After two hours of careful stalking, Lovejoy managed to deliver four golden coins. Compared to his competitors, he achieved a decent result. His luck was fairly good as he encountered two more light mechs in the process of transporting their coins. As these machines had all been prematurely rushed to the battlefield, Lovejoy easily crushed them through his superior mech's capabilities.
However, now was the time when the match transitioned in the mid-game. Shoddy mechs stopped pouring in by now. With at least twice as much time spent on their design, the second wave of mechs all overpowered the the early birds by a significant margin.
"Too scary! It's getting crowded here." He muttered as he vigilantly retreated from a newly spawned coin. Three mid-game mechs were duking it for possession of the coin. A worn-out light mech like his Unicorn had no contending against even one of them. He knew his limits.
"I still don't have enough coins."
Though he could yield in front of most dangerous encounters, he still had to fight for coins. Without at least two or three more, his chances of making it to the next round might evaporate.
He navigated through the forest carefully. By now, plenty of areas suffered from battle damage. The ground was scorched and many trees had been toppled. Broken mechs were strewn about like toys. Many of them only suffered light damage before they completely collapsed.
"Luckily my mech's designer isn't a total idiot. I can still hold up for a few hours."
The only issue he encountered was that his mech required frequent recharging. The few supply depots spread around the battlefield were all highly visible areas. He always had to watch his back incase he encountered an ambush.
His sensors beeped, alerting him to a nearby coin. He guided the Unicorn forward and carefully stalked past the foliage. He spotted an unclaimed coin resting against a cliff.
"Am I truly alone here?" Lovejoy wondered as he looked around suspiciously.
It seemed too good to be true. With a laser pistol in one hand and a sword in the other, his Unicorn crouched behind a dense patch of trees and waited patiently. He decreased the power to his systems in order to make his mech's thermal signature blend in with the environment.
"Unless someone is piloting a dedicated scout, no one should detect my presence."
His caution turned out to be prophetic, since a well-built light mech approached the coin a minute or so later. The mech appeared to be a sharp-looking skirmisher. Its twin wrist cannons possessed enough firepower to melt the Unicorn in a short amount of time, though it would suffer from catastrophic overheating in return. Still, the skirmisher was not a soft cookie but a well-built machine that took at least four hours to complete.
After scanning the area, the skirmisher evidently failed to detect the Unicorn. It conveniently picked up the coin and jogged away.
"Should I or should I not?" Lovejoy considered carefully. If he jumped the skirmisher, he had a decent chance of making a crippling blow. On the other hand, a light skirmisher was one of the worst types of mechs for his Unicorn to come to blows. He decided to call off his ambush.
"What rotten luck. I found a coin only to let someone else take it away."
Lovejoy felt as if he did his mech a disservice. He should be fighting it out against his competitors in a frank and upright manner. All this sneaking around only to take a step back when he encountered a formidable opponent only rankled him further. When had he ever acted so cowardly?
His sensors picked up a commotion down a riverbank. His mech turned around swiftly and approached the noise. From the amount of noise he heard, he realized the fight turned especially intense. Only a battle over coins could lead to such a frigid battle.
"Two coins!" Lovejoy exclaimed as he approached the edge of a tangled battle between five different mechs. He guessed that two pairs of runners and pursuers had bumped into each other, with another mech joining in afterwards.
What made him hold his breath was that all of the mechs were of the medium weight class. They excelled at head-on fights but their speed was nothing remarkable. As the mechs all had to devote their full attention to the fight, the original holders of the coins all dropped them to the side.
The cadet formed a bold plan to snatch the coins before making off. If he squeezed past the battling mechs correctly, they'd never catch his tail.
"Ten seconds. If I can avoid getting hit in that timeframe, I can get away scotch free."
He was confident he could avoid getting hit by melee weapons, but had less faith in his ability to dodge projectiles. As the mechs in the battle started to accumulate damage, Lovejoy's window of opportunity quickly closed. He had to make a choice.
"Ah, let's go!"
The Unicorn burst out from the trees and steadily approached the nearest coin. Of the five battling mechs, one of them noticed the newcomer but could not respond. As for the rest, they were too consumed in their attempts to constrain each other and only noticed the newcomer when he was within grabbing distance of a coin.
"Oh no you don't!" A pilot of a rifleman exclaimed as he shot a laser beam at the Unicorn.
The light mech managed to grab a coin but suffered a heavy hit on its waist. Its legs still worked fine, but another hit would definitely cripple its mobility. Lovejoy gritted his teeth and danced around the battling mechs in order to approach the second coin.
"Get the thief!"
"He's too fast!"
The Unicorn received another couple of hits, but they only scraped off the armor. Lovejoy picked a good moment to make his move, as all of the mechs suffered from depleted ammunition or severe overheating. After bending down to pick up the second coin, the Unicorn raced off like a cat who caught the canary.
Even the commentators who were watching from above noticed the daring raid, though the pilots could not hear their words.
"Cadet Lovejoy is in for it now! He dared to snatch two whole coins from a crowd of serious-looking mechs. Can he get away from their clutches?"
"Ouch! One of his mech's legs got hit! But wait a moment! The mech is still running like a horse! Incredible!"
"He got away! The medium mechs lost track of the little bugger. How tragic! They fought so long only to end up with nothing but damaged mechs. Their chances of making it through have dropped down to almost zero."
