The Unforgiving Gridiron
rating: +39+x

Welcome back, sports fans, to Alexylva University Nike Stadium for tonight’s matchup between the #3 ranked Yale Bulldogs and your Alexylva Visigoths! I am Hermes Evaristas, and with me as always is Eupraxia Kassandros, and boy oh boy do we have a barn burner for you here tonight…

In the darkness below the world, something stirred.

Anantashesha, the great guardian of the nothingness eternal, whipped around at the sound. His domain was a quiet domain, and he was unaccustomed to any kind of noise. He peered into the black around him, seeing nothing out of the ordinary.

“Hey,” he said, calling out into the dark. “Who’s out there?”

The eel floated around towards where he had heard the sound, his immensity trailing behind him like a streamer. Squinting his eyes, he stared even harder at the nothing.

“Come on, this isn’t funny,” he said. “You’re not supposed to be fucking around down here. Members only, capiche? Who’s out there?”

Suddenly, he found himself looking down at the tiny form of a human man, dressed in a tight-fitting leather uniform, with a glass bowl on his head connected to a long tube. Anantashesha followed the tube up and away from the man it was connected to until it disappeared in the emptiness above them.

“Hello there!” the man said.

Anantashesha brought his face back down until he was level with the man. “Say there,” the eel said, “what do you think you’re on about? Don’t you know the rules? Nothing is allowed down here.” It paused for a second, considering the man. “Who are you, anyway?”

“Me?” the man said cheerfully. “Why, I’m Vincenti Andersopolis, at your service.”

“Vincenti Andersopolis, eh?” Anantashesha nodded slowly. “I’ve never heard of you. What do you do?”

The man made a grand gesture akin to a bow. “I am purveyor of fine automatronics, my good eel. Watches, gizmos, windups, the works. I’m known far and wide as the master of the machine, as it were. Never was there a finer engineer than me, Vincenti Andersopolis!”

“Hmmm, I see.” The eel glanced behind him. “You’re here alone?”

“I am, yes.”

“What are you doing down here?”

Vincenti raised a finger. “A fine question, eel fellow. See, I’m working on a very special project right now, something really spectacular. The brunt of the work is done, see, but I’m finding myself at a bit of a loss for the last piece. I was hoping I might be able to find it down here.”

Anantashesha looked around. “Not much to speak of down here, I’m afraid.”

Vincenti nodded vigorously. “Yes, well, they wouldn’t exactly call it the nothingness eternal if it was chock full of things required by great inventors, would they?” He pulled out a large cloth bag and held it out in front of himself. “No, Mr. Eel, I find myself needing a soul.”

Anantashesha did a double take. “A soul? What in the world do you need a soul for?”

“Ah, trade secret, I’m afraid! Too much riding on the success of this one, see! Can’t give away too much. I am willing to negotiate, however, so name your price.”

The eel frowned. “How do you even know whether or not I’ve got souls down here, anyway?”

Vincenti smiled knowingly. “Come now, eel ole boy. We both know the game here. Things die, you filter out the good bits. That’s what you’re doing down here, isn’t it? Can’t imagine you’re just here for the company.”

Anantashesha shrugged admittingly. “Well, you got me there. So say I do have a soul I could give you. What are you going to give me in return?”

Vincenti reached into the bag and quickly produced a large, spider-like animatron.

“This,” he said triumphantly, “is the newest in my line of eldritch-eel comfort devices! I call it, the Andersopolis Automatronics Eel-Scratch 2000!”

Anantashesha peered at the strange device. “What does it do?”

Vincenti floated over towards the eel, and slammed the spider against its side. He pushed a big button on the top of the spider, which began to move its legs around in a skittering pattern, digging deep into the eel flesh. Anantashesha writhed and coiled under its touch.

“Ohhhhhhhh god,” the eel said. “I never realized how much I itched until just this moment. What a feeling.” He unwrapped himself from himself and turned towards Vincenti. “You get me a few hundred of these bad boys, and you can have your soul.”

“Deal,” said Vincenti.

“One thing, though,” the eel said. “These souls aren’t exactly what I’d describe as… all there. They’ve had a bit of a rough go of it getting down here, and most of them are fairly piecemeal.”

Vincenti waved dismissively. “No problem there, eel chum. What nature cannot provide, Andersopolis Automatronics will produce!”

The eel whipped around its long tail and extended it towards Vincenti. The man took the tail in his hand, and they shook on it. As they did, Anantashesha opened its gaping maw, and from the void within a single, shimmering, tattered light emerged. Vincenti beamed in the light it produced, and quickly gathered it into the bag. He reached up, pulled twice on the cord connecting him to the world above, and began to ascend.

