Elena stood in a clearing near a village about three days' walk from Plateau. Around her were three of the people she had the most respect for. Two, she knew by sight: her mater, the archmaga Fulminara; and Garus, primus of the House that Elena hoped to be joining that day.
"Have you met Baruch, the head Quaesitor of the Iberian Tribunal?" Fulminara asked her apprentice. "He is here to witness your Gauntlet."
"It's an honor to meet you, Quaesitor," Elena said with a polite curtsy. She then looked at the archmagi expectantly.
"A quarter mile up this trail," Fulminara said, "there is a cave entrance on your left hand. This cave leads to a warren. Somewhere in that warren is a salamander. Bring back its head, and you have completed your Gauntlet.
"Not that it should matter to you, but you will lose the protection of my Parma when you pass the first bend. Come here."
Fulminara drew her knife and reached up to cut off a lock of her apprentice's hair, which she handed to Baruch.
"With this hair," the Quaesitor said, "I will be able to determine whether you still live. If you do, you must return to us on your own. We will wait three days. If you do not..." He looked to the others.
"We will return your body to your family for proper burial," Garus said. "But we will not rescue you. Live or die, succeed or fail, it is entirely up to you."
"I understand, Primus," Elena said. She looked up at the setting sun, half-way down the gap between two peaks.
"Your gauntlet starts now," Fulminara said. "We will see you soon."
Elena turned and started trotting down the trail without a backward glance. Her armor clanked with every step, her sword sheathed at her hip and her shield on her back. In no time at all, she came to the entrance her domina had described. Even knowing that it was there, she almost missed it in the gloaming; it was only thigh-high, and partially obscured by a bush on one side.
Elena got on her hands and knees and crawled into the entrance. She had, for some reason, expected the cave to open up as soon as she was inside, but after a minute or two of crawling, it was still no more than a tunnel, and she couldn't see anything. She risked a quick Palm of Flame, which she knew well enough to cast with neither words nor gestures, to get her bearings. She saw that the tunnel curved out of sight just a few paces ahead, with no sign of getting higher that she could tell. She let her spell lapse and knelt as best she could to cast a spontaneous spell to create a floating ball of moonlight the size of her fist that she could guide to light her path. After waiting a moment to rest from the spell-casting, she started crawling forward again, eyes and ears straining for any sign of her prey.
Not long after, she came to her first branch, where the tunnel split off ahead to the right . She thought for a moment, then decided to continue straight, marking her path by casting a Rego Terram spell to leave her handprint in the stone.
A few hundred yards later, after having to recast her moonball spell and after a couple more branches and Y-splits, she noticed that the tunnel started to get bigger. It was some time further before the tunnel was high enough for her to stand up with a slouch. She closed her eyes and strained her ears to hear any sign of the salamander, to no avail. The tunnel that wasn't illuminated by her will-o-wisp was still black as pitch, though.
As she continued on, her stomach began to grumble, and Elena regretted not bringing anything to nibble on. She had to content herself with taking a sip of water before plowing on. She passed several more branches in the tunnel, marking each one with her handprint before she thought she heard something. She stopped to listen again, and could almost hear a low crackling hiss in the distance. She loosed her sword in its scabbard and took her shield off her back, gripping it firmly on her left arm. She began to move forward as quietly as she could, keeping her will-o-wisp far enough behind her to barely illuminate her next few steps. Every scuff of her boot on the gravelly tunnel floor was magnified a hundred-fold in her own ears. As she moved forward, the noise grew louder. It felt like hours before the tunnel opened up into a small cavern. She saw a lizard-like creature, about the size of a very large dog, its scales the color of molten steel. Its angular head cocked to one side as if it were listening intently before it turned to look directly at Elena. It opened its mouth and gave a loud crackling hiss as it spread its leathery wings.