Going to Hartfeld was a gamble. You would usually be a normal student and make your way through without any hassle (no hassle out of the ordinary anyway). They offered the best of the best.
There was a catch.
Every person who applied would get their name put into a raffle. Everyone who was accepted got their name put in the raffle again. Every year you attended, their name would go in it again. And every few years, from five to twenty people who had ever applied, let alone attended, whether they got in or not and whether they had graduated or left or not, to the school would be selected and sent off to Cordonia, never to be seen again.
And that's how Solomon found himself and some random students from Hartfeld as well as some strangers being taken onto a flight, tied up with gags in their mouths and blinds over their eyes.
Their bodies were flung onto plane seats carelessly, and Solomon could hear the muffled confusion and the movements of his classmates. He felt someone grab at his wrist with their bound hands, gently caressing it to see if they could figure out who it was.
If they could, they didn't say. Or rather, didn't say it through the gag.
Eventually, the plane stopped, but only after what seemed to be a lifetime, and they were all forcefully manhandled out.
He could hear someone trying to wiggle their way to freedom, but they stopped when one of their captors (was that the right word? They knew the risk of applying to Hartfeld but they did so anyway. Did they ask for this?) threatened to shoot them.
They were laid down in a slim case - is this what dead people felt like? - and he felt something be pushed down on him (a door to the case, probably).
Then the case moved and was laid down, and then something heavy was put on top and then something on top of that and oh my God they were being stacked. Solomon tried to scream but the gag muffled him; then he tried to move around but the case was too slim. Tears fell from his eyes but the blindfold sucked those up too.
“Try to sleep, all of you,” someone said - they had a deep voice with no semblance of emotion. “It’s going to be a long, bumpy ride.”
As the blinds, bounds and gags were removed, someone said, “That’s going to gimme back problems.”
“Wh- ohmygod, Solomon!” His short friend made an attempt to run to his side, arms wide, but was quickly restrained again with a gun to his chest. He looked to Solomon, eyes wide and darting around, from the gun to Solomon’s eyes to the captor holding him at gunpoint, before turning away.
No one else caught his eye - he knew some of them, like Sean, Aleister, Grace, Craig and Zahra, but they only made up five of what must have been twenty and he didn’t know the rest of them as he looked around. He then settled his gaze upon the building, which he and many others had to crane his neck to look up to. It was a glorious palace, with towers and turrets and walls that loomed over them. The predatory building’s windows glared, the sun’s fire raging through them, and the flames could not be doused even by the moat that surrounded it.
“Welcome to your new home, for either a month or the rest of your lives.” One of the guards, the one with a deep, emotionless voice, spoke. “You are going to be taken before your queen and she will explain your fates. You will then have the opportunity to pledge allegiance. If you do not, you will be held in the prison for a month until you give her your loyalty.” His voice turned harsher, if that was even possible. “If you do not give your life to her service by the end of the month, we will take it instead.” He mimicked a guillotine with his fingers. “No questions, good, let’s go.” He beckoned the captors, one per captive, to put their guns at their backs, and marched with them behind him.
The drawbridge over the moat choked and groaned as they crossed; Solomon could feel it giving way and the water licking its lips hungrily, waiting for it to break as it lapped under it, licking at the cracks.
“Pick up the pace, Herulata.”
“How do you know my last name?”
“I said pick up the pace, not ask questions!”
Inside of the castle, there was much more beauty and glamour, with gorgeous tapestries from the ceiling to the floor, stained glass windows that weren’t initially visible. He couldn’t tell what they were depicting but he knew they were probably taller than all of Hartfeld.
And there, upon the throne, she sat. Her Majesty, the one who’d taken over Cordonia and many countries years ago with a slight amount of her strength.
Shoulder length straight black hair, brown eyes with a sinister satisfaction as they swept over the twenty ‘offerings’, fair skin and a tall, slim body type dressed in a sleek black dress shirt, black leggings under a long skirt and tall heels. She sat on a throne, laying sideways, torso and left elbow leant on the arm, her left leg over her right.
“Kneel,” she said. Immediately, the guards forcefully pushed the twenty to their knees and forcing their heads to face the floor, firing a bullet into the sky whenever they tried to move their head up.
“Welcome to Cordonia, my subjects. You know how you were chosen but you don’t know why, huh? Well, it’s simple. A queen needs her army, and a queen needs her money. You will provide both a force to fight for me and also bring in a profit.” She laughed. “So there is an element of fun in it, don’t worry. If serving your Queen Isa isn’t enough fun for you already.”
One of the twenty had been pretty much snarling the entire time, but at her name, they jumped up and screamed out, “IT’S YOU! YOU BITCH!”
“Restrain him. Let the nineteen lift their heads, I don’t want my new army members to have neck problems. The means of transportation are probably bad for their backs anyway.” Isa tilted her head at the enraged, restrained student. “Why do I recognise you?”
