When Ves initially picked Kemila as his starting point on the Asco Continent, he looked up on the only Crown Cat within the vicinity.
Zeigra, the Mech Cruncher, earned his name for his penchant of biting entire chunks out of mechs with his abnormally strong and powerful teeth. A lot of mechs that successfully fled from the notoriously bad-tempered cat returned to Kemila with gaping bite marks marring their frames.
Yet the lack of mention of more exceptional abilities painted Zeigra as a huge cat who merely relied on his exceptional physical endowments to defeat his hunters. Ves no longer looked into the rust-colored Crown Cat any further.
However, if the hearsay gathered by Casella and Imon was reliable, then there may be more to Zeigra than met the eye!
Two traits about Zeigra made Ves take a second look at the Crown Cat.
First, Zeigra's supposed ability to grow faster by ingesting and incorporating certain metals or exotics sounded very interesting! While it sounded like a purely physical ability, it reminded him a lot of his own pet!
He looked down at his lounging cat. \"Does Zeigra happen to be your cousin or something?\"
\"Haha, forget I asked.\"
The two cats were so completely different that the notion that they were related was ridiculous.
The real reason why Zeigra's assimilation ability attracted his interest was because of the potential value it could add to his Devil Tiger.
His smart metal bestial mech mostly consisted of pure ASMAS and substitute ASMAS. While the former was irreplaceable, the latter could continually be replenished and improved depending on the quality of materials that the Devil Tiger obtained.
If Ves instilled a piece of Zeigra's spirituality as his Devil Tiger's design spirit, then the mech's ability to upgrade itself might become a lot smoother.
Having a design spirit that already understood this process would increase the mech's autonomous operation in this function!
Second, Zeigra's rumored corrosion inducement ability also held a lot of promises. If the Crown Cat genuinely possesses this capability without relying on physical means, then there may be a chance that Zeigra applied a form of spirituality!
Ves made a decision. \"Add Zeigra to the list of huge cats that require deeper investigation. I want to hear more stories that haven't circulated on the galactic net. What makes him so powerful? What other abilities does he have up his sleeve? Try and gather more information and corroborate it with other mech pilots.\"
Sending out the Ingvars on an intelligence-gathering assignment worked out well this time. As mech pilots, the Ingvars connected easily with other mech pilots. Their privileged upbringing and former noble roots also made it easier for them to mingle with the upper end of the hunting community.
After a bit of discussion, Ves wrapped the meeting up. \"Alright, I'm satisfied with the information you've gathered, but it's not enough. All of the pertinent information I've so far consists of rumors. While I'm sure that they have a grain of truth, that's not enough for me to make a solid decision.\"
He issued instructions for Crindon and the Ingvars to continue what they were doing.
To facilitate their tasks, Ves gave Crindon permission to hack into local networks if he ever found a good opportunity.
\"Are you capable of hacking into networks without getting caught?\"
\"The hacking equipment you've provided me is a lot more up to date compared to the security systems in Kemila.\" Crindon explained. \"That said, many hunting teams have staff on hand that make sure their virtual security is up to date. They can get into big trouble if their data leaks to their rivals.\"
\"Why so?\" Ves frowned.
\"Because sometimes rival hunting teams sabotage each other.\"
Crindon offered a mocking smile. \"It's one of the unspoken secrets within the hunting community. Some hunting teams are very competitive and constantly brag about their hunts. This has led to very ugly rivalries and vendettas. While the authorities strictly prohibit any mech-to-mech combat and punishes a hunting team severely if they are caught, shenanigans occasionally take place. It's very difficult to prove, though, but every hunting team is on guard regardless.\"
The only limitation was that the hunting teams couldn't afford to splurge on virtual security. They invested most of their money on procuring and maintaining their mechs. Mech pilots also demanded generous salaries. Other priorities had to make due with a very diminished pot of money.
The Kinner security expert couldn't do much by himself. \"Don't expect miracles, sir.\"
\"Just do what you can, but err on the side of caution.\"
Aside from giving Crindon more room, Ves also provided the Ingvars with a bigger bag of money that they could spend on schmoozing with the local mech pilots.
\"If you can, don't confine yourselves to interrogating the mech pilots who work for the premier hunting outfits.\"
\"We'll try.\" Casella said without too much enthusiasm.
After their first day in Kemila, Ves and his entourage settled down and continued to go on an information gathering spree.
Ves was sure that his attempts to gather more information had spread throughout the hunting community. The hunters didn't mind if he learned some obscure information, but they began asking higher and higher prices.
\"We're being exploited.\" Gavin spoke bluntly at the start of the third day. \"Practically every hunter knows that they can drink top shelf liquor on your tab whenever they are fortunate enough to be approached by the Ingvars.\"
\"I know, Benny. It was only a matter of time.\" Ves said as he calmly stroked the back of a feral savannah cat. \"I'm surprised the hunters caught on quickly.\"
Currently, they resided in a private courtyard where they just ate lunch. Ves felt it was beneath his dignity to trawl the streets for information on foot. The whole point of expanding his staff was so that he could delegate the tasks that needed to be performed to others!
