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Chapter 98 - Playing With Fire

 There was no doubt about it. At the last, crucial moment, Drake broke past Cloudhawk's defenses.

Few soldiers were able to use the Spearhead manuever effectively. Even someone like Eckard, were he in a similar position, couldn't use the maneuver as well as Drake had. He was the pride of Skycloud's new military generation for just that reason. None of the twenty-something trainees that followed him to Hell's Valley could stop Spearhead head-on. For Cloudhawk, caught with his defenses down, the sudden explosion of power from Drake was a disaster.

Had their new captain bitten off more than he could chew? His ass hadn't even settled in his new seat before he started playing with fire too hot for him to handle.

Dumont and Eckard made a move to intervene once they saw Drake using Spearhead, but were stopped by Natessa. They looked at her in doubt as Cloudhawk's body was split gruesomely in half. Each side of his body hit the ground with a heavy thud.

Drake landed solidly on his feet. A maneuver like that was more than draining, to do it he had to squeeze every last drop of power from his muscle cells. Every ounce of potential from deep in his bones had to be summoned, which meant that the burden and potential for injury were high. As a result, even the mighty Drake took heaving breaths as he tried to recover.

Was he... really dead?

He felt a sharp presence against his throat.

He raised his hand to his neck guard to find it had been cut open. A serious gash split the skin of his neck, and fresh blood gushed from it. His hand came away soaked in crimson.

His throat was cut? But when!?

His eyes darted to the two halves of Cloudhawk still on the ground. It dissolved before him, blown away on the wind one yellow grain at a time. Sand. Where he might expect blood or organs, there was only molten grit. was it sand? He was made of sand!

The panic was not Drake's alone. None of the trainees could understand what happened right in front of them. After such an incredible showing the soldier came back with his throat slit. He fell on his back with blood still spurting from the wound.

The body at his feet wasn't Cloudhawk!

Cloudhawk's true figure gradually faded into reality behind Drake. Blood dripped from the black-gold sword in his hand, gathering along its biting edge. "I did it while you were attacking the fake."

The sandstorm he'd conjured wasn't a ploy to help him retreat. It was to confound his attacker while he used the Gospel of Sand to create a mirror image of himself. His weapon was completely silent, and didn't even cause much vibration from impact, so in all the chaos Drake never even noticed. By the time he did, it was too late.

The higher a relic's grade, the more its functions. Of course, lower-class relics had more limited uses. The exorcist staff, for instance, was used just for its brute force attacks. The Gospel of Sand had many more applications. It was, after all, one of the treasures of the demon Caliph. Its potential was limitless.

Cloudhawk had to thank that strange spirit.

Without his inheritance Cloudhawk wouldn't have been able to match Claudia's martial prowess. He certainly wouldn't have been able to use the Gospel like he had. Absorbing the knowledge trapped in his benefactor's skull, all of that experience in combat and using relics, vastly improved all of his abilities.

Without it, could he afford to be so arrogant?

Slicing a normal man's throat was lethal in all cases, but not necessarily for Drake. Severing his carotid arteries and esophagus, but leaving the spine intact, wouldn't kill him. [1] High levels of bodily control allowed him to quickly seal the wounds and begin the healing process, but it would take time [2]. The fight was done.

One left.

CLoudhawk resting his sword against his shoulder as he turned to face the final challenger. His eyes settled on the timid blonde-haired man. "Gabriel? Still interested in a scuffle?" He asked with a smirk.

Several dozen eyes turned to him. He bashfully scratched his head, clearly hesitating. "Let me think..."

As Cloudhawk watched he saw the change come over Gabriel's face. It twisted into a hideous snarl and a palpable sense of danger surged from him.

More specifically, his sleeve. A ripple of power burst out almost right away. Was his hesitation a ploy? He was ready this whole time.

"Well, well... look at you."

Cloudhawk was ready to rush in, when he was first met with a wave of almost imperceptible ripples. In his hurry, he carelessly touched a few. His chest, arm, thigh, even his cheek. Cuts opened up all over and blood started to trickle free.

Not good!

He tried to step back but there were more ripples behind him. Another series of cuts began to soak his back with blood. Caught by the strange attack, he could no nothing but stand still as a statue and hope he didn't touch anything else.

Another surprise for the trainees. It was fair enough they didn't see Cloudhawk slit Drake's throat. He'd used cloaking powers, after all. But what about this time? Gabriel stood just where he'd always been, he hadn't even moved. Cloudhawk merely took a step forward and was sliced by some invisible - and impossibly sharp - weapon.

Had the blonde man acted and they didn't notice? He had to be a wind-focused demonhunter.

It was the same elemental proficiency displayed by the female instructor, Natessa. They were able to manipulate wind- and air-type relics, but that didn't necessarily mean their attacks were invisible. Besides, Gabriel hadn't moved a muscle. He'd somehow attacked without omen or sound. [3]

What baffling talent for slaughter, terrifying and mysterious.

"So you figured it out? Extraordinary, so few are able to see through my attacks before they die. The truth is, I've already started the fight!" He smirked apologetically and scratched at his disheveled hair. Only, the seemingly innocent act of lifting his hand this way cast out a wave of deadly energy.

