It was Wednesday before Damontae Kazee noticed that anything was amiss.
There had been worrying signs, in retrospect. Robert Alford had taken to wearing black tracksuits and motivational t-shirts, starting on Monday morning. Vic Beasley was listening to “Everybody” by Backstreet Boys on loop and Tweeting about Drew Brees. And Duke Riley had shaved off his trademark Louisiana waterfall, replacing it with a shaved head and sensible goatee.
But it was only Wednesday that he heard the chants. When Dan Quinn entered the room to speak with the defense, they greeted him, their voices hollow and yet triumphant.
“Good morning, Coachlord!” they cried as Quinn greeted them with a grimacing flash of teeth.
“Good morning, team!” he returned, his voice raspy and his cape sweeping seemingly across the entire room. “Today is another day, and our return to glory is nigh. I have every confidence you will play as you were born to do, as if you were forged in the flames beneath this very facility!”
After his speech, Quinn blinked, long and slow.
“I mean heck! The flames of heck!”
Kazee blinked, too, but it was with suspicion and fear. A glance around the room showed his teammates swaying with dull red glows to their eyes, like Kroy Biermann’s contacts on a winter evening.
When Quinn swept out of the room, and his teammates on defense sat dully around the locker room, Kazee decided to follow him. It was not hard to do, as the darkness seemed to gather around his head coach as he strode toward his office.
When the great iron doors shut behind him, Kazee speared himself across the hallway and leaned his ear against the door. He did not take off his helmet.
The voices he heard were muffled, but the words were still clear.
“Your plan to sacrifice the entire defense, replacing them with clay homunculi fired in the forges of the Under Zaxby’s, was a stroke of genius,” Quinn muttered.
“Of course it was! If you cannot prevent this defense from allowing more than 120 points in three weeks, I will take matters into my own wings,” boomed a voice in return, all metal-on-metal.
“Are you not worried that despite their obvious discipline, these horrors-that-would-be-men will still struggle with tackling? I mean, they’re made of clay,” Quinn asked tentatively.
“Oh, now you’re worried about tackling,” groused the iron voice. “Where was that concern last week? Or the week before that? Or the week before that? These creatures do not tire, do not slacken, and do not compliment Drew Brees on Twitter, for which you are quite welcome.”
Kazee shifted at that, and his helmet banged against the door with a reverberating boom. He hurried away from the door, but it slammed open and Quinn was gliding toward him on what Kazee swore was a cloud of shadows.
“Don’t come any closer, Coach!” Kazee cried, head down threateningly. “I won’t be turned into one of your monsters!”
“I still need you, Damontae,” Quinn said soothingly as he slid closer, his voice as soft and rustly as bat wings in sensible velvet evening wear. “Despite your penchant for tackling like Ralph Wiggum through a bay window, you are the steadiest defender we have besides Takk, who I believe is still engaged in hand-to-hand combat in the fiery pits below this facility. There is no need to replace you, and indeed, I would hope the need will never come.”
Kazee warily looked up.
“You’re not going to throw me into a pit of fire?”
“No, no! This defense needs a leader, especially because it turns out that homonculi are very bad at freelancing. We must achieve results soon, and you will be counted on to ensure we do. Otherwise, our lives will all be forfeit,” Quinn said. “Anyways, have a great night! See you tomorrow.”
At that, Quinn turned smartly and headed back into his office, leaving Kazee alone in the darkening hallway with his thoughts.
“He’ll be trouble, I’d wager,” the Great Metal Falcon said, disapproving and steely.
“If he is, he will be dealt with,” Quinn returned with a grim smile. “After all, for us, the answers are within our own locker room...or our own subsurface hellscape!”
The resulting boom of laughter was so loud Kazee could hear it as he prepared himself to re-enter the locker room and the growing sounds of the Backstreet Boys.