In fact, while the Unicorn appeared to be running at full capacity, the damage was a lot more serious than the observers thought. The pace the mech had set increased the burden on the damaged leg, which decreased its effective lifespan. Lovejoy had no choice but to keep running at full tilt in order to lose his pursuers.
"That should do it." Lovejoy tiredly said as he let out deep breaths. He looked down his leg and saw that the damage was fairly bad. "It won't last very long, but I should at least last long enough to deliver my coins."
Lovejoy sacrificed a lot in order to obtain his spoils of war. He directly discarded his pistol and sword in order to lower his encumbrance.
At this stage of the battle, he could scavenge any weapon from a broken mech as long as it was simple. The more sophisticated weapons usually featured identity controls that locked them out against unauthorized users.
After scavenging a discarded knife, the Unicorn carefully trod towards the nearest delivery point. As he carried double the amount of coins as everyone else, he tried to camouflage his ill-gotten gains as best as possible. He dug some dirt and soiled the coins as best as possible before breaking up a tree trunk and stuffing the coins between a wide cut.
"It won't fool anyone who comes close, but at least I won't give the game away from the reflections."
Most pilots weren't willing to fight against a mech if it carried no coins. Such a battle was pointless and did not help too much in increasing their score. However, there were plenty of exceptions.
An innocent looking rabbit mech hopped in the Unicorn's path. Despite its fragile appearance, Lovejoy stopped as he felt a chill. The quadruped mech obviously suffered quite an ordeal. Its entire armor was worn out as it suffered from a lot of glancing blows. What Lovejoy found particularly notable was that despite its sordid look, the rabbit mech managed to avoid critical damage.
Its pilot must be a genuine powerhouse.
"Your mech stands no chance against mine. Can you please get out of my way?"
A silky smooth voice emerged from the rabbit mech. "Not until you show me what you're carrying in your hands."
"It's just a piece of wood I conveniently picked up. It's a nice distraction if I throw it at obnoxious bastards like you."
"Very funny. Feel free to throw it at me then. You can practice your aim."
Lovejoy would never relinquish his hidden coins. "Go away. This is your last warning."
The rabbit mech's pilot stayed silent, but its continued presence was a provocation in itself. He wasn't stepping aside without a fight.
The worst thing about the situation was that Lovejoy recognized the voice. Richard Lovell was one of the Abelard Academy's top pilots. His ranking always hovered in the top three. Such a monstrous pilot could do miracles with any mech, let alone a worn-out rabbit mech.
The face-off even attracted the attention of the crowd.
"That's the top-ranked pilot confronting the sixteenth-ranked pilot."
"I've taken notice of that light mech. He's hiding not one but two coins in that log!"
"How did Lovell sniff out those coins?"
"Who knows, but I'm sure a lot of sparks are about to fly."
"I've heard a bit about Lovell and Lovejoy. They both clashed a lot of times due to the similarity of their names. A lot of times, they get paired up against each other during practices."
Cadet Lovejoy indeed fought many times against Richard Lovell. He lost over ninety percent of the time. Even with a superior mech, he did not let down his guard.
The rabbit mech made the first move. It leaped forward in a powerful hop which startled the Unicorn. Lovejoy jinked his mech aside while throwing the log at the rabbit. The flimsy wood failed to scratch the rabbit, but the distraction proved enough for Lovejoy to turn around his mech and slash at the landing rabbit.
"You're too young to catch me off-guard." The calm voice of Cadet Lovell said as the rabbit mech kicked out its leg against the grip.
After fending off the knife, the rabbit hopped close and amazingly avoided a kick as it snapped its jaws against the damaged portion of the Unicorn's leg. The rabbit mech was too weak to snap off the entire leg, but it successfully exacerbated the wound.
"You bastard! I won't let you take my chances away!" Lovejoy roared as he turned berserk. The damage to his mech's leg had worsened so much that he wouldn't last longer than an hour, less if he stressed the limb. However, he had no thoughts on preserving his leg as he crazily tried to tear apart the rabbit mech.
Even Cadet Lovell was taken aback at the sudden ferocity. He tried to pilot his rabbit out of reach as best as possible, but the mech still suffered from the limitations of its hasty introduction to the battlefield. The rabbit fended off the strikes as best as possible and even got in another hit when it fired off the laser built into its mouth.
The Unicorn took the hit head-on and only suffered damage to its torso armor. The laser ultimately lacked the power to punch through in a single hit. Lovejoy did not give the rabbit another opportunity to fire off its laser as it finally reached the rabbit.
With brutal efficiency, the Unicorn pressed down the mech's head with one arm and slashed it with a knife with the other arm. The knife sliced off both ears along with a decent chunk of its head.
The sudden move caused the Unicorn to lose its grip. Cadet Lovell successfully moved his rabbit away and crazily hopped into the bushes.
"Yeah! Just get lost!" Lovejoy shouted even as he declined to pursue the wounded beast mech.
His expression worsened when he read the detailed damage report of the Unicorn's tattered leg. Its core integrity was close to snapping. It could not bear so much weight anymore. In order to maintain its shape, the Unicorn was forced to walk.
"I've got two coins. So long as I succeed in delivering them, I still stand a decent chance of reaching the top 100."
The rabbit mech had inflicted major damage to his chances of survival. In some years, six deliveries was enough to make it through. However, that was no guarantee for this year's competition. Cadet Lovejoy faced an uphill battle.
"First, I have to finish delivering these goddarn coins."