“Welcome to… the APPOLOGIUM!”
The hoarse voice of the alguazil, the combat referee, is being drowned out by the roar of the sold-out arena.
On the Arkhantan side, the crowd’s cheering is amplified by magical tusks whose echoes reverberate from one superbly sculpted stone arch to the next. Magical arkhomes are rivalling each other in virtuosity, expressing themselves through everything from stunning, ephemeral Fire displays to a gentle rhythmic quaking of the Earth, via blossoms choreographed by the Nature magus. Air and Water paired their skills to cool the audience with a pleasant breeze that carries the exhilarated shouting away.
Across from them, on the Mantris side, the cheering and applause are being converted into hypnotically sinuous flashes of light. Drones zoom through the tiers seeking out the most hologenic spectators to display as three dimensional figures standing twelve feet tall. Whether they are Cybernetics, Bioosted with adrenalin or Meditechs, magnified by Genetics or enhanced with Robotics, the chosen few are ecstatic to see themselves appear as holograms at the summit of the airy architecture that is so emblematic of their side’s elegance.
The alguazil has to struggle to impose his presence in the midst of that orgy of sound and light. Inconspicuous in the middle of the arena, where he stands alone, his silhouette blends in too easily with the jubilant phosphorescence. So he has to count on his super-powerful voice to emerge, latching onto the slightest ebb in the flow of noisy enthusiasm.
“Welcome to our friends from the city-continent of Mantris!”
As though they had been waiting for just that signal, a flock of drones rises from the eastern zone of the Appologium and begins a dance of light. Weaving around each other with extraordinary precision, the mechanical fireflies trace figures and logos glorifying the megapole’s four techstyles. The Cybernetics entertain themselves by changing the flock’s colours, when they can’t block the drones’ magnetic engines; while the Robotics are doing their level best to keep them aloft. The Genetics observe the results, whether they regret how gaudy it is or admire the clever combinations, while the Meditechs’ sparkling eyes don’t miss a pixel of the show.
“Welcome to our friends from the magical territories of Arkhante!”
The western side of the Appologium strikes up a thunderous concert in response. Lithophones lay down a deep, percussive bass line, over which a profusion of string instruments made from a thousand different kinds of wood and fibre execute the melody. The overall effect would have been pleasant – nothing more – if metallic gusts of bagpipes and trumpets hadn’t enhanced the melody with a unique tonal amplitude. The anthem quickly swelled in both power and emotion until a surprising pyro-organ literally set the performance on fire.
“Now that’s what I call a feast for the eyes and the ears,” the announcer gloats, overwhelmed by the vibrations rocking the stadium. “No other sporting event could inspire as much fervour as the aballition, and no other venue than the Appologium could provide as worthy a setting for it!”
In the royal box, Solis is enjoying the enthusiasm on both sides of the crowd with an almost guilty pleasure. She is thrilling to the pulse of the strange jubilation, the fruit of mutual hatred between Arkhante and Mantris, and is surprised to realize that she’s enjoying the unexpected harmonics it produces.
The opening ceremony of the Appologium couldn’t be further from the peaceable concord she dreams of… And yet, something inexplicably shared is reverberating throughout the arena, running beneath the furious invectives and the obvious culture clash.
The alguazil takes advantage of a slight drop in sound to take his first jabs.
“So for all those who live in caves in the mountains of Acongua…”
Mocking laughter bursts out on the Mantri side.
“… and for everyone who sees the world only through their rose-coloured metaverse…”
Sarcasm bursts out on the Arkhantan side.
“… here is a quick reminder of the rules of the aballition.”
This time, the grumbling reaction is identical on both sides of the Appologium: the impatience to get down to brass tacks is palpable. But the alguazil knows full well that no matter how boringly legalistic the introduction – which is being relayed on every magical and technological screen in the stadium – may be, it’s still a crucial part of the show. It serves to focus the audience’s attention and stoke the suspense. The quality of their listening is already starting to change, growing denser and more focused.
“The combat is divided into four rounds. For each round, there are four teams. Each team is a tandem. And in each tandem, there is one Arkhantan and one Mantri, bound together by a chain. A mitt on the right hand for the one; a deflector on the left arm for the other. Aside from that…”
The referee lets his voice fade away, cocking an ear and raising a hand in expectation…
“… NO WEAPONS BARRED!” the crowd screams in brutal catharsis.
The screens are showing a pair of combatants, one brandishing a sort of elongated glove; the other, an imposing shield. Both gladiators are wearing heavy armour; the mittwearer’s has three targets: one on their left shoulder, one on their chest, and the last on their back.
