Welcome To The Swamp
J.J. Watt and Shatter Bob, both now tied up in silver rope, trudged down a narrow pathway. They were prodded along by men and women holding gilded pick-axes. They wore aluminized black and gold protective coats or aprons (depending on how they felt about their legs). Large gold hoops circled around their necks, bedazzled with precious and semi-precious stones. Their heads were topped with either a large floppy white cowboy hat, a red and gold hard hat with a flashlight protruding from the front, or obscured their faces with welding masks.
They had been marched from the beaches of the vast Brown Sea, as Bob called it, past the tidal flats and plunged into a deep, dank morass.
The sun had shone bright and high in the heavens before. As they progressed further into the swamp, the sun grew dimmer as if the surrounding environment were consuming the light before it reached the ground. This left the swamp in a near constant state of hazy blackness, punctuated by the occasional lighting fixture mounted on what few sturdy trees remained in the swamp.
As J.J. passed by each fixture, he couldn't help noticing how dated they looked. Some looked vaguely familiar to him, but hadn't been in fashion since he was in kindergarten; others he thought might look more appropriate in his grandparents' house.
In the haze, J.J. saw, albeit barely, frogs perched on logs floating in the brackish water. They alternately croaked "elite" and "not elite." One such frog was ambushed by what appeared to be a large parrot with feathers of silver, blue, red, gold, and black which swooped down on the unfortunate frog and swallowed him in a single gulp.
"Championship!" It cawed harshly, echoing through the relative tranquility.
There was a distinct sense of claustrophobia as they moved toward the heart of the swamp as well. The canopy of the trees, if it could be called that, crept lower and lower until J.J. could feel it brush against the top of his head. The path ahead looked to close.
Watt hesitated for half a second, which was met with a harsh prod from a pick-ax.
"Keep it moving, loser," the prodder said, his voice only slightly muffled by the welding mask.
Watt growled under his breath at being called a "loser."
"Um, guys?" Shatter Bob piped up nervously. "I can't get through that narrow gap. I don't bend like I used to."
The leader of the band pushed his stetson up and gave Bob the once over.
"You'll be fine," the leader said as he popped Bob's head off of his body. "Toss him."
Bob's captor holstered his pick-ax, lifted Bob's still-standing body off the ground, walked toward the gap, and hucked it through like a rolled-up carpet.
"Hey! Watch it with that! I just got that body refitted!"
Bob screamed as the leader then threw his head in the same direction as his body.
"After you," he said to J.J. without an ounce of sincerity.
Watt twisted and bent himself out of shape to get through the narrow space, ducked around some badly misplaced dead trees which blocked the way, and found himself in a large clearing within the swamp.
What little light there was in the clearing seemed to focus on two locations. The first shone on a large tapered column which rose from the muck surrounded by a halo of grayish-blue light. Prostrated before the column were row upon row of people wearing even gaudier garb than Watt's captors.
The other light focused on what resembled a kingly court carved out from among the moss-covered logs, the rotted plants, and the countless frogs and red, silver, and blue snakes that called the swamp home.
"Could...could someone please put me back together, already?" Shatter Bob asked, his head perilously close to a modestly curious snake.
The ringleader gestured to Bob and one of his underlings popped his head back on his neck and stood him upright.
J.J. leaned to Bob, "What the hell is this place?"
"Quiet," the ringleader snarled, pushing J.J. and Bob to move into the clearing.
As they moved closer to the activity, the ominous drone of music and rhythmic chanting grew louder. The column, which before had no other discernible shape except that of a column, upon closer inspection now took the appearance of a person. The closer J.J. got, the more defined the figure became, until it resembled--
"Tom Brady?" asked Watt.
The chanting grew louder and the music sounded almost identical to The Fanatics' theme from Final Fantasy VI.
"What are you doing?" asked Bob alarmedly. "We can't afford the licensing fees for that music!"
Shut up, Bob.
The fanatics chanted "Praise be to Brady, first among quarterbacks. First among football players. Praise be to Brady, beloved by great Hespiun..."
Bob's eyes opened wide in wonder, "My goodness, I thought they were just a myth. A story told by wandering pundits after too many rounds of drinks."
"Who? Who's just a myth?"
"The cult of Hespiun."
Bob pointed his head at the statue of Brady the cult prostrated themselves before. "And, if the stories are true, that column is their 'Idol Of The Flavor Of The Month.' Watch."