As he did, the eel looked up at him quizzically. "Seriously, though. You came all the way down here just for one kind of shitty soul? What in the world would be worth going through all that trouble?"

Vincenti grinned fiendishly as he pulled away. "Have you ever heard of the high-stakes world of first century collegiate athletics?"

Cron rubbed his shoulder empathetically. He knew it was supposed to hurt, but mimicking discomfort was tricky, and everybody was watching. He popped up off the field, right into the face of a Yale defensive back.

“Thou shouldst stay down upon the earth,” the man said, glaring at Cron through his visor, “lest ye fragile bones be broken.”

The towering Yuri Pato, one of Cron’s offensive linemen, stepped between them and snarled at the other man. The defensive back leered at them both, and rejoined his side of the field.

The Alexylva offense assembled. Yuri, the left tackle, and then Borges, Hawkins, Meiner and Ut on the rest of the offensive line. Nereus, Quin, and Iliov were the receivers, and JaMarcus Aurelius the tailback. Ail Hercule stood in as the tight end, and Cron commanded as their quarterback. They all looked to him for guidance. Cron nodded sagely as they stepped into their huddle, and as all eyes fell upon him he delivered his wisdom.

“We’re fucked, lads.”

The scoreboard read 38-24 with 8:23 remaining in the fourth. It had been a miserable game; Yale had opened with a meteorologimancer that had quickly summoned a typhoon, and the rain had yet to let up. The Alexylva defense was exhausted, the offense couldn’t keep up, and Coach Panagakos, Eldest and Most Revered, had publicly crucified the defensive coordinator at halftime. The situation was dire.

“How’s your shoulder?” Borges said, cautiously eyeing his quarterback.

Cron started to speak, but hesitated. It hurts. “It hurts,” he said, “but I’ll be alright. I’m not worried about that as much as I am about flyboy over there.” He nodded towards the Yale backfield, where a winged free safety flapped furiously in the torrential rain. “He’s been a step ahead of me all game, and if he snags one we’re definitely fucked.”

“So what’s the plan?” Hercule said.

Cron furrowed his brow. He could hear the barely audible spinning of servos in his own head, and could feel his probability calculator kicking in. A passing attack will get you killed, or worse, they’ll pick it off and you’ll lose. Chance of success in the air is 5.45%. Running the ball has been unsuccessful, but you could pull the freshman off the bench and get JaMarcus some rest. All you need are two touchdowns. “All we need are two touchdowns. I can get us close enough for one, but JaMarcus will need to get the other.” He side-eyed his star back. “Can you do that?”

JaMarcus grimaced. He’d been hit earlier and the defender had torn his leg off. They had managed to patch him up on the sideline, but he was still gimpy. “Yeah, I can do it.”

Cron nodded. “Good. Go back to the bench, send Hollister out. Get some rest during this drive, and come back on the next.”

The running back moved to argue, but realized the truth in Cron’s words. He nodded, and jogged off the field. The freshman back scrambled out to join the huddle. Cron clapped a hand across his back and leaned in.

“Alright,” he said, “here’s how this is going to play out.”

The interior of Andersopolis Automatronics was a busy place. Machines whizzed and whirred along the walls, pumps in the back of the building cranked over and pushed thick fluids through long pipes, and in the center of it all the company’s eccentric namesake was perched furiously over a long table, his eyes darting hither and yon over the project in front of him. He threw a hand out into the air, waving it eagerly.

“Popo!” he shouted across the din. “Socket! 5mm! Come come!”

From underneath a large pile of various machine parts and other refuse, a gnome appeared. She scratched a scraggly beard and grunted before hobbling across the shop towards a large tool chest and diving headfirst into it. After a moment’s digging, she emerged with a socket. She lined up her shot, and then flung it across the room into the waiting hand of Vincenti, who effortlessly snagged it without even looking. As he returned to his work, another gnome sidled up beside him, peering down on the subject on the table.

“You think this will work?” the gnome said, scratching at the side of its red pointy hat.

“Navarro, my dear friend,” Vincenti said, “of course it will work. I’m Vincenti Andersopolis. What have I ever worked on that hasn’t worked?”

As Navarro glanced around the room, Vincenti shot him a look. “Learning experiences, Navarro. Not failures. Everything works exactly as planned, or as some variation of planned.”

The first gnome waddled over towards the table as well. “Why does Piko get the honourific of his last name, and I’m just Popo? I think Merlo is a fine name.”

