High above the sky, the ships of the Verle Task Force intermittently witnessed the footage of the astounding events that happened deep within the forest. Ves had to rub his eyes as he stared at the sensor data of a specific measuring instrument.
This particular tool measured the resonance strength of a mech pilot. Currently, the readout had spiked to 1.67 laveres! This was far beyond the bounds of 0.00001 laveres that an expert candidate typically exhibited!
"Sir!" Ves called out to Major Verle. "Captain Foster has broken through her bottleneck! The Neyvar mech that she's piloting is currently exhibiting forced resonance!"
No one was able to keep calm when they heard that announcement. Even Major Verle lost his composure for a moment.
Captain Relia Foster was a candidate no longer! The difference between an expert candidate and a bona fide expert pilot was not as simple as an amplification of resonance strength.
A true expert pilot was like a demigod, whose attributes and skills received a large promotion. More importantly, an expert that had recently broken through still enjoyed the baptism of breaking through their shackles!
Their life phase was in flux and the power they commanded could be stretched. What this basically meant was that they could draw on a lot more strength than usual!
The Neyvar glowed as an indistinct energy field surrounded it. The entire mech resonated with Captain Foster despite lacking any resonating elements in its design!
This was an obvious display of forced resonance, where an expert pilot achieved the impossible and resonated with a normal mech!
An ordinary expert pilot wasn't capable of performing such a feat. In fact, forced resonance was one of the signature abilities of an ace pilot. The only reason why Captain Foster could accomplish this feat was because her recent breakthrough left her piloting abilities in flux.
"Sir, Captain Foster is still riding the aftermath of her breakthrough! This is the worst time to be fighting her! I highly suggest you pull back our forces from the chopping board!" Ves advised. "Think through this! Captain Foster may have become an expert, but she doesn't have the right tools to take advantage of her new state! Right now, she's obviously pushing her Neyvar mech beyond its limits. That mech won't be able to take much more abuse, and will certainly be in much worse shape once it cools down! Its energy reserves are rapidly depleting as well!"
Major Verle eventually woke up. "You're right, Mr. Larkinson."
He ordered an immediate retreat. Unfortunately, due to the spotty communication environment on the Kamwin continent, his orders hadn't reached the Vandals on the ground in time.
Almost a hundred Vandal mechs lay ruined on the ground. All of the Vandal wrecks bore deep and penetrating sword wounds. The only activity left in the vicinity came from the Neyvar, which hunted down the cockpits that had ejected from the Vandal mechs in time.
"No quarter to pirates!"
Ten minutes passed by until Relia gave up on hunting down the elusive pirates. As the battle rage faded from her mind, she fell out of her super mode and slumped down from her cockpit seat.
She defeated so many pirate mechs, but had been unable to bring her comrades back to life. For a moment, she felt as if all of this struggle was pointless, but then she stared at the broken Vandal mechs and regained her resolve.
"As long as pirates still run amok, my duty has not yet ended."
She regained her clarity and scanned the environment for threats. Spotting none in the immediate area, she glanced at the status screens of the Neyvar and winced.
"Sorry old partner, I pushed you way too hard."
The Neyvar had been designed to accommodate mortal mech pilots. It couldn't withstand the level of performance that an expert pilot demanded from their machines.
The temporary boost in performance from Relia's display of forced resonance may have turned the Neyvar into a genocide machine, but she was unable to turn water into wine. The material composition of a mech remained the same whether it was piloted by a normal mech pilot or the best expert pilot in the galactic rim.
While the Neyvar definitely needed to be scrapped, Relia tentatively judged that the swordsman mech could still last a couple more days if she didn't put too much strain on its systems.
This was enough. Relia still thirsted for blood.
"I need to replenish the Neyvar's energy cells."
The short burst of hyperactive combat left the mech with a much-diminished energy reserve. Thirty minutes more, and the Neyvar would have collapsed despite her best efforts.
Though it saddened her to do so, Relia forced her damaged mech to trudge over to the wrecks of her escort mechs. She picked a medium mech and turned it over to its belly before prying open its lower back armor plating. Carefully, the Neyvar's delicate movements opened up the fallen mech's back, revealing several banks of energy cells.
Relia activated a special command, causing the Neyvar to open up its back armor on its own accord and eject the fully depleted energy cells. After that, she quickly manipulated her mech with utmost concentration. The Neyvar carefully removed the energy cells from the fallen mech and slowly inserted it into an open slot at the rear of the swordsman mech.
Almost no mech pilot dared to replenish their energy cells by themselves. Lots could go wrong, and mechs generally weren't precise enough to handle energy cells without denting them in some way.
These concerns didn't apply to expert pilots like Relia. Her control over her mech had vastly improved. Precision work like this was child's play to mech pilots at her level.
The biggest threat she faced besides the Vandals came from the Kamwin continent itself. The Vandals had largely been able to mop up the native genetically modified monsters through sheer numbers, but Relia needed to keep her eyes peeled for any ambushes.
