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It was still the middle of the night.

Goblin Cave disliked being mired in time like this. It had, repeatedly, looked back down at its goblin village to see how they were doing. And the answer was always, "exactly the same as before," since no time had passed. The slow crawl of the village's expansion, the interplay between the goblin delvers and its sub-dungeon, all of that was frozen, stationary, because those were things that took time to occur, and adventurers kept bothering it every other day. Previously, if it had checked in a few times and seen a goblin sleeping in the same place, it meant it had found a new den to live in and had been slowly decorating it with gewgaws and jewelry. Now it meant the goblin was still asleep, because it had checked in five times in six hours. Its twenty-six month mark for reaching a semi-stable goblin population seemed an eternity away at this rate.

And if its list of things to contemplate seemed long before, it was overwhelming now. Negative mana? Something beyond negative mana? Hex, manastorms? Nobles, court? Mana subtypes? It was all too much. Goblin Cave wanted to retreat back into something comforting, something where it could just happily carve out some big granite caves for a few years, but— circumstances had changed. Maybe this was the true face of its decision to reveal itself to the world: becoming enmeshed in it, tossed to and fro by the actions of things utterly outside its domain. It was unpleasant. Rather than help it discern meaning in the world, it was the opposite: ruining its attempts to make sense of anything with a constant deluge of information.

All it could do in the moment was use the tools it had available to attempt to handle its latest set of problems.

It contemplated its original dungeon. All the caves existed as they had when it had first dug them out. A layer cake of its growth, as the floors got more and more complex. Aside from the one unfortunate incident on floor 11, it had left all the layouts as they were when it had first dug them. (It had initially made floor 11 a gigantic horseshoe-shape, with the descending stairs right next to the ascending stairs, only separated by a thin wall. Adventurers had apparently mapped it out well enough to discover this, and ended up simply bashing through its wall. It had ended up opening up the wall into a permanent passage and restructured the layout to place the stairwell down to floor 12 somewhere physically distant.) It felt very strange to contemplate making changes. That was still its plan, but to actually do it... it was hesitant.

Oh well.

There were several adventuring parties on its upper floors. Goblin Cave found one: an adventurer who had been struggling to solo its third floor, currently dealing less than admirably with a dire goblin (t2, unaligned) and shoveler goblin (t2, earth) duo it had originally designed as a pincer attack. The shoveler goblin lay in wait in loose gravel along a certain turn in the tunnel, and when the dire goblin came roaring down the corridor, attracting attention, the shoveler goblin burst out from behind. These kind of scripted encounters were common on its early floors, and now they felt vaguely embarrassing to watch. By the time the adventurer killed the mobs, they had one arm disabled and were bleeding heavily.

It made it nostalgic. Fresh blood spilled in its corridors was one of the simplest ways to gain experience, and how it had gained many of its early levels. Bones were very experience-dense, but they took longer to break down, and for a newborn core it had been too mana-intensive to chip away at them. It had been bone-choked in the beginning, before its mana pool had grown enough to make that viable.

But that wasn't why it had turned its attention to that specific adventurer. It was the most isolated of all the adventurers on its early floors. At this point the alteration was becoming routine: bud an open space within the rock, connected to the rest of its cave with a thin mana thread. Construct a rough, cheap mana lock and a quartz backplate, and then finally shatter the rock surface to reveal it. The adventurer turned, injured shoulder slumping against the wall, expecting another shoveler goblin, maybe.

The first real change to its upper floors in decades, and it was this. Goblin Cave wasn't particularly feeling good about that.

ANSWER SOME OF MY QUESTIONS, AND I WILL GIVE YOU A REWARD, it wrote. Not manastone. It still hadn't entirely accepted that manastone was valuable.

"Hhuh?" the adventurer said.

Off to a good start.

Without the time pressure of its recent interaction; the unknown level dynamic the survey-adventurers had brought; without this adventurer being scared by strange, lightless manastone halls, the interaction proved somewhat more pleasant. They seemed less jumpy, even being injured, alone, three floors down.

It quizzed the adventurer: this side of the mountain was part of the Tana tribe's territory, and isolated from the Duchy by the rugged mountains, with no nearby passes connecting them. They had their own opinion about the duchy — not good — and seemed willing, if somewhat bewildered, to be pressed on their opinions why. Goblin Cave tried to pay attention, even though... this was not what it wanted to focus on.

