Sixteen point five two eight… move the seven… Taihei tried to hold the quantities in his head, but they jittered and danced. No matter, he could manage. He dipped a brush into his inkstone and found a patch on the back of his right wrist where a cluster of silver dots raised in precise intervals against his golden skin, counted off ten dots, drew lines on either side, and covered seven dots with ink. Leaving three. Now… what was the trajectory coefficient again… he felt for a second like the answer was close, before the chirping of bell crickets pierced the tearoom-turned-study.
The remainders and decimals and factors scattered immediately. Taihei groaned, crumpled his sheet of paper, and threw it to join its fellows in the corner. As a distant chime rang, he retrieved a heavily notched metal rod from his writing case and made a small cut in it to mark the time before going to wash off in a basin by the door. Another hour, another year.
The entrance examination for the College of Celestial Study would come in a few months with the snows, and Taihei couldn’t come back empty-handed again—he’d failed six times already, and this was getting embarrassing. You wouldn’t even use half these formulas in the field, we have counting boards and number familiars for that. Taihei just wanted to peer within a star, to chart the comets as they flowed through the sky, but he’d be earthbound forever if he couldn’t get into the program first.
Taihei allowed himself a moment to find his favorite constellations before getting back to study, but he couldn’t see a thing through the neighbor’s persimmon trees, which seemed to almost be mocking him—they’d shot up sometime when he wasn’t looking, sealing off the courtyard in a riot of red leaves and orange fruit. It made for a picturesque sight at least: persimmons, courtyard, and harvest moon, even a small fox in frame near the koi pond. “Must be nice, to just be a fox. You don’t have to worry about trajectories or tests, do you?”
“I’ll have you know I have two degrees from the College myself, so I find I rarely have to worry anymore” the fox stated matter-of-factly.
He bowed to Taihei before striding forward on four legs, though only two remained by the time he reached the door as his form blurred and shifted to that of a wavy-haired elf man in a professor's robes and pleated trousers. “And once I’m done with you, you won’t have to either.”
“Taihei, remember to clean up before your new tutor arrives!” Taihei’s mother called from the house, unfortunately a hair too late to save him the embarrassment. Sheepishly, the student slid open the door and placed a cushion on the floor, but the man strode right past him, taking a seat on the edge of the table instead
“So, out with it, why can’t you seem to pass the exam? Shouldn’t you be able to just…” the professor appraised Taihei, noting a golden mote flickering off his arm,” I don’t know, aphorite this?”
Taihei seethed at the assumption that being born under the sign of Axis somehow granted immediate knowledge of trigonometry and calculus, though he remembered his manners and prevented the emotion from reaching his face. “I’m afraid that numbers are my weakest subject. I’m not sure how to understand what they all mean in the real world.”
“In that case,” the fox in elf shape coughed into a fist, and when he withdrew his hand, a curious crystal ball sat in it, glowing soft and blue, “we should simply hammer all possible test questions into you so thoroughly that you’ll pass the test even if you don’t understand.” He tapped the orb, which floated across the room to hover in front of Taihei. “Write down your answers to the following questions. Beginning immediately.” Before Taihei could voice his confusion at this novel teaching strategy, the orb began reciting:
- “List the seventeen most common alchemical components of an extraplanar being in reverse alphabetical order of closest-affinity celestial body, beginning from Aucturn”
- “Compute trajectory of this model of a transiting comet with a fey toroid structure and…”
- “What is the average density of a sixth-order star, assuming Positive Energy gateways have mass according to Gyoen’s Third Theorem of…”
Taihei was overwhelmed swiftly and ruthlessly. He began trying his best to answer the questions, but no sooner had he begun writing than his teacher cleared his throat. “Keep in mind that the exam is 258 questions, so you’ll need to average one question every 90 seconds.”
“Y-yes... of course, Professor.” Taihei desperately tried to rejoin his train of thought. The orb carried on:
- “Solve for X to yield the minimum possible amount of teleportation inaccuracy given a conjurer using …”
- “If ten human ganzi assistants and one brilliant kitsune professor are each holding a planar tuning fork, then…”
“You know,” the professor interrupted again, “What if you just found a way to visualize the problems? Or like a feeling or something. Why, I used to be terrible at changing forms, but look at me now!” The professor waggled his long elven ears as they shifted back into those of a fox. “I just think of a sensation I connect with being a kitsune, like the feeling of grass under paw, and it comes to me.”