\"I don't know why you insist so much on gathering information through informal channels, boss. All of the information we've received up to now is highly dubious. Who knows which pieces of information are true and which ones the half-drunken mech pilots made up on the spot in order to brag about their experiences?\"
Ves smirked as he scratched the savannah cat's chin. Fortunately, he already sent out Lucky on his own snooping mission!
\"The key to gathering information is to corroborate it with multiple sources.\"
\"Will that even be possible with our current approach? The hunters can make complete fools of us by sticking to the same story even if its pure fantasy!\"
\"What I said still applies.\" Ves calmly replied. \"You just have to find a different type of source, preferably one that isn't beholden to the same motives as the original source.\"
\"Is that why you sent out Crindon with orders to try his luck?\"
He nodded. \"That is one of the means. I still have another means.\"
\"And what is that?\"
\"Hehe, that's a secret.\"
In fact, the secret that Ves alluded to happened to be resting right on his lap! He just didn't want to mention it out loud because of the monitoring systems that were surely keeping an eye on the courtyard.
He also opted to wear his organic cat ear attachments again despite his increasing suspicion that they served as organic sound recorders that secretly transmitted its data to House Laterna's specialized receivers.
Being paranoid was okay, but being too obvious about it only engendered further suspicion. Ves already knew that he already merited a lot of attention for being the only Journeyman in Kemila.
The best way to deflect suspicion was to let the monitoring systems see what they wanted to see. By acting as casual and unconcerned as possible, Ves hoped that many people would overlook the aspects he wanted to keep under wraps.
\"Maow..\" The organic savannah cat turned his head so that Ves could scratch his ears.
\"Oh, what an adorable little fellow you are!\" Ves grinned as he pampered the feral cat with rubbing and scratches. \"Am I your favorite human?\"
\"Haha, that's okay. So which humans do you like the most?\"
\"Hehe. What about the huge cats? Which one is the strongest?\"
\"Mhmm. The biggest cats aren't always the most impressive ones.\"
To Gavin, Nitaa and anyone observing Ves, they probably thought he was spending his days playing with the feral cats that roamed the streets of Kemila.\\
Just like every other part of Felixia, the Asco Continent also featured a lot of cats. Different from the Eron Continent, the cats on Asco weren't the docile, hug-friendly creatures designed to be as harmless as possible.
The cats of the Asco Continent had to hunt for their own food or depend upon the generosity of the humans who had better things to do than feed a lot of cats every day.
Asco's feral cats merely livened up the place a bit, but served no other purpose. House Laterna hadn't made them sentient or turned them into spies.
This sounded odd to Ves at first, but then he realized that the hunting teams were probably a lot sharper than innocent tourists. They firmly kept the roaming feral cats off their compounds for fear that they carried listening devices in their bodies.
Nonetheless, even if the feral street cats weren't allowed to enter the sanctums of the hunting teams, they still witnessed a lot of conversations!
The only problem was that getting useful information out of them required a lot of interpretation and guesswork on his part. Cats such as the savannah cat on his lap exhibited the intelligence and attention span of a four-year old kid, which meant that Ves had to question a lot of cats in order to combine many tiny snippets of information into coherent clues.
A few days passed by as Ves kept waiting and gathering more information. Aside from collecting intel from his subordinates and the feral street cats, he also received valuable information from Lucky.
\"Meow meow meow.\"
\"Do you really think so? Crown Cats do deserve their reputation.\"
As Ves retired to his hotel room at the end of the fifth day since arriving at Kemila, he developed a pretty good picture of the local situation. He even learned enough dirty secrets of various hunting teams to rule them out of consideration.
When it came to the huge cats, his alternative intelligence sources weren't of much use. The feral cat community of Kemila mostly heard about them in passing. They never met them in person aside from the few captive huge cats brought to the holding cells.
\"That was another disappointment.\" He sighed.
Only a couple of captive huge cats occupied the underground holding cells. When Ves inspected their spirituality, he sensed nothing different from the average feral cat on the streets.
As far as he was concerned, the huge cats were genetic abominations who relied purely on the strengths programmed into them by House Laterna's genetic researchers.
For this reason, Ves began to doubt whether any genetically-modified cat on Asco possessed any spirituality at all. This potentially included Zeigra, though accidents could always happen.
His mind came back to the Dragon Cat. Of all the huge cats who resided in the hunting zones around Kemila, only the pure exobeast gave him the most hopes of obtaining what he wanted. The abilities she presumably possessed sounded very much like a spiritual phenomenon.
Still, the Dragon Cat's ability to influence the moods of mech pilots and make them lose their cool sounded rather... underwhelming.
If Ves had a choice, he would rather opt for obtaining a spiritual fragment from Zeigra. The Mech Cruncher's affinity to metal, even if exaggerated, fit a lot more with his vision for the Devil Tiger!
Yet the thought of hunting down a famed Crown Cat made him recall Calabast's rebuke. Was the risk really worth the reward?
Ves felt enormously tempted to chase after Zeigra regardless of how poor of an idea it sounded.
\"Zeigra is perfect for my Devil Tiger!\"