“Ow!” Rao Wu grumbled as he was awakened by a bump to his head. The child massaged his sore temple as his eyes creaked open, wincing at the harsh sunlight that seeped through. “What the? Where am I?” Rao Wu’s brows rose in question as he looked around the wooden cage. Through the gaps in the bamboo walls, Rao Wu could see several bird-like creatures pulling carriages with similar wooden cages.
“Finally awake, kid?”
Rao Wu turned to see a heavily bearded man with dirty, grime-covered orange hair seated across. The man, whose canine-like ears gave away his identity as a beastkin, smiled as he regarded the child. “How’re you feeling little fox?”
Rao Wu shook off his grogginess as he hesitated on whether to answer. There were six types of beastkin in the world—two clans for air, two clans for land, and two for the sea. The air boasted the Hawk and Eagle clans, the sea claimed the Shark and Whale clans, and the earth was torn between the fox and wolf clans. Uncle Twilight once said that of these clans, the Wolf and Fox clans fought each other the most to determine which was the rightful ruler.
Rao Wu was naturally hesitant when he saw the canine-ears. This was a wolf hybrid. Would he attack Rao Wu?
The man, as if expecting Rao Wu’s reaction, revealed a sly grin. “Oh? Are you scared of me? Is it the ears? Either you’ve lived a sheltered life, or you’re not from around here. Our clans haven’t fought in years.” Sighing, he leaned against the cage and then looked out the bars with angry eyes. “Not since those damned humans.”
“Humans?” Rao Wu’s curiosity instantly piqued. He temporarily forgot his situation as he inquired. “What did they do?”
The man frowned as he gave Rao Wu a once-over. “Kid, who are you? There’s no way a beastkin hybrid doesn’t know the humans.”
Rao Wu nearly jumped in fright. When the man got angry, he felt tremendous, bone-crushing pressure. This man was much stronger than him! Rao Wu quickly racked his brain for an answer, and then said, “My name’s Rao Wu. I used to live with a pack of wolves in Elder’s Forest. I fell asleep one day and woke up here. I don’t know what happened in-between.”
“Elder’s Forest?” The man’s brows furrowed. “I don’t recognize that name. It must not be in this region.” His eyes began to shine with intrigue. “Could you be one of those famous Spirited Away people?”
“Mm. According to legends, people all over the world were transported from their homes to a random location.” The man scratched his beard as he regarded Rao Wu with interest. “I thought that was the stuff of legends. Guess we should respect the old folks’ tall tales, after all.”
‘Spirited Away… Is this cause of the previous test candidates, or is it something else?’ Rao Wu kept his musings to himself, and instead, asked, “Can you tell me where we are, and how I got here? I’m completely lost.”
“Haha. No problem, little fox. The name’s Denuchi, by the way.” After introductions, Denuchi’s eyes turned grave. “Like you, and many other hybrids, I was captured by the humans to fight their war against the first-generation beastkin.”
“War? Why are they at war?”
Denuchi sighed. “This world used to belong to the beastkin. Their primitive civilization stretches back countless millennia. No one knows when, but one day, humanity suddenly popped up and started challenging the beastkin for territory. Initially, everyone thought humans were mounting a foolish challenge, but then with technology, and their ability to command soul monsters to fight on their behalf, they actually began to push back the beastkin.”
“Seriously? The beastkin are that weak?”
“Shut it, kid!” Denuchi’s eyes redden with rage as he made to charge at Rao Wu. Fortunately, the chains held him in place until he eventually calmed down. “Ugh. Sorry, little fox, I forgot you don’t know anything. It’s not a matter of being weak or strong.” Gritting his teeth, Denuchi said, “Humans can command soul monsters to fight for them. Do you know what that means? A dead monster can be replaced, but a dead beastkin can never be replaced. One human can summon up to five monsters to fight for them. Does the scale seem balanced to you?”
“Ah. Sorry. I wasn’t thinking.” Rao Wu honestly apologized. He didn’t know this was such a sore spot. Even Uncle Twilight hadn’t made plenty of contact with the first-generation beastkin, so Rao Wu was oblivious to their civilization.
Denuchi sighed and then shook his head. Rubbing his face, he looked at the ground with a forlorn expression. “The beastkin put up a hell of a fight, you know? At least, until we found out the reason that humans promoted cross-relations between human and beastkin before the war started.”
Rao Wu put the pieces together. “Hybrids?”
“Yes. We were the perfect fighting machines. Humans would never have started the war if we didn’t exist in enough numbers.”
“Why? What’s so special about hybrids?”
Denuchi self-deprecatingly chuckled. “We can use beastkin techniques, and can also contract soul pets like humans. But, most importantly, humans can sign one-way contracts with us.” Looking up at Rao Wu, Denuchi said with grim eyes, “You know what that means?”
Rao Wu swallowed hard. “If a human contracts five hybrids, he could technically have twenty-five soul monsters and five hybrids fighting for him at once.” The youth felt a chill running down his spine. “Wait, don’t tell me—”
“You finally figured it out, kid. Where we’re going, they’re gonna force you to sign a contract with one of their soldiers.” Wearing a sardonic grin, Denuchi questioned, “How does it feel knowing you’re soon gonna be willingly calling a human master?”
