As they walk back towards the building, Somn nudges Luke. “Look up. It’s a beautiful night.”
Curious, Luke follows her request. His mouth drops open at the sight. “... Woah…”
The nighttime sky overhead the group is the clandestine magnum opus of a mad painter: inky-black velvet lit up with broad strokes and delicate swirls of glittering silver that whisper seductively of new discoveries and wonders just beyond their reach, the twinkling lights shining out to them like beacons against the cold darkness surrounding them. Crisp, cool air brush past their faces as they entered the building, a sharp contrast with the stuffy humidity of indoors. Somn takes one last longing look at the sky before hurrying in after them.
“Please tell me we have windows,” says Luke hopefully, already missing the heavenly constellations.
“Well,” says Somn, “it depends on what room you want--”
"Oh, I think it's about time," says Fred, glancing at his watch.
"About time for what?" asks Krill. “Aren’t we supposed to go to bed?” he adds, jabbing a thumb at where Professor Azzageddi once stood. “That’s what he said.”
"Oh yeah, I forgot-- the seniors haven’t had time to orientate you guys yet." says Fred. “We’ve got our own celebration.”
“Celebration?” splutters Krill. “Can’t we just hit the hay?”
“Don’t whine, Krill. I’ve been waiting for this for ages,” says Neko, hurrying past him to walk beside Fred.
Fred hides a satisfied smirk at the sound of Krill sighing in exasperation. Score one for the tinkerer, he thinks. Aloud, he says, “Alright, follow me.”
Breaking away from the pack, Fred proceeds to steer the group down through a maze of hallways and classrooms, twisting and turning as he weaves through the rabble of students all heading in the same direction. Rooms and doors disappear into a blur as the deities begin picking up speed to keep up with the goggles-wearing boy. The corridor narrows as they advance, forcing people to press down on the five of them from all sides. Beside Fred, Neko takes lead, shoving people aside to advance, followed closely by Krill who takes advantage of the temporarily clear space. Behind him is Somn guiding Luke, who is much more reluctant to squeeze through people and can be heard muttering apologies as he passes through.
Soon, they burst out of a pair of glass doors, the masses letting up as they scatter out into the open space. Somn can feel the refreshing night breeze caressing her skin, telling her that she’s out in the open again, away from the confined spaces of the building. The goddess relaxes visibly, a motion that doesn’t go unnoticed by Luke.
“Prefer it out here?” he asks with a smile.
“Don’t you?” she laughs. “You can’t deny it-- being outdoors right now is nice.”
In front of them is a cultivated forest, the branches and leaves rustling in the wind that slips past the trees and wraps around the deities, bringing with it the sound of laughter and the wonderful smell of food, painfully reminding Luke that he hadn’t had a bite since his birth. Almost as if in agreement, his stomach rumbles noisily, much to Somn’s mirth and Luke’s embarrassment.
“Don’t worry, we’ll have dinner in a bit,” promises Somn. “Come on, we’re almost there.”
Godly students around them filter off into different paths, some heading down by themselves or in pairs, but most in large, jovial groups. Fred picks a small trail that separates two rows of trees and marches into the woods. As they walk on, the sound of merriment and excited chatter fills the air, the smell of food drifting past their noses intensifying. Luke clamps his mouth shut, hoping that he wasn't drooling at the mouth-watering scents.
“How much more?” asks Krill, the displeasure in his tone obviously apparent.
“Not much," assures Fred. "Just another turn… here we are!”
The trail opens up to reveal a large clearing, with a enormous pile of chipped wooden logs in the center, surrounded by merry-making student-godlings who were lighting the place with lanterns, giving the place an ethereal glow. If it weren’t for the hubbub of the young deities, the clearing would be a wonderful campsite, with the babbling stream flowing past the clearing lending its sounds to create a pleasant background atmosphere.
An eagle-headed god spots the five newbies and saunters up to them, covering the ground between him and the group in a few confident strides. "Welcome to the unofficial orientation campfire,” he greets. "For the newcomers, it's an annual campfire organised by your seniors. One day, you guys’ll be organising one too, but today, just enjoy," he says with a smile. “Grub’s over there, by the way,” he adds, gesturing to the direction of several tables heavily laden with an steaming assortment of food and drink.
Not needing to be told twice, Luke makes a beeline for the tables, leaving Krill to head towards the tables himself at a slower pace while wondering exactly how the senior god speaks a human tongue through a beak. Occupied with his own thoughts, he misses how Luke grabs a small burger and wolfs it whole, much to the wide-eyed stares of his friends.
Luke smiles sheepishly at the rest of the group’s reaction. “Sorry. Was hungry,” he explains.
“Hungry? Starving's more like it,” says Neko, grabbing a plate and dishing herself food.
A helpful senior doles out dinner for the group, then directs them to the makeshift stage nearby. “We’re having a play tonight,” she says excitedly. “It’s going to start soon!”
“A play?” asks Somn curiously. “What’s it about?”
“I’m not supposed to give spoilers!” giggles the older goddess. She then bends lower and softens her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I will tell you, however, that it’s kinda a--”
"Welcome to the annual unofficial Campfire Orientation!" shouts one of student organisers, the god marching into the middle of the clearing as his magically-enhanced voice halts everyone in their tracks. “We’re about to start in a few minutes, so please wrap up whatever you’re doing and-- DON’T YOU DARE SUMMON A THUNDERCLOUD HERE, THORBJOERN, OR SO HELP ME I WILL FRY YOUR TINY LITTLE BEHIND SO HARD--”
“We should probably get moving,” interjects Luke, precariously balancing a plate piled high with food. “I’d like to eat my dinner while I still can.”
