The Deathworlders

2—Kin and Clan

Fiin, on trial for Clan Stoneback

He made it! Fiin didn’t know if his acceptance was Daar’s doing, but Fiin liked to believe that was true. He was still a bit awe-struck by their meeting; Fiin was the biggest and most skilled and widely-experienced young laborer in his workhouse so he wasn’t easily menaced by anyone, no matter how strong they were or how impressive their Clan. But Daar?

People weren’t wrong. Daar was a living legend.


Fiin first met Daar while walking by a construction site with his friends. Suddenly the runt pointed at Daar excitedly and Fiin had to do a double-take. Great fathers! Once he was over his initial shock, his first instinct was to hate Daar immediately. Fiin had never met or even imagined a Gaoian so impressive; Stonebacks were supposed to be enormous but surely not that big! The monster towered over the Clanless laborer who was himself a standout amongst his peers; Fiin was so impressive he merely respected the local Straightshields instead of cowered submissively like a runt. But Daar wasn’t just tall. He was also the stockiest and most athletic Gaoian that Fiin had ever seen, and he was so ridiculously layered over in dense muscle, it was a wonder they were the same kin. Or even species. Add in his perfect pelt, the thin lines where so many scars could be seen, his almost painfully handsome face…

But that wasn’t the biggest shock. What really threw Fiin off was Daar’s attitude. He wasn’t stuck up, elitist, ignorant, or obtuse like Fiin had expected. Instead Daar was very, very friendly. Fiin’s experience with Clan had been decidedly mixed; they were mostly okay, he thought, as long as they kept pretty much to themselves and stayed out of the way when real work needed to be done. And, yes, they had earned their way into their Clans—nobody would deny that—and they deserved their privileges. The problem, really, was that most just couldn’t keep that slight sneer of smug superiority out of their yip. It irked Fiin to no end though he kept that thought mostly to himself. After all, he didn’t want to damage his prospects.

But Daar was different. He talked like he was a Clanless laborer. Smelled and acted like one, too. He wasn’t some carefully manicured example of civilized perfection or some smart but absentminded engineer or thinker. Or a smooth-talking Whitecrest. He was a worker, and he was theirs. When they first met Daar he smelled of dirt, cement, wood shavings and hard exertion, his pelt-stubble still damp from work-water and covered in loose debris. He noticed them immediately, shook himself off and yipped an excited, friendly greet.

“Hi! Wassup, lookin’ for work? I got a job if ‘ya want it!”

They were and so they met at an inn to discuss Daar’s proposition. Daar was easy to talk to and one might forget he was the Champion of Stoneback and hero to the Clanless. Fiin thought so at least, and he felt that more and more as the Talamay flowed and Daar showed off his strength at everyone’s prompting. The news reports didn’t do him justice. Nothing anyone could think of or arrange at the inn was any kind of challenge for the big brute! Daar knew it, too; he had an ego, that’s for sure, but he wasn’t aggressive about it. He was just…friendly. Friendly, and happy to be amongst them.

Maybe Stonebacks weren’t so bad! Daar spent the night in the workhouse with them, too. Being new he had to fight for his position and they put him in his place at the bottom…and it took the five biggest males to do it, and then only after he wore them all out and lacerated them to within a tick of surrender. He took his “defeat” in good humor and didn’t seem even remotely tired from the endeavor, and that wasn’t lost on anyone.

Did Daar really lose? Fiin didn’t think so. Nor did Daar, who tackled them awake in the morning and dragged them to the farm where he showed Fiin what real work was like. Then they delivered everything and somehow, that was even more exhausting. He left to do the final delivery on his own, promising he would be back tomorrow with pay and maybe more work…

If that was Daar’s typical workday Fiin wasn’t sure he could keep up. His muscles screamed at him for rest and the cuts from their playfights were still sore, even after Daar insisted on cleaning them out with wound-seal.

But Daar didn’t show up the next day. Instead it was an impressive and slightly scary Whitecrest who transferred their pay, since Daar apparently had an urgent problem to attend and had to leave quickly. Suspicious-sounding, but the pay was good and there was a follow-up job…

And then a month later, another Stoneback showed up and offered Fiin a trial! Brother Tyal wasn’t as hugely muscled as Daar but he was Father-damned strong and he was massive. Was the whole Clan like that? What did Fiin do to earn their attention? What did they see in him? Did Daar and that Whitecrest arrange it? He couldn’t believe his good luck!

