Anchor Root was no stranger to anxiety. It had been one of her closest companions since childhood. She had hoped, briefly, that getting away from her home and clan would ease the burden, but if anything, arriving at the Magaambya had only made things worse. Each project, assignment, or presentation was just another expectation on top of an already precarious tower of expectations she had been trying to climb since birth.
All that to say, it wasn’t all that surprising when an unexpected knock at her door nearly sent her jumping out of her fur.
“Uh… j-just a minute,” she called out, hurrying to tidy the books and papers in front of her.
“I just came to deliver a message,” Esi shouted through the door. “Teacher Ot says he wants to see you.”
Anchor Root’s heart raced. Ba-bump. Ba-bump. Ba-bump. “Did he say why?”
“No. But he said that I should tell you that you’re not in trouble, you didn’t do anything wrong, you can take as long as you need, it isn’t an emergency, and he’s not mad at you.”
Well. That only made it half as nerve-wracking at least.
“Oh, there was one other thing. He said to bring an instrument.”
Anchor Root found Takulu Ot in the courtyard, relaxing under one of the smaller trees. He sat with his eyes closed and held his mbira in his lap, lazily plucking out a scale on the metal tines. The soft, metallic strumming was a familiar sound to any student who knew the man. It was a somewhat popular instrument in Nantambu, but those from farther abroad usually found it odd. Something about the way certain notes wouldn’t play the way you expected, and would distract from the melody.
Takulu hadn’t noticed Anchor Root yet, and she briefly considered turning around and returning to her room before he did. But that would only prolong her worry in the end. Better to simply get it over with. “Teacher Ot?” she called over instead.
His hands paused as he looked up. “Ah, just the student I wanted to see,” he said with an easy smile. He seemed to smile more often than he made every other facial expression put together. “Did Esi deliver my message?”
Anchor Root reached into her bag and withdrew an ivory flute.
“Perfect! Now, I’m sure you’re wondering why I called you out here. You see, I feel I have been remiss in my approach to teaching certain elements of arcane spellcasting. I have a passion for mathematics, and I find them to be an excellent parallel to arcana. Each with a unique formula that can be broken down into its component parts, solved and calculated and—” Takulu glanced over just in time to see Anchor Root’s ears flatten, and cleared his throat. “Well, anyway, all of those things also apply to music, and Esi tells me that you are a talented musician. So why don’t we play together for a bit?”
“What? Esi said that? About me?” Anchor Root asked in shock. “I mean no, I wouldn’t say that I’m talented or anything, Esi is the one who’s really talented, I just sort of play along from time to time but I’m really only just okay, or I guess ‘okay’ might be putting it too strongly, I guess I’m really just… sorry, I’m talking too much.”
“You are not talking too much,” Takulu reassured her. “And ‘just sort of playing along’ is fine for now, as long as you don’t mind me talking while we play.”
Anchor Root nodded and collapsed on the ground in a motion that some might charitably call sitting down. Takulu began plucking at his mbira again, and after listening for a moment to catch the melody, Anchor Root began to play along as well. As Takulu gradually increased the tempo, she sped up to match. As he slowly shifted the melody, she moved into a complementary harmony.
“You know, many people find the mbira strange to listen to. They think the notes are too discordant, and they aren’t entirely wrong. It is an instrument that is not meant to be played alone. It is best with accompaniment,” he said.
Anchor Root lowered her flute to respond, “But you play alone all the time.”
Takulu looked over with that glint in his eye that he always got when he was nearing the heart of a lesson. “Do I? I don’t think I’ve ever heard an mbira played by itself. My grandfather built this mbira, so his hands are always next to mine when I hold it. My mother taught me how to play, so her song always harmonizes with mine. I don’t know much about bone keeping, but I imagine it must be similar. You are always carrying a little of history with you, in your music and your magic. When you stand on the shoulders of your ancestors, you can reach much greater heights than you do alone.”
The young gnoll put down her flute to consider his words. “The thousands who have come before you,” she muttered.
Takulu nodded. “With that said, why don’t we try that spell from class the other day? You got quite close the last time you tried, and I think you could do it with just a little more effort.”
“Yes, Teacher Ot,” Anchor Root said. She didn’t mention that she had practiced the spell over a dozen times since she failed to conjure a simple illusion in front of her classmates. If she mentioned that, then her teacher would be expecting her to do it easily, and if she failed when he was expecting her to do it easily, that would be way worse than failing when he wasn’t expecting her to succeed at all, right? So without saying anything more, she reached out a hand and created a perfect illusory copy of her familiar.
The illusory chicken moved around the courtyard, pecked the ground looking for bugs, and squawked intermittently. Takulu clapped softly and said, “Very well done. I couldn’t have made a more believable chicken. Pulling from your own experiences is an excellent way to reinforce your illusions, but you shouldn’t rely too heavily on them. So I wonder, could you try something bigger? Maybe something louder?”
“Uh… I-I don’t know about that…”
“Let’s at least give it a try. It’s okay if you don’t do it perfectly,” Takulu said. He stood, brushed the grass and dirt from his clothes, and began walking. “I’m going to go stand on the far side of the courtyard. Try and make something I can see from over there.”
Right. Something big. What counted as big? Everything was big to an ant gnoll, but Teacher Ot was a tall man, she thought. A gorilla? A giraffe? A dog? An angry dog that barks whenever you walk past and it always catches you by surprise even though you walk that way every day and you’ve really thought about telling its owner that he should train his dog not to bark at strangers but he has a very angry dog and you have a chicken and—
“Whenever you’re ready, Anchor Root,” Takulu shouted from the other side of the courtyard.
In a moment of panic, she clutched one of the bones on her necklace and cast the spell. “Big and loud. Big and loud,” she whispered. She could barely hear her own voice over the sound of her heart pounding. In a swirl of light, a stomping, trumpeting, stampeding elephant appeared between the trees, charging toward Takulu. He smiled easily as it crashed through him and disappeared.
“Yes! Excellent! You’ve got it!” Takulu cheered. He walked back over to the tree and knelt to pick up his instrument. “I knew that you had it in you. You sell yourself sh—you don’t give yourself enough credit, but you are an amazing talent. If you just keep up with your studies, I know that you’ll do amazing things. You might even get to teach your own students one of these day—
“Anchor Root? Huh. How does she manage to run so fast?”
About The Author
Michelle Jones is a freelance game designer, fiction writer, and author of Pathfinder Adventure Path #171: Hurricane's Howl, the third volume of the Strength of Thousands Adventure Path. She has also contributed to Lost Omens The Mwangi Expanse, the recently announced Book of the Dead, and several other Paizo titles. For a full list of credits, RPG hot takes, and Thirsty Sword Lesbians homebrew content, you can find her on Twitter at @AleshaKills.
About Strength Of Thousands
In the Strength of Thousands Adventure Path, the players take on the roles of students at the Magaambya, the oldest and most prestigious magic academy in the world, an ancient institution founded by the greatest wizard the world has ever known. This wizard vanished long ago, but his sinister enemies plot against his school and those who attend it. Over their long academic career, the heroes rise from humble students to become teachers, and they ultimately hold the fate of the Magaambya in their hands. Graduates of the Magaambya are among the greatest wardens of the world, but if the heroes can't marshal the strength of thousands who have come before them, the venerable Magaambya might fall!