How I Spent My Off-Season, By James Casey

God, it's humid.  And hot, too. 

This place makes Houston seem like the Sahara.  I pull the fedora down tighter on my head, hoping against hope that it will keep the mosquitoes away.  It doesn't work.  I haven't showered in three weeks and I smell like one of those big brown bombs that Travis Johnson used to leave in the toilets at Reliant.  The ones that wouldn't go down until the janitors took a hammer and chisel to them.  And I don't even want to know how my feet smell, stuck in those boots for weeks.  But it will be worth it.  It had better be worth it.

I've been humping through this jungle with my guides for three weeks now, ever since we left Aizawl.  They keep telling me we're close, but I'm beginning to wonder if they're just saying that to be polite.  We're looking for Phawngpui Tlang, the famed Blue Mountain of Mizoram.  On the slopes of the Blue Mountain we will find what I seek.

The trail got too steep and rocky for our elephants to follow about a week ago, and we've been on foot ever since.  It's tough going, even for someone in peak physical condition like me.  We have to hack our way through the jungle with machetes which, combined with the steep terrain and daily rains, makes for very slow progress.  Sometimes it feels like the jungle grows right back after we cut a stretch down.  I don't think I could make it back to civilization on my own.  Not with the Maoist rebels that have a stronghold in these parts.  And the tigers.  A few days ago, one of the guides stumbled upon a tiger while he was clearing trail.  It took hours, and we still couldn't find all of his body parts.

Suddenly, a cry from one of the guides snaps me out of my daydreaming.  Is it another tiger?

"Sir!  Sir!  We've found something!"

I stumble to the guide.  His wide-eyed look of fear tells me that he's stumbled across something even scarier than a tiger.  I push him out of the way so I can see for myself.  I stare for thirty seconds before it occurs to me that my mouth is completely agape.

Just ahead, covered in centuries of jungle growth, is the most amazing temple I've seen.  It's a huge stone structure carved into the side of the mountainside.  Much of it is overgrown with vines and trees, but I can see the main entrance to the temple quite clearly.  It's designed to look like a forty foot tall king cobra, with its hood extended.  The entrance is its mouth.  I've you've never walked into the mouth of a forty foot tall cobra, I can assure you, it's even scarier than it sounds. 

I fish in my bag for some papers.  Before I came here I put in lots of research at the Rice University library.  The papers reported that I was going back to school to take more courses, but they were very wrong.  Taking courses was the perfect cover for me, the perfect explanation for why I was spending so much time in the library.  If only they knew that I was actually looking for the location of a very specific temple that guarded something very unique and priceless.  I pull out the paper I'm looking for - a photo copy of a page from an old book written by an obscure explorer.  I compare the picture on my paper to the temple in front of me. 

We've found it.

I turn around and my guides have disappeared.  Tigers, they can handle.  Maoists, they can handle.  The legendary Cobra Temple of Saiha, not so much.  I hope they don't go too far, because I'll need them to get back.  But I'm not going to stop.  Not when I've come this close.

I reach into my bag and pull out a kerosene lantern and some matches.  I think I'm going to need some light in there, so I light the lantern.  It glows a dirty yellow and seems entirely too dim to illuminate the temple I'm about to enter.  It'll have to do.  I'll need to be on my toes.  Unlike Anna-Megan, this temple will not give its secrets up easily.

I swallow hard and walk towards the entrance of the temple.  Just as I approach the yawning mouth, I hear a strange sound, almost as though a train is coming my way.  Instinctively I duck, just as several hundred dark shapes whoosh over my head.  Bats.  Giant vampire bats.  It seems that the Cobra Temple is sending me a warning.

I pick myself up and move forward.  A few steps, and I'm inside the cavernous entrance.  A few more and the entrance, which seemed so large from outside the temple, seems like no more than a tiny hole.  The kerosene lamp's dim light flickers, causing the sides of the cavern to jump in the most eerie, unnatural way.  The air smells like Vonta's armpits.  I've read everything I could find about this legendary temple, and I know that the slightest misstep could mean the end for me.  Even if I survive, if Coach Kubiak finds out that I was here, I could get cut or, worse, traded to St. Louis.