He eagerly accepted and marveled at his good fortune, then Tyal briefed him on the details. They would start him off with simple, detail-oriented work: basic assembly, delivery, rough carpentry. The purpose was to assess his skills and preferences and to establish some trust with his prospective Clan. That was perfectly reasonable and Fiin didn’t mind at all. The work wasn’t quite what Fiin would have preferred; finish carpentry was Fiin’s speciality but, well, one took what they could get. After all, more work experience was always better.

Also, Brother Tyal did promise they would keep their noses to the wind for good jobs, and if he continued to impress…they hinted at a Pinkwood cabinetry contract that might be in his future. All he had to do was pass the First Rite!

That part did make him nervous, but Tyal promised they wouldn’t send him through, “Until ‘yer good and ready.”

Good enough! And so Fiin worked, and Tyal was happy, and the pay was good.

And that wasn’t all! A couple of his deliveries had been to the Central Crèche’s receiving dock, which lately (and inexplicably) attracted cute young Sisters on the hunt for a mate. He made his deliveries, made a good impression, scored a few dates, and before he knew it? Fiin won his first mating contract!

Fiin was happy. Life was good.


All of that flashed through Fiin’s head in the moment when his delivery van lost control, careened through a construction site, and pulverized a hapless Longear.


The Next Morning
Network Operations Center of Clan Longear, City of Kan Wo, Planet Gao

Champion Meereo of Clan Longear

“Yes, for the seventh time, I caught the Ghost and it didn’t escape.”

“Sorry,” said Genshi on the other end. “I have been a bit…distracted as of late. I think I’ll need a vacation when I get the last of this in motion.”

“Definitely. I was thinking I would go back to Cimbrean myself.”

Genshi chittered over the line, “Is there a pretty female waiting for you?”

“Perhaps…it wouldn’t be entirely pleasure, though. Cimbrean needs a NOC and there’s some impressive research into Human/Gaoian inter-networking being planned and I wanna get in on that.”

“Professional development, too? Where will you get any free time?”

“Oh, I’ll find it.” Meereo shifted tone. “Now, what about that poor driver?”

“Don’t worry about ‘Huckleberry,’ I’ve got him taken care of. I think he’ll be enjoying life in the near future.”

“Are you using code names, now?”

“Why not? We’ve always done so and the Humans have an odd sense of humor to it. We may make this source available to them in the future…”

“I suddenly do not wish to know.”

“That is wise,” commented Genshi. “Leave it to me. What are you gonna do with the Ghost?”

Meereo bared his teeth in a growl so aggressive and feral, someone seeing it through his office glass backed away and made himself scarce.

“Oh, we’re gonna study these implants, maybe bring in some Highmountain researchers…and then we’re gonna build a prison for Ghosts.”


Fiin

Fiin was wrong about the Straightshields. They really were scary. A claw of patrol officers turned up to interrogate him and the witnesses, and Fiin, never having been the subject of their ire, couldn’t help but feel entrapped and menaced by the four. They were quite a bit bigger than he (though not nearly as large as the two Stonebacks he’d met) and clearly knew what they were doing. They never once let their eyes off of him or moved upwind and at all times they remained positioned such that they weren’t crowding him…but there was absolutely no way he could have escaped, even if he wanted to.

He didn’t. Fiin was too busy sulking over the loss of his one shot at Clan.

The actual questioning was mercifully brief and very professional. Fiin had to give credit where credit was due; they weren’t abusive or aggressive though they absolutely radiated dominance by scent, sight, and words. Another time Fiin would have maybe sassed off or flashed a defiant set of his ears, but right then, confronted with reality? He felt that honesty was probably the best plan.

It seemed to pay off and they made to release him. But then he looked over and gulped, because Brother Tyal arrived and he wasn’t happy at all. He thumped down out of his car, stalked over quickly and lightly on fourpaw, then gracefully leapt up onto the patio where Fiin was being held. The thin, elegant metal panels underfoot creaked and bowed alarmingly when they took Tyal’s weight; he must have been something like twice the mass of any of the Straightshields.

Tyal chatted quickly and quietly with the lead Straightshield while casting an occasional angry glare at Fiin. Soon Tyal finished with the officers, then rose to his hindpaws and approached. Each menacing step forward extracted a tortured groan from the inadequate structure. Fiin looked down at the panels and whimpered quietly to himself as they strained under the immense load.

I’m doomed.

Then he looked up at Tyal’s angry, menacing face, and gulped again.

