While the players and their serb squad had been busy recovering Meek-Ria's agent, ILLI command had been busy preparing for a decisive battle for Feoul. For that purpose, however, they lacked critical information on enemy troop strength and defenses of the fortress.
Fuub-Ark called a meeting in dawn and yet again involved all of his mercenary commanders. There was to be a scouting mission and it had to happen immediately. Information was needed of multiple targets, namely the Palace and the royal forces therein, the forces at the fortress and the forces currently stationed in the city.
Unfortunately both Iron Pulse and Shadow Flare were extremely ill-equipped to the mission and undergunned due to the assault on the industrial district, while Trident and Weiss&Son were occupied with defending the north front with the second army. Tumak-Niva, who had been given command of the combined mercenary air assets, reported that he could provide long-range reconnissance in the west and the south, but could not fly close to the fortress and probably should also avoid the palace. It was left to the players to perform the heavy lifting again. Fortunately, they had not suffered heavy material losses and were well-equipped for the task.
Alexander and Günther would again command the stealth hovertank and take the serbs into the desert, with the intention to get a direct visual of the fortress, while Heem-Lyeh, the russians and Charles would take all of the ECM-capable mechs and scout the palace from the mountains. Heem-Lyeh's crab could be equipped with an advanced sensor suite and cameras to enable long-range reconnissance. The mission would be timed in a way that any direct contact would happen in the twilight and darkness would cover retreat, should things not go as planned.
Alexander's mission was simpler, as the tank was mostly able to out-detect and outrun any hostiles it would encounter, but would have to be very careful not to get caught by enemy aircraft. Fortunately also the patrolling range of those would be much more limited in the environment. Heem-Lyeh's team, on the other hand, would be slower and much more visible, but also more capable of handling threats.
Tumak's air forces created a diversion early by drawing some of the remaining enemy air assets away from the scouting parties, while the mechs climbed towards the hills near the palace. Simultaneously, Alexander took a longe diverting route and came across an enemy relay tower, which he was able to hack with help from CheekyChic69. Naturally this did not provide insight into any of the actually encrypted communication through it, but CheekyChic69 set up a standard man-in-the-middle -attack, which could fool careless users and those who did not yet know the endpoint signature. After this, Alexander set up position in the hills to the west of the fortress and Heem-Lyeh's squad did the same to the north of the palace, beginning their observation. Neither was caught by patrols and enemy aircraft were sufficiently busy with Tumak's diversion that they also remained undetected from the air.
Both targets seemed well-defended and recently hardened, with the palace obviously less so, but even that seemed to have two Calliope turrets to deter aircraft and outrange most incoming units. Apart from the two lances of tanks and a lance of medium to heavy mechs detected by Alexander, the mech lance noticed something more worrying.
Some of the Knights of Tileke they had scuffled with earlier were returning from combat and seemed moderately damaged, which promted Charles to suggest pouncing on them, but Heem-Lyeh observed that in addition to the two Mist Lynx and the Cauldron Born, the Knights also had an assault mech of unknown design on the defensive inside the fortress. Without access to information on its configuration and firepower, taking action against the knights, however wonded, seemed risky. Josef was actively trying to convince the others to take the risk anyway, but new developments soon diverted his attention.
The air assets reported that a train was arriving from the south with an escort. Alexander was immediately ordered to observe it and did so, while Heem-Lyeh's lance decided to move west towards the hillside facing the tracks. When Alexander reported the cargo and the escorting hovertanks turned northward near the city limits, Charles and Josef hatched a new plan. The mechs would ambush the train as it would pass the mountainside, inflicting as much damage as possible. Alexander had reported multiple assault mechs and a lance of tanks as cargo, but it seemed that some of the tanks were geared for long-range fire support and would be easy to disable.
The fight was quick and intense. Firepower was concentrated on the fire support vehicles, and when they fell, on the weakest mech aboard. Critical hits on its legs fell the mech just as it was powering up under fire, and a daring jump from Josef brought him close enough to finish it with an LBX cluster round. The players had no intention to stick around and take return fire from the heavy tanks and the assault mechs, so they immediately retreated. The skirmish, however, brought attention from enemy fighters and the players' general location was soon investigated by a wing of Rusalka. Fortunately the players avoided detection for long enough that the enemy had little time to finish them off before they would reach friendly air cover, which in turn prompted the fighters do perform a bit too daring strike run. A lucky hit into the avionics of the leading fighter by Josef disabled the fighter and sent it flying headlong into a cliff face. The remaining fighter re-evaluated its options and decided not to engage four mechs on its own, allowing the players to escape.
This had happened a bit too many times already, but Black Nebula's pilots seem extraordinarily lucky when confronting aircraft. Whether their luck would carry them through the final assault on the city, still remained to be seen.