“That…” Taihei struggled to find a polite way to tell his teacher to please shut up, missing a question about two ships leaving Sakakabe (one at noon, the other at midnight) in the process, “That’s very helpful.”
- “The aforementioned brilliant kitsune professor is planning a three-day planar expedition. How much fried tofu should his students gift him to ensure his rations are…”
Illustration by Vladislav Orlowski, from Pathfinder Lost Omens Ancestry Guide.
“Oh, this one’s very important!” the professor noted most unhelpfully, and Taihei looked up to see he had fully resumed fox form and was now pacing across the desk, stepping in Taihei’s inkstone each time.
“Professor, you’re tracking paw prints on my practice tests,” Taihei pleaded, on his very last nerve.
- “Solve for X, where X is the number of years an aphorite who can’t perform basic calculations without scribbling on his arms will attempt the entrance exam before…”
“Okay, that does it!” Taihei snatched the orb from the air and ran to the door. Looking out into the courtyard, he spied a nest under the eave of the neighbors’ estate, recently abandoned by migrating swallows. In that moment, he wanted nothing more than to throw the orb into the nest, but those blasted trees were in the way and he didn’t have a clear shot.
No matter. He could manage.
Taihei’s eyes darted around the courtyard, taking in angles and forces. He felt his mind… not expand, exactly—the opposite. Connect. Point to point. Intention joined result. He flung the orb, feeling its complete trajectory even before it had left his hand. It skipped twice off the surface of the pond. It spun as it struck the tiles of the courtyard wall and flew high into the sky. And it danced in the autumn night as a breeze adjusted its path ever so slightly to the left, before it fell perfectly between the branches of the trees to land in the abandoned nest.
No sooner had it touched down than something strange happened. The trees that Taihei had tried so hard to avoid shimmered in the night air, dissolving into ghostly blue flames, and when Taihei had finished rubbing his eyes, they were gone and the sky was visible once more. Rather than the blue sphere, a roasted chestnut sat perfectly in the swallows’ nest.
Huh. “The coefficient was zero point nine two,” Taihei said to himself, perfectly recalling the problem he had been working on earlier, every page in his textbook, and where he had forgotten one of his sandals that morning. The strange clarity left him as subtly as it arrived, but in its wake, he felt like he understood just a little bit more of the test than he had in years.
“Oh, very nice! It looks like you’re one of those students that learns better by doing. That’ll make the rest of this so much more fun.”
Taihei looked back at the desk to once more see an elf, eating from a bag of chestnuts. The professor flicked a wrist and the glowing orb reappeared in his hand, and as he absentmindedly tossed it into the air, nothing came back down. As he strode to the door and waved one of his tails from beneath his robes, illusory equations and vectors sprung into glowing existence around the courtyard, illuminating each phase of Taihei’s throw in precise and clear mathematical detail.
“I think,” Taihei said slowly, “you’re probably the worst teacher I’ve had.”
“You know, for some reason, I get that a lot,” the fox said in mock offense. He tossed a chestnut to Taihei before popping seven more in his mouth. “Now, do that again, and this time, let's go through the calculations, step by step.”
About the Author
James Case is a designer at Paizo, where he helps to create the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. In addition to his work writing and developing RPG products, James has also edited manuscripts for scientific researchers, translated songs for music labels, and blown bubbles for at least one birthday party. You can find him, and his thoughts on game design (and comma usage), on The Twitter at @toriariaria.
About Tales of Lost Omens
The Tales of Lost Omens series of web-based flash fiction provides an exciting glimpse into Pathfinder’s Age of Lost Omens setting. Written by some of the most celebrated authors in tie-in gaming fiction, including Paizo’s Pathfinder Tales line of novels and short fiction, the Tales of Lost Omens series promises to explore the characters, deities, history, locations, and organizations of the Pathfinder setting with engaging stories to inspire Game Masters and players alike.