A young and athletic man collapsed in exhaustion after running his umpteenth lap. No one else was present in the large and well-equipped training facility aside from William and his designated trainer for the day.
Once Ves and Ronsel entered the main training hall, they quickly strode over to the occupants.
Ves peered down at William's sweaty, fit body. This was the body of a warrior and a mech pilot. If anyone told him that the person occupying this body was an abject coward, he wouldn't believe it at first.
"How has this fellow fared under your care?"
"Poorly." Ronsel sighed. "Young William here is by far our most confounding student. We have never encountered a mech pilot who is so completely helpless when it comes to actual mech combat. In fact, forget about mechs, he's not even able to bring himself to spar with our trainers."
The Rim Guardians wouldn't have given up on William Urbesh if his condition was easy to treat. Not even Ronsel managed to overcome William's crippling psychological condition!
"At least he made some progress under your training regime, right?"
"We did. We systematically trained and retrained him. Aside from his affliction, we managed to correct all of his bad habits and expand his versatility. Upon your instructions, we've spent a lot of effort in making him proficient in piloting spaceborn rifleman mechs. It's not much use, though. Even if he's relegated to the rear of a battle line, he still locks up in fear."
What a sad mech pilot. The more Ves stared at the exiled scion of the Urbesh Clan, the more he became disgusted at the sight.
Even though he knew that William was not to blame for his uncontrollable affliction, cowardice was something every Larkinson had learned to detest. No matter if it was Ves, Ronsel or William's current instructor, all of them looked down on William with mild contempt.
"Please carry him back to the locker room to refresh himself. We're taking him with us back to the Mech Nursery."
The instructor approached and easily lifted William up as if he was a sack.
"Unhand me!" The young mech pilot protested! "I can take care of myself!"
No one listened to his words.
Ves and Ronsel talked for a while before William Urbesh reappeared, clean and ready to depart.
"Come with me. It's time to step up the next phase of your training."
Some time later, Ves said goodbye to Ronsel and took William inside his shuttle. As his vehicle rose to the air and departed to the Mech Nursery, William immediately launched a tirade against Ves!
"You! It's all your fault! Why did you dump me onto the laps of your hellishly strict relatives!? I hate you! I hate your Larkinsons! If I was back in Vicious Mountain, I could easily crush you measly third-raters!"
Ves calmly raised his hand. "Nitaa. Please slap some sense in him. His words displease my sensibilities."
Even if Urbesh came from a once-storied clan from a tribe within the vast and powerful Garlen Empire, Ves did not care for William's feelings. The mech pilot was merely a means to an end.
As Nitaa approached, William feebly raised his arms, only for them to get whacked aside. A couple of precisely-controlled punches followed that quickly wiped away the mech pilot's bluster.
"Ahh! That hurts! The Rim Guardians won't forgive you!"
"Ahh! Stop it! I'm sorry, Mr. Larkinson!"
"Pathetic." Ves sneered at William. "The mech pilots of Vicious Mountain are known as warriors and tyrants. Has all of the training we put into you gone to waste? A real man ought to stand up for himself!"
"I-I-I-I can't! Your woman is too big and strong! There's no way I can beat her in a fight!"
Ves wordlessly shook his head in disappointment. This fellow was more pathetic than a male Hexer! What would Gloriana think when she finally met William in person?
Once Nitaa taught William a lesson, the mech pilot sat meekly on the opposite side of the shuttle. The man fidgeted uncomfortably under Ves' piercing glance.
It didn't help that Ves slowly raised the pressure emanating from his overcoat. Zeigra's spiritual fragment perpetually radiated a mix of pride, aggression and hatred towards Ves, though everyone else in the vicinity suffered from its aura as well.
"Ahh! Please stop it, Mr Larkinson! I can't take it! I want to die!"
Ves dampened the aura from his overcoat to give the Urbesh clansman some relief.
In truth, Ves performed a brief experiment to see how Urbesh reacted to Zeigra's aura on a spiritual level.
Unlike many other mech pilots, William was lucky enough to possess spiritual potential. Ves observed the mech pilot's trace of spirituality very carefully when he raised his overcoat's aura to the maximum.
As expected, a very intense spiritual reaction took place in William's spirituality. It amplified and resonated with the man's existing fears and other related emotions.
This little test confirmed Ves' suspicions. William's fears were rooted deeply in his personality. So much so that once he developed spiritual potential, the weak trace of spirituality in his head acquired a character that matched his cowardly personality!
The implications of these observations were grave.
If Ves used an unknown means to forcibly elevate William into an expert candidate, then his cowardice wouldn't go away. Instead, as his spirituality developed further, his cowardice would become more magnified!
Even if William advanced all the way to god pilot, his cowardice would be so strong that he wouldn't even be able to hurt a fly despite his immense might!
"What a tricky problem." Ves muttered under his breath.
Fixing this fellow's problem wasn't as simple as performing spiritual lobotomization on his spirituality.
William possessed very little spirituality. The reason why Ves described it as spiritual potential was because it only amounted to potential in this stage.
There was no way that William possessed enough spirituality to augment his piloting and fighting skills.
