The duel between the Executioner and the Handshake stretched out over a hundred exchanges. While the swordsman mech put a lot of power in its attacks, the spear-wielding medium mech always blocked or deflected the predictable attacks with ease.
Sweat trickled from Lovejoy's brow as he desperately tried to figure out a path to victory. His damaged power reactor started to release more smoke as he kept stressing the Executioner. For a mech designed in just ten hours, its relative stability impressed the audience.
"The armor isn't the best I've seen, but its integrity is top-notch for a designer this young."
"Who is the designer? Larkinson? Doesn't ring a bell."
"Bright Republic? What kind of backwater could nurture not one, but two designers who made it to the finals?"
No one had a clue why both Ves and Patricia came out of the blue and beat countless geniuses nurtured by the most prestigious second-rate institutions. Was there something in the water over at the Bright Republic? Were they secretly cultivating a group of half-alien hybrids? No one knew, but the pair's performances already exceeded their capacity of thought.
Still, in the duel between Ves and Felix most of the crowd favored the latter. Not only did he enjoy a better background, his mech was a marvellous machine.
Even Ves wanted to dig into Felix's head in order to find out how he made the Handshake specialize in both railguns and spears. Hybrid mechs usually favored one weapon or the other. Though it was subtle, Ves recognized that the Handshake could break several records with both its marksmanship and spearplay.
"None of the final six are weak." Ves concluded with a smile.
If his mech lost to Felix's work, then he had nothing to complain. The only downside was that he could not afford to fall short when he almost reached the finish line.
Too much was at stake. He already offended plenty of personages. Just thinking about how Gauge's pilot mysteriously ended up committing suicide was enough to make Ves sleep uneasily. Only by winning this final duel and apprenticing himself to a master could he avoid the calamities he continually provoked.
Thus, he kept rooting for Lovejoy even as the audience peeled off to watch the other duels. The match seemed to lost all suspense.
As the designer, Ves knew how much the Executioner could take. The swordsman mech was tougher than it looked. As long as his pilot refused to give up, he still had a shot of winning.
The Executioner slipped up when its power output stuttered for a fraction of a second. Though Lovejoy recovered quickly, Xandra still managed to slip in a spear thrust. The tip of the spear bore a hole through an arm, causing it to be unable to bear the weight of the sword.
Lovejoy's mech already accumulated a fair degree of scratches, but this attack went beyond that. With each crippling strike, his mech's performance continued to decline.
Just moments later, the Handshake struck the Executioner's chest with the butt of the spear. The kinetic impact failed to cripple the damaged mech, but succeeded in stirring up the vulnerable internals.
The problem Lovejoy faced was that he couldn't get past Xandra's guard. The Handshake turned into a hedgehog in her hands. He had to worry about getting pricked everytime he attempted to strike.
"There's no point in playing it safe." Lovejoy determined after achieving another fruitless result. "I have to bet my mech against hers."
The designer of his mech focused on maximizing its power and resilience. Against the control-focused Handshake, the Executioner could not possibly outmaneuver the spear wielder.
An instructor once taught him an important lesson. "If you're losing the game, then flip the board."
He lost sight of his way. His mech was not meant to poke the Handshake like a skittish kitten. Such a tactic only resulted in a gradual defeat.
Once Lovejoy adjusted his perspective, his mood improved. He pushed away his fear of losing. He wanted to win instead of trying to avoid defeat.
"There's no choice but to go all-in. If her spear hits my mech, then so be it as long as my sword can dish out the hurt."
He slowly polished his aggression until it almost boiled over in his mind. His mech subtly amplified his thoughts. Both of their intents aligned.
Even Xandra sensed a change. The battered and beaten mech in front of her halted its declining tendency. She upped the pressure in order to interrupt whatever Lovejoy had in mind.
Instead of blocking the next spear thrust, the Executioner boldly let it scratch the sides of his lower torso. The engine buckled for a bit, but the mech quickly regained its energy. The wounded mech continued to push forward and struck down its sword with a devastating overhand chop.
Caught off-guard, Xandra acted decisively. Her mech let go of the spear and hopped away, causing the sword to miss its mark. Despite escaping the damage, she felt no better. Without a spear, her mech lost much of its reach and leverage.
As for Lovejoy, his mech's performance grew even more unsteady. Besides his power reactor, he also had to keep an eye on his engines. Thankfully, the spear did not penetrate deep enough to affect its core functionality.