“What!? Fuck that!” Rao Wu screamed as he jerked upright. “I’m not calling anyone master. I’m going to be the Emperor someday. What kind of Emperor has a master!?”
“Pfft. Emperor?” Denuchi burst out laughing, but then began apologizing through tears when he saw Rao Wu’s indignant eyes. “Emperor, you say? No hybrid has lived long enough to reach the Emperor rank. What makes you think you can do it? No, never mind that. If you don’t agree to sign a contract, they’ll assign you to the Suicide Squad. The average survival rate is less than a month!”
Rao Wu’s eyes narrowed. “Suicide Squad? What’s that?”
Denuchi’s lips spread in a hollow grin. “The humans’ death squad for hybrid soul trainers who refuse to sign a contract. They are assigned to the worst parts of the battlefield to carry out the most dangerous missions—failure to accomplish your mission results in death. But, often, such missions cannot be accomplished without trading your life. Hence, the name, Suicide Squad. It’s acknowledged that all members of the Suicide Squad are walking corpses. Some humans even refer to us as Corpse Corps.”
“Yeah, kid. I’m part of the suicide squad. We’re actually being delivered to a mission. Unfortunately for you, our caravan just happened to come across your unconscious body in the middle of the desert. This road isn’t even traveled often. You would have missed us if you showed up a few hours later. Unlucky, isn’t it?”
“Hehe… Unlucky,” spat Rao Wu with an angry chuckle. ‘Unlucky, my ass. I bet the test placed me there on purpose. But, what the heck is my objective anyway? Is there a reason they skipped the introduction?’
Rao Wu’s pondering paused when the caravan suddenly came to a halt. Across from Rao Wu, Denuchi’s eyes suddenly turned grave.
Moments after they stopped, a dark-skinned man dressed in animal fur armor opened the cage. “Looks like we’re here, little fox. I hope we meet again.” Denuchi waved at Rao Wu and then stepped down from the cage.
Surprisingly, however, that soldier then beckoned at Rao Wu. “Come down, brat.”
A confused Denuchi looked at Rao Wu with worry. “Hey, he’s only a child. Give him a few more years to train, yeah?”
“The child’s old enough to fight on the frontlines,” argued the soldier with a snide grin. “We won’t be going to a camp anytime soon, and I’m not interested in babysitting some brat.” He then looked at Rao Wu and impatiently beckoned, “Congratulations, kid. You’re the newest member of the Suicide Squad. Try not to die.”
Rao Wu was confused, but he obediently stepped down from the cage. As the soldier undid Denuchi’s restraints, Rao Wu looked around at the fifty or so carriages that had stopped behind them. Just like with Denuchi, each cage held two or more hybrids who were getting freed.
Denuchi had a complicated expression as he massaged his wrists. “Well, I didn’t expect that. Seems we’ll be seeing more of each other than I thought.”
“Denuchi, do you remember your mission?” The human soldier questioned with a cold, piercing gaze.
Denuchi sighed and then said as he cracked his neck. “Break into Lazuli Cave, steal the Shaman’s Orb, and then return it to the Outpost in Garon Grove.”
“Ugh!” Rao Wu groaned, as a sharp pain pierced his brain. Triggered by the word, ‘Shaman’s Orb,’ the information stored in his mind suddenly sprang to the forefront.
Test 3 Mission: Steal the Shaman’s Orb, and bring it to Fort Drakon. (No Time Limit).
“Little Fox, are you alright?” Denuchi bent over, brows furrowed in worry.
“Yeah, I’m fine, thanks.” Rao Wu thanked the older man and then steadied himself. “Just a little headache. Must be dehydrated.”
“There’s a freshwater lake near the abandoned Fort Drakon,” offered the soldier with a nasty smile. “You can fill your rucksacks there. Sorry, but we don’t have any to spare.”
Denuchi rolled his eyes. “Fort Drakon is guarded by sea monsters. Who’re you trying to send to their death?” The older man patted Rao Wu’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, there’s a stream not too far from here. We’ll fill up before leaving.”
“As expected of the Immortal Den. Always got a plan.” A stalwart, lanky wolf-hybrid with shifty eyes greeted as he approached the duo with the other soldiers. The young hybrid, who seemed to be in his early twenties, grinned as he looked at Rao Wu. “Who do we have here? Boss Den, I didn’t know you opened a daycare.”
“Shut it, Akeme,” replied Denuchi. He then patted Rao Wu’s back and said, “The kid’s your responsibility from now on. Get him up to speed. I’ve got to talk to the team captains.”
Akeme looked at Rao Wu with interest. Squatting down to the child’s height, he flashed a big, cunning smile, “Heeeh, so, you’re a hybrid like us, huh? So, which of your parents is the beast fucker?”
“Haha! Sorry boss! I was just curious is all.” Akeme’s laughed and then, wrapping his arms around Rao Wu’s shoulder, led the youth in the direction of the curious suicide squad grunts. “Bless your lucky stars, cub. Immortal Den’s Suicide Squad is the squad with the highest survival rate. Normally, it’s near impossible to get in, but you lucked out big time.” Patting Rao Wu’s back, Akeme revealed a dangerous grin. “Stick with me, cub, and I’ll teach you everything you need to survive… For as long as you can.”
Rao Wu silently followed Akeme, and for the first time, wondered if everything would genuinely be alright.