What was worse was that the spiritual attribute that was most predominant in William's spirituality probably corresponded to his cowardice. The man had lived in so much fear that his spirituality precisely reflected how badly he got spooked!
How much spirituality would be left after Ves cut off the part he considered a tumor? Almost nothing!
Ves had no idea what would happen. Would William lose so much spiritual potential that he would regress to a norm without potential? He couldn't risk this possibility!
As the shuttle approached the Mech Nursery, Ves silently formed a number of approaches. All of them came with various amounts of risks.
Whatever approach he selected, he needed to make a choice very soon. The custom mech destined for William needed to accommodate a mech pilot who was willing to fight.
It was pointless to finalize a custom mech for a mech pilot who would definitely turn around and flee at the first sight of an enemy!
Once the shuttle arrived at the Mech Nursery, the group moved down to the newly-refurbished lab and workshop floor.
As soon as Ves entered the main hall, he instantly became struck by the advanced equipment.
Though Ves didn't know what they were capable of, they looked as sleek, classy and capable as the lab machines owned by Master Olson!
"How luxurious!" He gasped.
"Ves! Over here!"
Ves walked to Gloriana who was wearing a lab coat and exchanged a kiss.
"How have you been?"
"I'm great. This workshop looks a lot better now that I replaced your trash machines with my own equipment. Do you want to see what they can do?"
"Later." Ves waved his hand. "Let's meet with the others first."
A number of people stood aside as Ves and Gloriana kissed and greeted each other. Ketis in particular looked a bit unsettled before she schooled her face.
"Ketis, you've grown up." He spoke.
As he inspected her with his spiritual senses, he sensed that her nascent design philosophy had made a lot of progress.
"With the sandmen sweeping through the frontier, I realized that I can't play around anymore." She spoke with graveness. Her upbeat personality was nowhere to be found right now! "If not for Calabast, my fellow Swordmaidens wouldn't have been able to make it out. I owe a huge debt to you and her. I hope I can pay it back one day."
"You don't have to feel you owe us something." Ves gently smiled at her. "Commander Dise and the Swordmaidens can take care of their own debt to Calabast. As for you, you're my student. Progressing as a mech designer is enough to make me satisfied."
"Thank you, sir, but I'm not a good friend if I don't settle this debt."
"She's a good kid." Gloriana smiled and pressed against Ves. "Smart, too. I don't mind tutoring her a bit when I have some time available."
"Please do. Ketis hasn't received an orthodox mech design education, so she's a little rough around the edges."
"I've noticed. I don't mind. She's dedicated to our craft and cares a lot about her design philosophy. She's a good seed."
Ves wasn't sure if Gloriana was actually sincere or if she merely acted polite in order to avoid badmouthing his first student.
Whatever the case, Ves hoped that both women would be able to get along. They were both his two most important fellow mech designers.
He asked a few more questions to Ketis. She hadn't spent the last year in vain. Aside from designing some variants by herself, she also expanded her knowledge base to the point where she possessed a solid Apprentice-level foundation. She even made some strides towards acquiring Journeyman-level Mechanics, but the sheer amount of knowledge couldn't be picked up so easily at her busy schedule.
Once he became satisfied at her progress, he turned his attention to the four teenagers standing attentively next to Ketis.
"So, are you the hopeful future mech designers the Larkinsons have sent to me? Introduce yourselves, please."
"Maisie Ann Larkinson."
Two boys, two girls. Each of them ranged from ages fourteen to sixteen. All of them had moved to Cloudy Curtain a while ago and attended a local school. Not only that, the Larkinsons also supplemented their learning by hiring a bunch of excellent tutors for all of their kids.
The four seeds before Ves received the most attention from the tutors. The Larkinsons were very hopeful that they would become the supporting pillars of the family a decade or two from now.
Unfortunately, it was unlikely they would amount to more. At this moment, none of the four seeds possessed spiritual potential. Unless they developed it later on, becoming Apprentices was the most they could achieve in their lives.
That made him wonder how soon a human could develop spiritual potential. Ves mostly spent his time with adults, and they either possessed it or not. He never saw an instance where adults naturally managed to develop spiritual potential.
Did humans acquire it during their teens? Then these seeds still possessed hope.
Ves looked at the four seeds sternly and subtly raised the aura of his overcoat.
To their credit, even though the teenagers looked up to Ves, they possessed enough courage to withstand a moderate portion of Zeigra's fury.
He nodded in approval and gradually dialed down the aura. "All of you are true Larkinsons. I don't know how smart you are and how well you can learn my craft, but don't forget that you are Larkinsons. Courage and discipline defines us. You will each need to work hard and push yourselves to your limits in order to keep up with your studies. Even if we share the same blood, I won't go easy on you, because mech designers never have it easy."
Maisie Ann timidly raised her hand.
"Will we be able to design mechs?"
Both Ves and Gloriana laughed.
"Don't be in such a hurry!" Ves gently waved her down. "Designing a mech can only take place as long as you have become proficient in math, physics, mechanics and so on. The knowledge you require to start designing mechs is something that you won't be able to acquire in your teens."
The four seeds looked disappointed, but Ves didn't want to spoil them too much.