Seconds passed before the idol of Brady lost all sense of texture, then shape, until it turned back into a tapered column. In the span of a minute, the column morphed from Tom Brady to Peyton Manning to Tony Romo to, inexplicably, Tim Tebow.
"Stop gawking, losers. The elitest one wants to speak with you."
J.J., getting annoyed, asked, "Who?"
The ringleader popped J.J. in the back of the head with the blunt end of the pick-axe. "Move," he bellowed.
The land finally ran out and the murky water reached up to J.J. and Bob's knees as they marched toward the "court." The mumble of frogs saying "elite" and "not elite" was joined by a chorus of snakes, some red, blue and silver, others simply green and silver, hissed their contempt at the defensive back and his companion. The green and silver snakes flung chunks of rock at J.J.'s head, and nearly smashed Bob into fragments.
"You hate us-s-s-s becaus-s-s-se you ain't us-s-s-s," the red, silver, and blue snakes hissed. "We're the greates-s-s-st team in the history of football!"
Land rose again as J.J. and Bob approached the "court," their legs coated in murk. Leaving the mire, both J.J. and Bob couldn't help but feel a wave of unusual, and uncalled for, self-importance wash over them.
Unlike the rest of the swamp, which was carpeted with little more than fallen leaves and other detritus, the ground was covered in a single slab of pure silver. A carpet with Super Bowl logos and years woven into the pattern divided the room.
Courtiers stood on either side of the room, their backs toward the middle, staring at the walls which flashed images from previous Super Bowls. They were dressed similarly to J.J.'s captors, except at the end of each limb were circles of gold. A strange contraption wrapped around each of their heads, obscuring their faces from the interlopers.
In the back of the court, at the end of the carpet stood a throne shaped like a Lombardi Trophy; the throne, however, was turned around, so its sitter could also face the wall as it continued flickering old Super Bowl highlights.
"Great Ringmaster, we have returned," said the man in the welding mask.
No response came at first, then a collective sigh by the 'Great Ringleader' and his (?) retinue when a bright flash emanated from the walls.
"Who are these inferiors?" asked the voice behind the throne.
"We found them on the southern shore of our territory, your shininess."
The throne spun around. The Ringleader wore a long flowing robe of silver and blue. On his head sat a series of thick rings of gold. His face, like those of his courtiers, was obscured by a contraption that held a series of mirrors in front of his face which let him see everything going on behind him at all times.
"How many rings do they have?" The Ringmaster asked imperiously.
"We have searched them, sir, and they have no rings at all."
A murmur spread among the courtiers.
"No...rings? And they dare to befoul my swamp and my court with their mediocrity?" The Ringmaster peered at J.J. and Bob between gaps in the mirrors.
"You," he said, pointing at J.J. "You look familiar. Didn't you play for the Cowboys in 1972?"
"Or the 49ers in 1989," chimed in one of the courtiers.
"Or the Steelers in 1976," asked another.
"Do not speak of that Super Bowl in my presence again," bellowed the Ringmaster at the courtier, his eyes like daggers. The courtier dropped to one knee in the blink of an eye, his head lowered reverently.
"No, I didn't start playing in the league until 2011."
The Ringmaster tutted at the defensive end. "2011? There hasn't been any meaningful football played here since 1995."
One of the courtiers muttered "2009" under his breath, another coughed "2015," but neither were noticed by their liege.
"It's unfortunate really, that there hasn't been football in such a long time, I miss seeing the Cowboys playing in the Hyper Bowl year after year, the way they do here."
As if on command, the wall began rerunning the same highlights it had shown a few minutes ago. A gasp of excitement rose from the Ringmaster and his courtiers, and all turned around to watch. As the Ringmaster turned, J.J. saw that he wore a mask on the back of his head. It was the Cowboys mascot; the same vacant smile and dead, soulless eyes he had seen on countless draft shows before.
"Do not interfere with the highlight reel," shouted the Ringmaster, his mask stopped smiling and scowled at the ringleader. "You will not be warned again."
Several minutes passed before the highlight reel mercifully ended. The Ringmaster and his cronies spun around in perfect unison.
"If you haven't played for America's Team," (ed. note: Ick.) "then you must not be that great a player."
J.J. chuckled. "My three Defensive Player of the Year trophies say otherwise."
"Enough. You and your little sidekick have unlawfully entered the Insufferable Swamp and brought your marginal talents into this area reserved only for the greatest of the great, for those with a history, with a future."