Vincenti paused and sighed. “Because Popo is a fun name, and it’s part of your contract. If you want to be called Ms. Popo Merlo, bring it up during negotiations.”

Navarro grinned at Merlo and stuck his tongue out at her. Merlo glared at him.

“Anyway, yes, it’s going to work,” Vincenti continued. “What you’re seeing take place before you is nothing short of a miracle of science and arcana. They’re going to be talking about this one for centuries to come. ‘Vincenti Andersopolis, the Man Who Made a Man’. Or something thereof.”

“Not really a man though, is it,” Merlo said, snatching a half-rotted apple from her pocket and taking a bite. “Just a fancier clock, seems like.”

It was her turn to earn a slicing look from Vincenti. “All people are just fancier clocks if you want to get technical. Gnomes too. Just moving parts with preprogrammed instructions that follow their design until they run out of juice and shut down. This,” he said, extending his arms over the subject, “is just a better version of what we’ve already got.”

“How do you figure?” Navarro said, squinting at the exposed contraptions.

“First of all, stamina. See this?” Vincenti pointed at dark red mass surrounded by wires and banded in metal. “This is a griffin heart, with a few minor variations. Give it a shock and that baby will run unimpeded for a thousand years. I’ve got it strapped in here to these little capacitors, see, so it’ll never run out of juice. Then, strength.” He opened a hatch on the side of the machine, and thick cables were visible within, wound around pulleys and stretched tight. “The strength of fifteen men, if pushed to capacity. This thing could wrestle a bear and the bear would look silly.”

Merlo peered inside. “That flywheel there. Is that made of the lid of a tin can?”

Vincenti grunted. “Andersopolis Automatronics has suffered financially in the not-so-distant past and a shortage of quality materials has been an issue. However, I think both annoying gnomes and our customers will see no diminished capabilities as a result of one lackluster flywheel. It’s only in there to balance that actuator anyway, and if that actuator is being stressed enough to bend the flywheel then the larger issue is that our subject is at the bottom of the ocean, or under a mountain.” He slammed the side panel closed.

Navarro nodded sagely and stroked his beard. “It’s impressive. Looks expensive, though. I assume we’ll be compensated for this?”

Vincenti closed his eyes and smiled. “Substantially.”

“Cool,” Merlo said, finishing the core of her apple in a single bite. “So what’s it supposed to do again? Other than be a robot, I guess.”

“This is no ordinary robot, my vertically challenged friends.” Vincenti stretched out his arms, clapping them both across the shoulders. “This… is a football-playing robot!”

Navarro and Merlo blinked in unison.


Third and goal from the seventeen, five minutes and change to go. Apostolou lines up in the shotgun, now he’s checking the defense… here’s the snap, and here comes the pressure! Apostolou dodges a thunderbolt, and then another, and then- oh my god! Ail Hercule has run into the Yale meteorologimancer, he’s stopped channeling the incantation! The rain has stopped, but we’ve got three linemen barreling down on Cron. He steps left, throws off one, shakes another, and another, and another my god he’s broken free! Cron Apostalou at the ten! Cron Apostalou at the five! He’s got one man to- he’s in! Cron Apostalou scores! Alexylva is back in this thing! 38-30, with the kick to come!

Cron jogged off to the sideline and was met by his cheering teammates. Yuri and his offensive line came up shortly afterwards, knocking against his helmet and congratulating him on the spectacular play. Behind him he could hear the cheers of the crowd as Kery Achilles booted it through the uprights, bringing the score to 38-31. There was a sudden hush on the sideline as the air near them crackled and Coach Panagakos appeared in a rush of smoke and ozone. He peered around through dark glasses at his team, before cracking a crusty, broken smile.

“Fucking good, Cron. Makes me wonder why I even pay an offensive coordinator.” He glared at Coach Demopolous, who was cowering at the end of the bench, fearfully clutching his clipboard. “Regardless, we still have work to do. Defense, go pull your coordinator down off that cross and get ready. We’re running short on time, and I don’t want to burn timeouts if I can avoid it.” He pointed across the field with a crooked, clawed finger. “I want you to tell Coach Zhange that she can take her offense and kindly fuck back off to the nightmare dimension she came from. If you need to turn those boys inside out I suggest you do it, before I get the inclination to do it to you.”

The team quickly scuttled off and dispersed, preparing for the kickoff. As he was about to walk away to join his receivers, he felt the Coach’s cold grasp against his arm.