Mantri skins and Arkhantan spells enable each spectator to personalize the visual, choosing each gladiator’s origin and sex, and the colour of their uniform. There’s only one thing that can’t be personalized but must follow the rule: the two halves of each pair, offence and defence, have to come from from opposite sides. Through the chain at their wrists, Mantri and Arkhantan are united for better… and especially for worse!
With his audience ablaze, the announcer takes perverse pleasure in providing a complete explanation.
“The principle is simple: the striker’s role is to hit their opponent’s three targets, eliminating the pair. The defender’s role is to protect their partner. It’s not about ‘really wanting to win’ or ‘might making right’, like naïve people think, it’s simply a matter of…” “LIFE AND DEATH!” the crowd finishes his sentence, well-versed in the alguazil’s ritual patter.
Caught up in the atmosphere, Solis is trying to ignore the fact that the Appologium commemorates the Heroes’ War, a conflict between Arkhante and Mantris that ended with an inconclusive, endlessly debated ceasefire.
That was twenty years ago, and time hasn’t softened anyone’s resentment. The Appologium is a vestige of that war that has been turned into a sporting event, a noisy cemetery filled with celebrities who died on the field of honour that the audience visits out of nostalgia, while entertaining delusions of grandeur.
Perched in one of the highest tiers of that cemetery, facing the Mantri enemy, Solis chooses to try to see the bloody arena as a bridge than a corpse-filled pit. A bridge between former enemies over the latent war that’s brewing.
A chance to finally reconcile the two sides.
Her own naivety makes her smirk. She knows full well that she is expected to behave with all the dignity that behooves the Malkah of Arkhante; she has no time for optimistic nonsense, and even less for sentiment. Granted, she’s only been on the Sculpted Throne for a season, but so be it. Because the Malek, her father, who passed away so suddenly, was a dynastic lord as fiercely sharpened as the blade of a sword, following in his footsteps means she won’t have the luxury of showing weakness. Just as magi can’t suddenly switch from Shadow to Light, Arkhante must maintain its firm stance towards Mantris, the hereditary enemy. Whatever the circumstances.
And whatever her own personal convictions might be.
She’s fussing with her long braid to conceal how upset she is. She fiddles distractedly with the seven rings that have been braided into her raven hair – one for each of the seven magical arkhomes. She has to keep herself from biting it.
In the end she forces herself to leave her hair and rings alone, in order to look composed. To evacuate the tension that’s still there, she sits up straight and tries to adopt a more distinguished posture: no, a more regal one.
Seated in a demi-circle behind her, the dynastic lords of the territories of Arkhante are shifting in their seats, too. Solis would like to believe that they’re just trying to see the show better, but the vibrational field coming off of them is shaking her up with troubling intensity. It’s still rising and falling, making it hard to read precisely, and each individual wave reflects the personality of whoever’s emitting it, but the overall impression she’s getting is of a raspy violin that the lords are playing without tuning or care.
She tries to glance at them to reassure herself. Since she doesn’t dare turn her head too far, all she can see is Hannibal, her eternally vigilant guardian, standing on her right.
Easily over four cubits tall, with muscular arms crossed over bulging pectorals, he makes quite an impression. His dark skin is gleaming like bronze in the light of this hot summer day; his smooth, bald head is glinting. The cumbersome hammer and enormous axe crossed over his back emphasize his powerful build. Each of those weapons is meant to be used with two hands, but Hannibal uses them together, one in each hand, when he goes into combat.
A build like that is somewhat out of place amongst the magi. Why bother to pump iron when a good spell can split the earth open under your adversary’s feet, or bury him in a rockslide?
Although she knows the answer to that mystery perfectly well, Solis decides to bring up an anecdote she and Hannibal have shared repeatedly in hopes of soothing the worried vibrations leaking from her marmoreal skin. Besides, it’s a good excuse to take a quick peek at the dynastic lords.
“Tell, me dear Hannibal…”
Keeping her hands on the armrests to maintain her regal posture, she turns to speak to the warrior-magus, putting half of the nobles in her field of vision.
“How old were you, precisely, Sir, when you won the Appologium?”
Hannibal is struck by Solis’s metamorphosis once again: the child who grew up, year by year, before his eyes, has acquired a more imposing bearing. Her best feature is still the ardour of her violet gaze: it glows with a calm strength that conceals the refined depth of her soul.