With a slow grip, the Executioner pulled out the spear and held it above its shoulder.
Meanwhile, having lost its principal weapon, the Handshake retreated from the Executioner and raced towards its fallen railgun. Just as it reached the weapon, it slowed down in order to pick up the large but fragile weapon. Even if the Executioner wanted to stop the Handshake, it was too late.
That was what Xandra thought until the Executioner threw the shortened spear at her mech. The Handshake had just started to reach down and could not reorient itself in time.
The thrown spear knocked its shoulder but failed to penetrate through its armor. Though the Handshake avoided critical damage, the impact threw it off-balance and caused its hand to miss the railgun.
Lovejoy already pushed his mech forward after it hurled the spear. By the time his mech came close, the Handshake belatedly picked up its weapon and charged its capacitors.
Xandra knew she couldn't wait for a full charge. Just as the Executioner chopped towards her mech, she fired her railgun when it only charged up to thirty-nine percent.
The slug accurately hit the damaged mech's power reactor, causing the mech to experience an emergency shutdown.
Before his mech lost its power, Lovejoy channeled all of the mech's remaining energy in a single, heaven-shaking chop. Propelled by the mech's forward momentum, the weight of the sword finally crashed into the Handshake's head and sliced down its neck. The massive sword carved up lots of systems and interfered with the mech's control systems.
For a moment, both mechs stood still.
Xandra's mech recovered first. The damage it suffered was severe, but fell short of killing it. Unfortunately, the sword remained stuck in its upper torso.
Instead of trying to move away and aggravate its wounds, the Handshake raised its railgun. The mech pressed the barrel against its disabled opponent's torso and charged up the weapon.
One percent, two percent, three percent. Its charge slowly accumulated. If not for the last attack, the railgun only needed several seconds to accumulate a sufficient charge. Right now, Xandra tried to hurry up the energy transfer.
The Executioner came to life. The mech might have lost its power reactor, but Lovejoy found a way around the situation by tapping his mech's energy cells directly. This was an extremely destructive process, as the power reactor normally moderated the highly active energy.
Flooding the contents of the energy cells directly through the mech caused its internals to overheat in seconds. The mech could only last a couple of seconds as best before all of its energy channels melted down.
The Executioner only needed two seconds to twist the sword and push is deeper into the Handshake. Its sputtering flight system pushed the mech and its sword forward. At the last moment before the mech burned out, it suddenly leveraged its sword downwards, past the vulnerable power reactor.
The tip of the sword tore through the flimsy shell around the cockpit and halved the sophisticated module that allowed the mech to be remote controlled.
According to the rules set by Leemar, the destruction of the module represented the death of the pilot. There was no coming back.
The Executioner lost all of its power right after delivering the fatal blow.
Most of the audience had paid attention to the dramatic final moments of the duel. When it became clear that the Executioner lasted longer, they rose to their feet and applauded the mech's spectacular performance. Ves, Lovejoy and the Executioner had all outdone themselves in achieving such a hard-fought victory.
Ves closed his eyes and took in the applause. Though most of the people wanted to show their appreciation to Lovejoy's incredible performance, Ves equally contributed to his mech's eventual triumph. While most designers focused on improving their mech's armor or weapons, his own was both structurally sound and resilient to damage.
"Well, part of why I focus so much on the internals is because I don't have any choice. My foundation in alloy compression is still too shallow."
That might change in the future. After witnessing and challenging so many of his fellow peers, Ves gained a better understanding of how others developed their skills. He was already satisfied with this harvest alone.
After the other duels had come to an end, three finalists remained as victors of the Leemar Open Competition.
"Our first victor is Ves Larkinson, from the Bright Republic. His alma mater was the Rittersberg University of Technology. Together with Cadet Reddy Lovejoy, he has reached the summit of this event!"
"Our second winner is Patricia Schneider, who is also a guest from the Bright Republic. She even attended the same class as Mister Larkinson at Rittersberg! What a coincidence!"
The pair's common origins was pushed to the forefront again. They both climbed over countless geniuses to reach this point. Still, nobody could figure out a compelling reason. They just happened to beat every opponent in their way.
Many of their victories were hard-won, which helped the audience accept their success. If they performed too dazzling, then people might suggest they'd been kidnapped and replaced by someone like Carter Gauge.
Fortunately for the school, Marcel Westkerke from Leemar snatched the last available slot. After an arduous battle of attrition, Westkerke's mech finally outlasted its opponent. The LIT managed to preserve its honor.