“It’s Michael Har-”
“Ah, Michael Harrison, I heard you’d be coming to Cordonia, I was very excited to meet you. But it seems that I forgot your… attitude. This will be interesting.”
“You took over my school! You put my friends against each other! You-”
“-now rule parts of the world, including your country, and invading more as we speak? Yeah, you could say I’ve upgraded. How funny that you find yourself with me again. You went to Hartfeld?”
Michael ignored the question, posing his own: “How did you get out of jail?”
She waved her hands about, a sly grin plastered onto her face. “Magic.” Isa coughed. “Right. Does anyone pledge allegiance to my army? Or do I have to put you all in the prisons.”
“I pledge allegiance!”
“Craig what the hell?!” Zahra turned to the footballer, face contorted with betrayal.
“I can’t go to prison! It’ll look bad on my records so when we go bac-”
“We aren’t going back, you idiot! We’re going to live and die here!”
“Well I still can’t go to jail, I’m too cool for jail!”
Zahra huffed. “In that case, I pledge allegiance too, your Majesty!”
“Someone has to keep an eye on this dipshit and make sure he doesn’t get himself killed on day one!”
“I pledge allegiance!”
“Someone has to keep an eye on both of those dipshits and make sure they don’t kill each other!”
“And that’s going to be you, you empathy-lacking donkey’s ass?!”
“Since no one else seems to be willing to, yes I guess it will be me!”
There was a heavy silence as Isa sat back on her throne, waiting for anyone else to pledge allegiance. “No more? Three out of twenty, more than last time. Your guards will take the three to their living quarters for the time being. The rest will be taken to the prison until they either decide to give their life to me.. or I take it away.”
Solomon was pulled to his feet and dragged down into the prisons, which seemed to just be a basement with four large cages in each corner, making a sort of plus sign in the room - opposite the door they came through was another door that was shut.
Some of the guards grabbed Grace and three of the other girls and tossed them into the cage nearest the door, and then two of the other girls and one of the guys into the cage opposite near the door.
“Hey!” The small guy hit the cage bars. “I’m supposed to be with the guys.”
One of the guards sneered. “Right. We’ll fix that in a minute.”
They didn’t. They just sorted Solomon, Diego and Sean with two other guys into a cage and then tossed the remaining guys into the last cage before leaving.
“... Circle time?”
“Not helping, Diego.”
“But, seriously, if we’re going to be sharing a room, even if we’re in four cages, we should get to know each other. So why don’t we just start out with our names!”
The Michael guy rubbed his face. “Go.”
“I’m Diego Soto.”
“Hi Diego,” everyone chorused.
“Huh? Oh, is it me now? I’m Solomon Herulata.”
As each person introduced themselves, Solomon learnt their names. Of course, there was Grace Hall and Sean Gayle, and he let Grace tell them that the first three people to pledge allegiance were Craig Hsiao, Zahra Namazi and Aleister… wait, did no one know Aleister’s last name?
“Spooky,” Diego joked.
But he didn’t know anyone else. Michael ended up being Michael Harrison and the other guy with them was Victor Brawid, who didn’t recognise anyone - everyone else seemed to have someone they knew, kind of a shame.
The guy lobbed in with the girls was Andy Kang and the girls with him were Stacy Green and Autumn Brooks. In the other guy cage was Lukas Seje, he also didn’t know anyone, Jamie Red, Aiden Zhou, Zack Zilberg and Wes Porter. And in the girl cage with Grace was Jocelyn Wu, Ava Cunningham and Kaitlyn Liao.
Jocelyn knew but pretty much loathed Ava, Stacy, Andy and Jamie. Kaitlyn knew Zack. Autumn knew Michael, Aiden and Wes - they’d dated, even. And of course, Solomon had his group. Lukas and Victor, upon discovering neither of them knew each other, finger-gunned at each other.
“They didn’t let us take anything we owned… do you think they’re going to supply us with new clothes and stuff? Will they take measurements for bras and clothes and all that?”
“Are they going to feed us? What are they going to give us?”
“Do we have to sleep on these mats?”
“They can’t keep us in these cages forever, can they?”
“There’s dried blood in this cage, oh my God!”
“Do you think they were serious about the execution thing?”
The door swung upon, and in entered Queen Isa and a blue humanoid… man? Solomon didn’t know what to call him. He was dressed up in a suit that reminded him of Alfred from Batman but he didn’t seem comfortable in it. He had plates on a trolley, each covered.
“This is Varyyn. He will deliver you your food and drinks and other small things that we can easily provide during your time in the prison.”
“This is inhumane!” Jocelyn screeched, clawing at the bars of the cage like an eagle trying to get at its prey. “You can’t keep us in here like wild animals! It’s illegal!”
“So what? I’m the queen. Who are you going to tell?” Without letting her respond, Isa continued, “You may be wondering about where he came from, I simply enslaved his species, the Vaanti, I believe? Anyway, give him no mind, he’s just here to deliver your food.”
