Gabriel twitched a finger, and the ground split open.
Again, and stones crumbled.
Cloudhawk juked between them to the best of his ability, treading the line between life and death with every step. His life literally hung by a thread.
Gabriel, meanwhile, as calm as could be. His confidence was deserved, for threads hovered over every part of their battlefield. Attacks could come from any directions, and no matter where Cloudhawk went there were more to meet him. If the strings could slice through tungsten as Gabriel claimed, one shuddered to think what they could do to a human body.
What could Cloudhawk do, besides rely on his phase stone?
“You think you can just hide?” Gabriel’s smirk widened. “Let’s see how you handle this,” he warned.
He very simply crossed two of his fingers.
Cloudhawk sensed a hundred minute threads interweaving. They started to close in like a dragnet. Like a hawk in birdcage, he was caught. With a flick of his wrist Gabriel tightened the net. Stones caught in its path broke apart with frightening vigor.
The rest of the camp watched from a safe distance.
The edges could be seen because of the marks left on the ground. Ten meters away on all sides. A hundred tiny fissures started to extend toward him, everything was carved to pieces. Even though the others couldn’t see what Gabriel was using for the attack, the unsettling realization that it was closing in on all sides was obvious. His seamless, inevitable assault on Cloudhawk’s last defense seemed unavoidable.
The net wasn’t closing in very fast, but that just made the terror worse. If Cloudhawk wanted to risk forcing his way through, he would have to contend with at least ten of those threads. He was certain that would only serve to slice him to ribbons, even with the phase stone’ power. Gabriel already had his second attack planned as well in the event Cloudhawk somehow managed to avoid the collapsing prison.
Shadestring’s wires crept closer, thin as silk and without reflection. Most frustrating was the precise control exercised by Gabriel. They moved only as necessary, shadowing their target. No matter how he moved, there seemed to be no way for Cloudhawk to avoid critical injury.
“You think you can tie me down with a strings? Watch me break ‘em!”
Cloudhawk threw his cloak around him, vanishing from view. He followed by shoving his black-gold sword into the net and pulling. The strings offered string resistance, but ultimately warped and began to snap until there was a wide enough opening for him to slip through.
Gabriel’s eyes widened. “How?”
Cloudhawk slowly reappeared. “It wasn’t hard to see that the strength and length of the threads depends on how much psychic energy is in them. Your focus changes from one to the other, and the ones you claim can cut tungsten are the strongest few. Far as I can tell, I can’t get through those. But the others? The weaker ones? My sword is more than good enough.”
Demonhunters with common perception couldn’t pick out the threads because they were extensions of Gabriel’s body. He moved them as easily as his own limbs. Meanwhile, relics like Claudia’s torque could mark them, but there was a delay between pulses. There was a long enough interval that Gabriel could change the whole tapestry before the next pulse came.
For Cloudhawk to be capable of knowing exactly where they were at all times was unthinkable. But he could do more than that. Aside from being able to read the whole pattern, he also knew which threads were weak and which were strong.
Gabriel had anticipated that Cloudhawk might, by some miracle, find a way through the net. Thus he interspersed the strongest threads throughout it to avoid just such a thing.
The result? Cloudhawk found the weakest point and neatly cut a hole. Gabriel’s masterful plan was rendered worthless. Not even a high ranking demonhunter could do what he did!
Stern concentration hardened Gabriel’s face. He poured his focus through the woven threads and they began to move. The whole network of threads hummed with increased power. Avoiding his next offensive wasn’t going to be as easy.
Show me. Show me how long you can hold out!
All ten fingers rose, galvanizing a hundred deadly wires!
Gabriel’s tapestry was invisible to the audience. They could only guess its intensity based on the rifts appearing along the ground. They watched as it descended on Cloudhawk like a strange, imperceptible gale. Cloudhawk would vanish and reappear, but everywhere he went stones and trees were being sliced apart.
There was no doubt that this attack would be fatal if Cloudhawk could not find a way free. But it was completely silent and completely unseen!
Cold sweat rolled down the back of all who watched. They couldn’t help but imagine themselves in that position. What if they were the ones facing Gabriel’s tyrannical assault? How long would they last? Within seconds they would be sliced to pieces! Cloudhawk, on the other hand, was managing to dodge everything that came at him. Meanwhile all this time he was gathering strength, preparing his counterattack. A mass of sand had appeared over his head. Granules whirled around each other for a handful of seconds like a gathering storm cloud, until it blotted out the sun. Wide-eyed, the trainees gasped.
The entire mass gushed forward, formless but intense as a waterfall.
That was his plan. Against anything of substance, Gabriel’s threads were a deadly threat. But, against the formless they had no worth. The tidal wave of sand was mighty, it was obvious from the sound and momentum. If Cloudhawk put half his psychic power behind it, it would be like being trampled by a heard of bulls. Gabriel’s relatively frail constitution would be flattened.
The eyes of the other students lit up. What an incredible display!
The wall of sand was reflected in Gabriel’s vivid eyes. The corners of his mouth twitched upward in a smile, for he knew what it had to cost Cloudhawk. He gestured with his fingers, and the threads retreated. As deftly as though by the hands of a master weaver, they drilled into the ground, whipping back and forth.