Fortunately, the scale of the fighting had scared away all of the monsters in the vicinity. They still possessed some sense of self-preservation despite all of the genetic modification.
As Relia became accustomed to the chore of swapping energy cells, the Neyvar moved faster and faster until it filled its tank. Though the fallen mech's energy cells already expended some of its energy beforehand, the Neyvar's energy levels had risen to seventy percent, enough to sustain it for another big fight.
The Neyvar rose to its feet and powered up its sensors. "Where are you, pirates?!"
Back at the Shield of Hispania's command center, everyone still needed time to register the disaster they provoked on their own accord. Nobody expected that Relia would break through her shackles so quickly and prove to the Vandals why expert pilots were regarded as demigods.
"I guess we'll have to start calling her Venerable Foster from now on." Ves muttered to himself. "Her performance after her break through is wildly out of bounds from our most pessimistic projections."
Ves had fallen into the expectations of others, and never really considered whether Captain Foster spontaneously broke through during battle. When it came to expert pilots, his understanding still contained a lot of gaps.
"This isn't anyone's fault." Major Verle spoke after a long moment of reflection. "The responsibility for the deaths of our comrades on the ground lies squarely at Venerable Foster's feet. The only way to absolve ourselves from this setback is to finish the mission and subdue our primary objective. Her advancement to expert pilot just turned her into a bigger priority."
Venerable Foster was worth a lot more than Captain Foster, that was for certain. Peace for Hafner would have to cough up a lot more compensation to the Vandals if they managed to take care of the wild and unstable expert pilot. Ves wondered if the rebel group would make up for their losses. The Vandals had already bled a lot of mechs and mech pilots from this battle.
"Sir! Venerable Foster is on the move!"
"In which direction is she escaping towards?"
"She's not moving away from our forces! The Venerable's mech is moving towards our landing site!"
Nobody knew what to think about this decision. Venerable Foster was obviously out for blood. If she knew that the Vandals could only linger in this system for a very short time, she would have been better off running away. By turning around and forcing a fight with the Vandals, she had cut off all hope for escape.
This was good news for the Vandals since they wouldn't have to worry about running out of time. The only downside was that they needed to face fully-fledged expert pilot in battle. Even if Foster lacked a tailored expert mech, she had already shown what she could do with a Neyvar mech.
Another factor that may have encouraged the expert pilot to turn around was that running away meant bumping into other monsters. While Foster would be able to take them out without too much effort, each encounter would inevitably slow her down and deplete her precious energy.
On the other hand, backtracking the path that had recently been trod by over a hundred Vandal mechs meant a smooth journey. The monster mechs in the vicinity had all been cleaned up, and it would take time for other groups of monsters to take over these lands.
"Your analysis, Mr. Larkinson?"
Ves cleared his throat against Major Verle's prompt. "If Venerable Foster wishes to force another battle against us, sustaining further casualties is unavoidable. That said, her approach will allow us to make ample preparations."
"I doubt she's stupid enough to approach us head-on." The tactical officer said. "She might have gone berserk after being cornered in the previous fight, but she'll be fighting with a cooler head next time. Don't forget that she's a qualified mech captain."
"Then do you think we don't have what it takes to defeat the Venerable?"
"That is not what I said, Mr. Larkinson. We all have to remember that she is all by herself. In addition, her Neyvar mech isn't able to catch up to her level of performance. These limitations will be vital in defeating her without sustaining too many casualties."
Ves agreed with those points. "According to theory, her previous display of forced resonance is also a one-off phenomenon. Now that her life phase has stabilized, she won't be able to pull more power from nowhere. She is like a knight with no armor. Without the right equipment, her threat is vastly reduced. We won't be facing a monster on the level of Venerable O'Callahan."
The other Venerable piloted a mech worth billions of credits, while Venerable Foster had to make ends meet with a damaged mech worth sixty million sovvies at most. This fundamental gap in mech quality couldn't be overcome by a newly ascended demigod.
"She won't be alone either." The tactical officer added. "Don't forget that the Kamwin continent is Hafner's home ground. Training Camp Quistas initially scattered all of their trainees and instructors because they bet that Foster would have been able to stay out of reach. Now that she is turning around, they are bound by duty to assist."
"How many mechs are we talking about?"
"According to the intelligence provided by Peace for Hafner, the training camp hosted over twenty instructors and around a hundred trainees. All of them are highly skilled, but their mechs are optimized against monsters."
The Vandals already defeated a handful of trainees, so the total number of enemy mechs would still be manageable. Still, they couldn't underestimate how much damage an expert pilot could do when backed up by over a hundred mechs.
The Vandal landbound contingent wasn't in the best shape after that disaster of a battle. Ves silently counted how many mechs still retained enough battle capability to resist the enemy and came up with around two-hundred-and-fifty mechs.
"Will this be enough?"