directly impacting the device, while also creating enough of a pressure difference to suck mana towards it. It was horifically inefficient, of course, only capturing a tiny fragment of the mana erupting through the chamber, and what mana it did capture...

Mana spun through the funnel, twisting into a tight strand, and then lacking anything else to do Goblin Cave had set up a long coil. It could still feel the mana within the coil, which meant that it wasn't isolated enough; the tangled mess of its mana mixing with the adventurers degraded both, leading to the entire system burning itself out before the third winding. That wasn't really the point. The mana funnel capturing ambient mana was.

WELL DONE, it wrote. The adventurer staggered, evidently exhausted by even that fairly pitiful display. Slowly the chamber cleared up, as the flame wisps floated downstream and the rest of the mana dissipated.

"May we inquire as to the aims of your study on flame wisps?" the leader said. Goblin Cave suspected that was rehearsed, too.

What was the aim of its study on flame wisps? There was nothing particularly special about them. They were just a tier 0 elemental that had a curious description in the system. If it ever fully mastered understanding the how and why of their natural spawns, Goblin Cave supposed it would move on to its other tier 0 elementals. It could unlock the whole row, all eight affinities plus neutral, and spend several years each trying to understand how to manifest them. The unaligned elemental column seemed particularly interesting: if [Lesser Mana Puppet] was the tier 0 unaligned elemental construct, then what was the tier 0 unaligned element? Would that just be a blob of mana? [Mana Elemental] still counted as an elemental construct, not a true elemental. So why call it that, for one, but then what could possibly populate the unaligned elemental column?

Also, the suggestion of negative mana opened up new horizons. What, could it somehow unlock a tier -1 mob? Were the creature templates unbounded in both directions? But since tier corresponded fairly directly to stat gain, that would imply, what, negative-tier creatures would rapidly hit negative stats?

I SEEK TO UNDERSTAND THE MECHANISMS OF THE WORLD, Goblin Cave wrote. It left out the part about attempting to find meaning that wasn't based around the avarice of adventurers delving it; it thought they probably wouldn't take that part well.

"Starting with flame wisps?" That was the caster who spoke.

THEIR CREATION IS MECHANICALLY INVOLVED WITH THE STUDY OF MANA FLOWS, it wrote.

"Ah, if you say it, it must be so," they said.

This whole thing was boring, and it wanted time to look over the book and contemplate negative mana. As well as further refine its mana funnel. YOU MAY GO, it wrote, and then as an afterthought tumbled another set of faceted manastones at them. They collected them and left, and as they did so the one who had written the note shifted slightly, causing the paper to fall from their sleeve along the edge of the doorway, out of sight of anyone else. Goblin Cave looked at it closely: there was nothing new written on it. Ah, it realized, after a moment. This was supposed to be the moment of delivery. That still left the question of how it was intended to respond.

Goblin Cave wasn't sure how it felt about all of that. Mostly it wanted to stop thinking about adventurers. It turned to the book, hoping that would be worth... something.

The most immediately obvious thing it could glean from the book was that adventurers had a very different conceptualization of mana than it did. Certainly, they had system panes with mana values too, but they drew a much starker divide between system-assisted skills and what they called 'the esoteric arts': manually manipulating mana, with or without a [Mana Manipulation] skill, to replicate or revise the system-directed mana flow that occurred when casting a spell. And rather than conceptualizing mana as flows, threads, they spoke constantly about mana notes, harmonics, chords. It seemed that that was the aspect of mana it was considering as flavor, color: the aspect of mana that distinguished its mana from other mana. Goblin Cave supposed it made sense to present that up front: the outside world seemed as though it was a chaotic mess of many different mana sources interacting, instead of the single, shared source of all life in its dungeon. Consequently, it might be reasonable to assume that flame wisps spawned when... different mana notes, or tones, combined in a certain way? To play a certain 'chord', or 'melody'. It was an utterly foreign conceptualization to it.

Goblin Cave had only made its way through the introductory chapters before it was interrupted. Another surveyor had stepped through its new entrance. Was this its life now? Unable to focus for even a moment without constant interruptions?

Outside, night had fallen. The surveyor had crept closer, quietly, and they stepped over its threshold with a quiet hiss as their body was impacted by its mana. From what little it had gleamed from the book so far, it was, perhaps, a disharmony: an impingement of whatever mana 'notes' they were expressing by its own 'sound'.

It took a moment for it to realize: the adventurer was the one who had dropped the note. After their initial slow steps through the entrance, they picked up the pace, moving fast downward. That made it difficult to... WHY DID YOU ASK ABOUT NEGATIVE MANA, Goblin Cave tried writing on the walls, only for the adventurer to have passed by before they saw any letters forming. Eventually it picked a room ahead and sealed the door, writing HALT where the opening had been.

I DON'T KNOW OF ANY WAY TO PRODUCE NEGATIVE MANA, it wrote. WHY DID YOU ASK ABOUT THIS.