Tyal folded his huge arms over his chest and stared down at his plainly terrified young charge. Finn again whimpered very quietly to himself but held his ground as best he could so as not to cause any disrespect; not an easy feat while being towered over by such a massive male. While Tyal wasn’t as bulky or muscular as Daar, the difference between Tyal and Fiin—and the Straightshields, who backed off respectfully—was so big it didn’t really matter.

“Not a great way to end a trial, Clanless.”

“…No Sir.” Fiin flattened his ears and crouched on his haunches with his head held low. He hadn’t submitted to anyone like that since a Grandmother once took him aside and scolded him over a youthful prank gone wrong. Brother Tyal noticed. He dropped back down to all fours, padded up and sniffed long and carefully. He brought his nose so close it practically touched Fiin’s head fur. The poor laborer had never felt so afraid as he did in that moment.

“Look at me.” A low, quiet growl, one that would brook absolutely no disobedience. Fiin did so, reluctantly.

“Good.” He laid a massive paw on Fiin’s shoulder and squeezed with claws fully extended. They didn’t break skin but the grip was very painful. Fiin withstood it. “Now don’t you dare look away: was this an accident?”

“Yes Sir.” The Stoneback squeezed a little tighter and sniffed even closer, his nose dragging languidly through Fiin’s pelt. He stood, petrified.

“Do you believe this was your fault?” The grip tightened greatly.

Fiin grunted in pain, “No Sir!”

“Oh?”

The Stoneback gripped much harder. He used so much force, Fiin felt his arm go instantly numb and the muscles in his shoulder displace, and he could feel those massive claws pop through skin and pierce shallowly into the muscles below. It was exquisitely, breathtakingly painful. His legs gave out from the agony of it but he did not fall; that terrible grip held him upright and motionless.

He would have yelled out for mercy but Tyal bared his teeth and snarled so viciously, even the Straightshields were alarmed. They approached in warning, clearly nervous about what they might need to do, but Tyal reassured them with a quick look and a nod and they stood aside warily. He returned his attention to his frightened charge and growled low as he sniffed Fiin’s fear on the air.

Fiin, meanwhile, hung limply in Tyal’s grip, petrified from the pain and terror.

“Now, your little incident here has put a blood-price between Stoneback and Longear. I ain’t happy at all and that price has gotta be paid one way or another. So now I’m gonna test you, Clanless, and this here test is the most important you’ll ever take. But hey! It’s really easy to pass. All you gotta do is tell the truth and nothing but. Got it?” He pulsed his crushing grip tighter.

Fiin gasped desperately, “Y—yes Sir!”

“Good. Here’s the rules so pay attention. If I believe you’re telling the truth no matter what your answer is? All is forgiven and Stoneback will take care of everything. Understand?” He loosened his grip slightly to alleviate some of the immense pressure. The blood surging back into Fiin’s oxygen-starved arm and shoulder made the pain vastly worse.

“Yes!” Fiin’s awareness was limited to the pain, Tyal, his teeth, and his words.

“Very good! Now. If I think you’re lying to me, I’ll kill you right here to pay that debt. Understand?” That awful grip crushed down again with a vengeance.

Fiin could only nod in understanding; speaking at that moment was impossible. The grip loosened again and Fiin took in a shuddering, desperate breath.

“Outstanding! One last rule and this one’s important. I’m gonna smell ‘ya over real good for anything I don’t like. Lies, weakness, bad friends, rival Clans, anything. And I’m gonna be forceful doin’ it, too.” He growled sadistically, “It’s gonna hurt. A lot. ‘Prolly worse than anything you’ve ever felt. But if I think you can’t handle it? If I smell somethin’ I don’t like? Or if you just ask me to stop? I’ll let you go, get you cleaned up, and send you on your way, and we’ll still take care of everything. BUT. If I do you will never be Clan.”

He paused and again loosened the grip, then waited until his charge was ready and coherent, trembling in place and too afraid to break eye contact. But to Fiin’s credit he didn’t try to escape or break free. He stood, defiant and terrified, and he faced his Challenge. Good.

Tyal closed the tiny gap between them and in one swift, inescapable movement, placed both his paws on Fiin’s shoulders and pressed down HARD, dropping him to his knees. A casual, almost contemptuous roll of Tyal’s wrists locked Fiin’s shoulders backwards and unable to move, and the most trivial of tugs slammed the relatively tiny Clanless face-first into Tyal’s chest and held him there with inescapable force. He sat on his haunches and easily crushed his victim into his torso, utterly, totally immobilizing him.

