The Valley of Appraisal is big. Big enough for a cornfield to fit comfortably in a section of it — and not a little cornfield, either. Standing with Scarlet at the edge of the cornfield, Kat vainly searches for any sign of where it might end.
“This section of the Valley is intended to test your navigational ability,” Carlotta explains. “We’ve built a corn maze, and your task here is to find the exit. Begin whenever you’re ready.”
“It’s only corn,” Scarlet suggests. “I could just blast our way through with some fireballs.” She raises her hands towards the wall of corn and the magical currents begin to swirl around her fingers.”
“We do encourage lateral thinking in the test,” Carlotta interjects. “But that’s a little too lateral. I’d have to consider that cheating. Besides, we put a lot of work into building this maze.”
“Right,” Scarlet says, sheepishly lowering her hands. “No fireballs.”
“Hey, Scarlet,” Kat asks. “Is it just me, or is the corn moving?”
Scarlet begins to scan the cornfield for any signs of anything out of the ordinary.
“And I think it just sneezed,” Kat notes, glancing towards where she thinks the faint, but unmistakable achoo! came from.
“No, it didn’t,” a voice from the corn insists feebly. “It was your imagination.”
“Shut up,” a second voice hisses. “You’re going to ruin the ambush.”
“Sorry,” the first voice says. “One of the leaves was tickling my nose. Besides, I don’t think they’ve even noticed us yet!”
Kat raises her bow, sets one of the arrows to the string and lets fly in the direction of the voices.
“Great. Good job. Thanks a lot,” the second voice says bitterly to its companion. “Now she’s shooting at us!”
“It’ll be fine. We’re hidden in the — ow!”
“You can come out now,” Kat calls into the corn. “Let’s just get this over with.”
Dunstana had no idea that baking a cake could be so much fun.
After the interminable wait for the cake to finish in the oven, she is thrilled that she finally gets to shoot something.
They had to send one of Amara’s maids over to the Breadman bakery to bring back something called a Ray of Frosting. Of course, that meant even more waiting, but all the waiting became a distant memory once Dunstana finally got her hands on the thing.
She feels herself grinning broadly as she relishes the feel of the magical device in her hands. She isn’t entirely sure what the Ray of Frosting actually is, but Amara is letting her shoot their freshly-baked cake with it.
The Ray of Frosting, she decides, is so much cooler than her cork gun. She begins to wonder idly how successful she could be as a pirate if she started adventuring with her own Ray of Frosting in hand.
The magic-powered machinery inside the Ray of Frosting whirs to life in Dunstana’s hands as Ginger finishes loading the frosting cartridge.
“Now?” Dunstana asks hopefully, raising the Ray of Frosting towards the cake.
“First, you need to put on your goggles,” Ginger tells her from behind her own pair of goggles.
“But my hands are full,” Dunstana protests. “Besides, the cake’s all the way over there. It’ll be fine if I just —”
“Just a second,” Ginger insists, stepping beside Dunstana to pull her goggles down over her eyes, then taking a frustratingly long time to adjust them.
“Now?” Dunstana asks.
“Careful, Dunstana,” Ginger warns. Despite being the youngest, she has the most experience with the various implements of cookery, up to and including Rays of Frosting. “It might pull to the —”
“Uh oh,” Dunstana mutters, lowering the Ray of Frosting.
“— left,” Ginger concludes too late, the colour draining from her freckled face.
Both Dunstana and Ginger slowly, fearfully shift their gazes towards Amara, who is now buried under a mass of bright pink frosting right up to the tips of her ears.
“Are you okay, Amara?” Dunstana asks.
“Not especially,” the Elf answers, voice muffled by her sugary sepulchre.
“We should, uh, we should probably do something about that,” Dunstana notes.
“Yes, thank you,” Amara answers stiffly.
“Are you mad at me, Amara?” Dunstana asks contritely. “It was an accident.”
“No,” Amara answers with deliberately affected, and not entirely accurate, graciousness. “It was entirely my own fault.”
Really, Amara has no one to blame but herself for her rather short-sighted decision to stand directly behind the cake while Dunstana was bringing heavy artillery to bear on it. Well, at least she knows for next time.
“I’ll find you a towel, or something,” Dunstana offers.
“While you’re at it, if you could find one of the maids,” Amara continues. “I think we’ll need some help cleaning up.”
“Shoot harder!” Scarlet urges Kat as yet another assailant leaps out of the corn.