"A future," said Bob, incredulously. "Your Cowboys haven't so much as sniffed a Hyper Bowl since I was a glint in some woodworker's eye."
"My glorious Cowboys should've won the last Hyper Bowl, and the one before that, but they were sabotaged by the league, and the networks, and traitors within the team. They should always win the Hyper Bowl! You have brought dishonor to my swamp, do you have anything to say before I pass judgment?"
"Ringmaster," I can't believe I'm actually saying this, J.J. thought to himself. "I don't mean to trespass in your swamp. The only thing I want is to go back to Wisconsin. If you can help me with that, I'll leave your swamp and never return, and neither will Bob here."
The Ringmaster pondered this statement. "Wis-con-sin? I've never heard of that area of Football Land. If anybody could help the likes of you, it would be the Mishkah Elldigor. He's the ruler of Football Land, and the one who keeps interfering with the Cowboys' quest for Hyper Bowls. I could turn you over to him."
J.J. perked up. "You could?!"
The Ringmaster's lips curled into a sour smile, "But you went and reminded me of all the traitors in my midst. Traditionally, the penalty for trespassing is death, but you've given me an idea. Since you do have these three Defensive Player of the Year trophies, which I'm sure some Cowboys player deserved more than you, I will spare you death."
J.J. breathed a sigh of relief.
"Instead, you will be lowered head-first into the swamp and converted into one of us. Then you will lead my Cowboys to the Hyper Bowl championship I so rightly deserve. I sentence both of you to conversion by smugness."
The courtiers chanted "smug" as the ringleader grabbed J.J. and Bob and hurled them out of the court and back onto the dirt and muck of the swampland.
Shatter Bob looked uneasily at the water.
"Conversion by smugnes?" asked J.J.
"You see the swamp water all around us? That is pure concentrated smugness. To be converted, one must have as much of a sense of self-satisfaction as those who reside here. The Cult of Hespiun, the Ringmaster, his court, all of them are smuggies of varying degrees. Roughly 85-95% of Cowboys, Niners, Steelers, Patriots, and Chiefs fans have undergone this conversion. And we're--" he gulped, "next."
The ringleader bound J.J.'s and Bob's feet, placed them on a hook and lifted them high into the air.
The cult followers took their eyes off their idol, which currently resembled Johnny Manziel, and watched as they were hoisted above them. They then resumed chanting like it was Final Fantasy VI.
"Seriously," Shatter Bob said. "Tim is going to have your head if he has to pay those licensing fees."
It's called "production value," Bob. If you interrupt again, I'll rewrite you as a chicken.
Listening to Bob and whoever that other guy was gave J.J. an idea.
"Voice guy, you still there?"
"Yes, you. Could you do me a favor and follow my lead?"
"Hear me, Cult of Hespiun, I am J.J. Watt, three time Defensive Player of the Year for the Houston Texans, beloved by Great Hespiun. Isn't that right, Hespiun?"
There was silence among the cult.
"Now, voice guy."
Oh, um, yeah, I'm Hespiun and he's one of my favored sons. Release him.
The cult went gooey at being told directly by their master, or who they believed was their master at any rate, and moved toward the crane switch.
The Ringmaster bellowed at the cult to stand down and let his justice be done.
The cult moved slowly, but relentlessly, to the switch. The ringers unholstered their pick-axes and prepared to fight through a host of unarmed nutjobs. All they needed was for the Ringmaster to give the order.
But the order never came.
Instead, the Ringmaster was too busy trying to retrieve his crown from a rogue red and yellow parrot which had snatched it clean off his head and held it just out of his reach.
"Those damn Chiefs parrots! Always wanting my rings! Get it back at once!"
The ringers moved away from the crane and helped their leader to retrieve the one thing that made him at all relevant to anybody, leaving the cultists to lower J.J. and Bob safely to the ground.
As this was happening, the Ringmaster fell into the swamp after leaping to catch the parrot, who had perched on a log floating in the bog.
The cultists took this time to escort J.J. and Bob to the edge of the swamp, still chanting praises at their current idol.
"That was way too close," Bob said. "Let's get out of here."
J.J. nodded and they ran as fast as their legs could carry them out of the swamp. As they ran, J.J. thought more about what the Ringmaster had said, about the Hyper Bowl and a way home.
"Bob," J.J. said, a bit out of breath. "How do I get to the Hyper Bowl?"
"Practice," said Bob, irrelevantly. "And a short-cut through the forest. This way."
TO BE CONTINUED...