Chapter 96

                The whispers started softly, mere confusion not yet fully-formed. Soon, that turned to speculation, and as it did the whispers grew, snaking about in the silence between cheers. Eventually, the whispers began to overtake the yells, as more and more people stared down at the three figures approaching a rope, none of them a near-giant of a man with legendary strength.

                “You really think they have a shot?” Zone asked, carefully watching the crowd as they scrutinized his teammates.

                “At winning? It’s not likely, the people here haven’t exactly been wimps. But this kind of event isn’t just about raw power. Footing and grip also come heavily into play. On at least one of those, we’re going to have a clear advantage. Plus, a little oomph of our own pulling. The odds that it will allow them to snare victory are slim, but they shouldn’t go down easy. That might be enough.” Owen tried to sound more optimistic than he actually felt; the truth of the matter was that without having tested the other team himself, there was no way of knowing how powerful they were. It was entirely possible they could win the match in seconds, humiliating everyone on his team. That was life, though. There were always risks, always unknowns. At least the others knew what they were getting into.

                “Oh, what’s this? It seems our local PEERS team has pulled their Hero Liaison out of the rotation for this turn,” Jade announced. She skittered over to where the next match was being set up, ignoring the one currently in progress. No one in the crowd seemed to object, as their attention had also been stolen by this unexpected roster change. “That’s a… bold strategy. Can one of you tell me what prompted such a decision?”

                “What do you mean? We saw everyone else switching people, so we just thought that was what we were supposed to do. Did we make a whoopsie?” Hexcellent’s voice was dripping with both sarcasm and an almost infantile naivety. From the crowd, a few titters of laughter could be heard as they tried to pair the sickly sweet voice with the smirking girl in heavy make-up. There was no telling how long she would have milked it, but Galvanize stepped in before she got a chance.

                “We just wanted to give the people a good show so they got their money’s worth,” Galvanize replied. “And while Titan is unquestionably the strongest of us, he’s also only one member of our team. We decided it was time to spice things up a bit.”

                “Interesting. I’m assuming one of you also has enhanced strength then?” Jade’s sounded polite, but skeptical, as she looked the three competitors over.

                “Not directly, no, but since you made the rules so flexible, we do have a way to fill that need.” Galvanize gave a nod to Hexcellent, who couldn’t quite resist rubbing her hands together with glee.

                Slowly, she parted those hands and lifted them into the air, muttering softly under her breath. Owen knew she could use her ability without all the showboating, but he didn’t begrudge her a little theatricality in this sort of situation. They were, after all, trying to win the crowd, not the match.

                A familiar burst of smoke suddenly appeared, and when it dissipated many members of the crowd let out gasps, and a few half-muffled shrieks. Big Henry was a bit unsettling the first time anyone saw him. Hexcellent’s demon paid the crowd no mind as he reached down and picked up the end of the rope. He didn’t seem to grimace from the effort, and Owen let out a small sigh of relief. If Big Henry couldn’t even handle the rope, they were pretty much done for.

                “See, we’ve still got a strongman to pull for us.” Galvanize was flashing the pearly whites and turning up the charm, waving to the crowd as they tried to figure out what to make of a demon suddenly appearing on the field. “And not to worry folks, he’s harmless. Or he’s as harmless as Hexcellent, so you can all make your own judgements there.” More laughter this time, as their nerves settled down and they got used to Big Henry.

                “Anyway, I think we’re about to begin, so if you don’t mind we’ll all get in position.” Galvanize turned away from Jade, to where his team was clustered together. It was far enough away that she almost didn’t catch his next words, but they still managed to crackle through the intercom.

                “Okay everybody, remember to do your best.”

                Owen was glad Galvanize could target his power; otherwise he’d have just brought everyone in the stadium, opponents included, to their peak level. Instead, only Hexcellent, Bubble Bubble, and Big Henry got the boost, all of them standing a little straighter as his words worked their magic. Galvanize took his spot at the front of the rope, while Hexcellent went to stand next to Big Henry. She couldn’t pull with him, that would be more than three people, but she did still need to stand near her proxy.

                Bubble Bubble, however, made no attempt to grab the rope. Instead, she walked around her other teammates, summoning spheres of energy on the ground directly in front of them. Foot by foot, Galvanize and Big Henry braced themselves against her orbs, until she called forth a final pair on the ground for herself. Pressing her feet against them, Bubble Bubble took hold of the rope and flashed the audience a brief, measured smile.

                “Well folks, this match will certainly be different, no doubt about that,” Jade said, finally moving away from the team of oddballs. She walked across to the match still in progress, a hard-fought one where neither team had been giving or gaining more than a few inches at a time. Fatigue, however, had finally set in, and bit by bit one team was dragging the other forward.

                Owen watched, not caring who won the bout, only knowing that as soon as their match ended his own team’s would begin. None of the ones holding the rope seemed to spare any glances for what was happening around them. They were all braced, ready, and focused completely on the task at hand. Even if they couldn’t win, they were going to fight like it was still on the table.

                It was one of the many stubborn qualities he admired about his team.