Not that there was much chance anyway. Tyal was so big he managed the dubious trick of looming without even standing. If the size difference wasn’t obvious before it sure was then. But Fiin? He was probably beyond caring. He looked up at his tormentor and flashed his ears in nervous, open defiance.

Tyal grumbled darkly. “Ha, you got fight in ‘ya! I like that. So what’ll it be, Clanless? It’s a really easy test. Tell the truth and hang on and good things will come to you. Give up like a coward? Go back to your workhouse and don’t ever show your weak little face around us again. Lie, and DIE. Got it?”

Fiin was trapped between death, agony, and a dead-end life. The sharpness of that choice and the incredible pain he’d already experienced pushed everything else out of his mind. It was a crystalline moment of absolute focus in his young life and he could think of only one thing: he would be Clan.

So Fiin nodded his agreement and Tyal grinned the toothy grin of a predator born. The Straightshields surrounded and watched, rapt. Fiin didn’t notice.

“Good,” growled Tyal. “Now answer well, ‘cuz your life depends on it. Was this an accident?” Tyal tightened his terrible grip and crushed Fiin’s shoulders into total uselessness. The smaller Clanless tried to wiggle free but instead earned a smashing bear hug so intense he could hardly draw breath. No escape.

But Fiin had already made his choice. He had agreed to the ordeal and couldn’t back out without consequence, so he answered the question with every scrap of effort he could muster. “Hnngh… Yes… S—sirr.”

“Good,” Tyal said conversationally. “Was the accident your fault? Were you at the controls? Did you just slip up and make a mistake? Tell me. NOW.”

Tyal pulsed his pawgrip so strongly, Fiin could hear and feel a soft pop in each shoulder. Whatever it was the sensation was like fire and was such an intense experience, he didn’t notice the huge claws from both of those terrible paws sinking to their roots into his tortured, broken shoulders. Pain wasn’t a good enough word. Poor little Fiin felt a mad desire to wail his surrender, end the ordeal and escape those cruel paws, the incredible and growing pressure on his lungs, and most of all that vicious, looming face with its massive teeth. But Straightshields could smell lies and Fiin knew he didn’t do anything wrong…what could Tyal smell? Fiin was beyond rationality at that point.

“…N—nnoghh…sirrr” The grip dug yet deeper. Fiin mouthed a silent yelp of agony; he couldn’t stop his reaction but he would be damned if he would give the monster the satisfaction of a pained wail. At least, that’s what he told himself later. In that moment he wasn’t thinking anything except to endure.

In response Tyal huffed into Fiin’s headfur in a darkly amused sort of way and snuffled long and aggressively while kneading those shoulders. Fiin struggled mightily and endured the torture. Unsatisfied by whatever he was looking for, Tyal viciously threw Fiin to the ground, flipped him over then sat astride his hips, pinning him utterly. Finn moaned in pain and was momentarily stunned dizzy by the violence of it, but he quickly gathered his wits and tried to crawl away. Sadly, his shoulders were completely broken and he couldn’t move his arms at all. Annoyed, Tyal settled his enormous weight onto little Fiin’s pelvis, who grunted miserably in new and intense pain. He was trapped and helpless.

And in any case Tyal would have none of that. He snarled darkly, “Having…regrets, are we? Maybe I oughta bust your hips up, too. Keep you from squirming away! You want that? Get laid up in traction for a month?” He wiggled atop his victim to emphasize the point.

“NO!!”

“Then stay put, I ain’t done yet.”

The huge Stoneback sniffed forcefully right against the back of Fiin’s neck and up and down his spine. He struggled impressively despite his utter vulnerability and the threat of further injury, which earned a grumble of deep approval from his tormentor; sadly, Fiin wasn’t in any state of mind to notice the subtle compliment. And that didn’t stop Tyal. He was neither gentle nor considerate and took his time, manhandling and examining his victim in infinite detail.

Then he got evil. He laid his great bulk across Fiin’s back and crushed him into the cold metal plating. The difference in mass was so great, Tyal needed to carefully keep some of his weight off the little Clanless to prevent suffocation.

“You seem uncomfortable. Want me to stop?” He nipped at the back of Fiin’s neck. It was gentle, and in another context might even be friendly tussling…

Fiin shuddered almost uncontrollably but maintained his resolve. “…No Sir.”

“Are you sure?” Tyal growled quietly against Fiin’s ear. “We’re very discreet. Nobody but us here will ever know you failed. Just think of that nice, soft hospital bed and the cute sister-nurses…I bet you’d do well with these scars!”

