Ves winced as his Blackbeak fell into a defensive posture soon after the start of the duel. The powerful Havalax started off strong and immediately pushed its advantage.
He knew it would be bad, but the Blackbeak lost the initiative and never got the opportunity to regain it. Pairing the Havalax with a captain of the 3rd Infernal Hellhounds resulted in an amazingly powerful combination that put Melinda at her wit's end.
"You could have prevented this, you know." Dumont suddenly remarked from his seat. They sat close enough to talk to each other in private. "There's no reason to accept the duel when you know your design is at a disadvantage."
"You speak as if I had a choice. You just had to issue the challenge while I was in the middle of my debut. To refuse your challenge will show the entire Republic that I'm not confident in my own design."
Dumont erupted into laughter. "Hahaha! It's like the public considers us wizards who possess a whole host of magical powers. Just because we design machines doesn't mean we know how to use them!"
Even when you lacked the courage to fight, sometimes the situation forced your hand. All of the press he invited to attend his debut would have crucified him as a coward if he dodged the challenge.
People often held mech designers to the same standards of mech pilots despite their lack of commonalities. Besides being connected to mechs, one occupation dealt with fighting while the other preferred to tinker with machines. It wasn't fair to expect a mech designer to adhere to martial traditions.
Sadly, the galaxy ran on its own rules. A mech designer must have courage. A mech designer must stand by his product. A mech designer must defend his honor if challenged.
At least Ves had been allowed to choose someone else to fight in his stead. He was a non-combatant, after all. Even if by some miracle he could pilot a mech, he still would have made a fool of himself. Even the worst pilots needed a full decade of training before they become proficient enough to outperform a simple modern combat vehicle.
"Tell me, Michael. Did you challenge me because you're still sore about your loss to me at the YTE, or did Catelyn Ricklin push you into it?"
His rival laughed again, though Dumont couldn't hide his irritation. "My associates are none of your business. The Ricklin Family is one of my shareholders, but that is the extent of my relationship with them. If you believe we're conspiring to bring you down, you're mistaken. You never even registered on our radar if not for your new design."
His words sounded innocent enough for Ves to doubt his suspicions. Did he make a mistake? Then he considered everything Dumont had done so far. Coincidence or not, Dumont had certainly made himself out to be his enemy.
"I don't know what kind of game you're playing." Ves started to say. "I didn't set out to pick a fight with you and your backers. Yet the moment you came up with an offensive knight, it's a given that we've become competitors. So as one mech designer to another, I'll warn you that you shouldn't pick a fight you can't win."
"Is that a threat?" Dumont replied sharply.
Ves smiled at his guarded posture. "Not as such. I'm merely stating that I'm better than you in any objective measure. I'll prove it to you by winning this design duel, and I'll prove it again when my Blackbeak drubs your Havalax in the market!"
"Arrogant! Let's see whether your champion can overcome my own before you open your big mouth!"
Melinda's Blackbeak just managed to slip into the complex maze of caverns and cliffs. The difficult terrain hindered the relatively stodgy Havalax while providing an advantage to the agile Blackbeak. Despite the latter's lower power levels, its agility had never fallen behind due to its fairly slim design.
Still, her troubles hadn't ended yet. The Havalax maintained pursuit at stayed hot on her heels. If the Blackbeak stumbled even once, then Captain Vicar would be sure to pounce.
The final axe strike happened to have bitten deeply into one of the Blackbeak's shoulders. The overall depth and sturdiness of that portion prevented the axe from disabling the shield arm, but it had enormously weakened it to the point where Melinda didn't trust it to hold up against a full-frontal body blow.
Despite her dire circumstances, Melinda grinned, echoing the predatory anticipation of her mech. Her opponent made a big mistake by letting her slip away. It seemed almost comical how Captain Vicar didn't expect to be pecked in a face by a mech called the Blackbeak.
"Haha, can't catch up, captain?" She taunted her opponent over the open channel.
"Don't laugh so soon. I'm catching up!"
Time was running out for Captain Vicar. If he couldn't catch up to the Blackbeak in the next twenty minutes or so, his mech would run out of steam. His mech only carried a limited amount of energy cells, but before it ran out his internals would already overheat.
Pushing the Havalax's limits came at a cost. Vicar gambled on winning on his opening move, but it turned out that Melinda proved more resilient and resourceful than he expected.
"Why don't you be a good girl and turn around for me to whack apart?"
"Are you kidding, captain? You're the faster mech here! Come and get me if you're so eager to land a blow on my mech!"
Standard dueling conventions stated that the mech with the fasted top speed had to take the initiative. If not, it could use its superior speed to stay out of range and run out the clock. Such behavior went against the spirit of the duel so the rule had been introduced to force the duelists to fight.
A peculiarity occurred in this case when the so-called 'fastest' mech proved unable to catch up with the nominally slower mech. The Havalax possessed a higher top speed according to its spec sheet, but in practice it could only achieve those speeds in open terrain.