Cloudhawk whipped his sword before him to knock it aside, amidst a shower of sparks. He managed to block the most critical parts, but more slices appeared on his hands and legs. The previous two challengers had never even managed to draw blood, only for Gabriel to immediately start to cut him apart. The spectators were still dumb to what was happening.

Claudia joined them in her confusion.

She hated this psychopath as much as the other three, but she couldn't help but admit surprise. Out in Deadwood Forest he'd been on the ropes, but now he showed a deep and mysterious power she hadn't even begun to suspect.

Careless! Too careless! That was the thought racing through Cloudhawk's brain.

He stood in place, unmoving. Constricted pupils fixed on Gabriel as he spoke. "Wires?"

"You surprise me. You really do get it." Gabriel almost sounded stunned when he said. His fingers stretched out from within the sleeve and one could just barely make out wires, thin as spider-silk. "You're right. This is my relic, 'shadestring'. While you were fighting Drake, I was arranging my net. At this point, I should warn you that they could slice right through tungsten steel. Soundless, invisible... most never see them coming."

Claudia watched from the sidelines. She shut her eyes and focused on the tracking torque around her neck. It glimmered, and sent a wave of energy through the entire field. All at once her eyes popped open full of alarm. They were all over the place, hundreds of threads worming their way through the air, creating a deadly fabric. It was especially centered around Gabriel. Each one was filled with intense energy and was thinner than a hair. Too thin to see, much less reflect the light. He was right - without some special skill, it would be all but impossible to notice them.

If Drake had tried his 'Spearhead' move against Gabriel, he would have been slices into thirty neatly carved chunks of meat before ever getting close. Gabriel's psychic energy far outstripped Claudia's, even Cloudhawk's. He could stand shoulder to shoulder with senior demonhunters, and would be their equal even at his young age.

You would never know by looking at him, but Gabriel had to have one of the strongest psychic abilities in the whole training camp. Even the most experienced demonhunters might struggle against him with a relic in his hand.

Without question, Gabriel was the strongest contender of the three. He also had the advantage of the first move, having set up his ploy while Cloudhawk was busy with the others. Now he controlled the entire field, fatal threads lingering all around Cloudhawk like the fingers of death.

"We all appreciate art." Gabriel's smile was bashful and modest. "Naberius calls himself a sculptor, but I prefer weaving myself. You're definitely strong, but you have no hope of beating us in this situation. You should just give up."

"You're so sure you'll win?"

"Talents you have, but not in tracking. Even though you know my wires are all around, you have no way to tell exactly where. How can you fight what you can't see?"

"If I want to know where your strings are then I can. I don't need my eyes, I can hear them."

It wasn't a brag, if Oddball could see through any disguise then it had no problem seeing each of Gabriel's threads. However, his connection with the bird was still tenuous. Fighting with Oddball's help wasn't as effective as relying on his own talents.

It must be remembered that shadestring was a relic. Cloudhawk could hear its resonance.

There were at least eight threads surrounding him at the moment. He could feel them. Psychic energies thrummed through each one, which allowed Gabriel to control them without ever having to move.

He lifted a hand. "If that's the case, then I won't hold back."

The eight threads whipped toward Cloudhawk.

He immediately summoned the phase stone's power as they swept by. The force with which they tore through him very nearly overcame the stone's phase field. They would've carved him up on the spot, but instead they harmlessly passed through him. A boulder some short distance away suddenly crumbled into sixteen pieces. Their edges were cleaved to a mirror sheen. Grooves in the ground showed where the lines passed. They looked like they were carved by the wicked claws of a demon.

Gabriel frowned. He wasn't bluffing. He really can sense them. But how?

Shadestring was one of the most dangerous relics on record, due in no small part because its attacks were almost impossible to see. Without this advantage, its danger was greatly reduced.

So be it, he thought. It didn't weaken Gabriel's faith.

"So you use your phasing at last, hm? An incredible power, but with strict limitations. That intangibility works against someone who's your equal, but my psychic ability is far beyond what you can handle. Eight threads? Fine. What about sixteen? Thirty two? Sixty four? What about a hundred? What do you think will happen when they reach a thousand?"

Both of his hands shot out.

He felt Gabriel's psychic power reach through all the threads around him. Gabriel had become a spider, and every thread was an extension of his murderous will. They were both the source of his deadly attacks, and the crux of his defense.

Was Cloudhawk really out of his depth this time?

If He'd known what Gabriel could do he wouldn't have been so cocky! But regret wasn't going to win him anything. Now that he knew what Gabriel was capable of, he wasn't so sure this was a fight he could win.

1. The carotid arteries are the two arteries on either side of the neck, the main arteries supplying the brain with blood and oxygen. It's the one you see people checking when they put their fingers to someone's throat to look for a pulse. Without the blood supply from the carotids Drake would have six minutes before brain death.

2. Better be less than six minutes

3. Wind, as it relates to Chinese medicinal theory, is blamed for a lot of bad. It conveys illness into the body through your nose, mouth and pores. It can arise internally to wreak havoc. So it would make sense that Gabriel would be wind-type, considering his mental status. It makes one wonder if Natessa is a little off her rocker...