Fiin didn’t take the bait so Tyal wrestled carefully and aggressively and with all the vast strength his pureline Stoneback blood gave him. In less than a minute Fiin’s every muscle was stretched and fatigued into useless spasm. He escaped without any more broken bones or torn tendons but that was due to precision and skill on Tyal’s part rather than any lack of strength or will. Not that Fiin knew that. He knew only pain. He was totally unable to mount a resistance but he tried anyway, futilely.

He’s got spirit, this one. But Tyal wasn’t done. Almost there.

“Give in, Clanless.”

“Hnnnn-no!”

Tyal pinned Fiin’s head and took a long, terrifying sniff of his face. “It’s gettin’ awful hard to smell anything through the pain and fear.” He growled, quietly. “I might make a mistake. You willing to risk it? Give up, little one. It’s safer.”

Fiin shook his head sideways and flattened his ears in both anger and defiance.

Tyal snarled at the aggressive challenge. “Well, suit ‘yourself.”

And with that, Tyal picked Fiin completely off the ground like a tiny, naughty cub and spent an unbearable age sniffing his most vulnerable spots, hunting for clues and lies. Helpless and suspended in Tyal’s unyielding grasp, Fiin was weak, tiny, useless, nothing. He trembled in pure paralyzing terror and pain as he was bent, flipped, stretched and crushed like a particularly interesting prey animal. But he never gave in, not even when the monster bent him backwards and sniffed right against his belly and throat, all the way up and all the way down, and dragged massive fangs and claws across spots that would cause horrible bloody death, were Tyal in the mood for murder.

Gaoians had certain unavoidable reflexes along their spine and bellies and Tyal mercilessly exploited that fact. Pinned in mid-air, neck trapped between the Stoneback’s arm and torso, unable to see anything, arms useless, spine bent backwards almost to the point of breaking, and with those terrible, horrible claws in the worst possible places…Tyal nipped at the jugular and it was finally too much input for Fiin to bear. He yowled in abject, primal terror as he desperately tried to fight back and escape. But even then, in a state of mindless fear, broken, defenseless, exhausted, never having experienced such supreme vulnerability, even through all that…he didn’t surrender. Tyal kept right on with it as if Fiin’s reaction mattered not at all. But it mattered to Fiin. He fought every intrusion with every fiber of his being, right to the very edge of unconsciousness.

And that, at last, was enough. Brother Tyal gently set the poor Associate down and held him steady. The ordeal was over just as abruptly as it began.

“Okay. I believe you.”

His entire demeanor changed in an instant. One second he was a vicious monster, the embodiment of everything Stoneback was rumored to be in the ancient days before the Great Alliance of Gao. But the moment he was convinced? He became protective, concerned, and saddened by Fiin’s suffering. He licked at those shoulders and massaged the spots where he had gripped with such crushing force, and keened very softly in apologies and sorrow.

Fiin’s awareness short-circuited and couldn’t process that immediately.

“…Sir? Unnngh…”

He collapsed, utterly exhausted, but Tyal caught him and pulled him close in a comforting hold. “It’s okay, you did real good. Best I’ve ever seen.” He held Fiin and licked until his shoulders were clean and the bleeding had slowed to a mere trickle, and the immediate danger of bleed-out had passed.

Fiin still couldn’t process anything properly. He looked up at the Stoneback in confused wonder, puzzling on how exactly he found himself in Tyal’s arms. But Tyal wasn’t looking at him. Though his paws continued to massage the pain away his attention was on the Straightshields, who approached respectfully. “Do you need anything of us? Your charge seems…”

“Hurt and exhausted.” Tyal grimaced at the aftermath. “I gotta take Associate Fiin here to our clinic just down the street. Is he released?”

…Associate!? Fiin forgot his pain for the moment and listened.

“He is.” The lead tilted his head, “We just witnessed his First Rite, then.”

Tyal duck-nodded solemnly. “Yup. Officers, meet the newest Associate of Stoneback.”

Straightshields were as neutral and even-pawed as any to be named, Clan or otherwise, and they seldom showed favor to anyone or anything. But right then and there was a very special moment. The leader made eye contact with Fiin, duck-nodded, and flicked his ears…

In respect.

Fiin had never been given such a gesture from anyone of Clan. Polite, friendly, and solicitous? Absolutely. But outright, naked respect? Not even once. That it came from a Straightshield made it even more incomprehensible!

