The lake the mechs of the hunting team approach could only be called small to huge cats and giant mechs.
For regular humans, the lake encompassed an area the size of a small mech arena!
Hardly any animals and critters approached the glistening mineral-rich water to quench their thirst. Even if many of them knew that they'd be able to boost their growth if they continued to drink the valuable lake water, the apex predator that claimed the lake as his own had left his scent all over the place!
This was Zeigra's territory, and any creature that dared to sample the lake water did so at their own peril!
As the local star continued to rise above the sky of Felixia, the waters began to glisten, sparkle and reflect a considerable amount of light. The humid air and mist added a mystical quality to the entire scene.
If not for the dangerous cats and other predators that roamed the forest, Ves would have mistaken the sight as an idyllic relaxation site!
Unfortunately, Ves doubted the pristine site would remain so picturesque. The Felixia Catstrikers had begun to move according to the plan they formulated the previous night.
Half of the mechs of the hunting team cautiously approached the clearing around the lake.
The mechs had already been adapted for hunting purposes. Each mech made as little noise as possible as they moved. They avoided every tree and took detours around bushes. Their mech pilots, all young but very well prepared, skillfully navigated the rough terrain without impacting the terrain too much.
Some huge cats were very skilled at reading the tremors propagating through the ground! Many ambushes failed when the huge cats had put up an act but turned around and claw the attacking mechs at the last moment!
\"We don't expect we can take Zeigra by surprise.\" One of the hunting consultants explained to the inspector who worked on behalf of both the royal house and the Galactic Hunting Club. \"We are merely aiming to place our mechs close enough to limit the amount of plans the Crown Cat can form in response to our approach.\"
The inspector, who happened to be a noble, nodded in understanding. \"I see you have only sent out a single knight mech in the first wave. That is a bold choice.\"
\"Lady Miralix has faith in her mech pilots and the mechs she procured for them. Mr. Larkinson here has also endeavored to sharpen them up for the coming confrontation.\"
That caused the inspector to glance briefly at Ves before turning back to the projection.
For his part, Ves felt rather put out that Lady Miralix and the other members of the hunting team put way too much stock in his abilities. Did they think he was a miracle worker or something?
He was just a mech designer! There were limits to how much he could do, especially on short notice and under severe cost and resource constraints!
Lucky, who sat on his shoulder, rubbed nervously against his head.
\"I know. I have a bad feeling about this too. When was the last time a hunting team made a stab at Zeigra? We know how strong he was back then, but how much has he grown since this time?\"
The Catstrikers already took Zeigra's growth into account. They anticipated that he had grown up to twenty percent more powerful since his last confirmed battle against a hunting team.
Ves hoped that whoever made those estimates knew what they were doing!
\"We've caught sight of a large signature at the other end of the lake! We have a confirmed sighting of Zeigra!\"
The projection shifted towards depicting a huge cat lounging on a low, grassy gnoll by the side of the lake. The massive beast squinted his eyes and basked in the sunshine pouring down on the lake and the clearing.
\"That's a very enormous and dangerous-looking cat.\" He muttered.
\"Do you think you can still take him on?\"
\"Hehe. Seeing is believing!\"
Compared to how the newest Crown Cat appeared in previous footage, the cat obviously underwent some development.
Zeigra's rust-bronze colored fur coat looked significantly richer and magnificent. Faint spots of deeper red added a remarkable texture to the Crown Cat's luxurious fur.
The cat's massive and heavy tail lazily swished about as if the huge cat had nothing to worry about this fine morning.
However, the Catstrikers weren't fooled by this peaceful facade.
\"We've detected several elevated life signs from the huge cat. He has definitely detected our first vanguard! Shall we attack, commander?\"
\"Not yet.\" Lady Miralix spoke over the channel. \"Let's wait until our flanking mechs are in position.\"
The attack planned by Miralix and her mech pilots sounded simple. Instead of throwing all eleven humanoid mechs of the Catstrikers at Zeigra all at once, they would begin with only half of that number.
The six mechs they sent forth first consisted of three ranged mechs, two spearman mechs and a single knight mech.
There was no way such a paltry force could defeat a beast that weighed more than a heavy mech and charged as fast as a lancer mech!
But that was not the point!
The vanguard's main purpose was to probe Zeigra's capabilities and determine how much the Crown Cat had grown.
Minutes passed as everyone grew more tense. Even the royal inspector looked uneasy. If the Zeigra turned out to be stronger than expected, the formidable king cat might take out his ire on the hunting team by smashing aside their mechs and tearing apart the legged transports!
Ves and everyone else aboard the transport vehicles would be in big trouble if that happened!
As Ves thought that the Catstrikers would be content in maintaining the status quo for hours if need be, Lady Miralix finally issued a decisive order!
\"Launch the attack! Follow the plan!\"
All of the mechs stopped their hiding measures and rose up from behind the concealing bushes. The three melee mechs all stood ready to react to anything that might get thrown in their way as the three ranged mechs aimed their ballistic rifles at their prey.
Most hunting teams in Asco favored ballistic rifles as their ranged weapon of choice.