"Oh," they said. "You can do that anywhere, huh?"

Since they had finally stopped moving, Goblin Cave took the opportunity to form a primitive mana lock in front of its words, pushing back their mana cloud somewhat to let it write faster. YES. WHY DID YOU ASK?

"Damn. Do you know what hex corruption is?"

NO.

"People get exposed to it and their mana gets all messed up. Sometimes it shows up negative. Sometimes it shows in weird glyphs. Their mana only recovers partially, or doesn't recover at all. Sometimes they get really sick or die. But it's related to dungeons, since—" They paused. "Wow, you really don't know anything, huh? That explains that showing, I guess."

WHAT DO YOU MEAN.

"I don't have a lot of time, uh, I snuck here when I should be on watch, so—" They ticked things off on their fingers, talking very fast: "1, dungeons that end up with a mana subtype sometimes just explode into a hex. Sometimes a hex or manastorm manifests instead of a dungeon core spawning. Don't get a mana subtype, they will absolutely break your core if you don't manage to kill yourself somehow first.

"2, they know you're a dungeon core and they want more information on you before they make a decision. It's not that— getting a supply of mana potions here would be a huge boon for the duchy but the court is probably gonna be real divided about what to do with you longterm and you have the negotiation abilities of a brick.

3, did you really think you could bumble through a high-stakes resource acquisition charter with the court nobles? Did you even know that was what was happening there? You absolutely need... you have no sense of scope. You have no idea what people are saying about you when you're not around. You think they bumbled through that meeting? You gave them two days and a heap of manastone and they got together and they checked with what they knew about the world — which is way more than you — and they winnowed down possibilities and they made plans and they prepared for contingencies. It didn't look like you did any of that. You need to do better.

4, they don't have your best interests in heart. They're nobles; they're manipulating you in some way, because you're dangerous and valuable and they want to mitigate the danger and extract the value, and the way you do both doesn't involve being forthright."

This was too much information in too short a time. What? HOW DID YOU DISCERN THIS INFORMATION?

They let out a sharp sigh.

"It's really obvious? Like, you don't know anything. You got gaps in your knowledge that are too big and too specific for anything else to fit. Maybe they thought you were some crazy mage-king at first but, uh, Moon-Caller Lonway you ain't."

WHAT? LONWAY?

"I really don't have time to talk. Just... don't trust the nobles, okay? If you're a dungeon core and you're talking to people you're basically the most important development in understanding the nature of hexes and the system ever, and all they care about is making a mercantile deal, and you can't bargain your way out of a bag. You need to get more experience with... everything. Interacting with other people."

ANYTHING I CONTROL CANNOT LEAVE THIS DUNGEON. WHAT DO YOU EXPECT ME TO DO?

"People go into your dungeon every day!! You're the core of Goblin Cave, right? Or, I don't know, a splinter of it? Talk to them!"

Goblin Cave was not enjoying this interaction. I DON'T LIKE ADVENTURERS, it wrote. I FIND THEIR DESIRE FOR POWER DISTASTEFUL.

"Power— what do you think you're doing, trading manastones for books?! That's desiring power. And... what, you want to unweave the mysteries of creation itself, but you're letting having an unpleasant social interaction stop you? If you don't like them I'm pretty sure you could just crush them to death. Well, suck it up, we all have to deal with things we don't like and if you end up dying because nobody ever told you about lying— I wouldn't be able to live with myself."

I KNOW WHAT LYING IS, it wrote.

"Well, you're really bad at it." A pause. "Uh, please don't crush me to death."

I WON'T, it wrote.

"Okay, well, I'll be back— I don't know. In a few days, if they didn't catch me sneaking down here. If they do catch me, you'll probably never hear about me again. Uh. Good luck with everything. Please try to figure out hexes."

WHY ARE YOU TELLING ME ALL THIS, it wrote.

"Because— listen, I don't know if you've ever seen anybody die from a hex. It's really rough. I didn't work my ass off to get into the surveyor's committee just to get the duchess a deal on mana potions, you know?" They let out a sharp breath. "Listen, I really have to get back. Uh. Bye?"

And then they ran back up the corridor, faster than Goblin Cave could write.

It was hard to quantify its feelings about that. Everything about adventurers— it was thinking dungeon cores were just slower, more methodical kinds of beings than adventurers. Everything about them happened fast and frenetic. It hadn't thought... every interaction with adventurers it had, all three of them now, were stressful and difficult and that left it feeling drained and muddled. If there was a difference between it feeling bad because it had made some kind of fundamental misstep versus it feeling bad because adventurers were exhausting to interact with, it couldn't discern one. Even thinking back, it hadn't seemed like anything it had said had been... obviously giving away its secrets? Nothing seemed so suspicious. But apparently something, at some point... well, it was like the adventurer said: it didn't have enough context to know what had happened.

What a mess.

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xaphiriron

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