Unfortunately, he is one of the few people who sees those virtues in her. Nobles and magi settle for a superficial judgement, seeing her as no more than a brazenly beautiful princess wearing a crown that is too heavy for her pretty young head.
Her father could and should have prepared her... if he hadn’t been so coarse and indifferent. Instead of believing in her, he had practically ignored her, to the point of making her feel totally insecure. No, she isn’t ready to reign. Not yet, anyway. She needs more backbone and less compassion. He knows that, he can sense it.
As magus of the Earth, he can perceive the slightest vibrations in his environment. An apprentice would get confused by the accumulation of different patterns, between the audience’s impatience, the throbbing of the percussions, the erratic oscillations of the gonfalons and advertising screens flapping in the wind. A less-gifted warlock than he wouldn’t be able to discern the pacing of the gladiators anxiously waiting beneath the grounds of the Appologium, the stubborn shocks of the chain striking the portcullis leading to the arena, the furtive scurrying of rodents on the squeaking sand.
Hannibal perceives every single bit of it, all the more easily in that the keyed-up crowd is making the whole Appologium thrum with energy.
He can even catch the feverish beating of Solis’s heart, as well as the dynastic lords’ discreet but nervous chair-scraping going on behind him, the grinding of their teeth and the tension that’s straining their bones. The Royal Box is quivering like a pond with a ravix heading cautiously towards it trailed by predators.
Hannibal is keenly aware of how greatly Solis needs a victory at the Appologium. The members of the Council of Dynastic Lords fear defeat – while they are all secretly hoping for it! Puffed up with wealth but with their magic oozing away, these nobles have the souls of carrion-eaters spiralling above easy prey. Solis must not betray the slightest weakness, or she could wind up assassinated.
Over his dead body.
As long as he’s there to protect her, no one will dare lay a finger on her.
Hannibal doesn’t let his feelings show. Like all Earth magi, he radiates a calm power that attenuates and absorbs emotions, allowing him to maintain that granite composure that suits his role as guardian-protector so well.
“I was seventeen, Malkah,” he finally replies.
Eight years already. At the time, young Hannibal was not yet the Earth magus he is now. As a reward for his victory, he demanded to serve Malek Tornhil, Solis’s father. Since the Malek already had his own trusted bodyguards, he assigned Hannibal to protect his daughter. Since that day, Solis and Hannibal have been inseparable.
“And you won in the seventh and last round, with a single hammer, if I’m not mistaken?”
“That is correct, Malkah.”
Solis grins, warming to the story, even though she has heard it a hundred times.
“How often have you told me about your own victory here? What it granted you. And what it cost you, too.” That desperate hammer toss that settled everything… Without it, you wouldn’t be here…”
Solis’s silvery laughter is like an echo of her not entirely vanished adolescence. She keeps staring at him. She would like him to read in her gaze everything she can’t say in words.
Although Hannibal imposes fearful respect in everyone he meets, all she sees in him is her guardian angel and faithful protector.
More than that, actually: he’s been like a big brother, filling in for her distant, chilly father. Did the role come naturally to the warrior-magus? Unlikely. But he has stuck by her side through thick and thin, a rock she can count on, and that counts for something. In fact, it counts for everything.
Solis’s hopes have been dashed, of course. Despite the best of intentions, the warrior-magus is more at home with weapons than with feelings.
Actually, it’s just that he has learned to ignore his gentler vibrations: the behemoth knows all too well what she wants form him.
He’d like to escort her then and there to the library where she used to spend hours on end. He’d love to tell her more stories about the granite people, the clan of builders he grew up with in the Acongua mountains. He’d kill to be able to yield to her whims, grumbling in feigned annoyance to entertain her, comfort her and distract her from her sorrows.
But he won’t.
Behaving like that would keep her from projecting herself into the future, from fully taking her place on the Sculpted Throne. Solis has to leave the child he used to carry on his shoulders behind in order to become the Malkah who will carry Arkhante on her own. He has to help her break through her chrysalis, and guide her until she takes flight. Whatever it takes.
Their eyes locked in silence, Solis is grasping at straws to find an excuse to keep the conversation going. She’s getting the same warmth from it that a half-frozen camper gets from dying embers. She whispers, so the dynastic lords won’t here her.
“It’s weird,” she says.
“What is, Malkah?”
“Precisely that. Your calling me by my title.”
Hannibal’s jaws tighten, making him even more intimidating.
“Times have changed. Your reign has begun.”
The behemoth emphasizes his words by rolling his eyes without an ounce of subtlety towards the dynastic lords.