“What about the guards that brought us here?”
“A part of the army, they can’t be wasting time on prisoners. Varyyn, give the jailbirds their food.”
Varyyn silently pushed the food into each cage through a hatch that could fit a corgi or any other smaller dog, starting with the cage of the girls and Andy and leaving Solomon’s cage for last.
Per cage, one person would get the plates given to them - Grace got hers, Stacy got hers and Aiden got his.
Diego fetched the food from Varyyn, their hands touching as the plates were passed from one to another. Heat rose to Diego’s cheeks and the two met gaze. Varyyn immediately broke eye contact and stood up from the cages and left the room. Diego, on the other hand, took a bit longer, crouched on the floor, plates in his hand. Sean stepped in and gave the plates around.
“Happy living, you lot! One of my guards will be down in a second!” Isa bid them farewell and followed the blue servant out of the room, a sly smirk on her face as she shut and locked the door.
“What even is this food?” Wes picked at the sandwich given to him.
“I think it’s a ham and cheese sandwich with apple slices and milk to accompany it.”
“Thanks, Aiden, definitely needed that.”
“Do they really expect us to eat this everyday for a month? And live here?”
“It’s probably a part of them trying to get us to join them. Threaten us with death, put us in terrible living conditions.”
“They’re probably going to wave the luxuries of being in her army in our faces,” Lukas scoffed. “Well, whatever they flaunt, I don’t want i-”
Two guards entered, one of them not familiar, the other one…
“Aleister, you bastard!” Sean tried to grab at him but only got his hand beaten by a spiked baton until he withdrew it to cradle the wounds.
“We've been instructed to guard you while you eat your food so you don't try anything with the food or the plates.”
“You were told to train me and decided to bring me down here.”
“Not train! I believe her Majesty said ‘babysit’.” At the correction, Aleister rolled his eyes but stayed silent.
Grace, putting her plate down, approached the edge of the cage and pressed her face against the gaps to ask, “How are Craig and Zahra?”
“Don’t answer that, don’t talk to them.”
“I told you not to talk to them. You’ll be allowed to talk to the prisoners when they choose to serve Queen Isa. Now eat.”
“If you refuse to ignore them one more time, you’ll join them and I’ll execute you myself. Now eat.”
Aleister wearily sighed, sat down by the door nearer Grace’s cage and bit into… food that was not a sandwich. It was an intricately spaghetti bolognese, with sauce that didn’t run down or clutch to the spaghetti. There were no meatballs but there was vegetables that replaced those instead. The guard had a larger bowl whereas Aleister, and probably Zahra and Craig as well, had a small bowl with a handful or two of spaghetti.
Everyone in the cages moved closer to their boundaries to see it properly, but the other guard quite happily sauntered around, smirk tugging at his grin, sometimes stopping right in front of the cages. He’d then twirl his fork around, spaghetti, sauce and vegetables, and slowly put in his mouth and ate, eyes watching them.
“Hungry?” He asked Solomon, collecting more spaghetti to point at him. “You have your sandwiches and apple slices. Eat up.” He kicked the cage just enough to not hurt himself and returned to Aleister, who was just about to offer Grace the fork. “Spaghetti is for people in the army. This isn’t even that good a meal.” He elbowed Aleister playfully. “You’ll soon have all the perks, once your friends decide whether it’s better to live in luxury or die in pain.”
“Your Majesty?” A guard spoke, hours before the arrival. “We selected those you asked for.”
“Prepare the cages. I’ll pay a visit to our…” She watched herself lick her lips in her dressing table mirror. “... guests .” She stood from her throne, pulling her hair from its bun as she moved to her dressing room’s wardrobe, where she changed from her sleek black dress into a jungle green baggy tank top, light, dull brown skinny leggings that clutched to her thighs and short heeled buckled shoes before opening a drawer and picking out five knives and three extra tools which slid out of her hands and into an waiting, open-mouthed satchel.
Following the guards to an, as of now, empty room of cages, she then passed them to go through the door on the other side.
Through the door were five people, two of them scantily clad except for cloth wrapped around their chest and pelvis and chained to a table in each corner, one of them hooked to a machine, shirtless with pads and wires connected and looping them within the middle of the room, and the other two chained up in in the top middle of the room, fully naked, hunched over and resisting against their restraints. There was a square out of the floor at the right, near one of the people on the table, which she knew as a hatch for her latest project to retract into when not in use.
She ignored the two chained up in the corner and the wired up person in the middle, and went to the person on the left that struggled as she came closer.
“I’ll never talk!” He yelled out in resistance, eyes widening as she came closer, eyeing her satchel of goodies.
She, however, laughed, taking out one of her fine knives and tracing it amongst his face. “Oh don’t worry about that,” she whispered, pressing her knife down into his cheek, nearly cutting into it. “I’m counting on it.”
She began to saw at his flesh.