“I’m trying!” Kat shouts back.
She rolls away from the latest attacker, catching a brief glimpse of Carlotta standing just at the edge of the fracas and taking meticulous notes on her clipboard. Kat doesn’t expect a very good mark on this part of the exam.
“Kitty-Kat,” Scarlet calls over her shoulder, holding her own opponents at bay with a shimmering magic barrier. “I think we need a new plan!”
Ducking under a boot coming straight for her face, Kat agrees wholeheartedly.
“Any ideas?” she asks. She grabs her assailant’s leg as he aims another kick and wrestles him to the ground. “I’m open to suggestions.”
“Hang on to something, Kitty-Kat!” Scarlet says.
Kat glances around desperately for something to hold onto. Unfortunately, all she can see is corn, and she has serious doubts about its chances of holding up to whatever Scarlet is conjuring.
The only other thing in reach is Scarlet herself, so with no other option, Kat decides to make do, wrapping her arms around Scarlet’s waist, clamping her eyes shout and bracing herself for Scarlet to unleash her magic.
Kat can her Scarlet speaking the words of the spell to focus her concentration and her magic, but her words are soon drowned out the sound of the wind rising and beginning to howl. Kat clamps her eyes shut even tighter.
As suddenly as the wind started roaring and raging, it dies back down to silence and stillness, replaced by the sound of voices groaning in pain and ears of corn coming crashing down the earth.
Kat opens her eyes and steps back from Scarlet. She finds herself no longer standing in a cornfield, but in a bare field strewn with stalks of corn levelled or torn out of the ground and flung around by Scarlet’s spell.
Kat peers out from behind Scarlet to see their foes flattened by the force of Scarlet’s gale, strewn into a heaped tangle of moaning limbs.
“Right,” one of them weakly calls to Kat and Scarlet, as he pulls himself up to his knees. “We’ll call it a tie. You can be on your way.”
“Oh,” Scarlet says, seeing the mess her windstorm has made of the cornfield. She turns to Carlotta. “Does, uh, does that still count as cheating?”
“No,” Carlotta decides. “That was clearly in self-defence. Excellent use of a wind spell, by the way. But, for future reference, maybe tone down the magic a little?”
“Right,” Scarlet says bashfully. “Of course.”
Contending with his own test in the Valley of Appraisal, young Nolan Lyte is too preoccupied to notice the donnybrook currently underway in the distant cornfield. If he took the time to look, he’d see the sudden flashes of movement and colour through the cornstalks that reveal Kat’s desperate struggle against her assailants, along with the occasional burst of arcane energy as Scarlet uses her magic.
Of course, to him, it would just be the sign of another aspiring adventurer advancing through the Valley, not something he’d pay much mind too. After all, the Valley is a big place. There must be dozens of young applicants fighting similar frantic battles.
Still, if Nolan did notice the fighting in the cornfield, he would offer a brief moment of sympathy to Kat. His own perilous battle in the cornfield is still fresh in his mind. The scrapes and bruises suffered during that battle are still fresh on his arms and legs.
Making the most of a welcome respite after overcoming the latest challenge in his journey through the Valley of Appraisal, Nolan sits down on a tree stump and adjusts the straps on his shield, tightening it back into place after loosening it for a moment to let the feeling back into his arm. His sword is planted in the ground at his feet as he affords his sword hand a similar moment of rest. He’s been at this long enough that his hand is starting to ache and stiffen. Today, he realises, is the most he’s ever actually used his sword.
Nolan leaps to his feet and pulls his sword free from the ground, less gracefully than he would like, at a sudden thunderous roaring sound. He immediately puts himself on guard, expecting a new challenge to appear at any moment.
No such challenge presents itself, though Nolan soon finds himself buffeted by a fierce, cutting wind. It’s almost enough to make him stumble and forces him to clamp his eyes closed and hold his breath until it passes.
When the wind finally dies down, he gazes across the Valley in the direction it came from. Something doesn’t look right, though it takes him a minute to realise what exactly it is.
“Wasn’t there a cornfield over there?”
“Ow!” he exclaims as an ear of corn comes crashing down on his head. “Uh oh,” he says, as he notices its many, many companions filling the sky.
He quickly raises his shield above his head to fend off the cascade of corn.
He turns to his Guild Authority assessor in bemusement.
“Is this part of the test?” he asks.
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