This rendered Captain Vicar helpless for the moment. Though he adjusted quickly and learned to move the Havalax more proficiently, it would take a long time for the gap to close. His mech expended an enormous amount of energy trying to keep all of its bulk on the move.
Knights never made for very good sprinters, though an exception could be made for the Blackbeak.
Still, Melinda noticed the Havalax gaining on her mech at an uncomfortably fast pace. If she was a better pilot, then she would have been able to push the Blackbeak out of reach.
If she wanted to change the odds, then she had to take the initiative and use her strengths.
As a Larkinson, Melinda possessed her own strengths. Besides her strong foundation, she also excelled in one other area. Her battle sense.
Many of her colleagues complimented her for her uncanny decision making in the cockpit. While Melinda had never excelled in swordsmanship, marksmanship and other flashy skills, she always managed to pull off a win by making the right decisions in the heat of battle.
Right now, her mind worked together with the Blackbeak to analyze her current surroundings. She kept her attention focused on both the Havalax and anything she could use to her advantage. She quickly found something in the terrain up ahead and adjusted the course of the Blackbeak to guide her opponent to follow suit.
The Blackbeak stomped past an arched cliff. Just as it was about to pass through the narrowest spot, it struck the upper portion of the cliff with a quick raise of its sword.
A couple of rocks fell down the cliff and rained down right above the pursuing Havalax. Captain Vicar had to veer his mech aside in order to prevent the heavy rocks from exacerbating the damage to its head.
Meanwhile the Blackbeak had turned around to stab at its distracted opponent, only to come up short when the Havalax raised its shield to turn aside the blow.
"Did you think I would fall for that?" Vicar shouted. "Think again!"
Melinda fell into a spot of trouble when the Havalax recovered faster than she thought. Vicar landed a couple of good blows with the axe that dented the Blackbeak's already worn-out shield. She had to pull off a hasty dodge in order to slip out of reach again.
This pattern repeated itself several times over. Though Melinda chose to turn around and surprise Vicar several times, the captain's insane reaction speed insured that he would never fall into a permanent disadvantage.
"Annoying gnat! Why don't you stand still for a change!"
"Haha! Why don't you stop running yourself then?" Melinda taunted back.
Despite her repeated failures, Melinda kept up her hit-and-run attacks, making sure her mech would always be able to resume its flight before the Havalax pushed it into a corner.
Captain Vicar grew increasingly frustrated at this sequence of events. Even as he grew more adept at navigating the terrain, so did Melinda begin to master the art of hit-and-run. Her sword even managed to slip past his guard, though it only ended up scratching the Havalax's chest coating.
Still, his mech began to feel the toll. The running battles accelerated the Havalax's energy consumption and heated up the mech. He glanced at a couple of indicators in his cockpit and estimated that his mech could only hold up its current level of performance for another eight to ten minutes.
"No choice then!"
Vicar decided to do something drastic. First, he disengaged the locks holding the Havalax's kite shield in place. It dropped to the ground with a thunk, surprising both Melinda and the crowd in the arena.
Next, the Havalax quickly used its free hand to draw the sword from its back. The mech effectively abandoned the way of the shield in favor of wielding two weapons at once.
Abandoning the shield proved to be the right decision. A literal weight had been lifted off the white mech's shoulder, allowing it to gain on the Blackbeak with considerably more speed.
Melinda gritted her teeth as she realized that she couldn't get away. She turned her Blackbeak around in order to meet the incoming double chop. She parried the sword strike with her own sword while she took the axe strike with the remnants of her shield.
The latter almost splintered apart into smaller pieces after fending off the blow. People considered axes to be the ultimate shield killers, and this incident tested this maxim again.
Captain Vicar unleashed a hail of blows with the Havalax. Melinda frantically tried to disengage from the attacks, but the Havalax stubbornly stuck to her mech.
The Blackbeak's phoenix shield finally croaked its last breath and split apart into useless chunks. The sudden loss of the shield provided Vicar with an opening. He locked his sword with his opponents while chopping down with his axe along the Blackbeak's unprotected chest!
An awful rent resulted from that devastating strike. The axe had chopped right through all three layers of armor but stopped short from dealing any major damage to the power reactor. Still the attack exposed the Blackbeak's chest and left it open to a coup de grace.
The Havalax had run out of momentum after that last attack. This allowed the Blackbeak to bounce away and flee out of reach. The loss of its shield had liberated its speed as well.
Though the Blackbeak didn't gain as much speed as its opponent, it still proved vital in dragging out the engagement.
The two mechs ran in circles as Melinda desperately engaged in damage control. The Blackbeak not only lost its shield, but it also had to deal with various levels of damage to its frame.
Even if the Havalax started to run out of steam, Melinda wouldn't be able to put up a decent fight if she had to watch the rents in the Blackbeak's frame. The main issue was that her shield arm had become exposed. Without another shield, Melinda would be hard-pressed to survive against another barrage of swords and axes.
"Although didn't this mech come with a shovel?"