WHAT IS THE REASON YOU DELVE THIS DUNGEON, it eventually asked. It was hoping for specifics. There was a conversational maneuver it was still not very good at, where on receiving an answer it would seek elaboration by asking additional follow-up questions. The idea of structuring a conversation with a broad, unclear question and then slowly resolving it by adding finer and finer specific questions was, it was sure, an elementary insight, but it was still one it was struggling to execute in practice.

"Uh— levels, right? I mean, I know I'm kinda a sorry state. Fourth son, so I got no prospects, system activated late so I'm still real low-level."

WHY DO YOU DESIRE TO BE HIGHER LEVEL?

"I mean... you're kidding, right? You live longer, stay healthier. You can actually help. Like, uh, Tana hasn't been doing so well? Not a lot of strong dungeons, around, which is why I'm down here. And if we can't defend our territory then the civvies'll be able to round us up like they've wanted to for years. Gotta be high enough level to match them. Plus, I mean, you get cool moves. I always wanted to get, like, a magical swordsman class? But all the skills I'd need to unlock for that..."

Goblin Cave sometimes forgot that adventurers were mortal. Obviously it knew the facts in play, but that they quite easily died of things other than being killed, and apparently they made quite a big deal of it. No real concept of a respawn. Their souls went fluttering off elsewhere, and from what it had comprehended from the holy books it'd read, they rarely if ever met anyone with memory of their past lives. It could only be killed one way, and after a certain point levels only marginally helped in that respect.

SO YOU SEEK POWER TO PROTECT YOURSELF AGAINST OTHERS WITH MORE POWER?, it wrote. Mortal life seemed... pitiful. WHAT WOULD YOU SEEK IF YOU WERE ALREADY THE MOST POWERFUL?

The adventurer shrugged. "Dunno. I mean, I don't... my whole life I've been in the shadow of people way more powerful than me. Like, I guess Deviltongue Kano or whoever gets to do whatever he wants, but for people like me... I'd just be happy to live my life without getting crushed underfoot."

WHAT DOES LIVING YOUR LIFE ENTAIL?

"You know, life! Have enough to eat and drink, and a place you can lay your head that's warm and soft. Enjoy the sunsets. Have some kids. Write a poem or something."

Goblin Cave didn't really know how to respond to that. It was... if the difference was between terminal goals, those which were desired for their own sake, and instrumental goals, those which didn't matter save for that they brought a person a step closer to their terminal goals, then power seemed, for this adventurer, to be instrumental. But power was maybe always instrumental: you could not act, unless you were free to, and that meant nobody a thousand levels above you dictating your actions.

Drawing parallels between its situation and the adventurers' wasn't enjoyable. WHAT SKILLS DOES A MAGICAL SWORDSMAN CLASS ENTAIL? it asked, as a diversion.

Classes were an aspect of the system that appeared to be customized for adventurers, the same way its spawn mechanics were customized to it. None of its mobs had classes. Most adventurers also did not have classes; as they said, it took a collection of skills to form the 'seed' of a given class — various skills which reinforced each other in specific ways — and it was only after the gestalt of the skillset reached a certain total skill level that the class itself was unlocked. Goblin Cave had only had a handful of classed adventurers within it its entire life. One of the party that died assaulting its floor 49 boss had a class, it vaguely remembered from the party's chatter on the way down.

"Oh, uh, I don't know all of them, but it's gotta be at least [Mana Manipulation], [Swordplay], uh, [Magic Blade] or something like it to bridge the two... there's a way to cast with a sword, but I don't even know what that skill's called. It's not really... I mean, I'd be lucky to get a class at all, much less one like that. I, uh, don't really know what I'm doing."

Goblin Cave had no objections there.

FOR ANSWERING MY QUESTIONS, TAKE THIS, it said. It had contemplated what to actually give the adventurer. Manastone had turned out to be valuable; next it would hear that the granite that made up its walls was a precious resource, too. What did it have that was valuable, but not so valuable it attracted too much attention?

In the end, it had extruded a rectilinear prism of bronze. Adventurers came down using bronze weapons or armor sometimes, so it was a resource they had available, and this adventurer had only a thin bronze saber with a chipped edge. Their eyes went wide as the ingot crashed to the floor. "Oh!" they exclaimed. "Wow!"

They had difficulty lifting up the ingot with one injured arm, but that was beyond Goblin Cave's concern. They would make their way back up, or not, on their own efforts.

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xaphiriron

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