Solis is no fool; Hannibal doesn’t like the evolution of the situation either. It’s a known fact: conservatism is bred in the bone in people of the Earth arkhome. To make matters worse, Hannibal thinks of her as his little sister. And like most big brothers, he gets wary and gruff as the girl grows up.
It hurts him, every bit as much as it hurts her. She can tell just by the way he glares at the bodyguards who escort her everywhere now. Skilled, battle-seasoned warriors though all three of them may be, Hannibal is convinced that he’d be more efficient, and obviously more concerned than they.
She wished he’d worry about them a little less and about
her a little more. Doesn’t he get it? She has no shortage of aspiring protectors. No, what she needs is a friend she can confide in.
Solis gives up on the idea of trying to explain all that. She turns back to the arena and lets herself be absorbed in contemplating the Appologium.
Like an echo to her dark thoughts, the light dims, as though the sun had set prematurely. The Appologium acquires a temporary roof, turning it into a vast amphitheatre. The audience holds its breath, finally allowing the alguazil to impose his voice uncontested.
“Precisely twenty years ago, here in the Rift, two legendary fighters faced off in a deadly combat. A combat so powerful, so overwhelming that it changed the very geography of our continent.”
A heavy silence falls. Then two holographic bodies rise from the sand.
Chaka and Faustus.
The Genetic and the Primus of Shadows.
Mantris’s paragon and Arkhante’s champion.
Twenty-five feet tall, the holograms can be seen from every seat in the house. The quality of the image is such that you can clearly make out the scarifications ridging Chaka’s skin, inherited from the reptile her genome was interbred with. Bare-chested, her breasts bound with nothing more than a bit of cloth, the Legendary One faces Faustus with serenity.
As for the Primus, his silhouette is hidden by a long coat tailored from darkness, a fabric whose capricious swirls create a long, undulating train. There too, the precision of the projection allows everyone to make out the bony growths identifying those who invoke the Shadows; they deform the skull and stretch the facial skin almost to the point of tearing it. With his pale skin and artificially protruding eye sockets and cheekbones, he looks like a corpse. Or more precisely, like Death in person. A shockingly living embodiment of Death.
Twenty years later, the battle between Chaka and Faustus remains unsurpassed in terms of impact. More than memorable or unforgettable, it’s legendary. And it grows even more so every year, since it tolled the end of the Heroes’ War.
With their backs to the wall, Arkhante and Mantris had resorted to the most corrupt spells and destructive weapons. Concerned about the escalating violence, the populations on both sides of the conflict urged their leaders to find an honourable way to end it.
No one remembers precisely who came up with the idea, but the solution that was adopted came down to a championship battle: Chaka vs. Faustus. Mantris’s charismatic woman warrior, a genetically optimized humanimal, vs. the gloomy Primus of Shadows.
A strange but appealing choice for a highly promising show. The acclaim was instantaneous.
And the outcome, catastrophic.
Even now, how that combat actually unfolded is the subject of endless debate. Half of the world’s historians insist that Faustus prevailed; the other half swears that Chaka sacrificed herself to overcome the Primus. The one thing everyone agrees on, however, is how the duel ended.
With an inexplicable explosion, one so destructive that it devastated the continent of Artellium from north to south, tracing a clear border between the two sides: the infamous Rift.
The Rift has since become a zone of desolation, a noman’s-land whose landscape is as flat at an ocean, a horrific scar whose heights have been worn down by erosion, a sterile land without water… A dusty mummy-land frozen in an eternal death rattle.
After that terrifying cataclysm, the conflict was ended with a hazy armistice, that neither designated a clear victor nor declared a verdict. Frustration over that hazy situation led to the desire to organize the Appologium, whose arena is located in the middle of the Rift, equidistant from the Arkhantan and Mantri borders.
The Malkah has a hard time understanding that yearning to name a winner, no matter what, even though the obsession is reborn with each new edition of the Appologium. In her opinion, instead of trying to understand how the confrontation ended, everyone would be better off trying to make sure there would never be another one between the two nations.
Oblivious to her reflections, in the arena, Chaka and Faustus are beginning the re-enactment of their legendary combat.
They twirl and spin in deadly dance with complex figures, moving at a supernatural speed that makes their holographic images, which stated out to sharp, go blurry.
The first highlight of the fight arrives. Faustus throws a wave of jet-black daggers with such staggering speed that he seems to have as many arms as a kraken. Under assault, Chaka slaloms divinely well between the blades and their hazy wakes, deflect the ones she can’t avoid with her impenetrably leathery arms.