“Way ahead of you,” says Fred, plopping down onto one of the heavy wooden logs provided as seats. He then pulls out an invention of his, the Drinkery, and pours everyone a tiny cup of carbonated ambrosia. "Flavors, everyone?" he asks.
At his friend’s requests, he pours a small amount of syrup from the Drinkery into their cups. When he reaches Luke and Krill, he couldn’t help but to introduce them to his baby. "Using a bit of alchemical science, I created this to give us drinks. It sucks in surrounding air when activated and goes through my own patented scientific process --which I can’t tell you for competitive reasons-- to transmute the air into ambrosia. The small device at the top then carbonates it as it is poured. The flavors come from the same science, but are instead transmuted into whatever flavor syrup you want due to a complex alchemical formula that integrates each letter of your flavor as a number, then recognizes its flavor due to an online uplink and then..."
Luke listens in awe throughout the entire lecture until Fred looks up from staring lovingly at his invention.
Noticing Krill's blank expression, Somn’s sympathetic smile and Neko’s hearty guffaw, Fred slinks back, embarrassed. "Just... give me your flavor requests."
Luke nudges Fred. "Can you explain that to me later?” he asks. “That thing is awesome!"
After an affirmative nod from Fred, Luke and Krill both give their flavors. The boys raise their cups to their lips, only to set it back down hastily when the student organiser's voice booms in their direction.
“Sorry about that, folks,” announces the student organiser. “Now that’s out of the way, let’s begin tonight’s events with the lighting the campfire!” he shouts. The students erupt into an agreeable hurrah, casting confetti, streamers and candy into the air as the one of the oldest students throws a packet onto the pile of firewood with great gusto. The object explodes with a loud bang and a shower of sparks before being rapidly consumed by a raging inferno. Another trainee goddess steps forward obligingly and shapes the flames into a swirling vortex of multi-colour flames that gives birth to a simply enormous dragon constructed out of fire, the fiery creature roaring and snapping at nearby students as it claws its way out to freedom. Its creator makes it jump out of its fiery nest and prowl around the clearing, shaking off wisps of smoke as it snorts ember into the faces of nearby students.
Entranced by the dragon, nobody notices the trainee goddess shaking with fatigue as she maintains the dragon, struggling to stay on her feet as she forces herself to finish the opening act. Her strength fails and she collapses, hitting the ground with a soft thud. Released from the mind that held it in place, the dragon falls apart and extinguishes into nothingness along with the campfire it was created from, plunging the entire place into darkness. Silence blankets itself heavily upon the hushed crowd, catching everyone’s words in their throats as they stay frozen in their positions, stunned.
The eagle-headed god is the first to jump into action, sprinting across the clearing to pick up the limp body. Hot on his heels seconds later is a golden Labrador puppy, the size and colour too big and vibrant to be mistaken for a mindless creature.
“Ra?” asks the puppy anxiously. “Is she okay?”
Ra shifts the unconscious trainee’s body into a more comfortable position for examination. “Ran out of stamina,” he concludes. “These idiots should’ve known their limits before overusing their niche powers. Kari, do you know where’s her room?”
“Follow me,” says Kari. Short little legs move in a blur as she leads Ra out of the forest. The two figures practically vanish from sight within seconds, well before the student deities begin to recover.
Neko gets back her voice first. "Wh... What happened?" she asks in shock.
Before Somn could open her mouth to reply, the student organiser marches up to take centre-stage.
"No need to panic, newbies," he says, his words once again enchanted to reverberate throughout the clearing. "She's just exhausted, that's all. All she needs is a bit of bedrest. No, we are not trying to pacify you here, we're dead serious. If she was spellcasting, then that would be an excellent reason to panic." The senior god claps his hands together, calling for attention. "We shall begin the play. Places, people! This party ain't gonna run itself. Someone get that fire started again!" he shouts, shooing everyone back to work.
As if nothing had happened, the older party-goers break back out into conversation, carrying on whatever discussion they were having before and leaving the younger newbies reeling.
Neko decides to repeat herself. “What happened?” she asks aloud.
The student organiser somehow manages to hear her. “Newbies, right?” he asks. “Professor Azz might’ve mentioned earlier at your orientation-- niche powers use stamina. My guess is that she didn’t have a good night’s sleep yesterday. Seriously, don’t worry,” he adds with a wink. “It’s all good. Right, let’s se-- THORBJOERN I TOLD YOU ALREADY--”
The five of them watch the student organiser stomp off after what they presume to be the targeted senior, who immediately starts a shouting match with the organiser, much to the amusement of other seniors who rowdily egg on the two with cheers of their own.
Watching the seniors, Somn becomes a little worried. “Umm… we’re not going to end up like that, right?” she asks.
Krill can only shrug. “Who knows?” he says, digging into his dinner. He doesn’t get very far with his meal, though, as a single person’s footsteps click softly around him, the sound strangely unnatural and attention-grabbing. Everyone falls into silence as a lone god steps onto the stage, the campfire light casting eerie shadows across the senior’s features.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, leaning forward as if to share a juicy secret with his audience. “Allow me to present to you an age-old fairytale..."