Pretty soon I can't see the entrance at all.  I look at the map I copied from the book.  I have to walk on a very specific part of the cavern or bad things will happen.  Very bad things.  Like poison darts shooting from the wall, trapdoors to bottomless pits, or crushing stones falling from the ceiling.  

Eventually I navigate through the winding corridors of the temple and make my way deep into its heart.  Goddamn it, this is going to work.  It really is.  In the distance, something reflects the light from my kerosene lamp.  Something a very deep red in color.  As I get closer, more detail emerges from the blackness.  It's just like in my book.  At the end of this corner, deep inside the Blue Mountain, is the altar room of the Cobra Temple.  It was in this room that the priests would make human sacrifices.  They would put the hapless victim (an eighteen year-old virgin girl) on the altar and then, after praying to Durga, they would... Well, you get it.

But today, there's no eighteen year-old virgin waiting for me on the altar.  Which is kind of a bummer if you think about it.  Sitting on top of the altar is something better.  Something that will get me all the eighteen year-old virgins I want.  Not that I'm into that kind of thing or anything.  But if I was into that kind of thing, I could use the object to get me all the eighteen year-old virgins I wanted.  And not those ugly Rice girls that wrap sweaters around their waists in the summer.  The real good-looking ones that go to UT or Tech or Texas State.  Anyway, I digress.  Back to the altar.

Sitting on the altar is that which I truly prize.  As I get closer, I see it clearly for the first time.  It is about the size of my fist, and it shines the deepest, most sensual red.  It is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.  And it is now mine.

Looking back at me from the altar is the Sacred Ruby of Oravab, the legendary gem which will give the person that possesses it superhuman strength, stamina and the ability to heal from any injury faster than mere mortals.  And it doesn't show up on drug tests.  It's a shame Cushing didn't know about this thing.  But Cushing doesn't concern me.  He plays defense.  No, this stone is going to help me knock Owen out of the starting lineup.  For good.

I know the altar is booby-trapped, but I'm ready for that.  Thanks to my chemistry major buddies, I know exactly how much a ruby that size weighs, and I have a lead bar in my bag of exactly the same weight.  I slowly, carefully make the switch, subconsciously holding my breath and halfway expecting something bad to happen.  However, nothing happens.  I've done it.

I slowly, painstakingly, retrace my steps, following the directions on my map.  Slowly, I can feel the air getting cooler and less stale.  After what seems like several days' worth of slow walking, I can see the entrance to the temple looming in front of me.  It gets larger with each step.  I'm almost there.  What's more, I can see people outside.  My guides have returned!  I can't believe I've done it!

I'm so jazzed as I step out of the temple's entrance that it takes a second to dawn on me.  These aren't my guides.  These guys are wearing camouflage uniforms.  And carrying rifles.  And have spears with severed human heads stuck on them.  The heads of my guides.  Fuck.  These guys are Maoist rebels.

"James, James, James.  You never learn, do you?"

Owen?

"Surprised to see me?"

Just a little.

"The ruby.  Give it to me."

I hand him the ruby.  I feel like vomiting.

"How did you find out?" I ask.

"Your cover sucked.  Everybody knows that NFL players don't go into college libraries unless they want to get blown by a cheerleader in the periodicals section.  Or, if you're Cushing, hit the glory hole in the back bathroom on the third floor.  But you went to the Rice library, James.  I don't even think Rice has cheerleaders, James.  And if it did, you probably wouldn't want them polishing your knob, if you know what I mean.  And what's with those sweaters wrapped around their waists, in August?

"Anyway, I digress.  Nobody in their right mind would do that, not even you.  So I figured that you were up to something.  After that, it was a simple matter of waiting until you left and finding out what books you checked out.  Once I figured out what you were up to, the rest was easy.  All I had to do was fly out to eastern India, get in touch with my revolutionary comrades here, make a few donations to my brothers-in-arms and mention my good friend Comrade Prachanda, and the next thing I know, I'm here outside this stinky cave in time to wait for you to give me the loot."

Goddamn it.  I'm never going to start in this league.

"And now that I have what I want, I'm going to leave.  Good bye."

And just like that, he turns around and leaves, taking his Maoist buddies with him.  I fucking hate Maoists. 

Dejected, I sit down and ponder my bad luck.  I have no idea if I'm going to get back in time for training camp.

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