Once the clamor died down, the spotlight shone on the masters sitting atop an elevated podium. The five masters heatedly discussed among themselves behind a sound-neutralizing barrier.
During this time, all of the other mech designers who reached the third round returned to the stage. He nodded at Barakovski, who looked like she still had a hard time accepting that Ves had reached this point.
Almost everyone among the twenty-four designers waited silently for the masters to make their decisions. They all hoped to leap to the heavens in a single step. Who wouldn't want to receive the personal guidance of someone who had climbed the summit of his profession?
Ves looked up at the eminent figures and wondered who might accept him as an apprentice or a disciple.
An apprentice mostly only learned under a master. Whether they only learned a few tricks or inherited their master's entire legacy, there would be a time when they spread their own wings.
A disciple on the other hand also had the right and obligation to represent their master. The relationship between the two was lifelong and they usually forged very deep ties, both business and personal.
Ves wasn't concerned with the differences between the two. As long as a master took him in, he could finally get rid of the System's confining mission and get back to building his business.
"The masters have finished their deliberations! They are ready to announce their decisions!"
The first master stood up. Master Duchamp's charming voice reached the entire arena complex.
"Mister Devin Loesch, please step forward."
The lucky bastard joyfully separated from the others as they burned a hole into his back. Devin's mech got trashed in the second duel. So why him?
If Duchamp noted the questioning expressions of the others, he didn't show it. Instead, his gaze fell down upon Devin with a gentle expression. "Devin Loesch, do you wish to be my apprentice?"
"YES!!" Devin yelled, as if he was afraid the master would doubt him if he did not do his utmost. "I gladly accept!"
"Then follow me." The master threw out as he turned around and walked up to the ceiling.
Devin eagerly followed. He engaged his antigrav clothes and quickly caught up to the floating master. They eventually reached a floating room.
With the first master done with his selection, the elderly Master Nguyen stepped forward. "Mister Marcel Westkerke, do you wish to acknowledge me as your teacher?"
Marcel calmly stepped forward and knelt on the floor. He kowtowed three times according to the ancient tradition.
"Good. From now on, the galaxy will acknowledge you as my nominal disciple."
The pair floated away towards another private room in order to settle all of the formalities.
The third master rose up from her graceful sitting posture. Every designer held their breaths, Ves included. There were divisions between masters. While all of them had reached unimaginable heights, some of them were more distinguished than others. Those who made it a hobby to rank the masters considered Master Katzenberg to be the most formidable designer present.
Her mature voice cut through everyone's thoughts like a chime. "Miss Alyssa Fill, are you willing to become my apprentice?"
This obscure young woman originated from a tiny fourth-rate state, but graduated from another institution in the Coalition. Despite her mixed origins, she amply proved her skill even if her mech hadn't lasted very long in the final round. Much of her success could be attributed to snatching the top mech pilot in the first round.
Ves applauded Fill's success, though not everyone was glad to see her ascend. The designers from Leemar appeared especially resentful.
As anyone could imagine, the offer caught her out of the blue. She enthusiastically accepting this amazing offer. She flew to Master Katzenberg's side as if she reunited with her long lost mother.
Only two masters remained. Coincidentally, both Ves and Patricia had not been selected yet. Unless Leemar went back on their word, their turns came next.
Between Master Olson and Master Null, Ves thought it was a given that he'd be handed off to the latter. Someone as noble and graceful as Patricia was a great fit for the sophisticated Master Olson.
Reality proved otherwise. When Master Olson stepped forward, her young but stern gaze focused solely on Ves.
"Mister Ves Larkinson, do you wish to become my apprentice?"
Everyone was speechless. No one could have predicted that someone from an average background could catch the eye of someone as lofty as Master Olson. She was notoriously elitist and considered everyone with a net worth of less than a billion cols to be a cockroach.
Ves even wanted to access his bank account in order to see if some anonymous grandpa deposited a fortune in his bank account.
When he realized he held up the ceremony, he quickly walked forward and gave his response. "I accept!"
Master Olson silently maintained her gaze at him, which made him feel as if he was an ant. She wordlessly turned around and floated towards a room.
Before Ves wondered how he could get up there, a silent platform arrived before his feet. After stepping onto its surface, the hovering surface swiftly carried him in the air.
Ves barely heard Master Null accepting Patricia his nominal disciple. He still wondered why Master Olson took a fancy for him. Were the rumors wrong?