Chapter 1

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"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 Arkhant!"

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 Arkhant 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..."

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