Fiin wasn’t sure what he was feeling. Or thinking. So he desperately clung to Tyal, who carefully held his addled charge and rocked back and forth on his haunches, paws gently working the pain down from a perfect agony towards something a bit more tolerable. He snuffled at Fiin’s shoulders and winced; Tyal had done some serious damage and a quick, cleansing lick wouldn’t help much at all. Fiin needed medical care. They had to get going immediately.

“You did really good, Fiin. I wanted ‘ta wait a bit longer before the First Rite but I knew you could do it. Our Clanfathers would be so proud of you!”

Clanfathers.

Tyal addressed the Straightshields, “Can you help? Fiin’s not in any condition to do anything right now.”

“Of course.”

Fiin didn’t remember much after that. His mind finally crashed and he surrendered to the paralyzing, full-body agony consuming him. Strong paws helped him onto Tyal’s back. There was a motion, those same paws held him in place on top…then a nurse was there. No more pain! Sleep. So much sleep.

He wasn’t alone. Tyal slept at the foot of Fiin’s bed, curled up on the floor to protect the newest Stoneback from harm. Fiin’s ordeal had barely begun.


A few hours later

“Our Rites must be very similar.”

“You know our shared history. Is that really so surprising?”

“No, I suppose not.” The patrol leader—in public, they never used names—chittered quietly to himself. “Associate Fiin did admirably well, considering.”

“Yup. I can honestly say I didn’t do as well as he did, I gave in much sooner. But,” Tyal said with a grin, “I was also a cub during my First Rite. It’s different.”

The lead Straightshield nodded. “As was I. What happens next?”

“Well,” considered Tyal, “I gotta fix things between us and Longear. You ever meet their Champion? Not too big but he seems pretty scrappy.”

“Most Champions are.”

Tyal duck-nodded. “Still, I wouldn’t want him angry with me! We consider this a Clan matter and will take care of it ourselves, if Longear is willing.”

“They are open to that. The Father I contacted said they would be flexible on terms. Do you need arbitration?”

“Nah,” he said with a wave of his paw, “Our Clans have good history, and it was an accident, too.”

“Yes…” The Straightshield clearly had an opinion on the matter.

“Is something wrong?”

“I have my suspicions about this incident. I have no doubt Fiin is guiltless, but…delivery vans don’t just veer off like that. We are going to investigate.”

“Seems smart. You keep us informed?”

“As the case allows, yes.” The lead Straightshield made to depart. “I have no further need of you, Stoneback. Good day.” He duck-nodded and headed to the door. “Oh, and give my congratulations to Fiin. He earned it today.”

“Yeah. He really did.”

The Straightshield departed. Tyal considered the next few days; Fiin would be out of action while he healed up and recovered. It wasn’t anything modern medicine couldn’t fix but Fiin’s body would be aching and sore for a while, and his shoulders would be useless for heavy work for at least a week.

Oh well. In the meantime, Tyal could begin inducting Fiin into the first myths of the Rites. That was how Stoneback had taught its inductees since time immemorial. Members passed through a terrible trial in their First Rite, one designed to test the most important traits in any Stoneback: courage and honesty under any circumstance. With the secrets their Clan possessed, nothing less could be tolerated from any member. After that they learned the stories of what it truly was to be a Stoneback. They learned the Clan’s motto: Protect and Provide. They learned what it meant to be a Brother of the Rites, and what it would take to achieve. There was even some room in the first week for practical matters: genetic assays, career progression, benefits, and so on. But mostly it was a time of the most basic indoctrination. Fiin would Become.

Not all males survived the First Rite. Fiin’s life genuinely would have been forfeit had he shown any deception and it was important to acknowledge that reality. But Tyal knew his charge would make it through. The now-Stoneback had far too much stubbornness to fail! And what’s more, pureline Stonebacks had exceptionally powerful noses and Tyal was as pure a Stoneback as one could be. Only a Straightshield’s nose could compare—and the occasional Highmountain, too—and Fiin was a very easy read. Tyal could smell Fiin’s honesty the moment the big Stoneback stepped out of his car.

Fiin would need to grow much stronger, though. For a Stoneback—even a young and newly-minted Associate—he was quite small. But that could wait. The first week had far too many other worries to deal with. After all there were many, many more ordeals Fiin would need to pass through to become a full Brother of the Rites, and if Fiin was to have any chance he needed to learn their ways very quickly. Time was against anyone endeavoring for the Brotherhood.

Tyal sighed happily and returned to sleep. He believed in Fiin.