But just when the hailstorm of blades peters out, one final dagger, appearing out of void, strikes through her defences like lightning, stabbing her eye in the eye and veiling her face in dark fog.
The audience gasps in empathy. Solis raises her hand to her brow without realizing it.
Fleetingly frozen with pain, Chaka is unable to shield herself from the second blade, which definitively blinds her.
She staggers, about to collapse, it’s over…
By all rights, the combat should be able to end.
And that’s where the second highlight comes in.
With a trans-human jolt, Chaka brandishes her two sawtooth-edged spears and throws herself on Faustus. Despite her blindness, she still has her furtive, reptilian movements, her serpentine speed. Surprised by this flash of resilience, the Primus loses the fraction of a second that would have allowed him to dodge the last-chance attack. His chest is impaled by the two swords.
While technology provides exceptionally fluid images, the magic of Arkhantan sound strengthens the sense of immersion. The audience sees it all, hears it all, feels it all. When Faustus is transfixed, the Appologium reverberates with the sound to torn flesh and the scraping of notched blades churning against his ribs.
Another cry of shared horror.
The opponents, face to face, body to body, spew blood over each other…
And then they vanish.
The recording ends suddenly, the equipment blown over by the explosion that ravaged Artellium and left the suppurating burn of the Rift.
One last shout from the audience – of frustration this time. Then a magnificently respectful silence descends, enveloping both heroes and accompanying their disappearance from the arena.
Solis hasn’t been paying much attention to that archive footage, which she has seen over and over, at every edition of the Appologium. No matter how immersive the projection may be, for her, the screening lacks the vibration of actual presence; no matter how impressive it is, the combat releases no other waves than the photons produced by the machines and the bewitchingly intense sounds.
What does interest her deeply, however, is the crashing and ebbing of the waves of emotion that run through the audience, the prodigious spectre of chills and thrills, of hands trembling and faces twitching with barely contained fear and the electric catharsis that mark every instant of the re-enacted combat. It’s as though Solis could perceive every chromatic nuance of it across the full spectrum. As though she couldn’t help hearing the blood beating in pounding hearts or the breath panting from gaping mouths, or feeling the damp vapour rising and swirling, the sudden heat flushing cheeks and making palms sweat. She has flashes of foreknowledge, everything happens, hurtling through her. Her rib cage turns into a gusting wind cage, her nerves shivering like guitar strings, her skin soaking up the arena’s rare dampness. She would love to take it all and push it out, but she endures it all and calls to it. She feels like the Primus of an arkhome that doesn’t exist, or not yet, anyway. One that was invented for her alone, an orchestral arkhome that could make the world resound in waves of fertile harmony.
Suddenly, at the heart of the Appologium, she has a vision. More than a vision: a harp riff that whips every fibre of her being, making it shrill. Her entire body has turned into an echo chamber, nothing more. She closes her eyes to feel it better, understand it better.
Suddenly before her she sees Chaka sucked into the air, swallowed by the sheet of the sky. Solis can feel it being turned inside out, like a glove. She senses Faustus too, facing her, inhabited by an immense, unimaginable silence that snuffs out even the screeching of the sand. He ceased fighting; she’s sure of it. He desisted, on purpose. On purpose.
When she regains consciousness of her surroundings, the Malkah becomes aware that Hannibal is watching her with a worried smile. She would so love to share what she just felt with him, but how could she express it? How can she translate it into the single infrasound register that makes the earth vibrate?
In the huge stadium, the crowd is still dangling in suspense, clinging to the question that has provided structure to both populations’ entire existence, the question that Hannibal has always shared: who, of Mantris the technological or Arkhante the magical, is more powerful? Who will win?
That’s why the Appologium is held on the anniversary of the legendary combat between Chaka and Faustus. Each year, gladiators from both sides reinterpret the duel of champions to try to pick the lock of history, in search of a definitive answer. Which one – Chaka the Genetic or Faustus the Primus of Shadows – won?
Hannibal went into battle here eight years ago to find out? The last Malek brought his daughter here each year for the same reason.
In an unexpected flash of perception whose clarity overwhelms her, Solis has just understood clearly what until now she had only glimpsed: she has a power, perhaps even a gift. She feels vibrations that no one else is aware of. But now, as the tandems are preparing for the first round of combat, a niggling doubt – a single one – is tormenting her: what if for twenty years now, Arkhante and Mantris have been asking themselves… the wrong question?