His hands went up just as the tide of sand was upon him. The earth before him split, and a huge section of it was heaved up by a mesh of threads. It was just large enough to protect him as the sand came surging by. It crashed into his makeshift shield of rock and soil, and could not break through.
Many of the granules disappeared one they struck the earthen shield, evaporated like water on hot metal.
This caused Eckard to lift his brows in surprise. “What’s this?”
Natessa offered an explanation. “Shadestring is an ancient and powerful artifact. Killing isn’t all it can do. A skilled user can manipulate objects by infusing the threads with sufficient psychic energy. Weaving the threads underground and then lifting it up was how Gabriel formed his wall. The net also radiates with power, enough to evaporate the unnatural sand summoned by Cloudhawk. That is what happens when the power of two relics meet.”
“That tricky, eh?” Eckard’s face was grim. “No way around it.”
“All things in reality live in a state of mutual support, and mutual destruction,” she explained.  “Shadestring is indeed very tricky, but its defect is just as obvious. For instance, against fire- or wind- type powers it loses efficacy.  Against a demonhunter with superior power, his threads could be overcome through sheer force.”
Eckard nodded. “Cloudhawk doesn’t have any relics of those types, and he doesn’t have the psychic power Gabriel has. He took a gamble with that last attack and it cost him. All that squandered strength, it doesn’t look like he’s gonna win this one.”
For all the talking he did Dumont might have been a mute. He simply nodded his head in silent agreement.
None of the instructors were expecting this sort of talent from their students. There was even a ghost of dread in Eckard’s heart. Strong as he was, there wasn’t anything he could do to protect himself from the blonde youth’s undetectable attacks. If he wasn’t careful, he might accidentally wander into a deathtrap and never know it. He’d be sliced up before he could defend himself.
How was Cloudhawk supposed to overcome this challenge? Any way one looked at it, he was caught in a losing battle.
“Cloudhawk isn’t as simple as he seems.” Eckard said after a moment. “He’s got some good combat experience, some things even I don’t fully get. That doesn’t come from talent, it comes from countless days out in the battlefield. It’s beaten into you by conflict. But he’s so young. Skills like what I’m seeing would be impossible even if he came out his momma’s womb swinging his fists. Crazy… Shame he’s a demonhunter, he’d make quite a martial artist.”
“Who says a demonhunter can’t master their inner strength and became a martial artists?” Natessa challenged him in her soft voice. “This battle is not over yet. Keep watching, there is more to see.”
Cloudhawk was already grasping at straws. Was there really more up his sleeve?
His wave of sand hadn’t so much as scratched Gabriel. Meanwhile, Gabriel was making Cloudhawk dance like a puppet with his strings. What were his last attacks, but ways to find out what the wastelander’s limits were? He knew now what Cloudhawk was capable of, his force, defense, every quality in addition to his relics. He’d calculated it all and knew that Cloudhawk had to be exhausted mentally. Meanwhile, Gabriel had used only half of his limit. His prey couldn’t keep up the fight for much longer.
Alright. This has dragged on for long enough. Time to end it.
Gabriel shoved his hands forward, causing the screen of dirt and rocks to explode forth. Deadly strings and rocks like shrapnel fired toward Cloudhawk. Yet, the instant he allowed his guard to drop Gabriel’s eyes were blinded by a gust of sand. The air turned opaque as muddy waters. He couldn’t see more than ten meters in any direction.
There it was!
Cloudhawk’s wave of sand looked like his final hope to try and bury Gabriel. In truth, it was meant to make his opponent draw up his defenses. If your enemy couldn’t see you, there were limitless ways one could attack! Cloudhawk hid himself in the tidal wave, buying enough time to scout and prepare. Passive was not his style.
“You’re clever, but not clever enough to beat me.”
1. This refers to a tenet in five element theory. The theory posits that all things are made of a combination of wind, water, fire, earth, metal, and wood. Not the elements themselves, necessarily, but the properties of these elements. These elements reside in a delicate balance, where one simultaneously ‘feeds’ one element and ‘drains’ another. Here is a chart to explain. Complicated, I know. There’s a reason traditional medicine doctors study for five years before they’re allowed to pick up a needle. The two basic cycles are the ‘sheng’ or support cycle, and the ‘ke’ or restriction cycle. Support works like this; fire supports earth (like how the ground is more fertile after a forest fire), earth support metal (the compression and component-rich ground creates metal), metal supports water (I got nothing for this one), water supports wood and wood supports fire (obvious). On the other end is the restriction cycle, as follows; fire restricts metal (metal melts), metal restricts wood (metal cuts down trees), wood restricts earth (woodlands take over plains), earth restricts water (stops encroaching oceans, rivers), water restricts fire (obvious). Things in parenthesis are just how I remember the relationships. Long story short, now you know the theory behind what Natessa is talking about.
Anyone getting Naruto puppeteer and chakra string vibes from imagining this fight? They obviously don't work the same way, but that's the mental visualization I'm getting.