Laser weapons could output a lot of damage, but they fared best in sustained battles, which rarely happened during hunts.
While they brought a considerable amount of firepower to the table, especially against cats that didn't specialize against fending off energy attacks, the damage accumulated too gradually most of the time.
In contrast, ballistic and kinetic weapons achieved much more immediate results due to the impact damage they dealt. Powerful shells and projectiles not only hit like a good blow from a melee mech, they also rattled the huge cats and incited worry.
No matter how formidable they appeared, no creature liked to be peppered with painful rounds!
The ranged mechs unleashed their first salvos. Having read up on the specifications of the ballistic rifles, Ves knew that they fired specialized shells designed specifically to deal damage against exobeasts with resilient exteriors!
As soon as the rounds impacted against the seemingly-oblivious Crown Cat, the enormous creature roared in pain and irritation as three loud explosions impacted his flank!
\"Minimal damage! Oh, he's angry!\"
\"Keep firing! We knew Zeigra's hide is harder than it looks, but the damage will add up!\"
According to the analysis performed on Zeigra's past battles, one of the more remarkable aspects about the cat was how much damage he resisted.
The cat's hide incorporated a lot of exotics and materials ordinarily seen in mech armor!
While every huge cat developed by House Laterna's biotech researchers incorporated this ability, Zeigra was vastly more efficient in ingesting and transforming materials into hardening his hide!
In their previous encounter, the Catstrikers easily defeated an ambushing huge cat by impaling it with simple spear thrusts.
Against Zeigra, it was much more likely for the spearpoint to break before the Crown Cat's hide got punctured!
\"Fire at will! Weaken his hide as much as possible!\"
One of the reasons why the Catstrikers wanted to confront Zeigra over at least four rounds was because they needed time to chip away at his defenses!
A single round of combat didn't offer enough time to create a serious vulnerability in his defenses!
Leaving aside whether it was possible to keep the ranged mechs safe against a raging Crown Cat, their rifles would probably run out of ammunition before they dealt enough damage!
For this reason, the Catstrikers heavily preferred tiring Zeigra out over multiple rounds. Otherwise, the ranged mechs wouldn't be able to replenish their ammunition!
\"He's coming! Damnit! He's diving into the water!\"
While the lake wasn't very big, it was still deep enough to encompass an entire Crown Cat!
The ranged mechs continued to fire at the underwater cat. Their firing systems automatically compensated for the angles they needed to adopt to hit the fast-moving cat, but even then their rounds encountered a lot of difficulties!
Ves knew that the ballistic rifles hadn't been designed to fire into the water!
Sooner than he expected, the powerful Crown Cat emerged on the side of the bank where the vanguard made their stand!
\"Damnit! Our flanking mechs are out of position! We thought Zeigra would have chosen to sprint around the lake! It will take a little more time for our flankers to get into position!\"
The six mechs of the vanguard faced a very tough test right now. They had to contain and withstand the powerful Crown Cat!
Fortunately, his relatively young age meant he lacked the rich battle experience of the older Crown Cats. Zeigra directly pounced against the knight mech with his claws ready to grip and tear at the defensive mech!
Just like last time, the knight mech did not attempt to fend off the attack head-on. Zeigra's pouncing momentum was way too dreadful for any mech to withstand directly!
Instead, the mech quickly took a few steps back and angled to the side. The knight mech held its curved shield with both arms, having never unsheathed its sword.
There was no way the knight mech would ever be able to hurt Zeigra even if it swung its sword a hundred times!
An awful sound screeched as Zeigra's claws raked across the surface of the shield!
If the previous huge cat barely left any marks on the shield, Zeigra was entirely different!
His sharp claws and powerful momentum inflicted a very deep pair of grooves behind! Zeigra managed to penetrate multiple layers of armor with his first attack!
Everyone looked frightened at the might of the Crown Cat! If Zeigra continued to cut and pound at the damaged sections of the shield, it would surely succumb in minutes!
Fortunately, while the shield took a serious beating, the knight mech itself managed to smoothly ride out the impact pressed upon its frame by moving backwards and bending its legs to shunt the force to the ground!
\"Get up!\" Lady Miralix commanded. \"Zeigra has already recovered! He's attempting to attack our rifleman mechs!\"
Despite its remarkable stance and techniques, the knight mech endured such a heavy impact that it required several more seconds to recover! This was way too much time as the energetic Crown Cat already started to close the distance to the ranged mechs!
The rifleman mechs had already started beating a retreat, turning around their upper torsos to fire at Zeigra's massive bulk while doing so. Nonetheless, their running speed paled in comparison to an apex predator that had reached the top twenty of the ranking!
The spearman mechs had no choice but to move into action. They rushed forward and tried to threaten Zeigra in order to force him to confront the more immediate threat!
\"Zeigra is attempting to bypass our spearman mechs!\"
The cat was smart enough to realize that the ranged mechs posed a bigger threat! The longer they fired at his hide, the more his defenses deteriorated!
Just as the spearman mechs launched their thrusts, the cat released a powerful roar! Immediately afterwards, one of the spearman mechs inexplicably tripped!