“Listen kid, the theatrics are great, but they’re going to buckle down when we get you back out there. I had Balaban cook up something spicy, and we’re going to catch these fuckers sleeping and shit in their eyes. Look out there,” he gestured towards the field. “See how they’ve been skipping leg day? Weak knees, Cron. You’re going to use this,” he slammed an amulet into Cron’s hand, “and you’re going to blast them in the dick with it. One good wave of force and their ancestors will feel the ACL tears. You got it?”

Cron gripped the medallion tightly and said nothing. The Head Ball Coach didn’t know, of course, but there wasn’t anything Cron could do to make that magic work. He had carefully managed to avoid anyone who might look too closely at his class schedule and see that he hadn’t ever taken anything in arcana, but attempting to cast a spell he was not designed to cast would blow the lid well off of that.

“Coach, I-”

“Good,” Coach Panagakos said as he slapped Cron on the shoulder. “Don’t fuck this up, kid. I’ve got money on this game and I’m not about to pay out anything to that little eldritch minx who thinks she’s a football coach.”

With that, the air wrinkled and cracked again, and the coach was gone. A horn sounded on the field, and Alexylva kicked off.

A man was sitting naked on a table, his eyes fluttering quickly. In front of him sat two gnomes, both staring nervously at another man, standing behind the naked man, who was turning a crank on a large tool sticking out of the back of the naked man’s head.

“That any better?” Vincenti said.

Merlo shook her head. “Give it a little more.”

Vincenti grabbed the handle on his crank, and gave it two more solid turns. After a brief moment, the fluttering dissipated and the man sat staring at the two gnomes. He blinked once, then twice.

“Aight,” Merlo said. “You’re good.”

Vincenti closed up the hatch on the back of the man’s head and scuttled around towards the front. Booting Merlo and Navarro off of his stool, he perched himself across from the naked man and locked eyes with him.

“Alright,” Vincenti said, “let’s try again. What’s your name?”

The man moved as if to speak, and then caught himself. “I don’t know.”

Vincenti nodded. “Of course you don’t. That’s fine. Do you know what you are?”

The man looked down at his hands and flexed them slightly. There was the slightest hint of a squeak as metal and wood rubbed up against each other. “I’m a human?”

“Ehhhh something like that.” Vincenti pulled out a stack of cards with pictures on them. “I’m going to show you some images, and I want you to tell me what you think they are. Sound good?”

The naked man nodded. Vincenti flashed the first card.

“That’s a fox,” the man said.

“That’s a boat,” after the second card.

“That’s a read-option with a halfback draw to the strong side and a weak side drop to cover,” after the third.

Vincenti smiled. “Young man, my name is Vincenti Andersopolis, and while I doubt we’ll see too much of each other in the next few years, I want you to know that I’m very excited to meet you.”

The man looked puzzled. “Why?”

Vincenti stood, gesturing dramatically. “For all these years I, the great Vincenti Andersopolis, have strived to create a better world, a more advanced world, at great financial and emotional cost. After selling both my family’s farm, and my family, in order to keep this lab open and staffed,” he glared down at the two gnomes, “there were many days I wondered if the sacrifices were worth it. But with you… everything changes. With you, they’ll no longer call me ‘The Madman of Portlandis’, or ‘The Crazy Man of the Pacific Northwest’. No, they’ll call me what I have deserved to be called all these long years: Vincenti Andersopolis, The Once and Future King of Machines.”

He gazed wistfully into the middle distance. “Imagine it. One of my Andersopolis Automatronics man-bots on every street corner! Working for law enforcement, fighting wars. Loving, living, dreaming.” He sighed. “It’s a dream come true.”

He motioned to the next room. “Piko, Popo, go get this nice young man some clothes.” He paused. “And get him one of my good penis sleeves. Can’t have a man walking around out there in a tunic without a penis sleeve. Might catch the penis pneumonia.”

The Yale Coach Zhange was furious. Instead of kicking a field goal at the twenty-nine yard line and nearly putting the game out of reach, her quarterback had decided to stay on the field and lob a pass towards the end-zone in order to seal the deal. A well timed diversion led to an Alexylva interception return to the Yale forty-five yard line, and Coach Zhange had come unhinged. In her rage, she tore her quarterback in half and banished both halves to different nightmare dimensions, and threatened to do the same again. The rain began in earnest as the Yale defense took the field, with only 2:15 left on the clock.

JaMarcus Aurelius followed Cron back onto the turf, slapping him on the ass as he passed him by. “Come on, wonder kid,” JaMarcus said, smiling. “Let’s go shit in their eyes.”

Cron smiled, but anxiety cut through his systems as he felt the medallion in his pocket begin to grow hot. All he had to do was activate the incantation and it would release its energy all at once, but even that was beyond Cron’s abilities. He glanced to the sideline where Coach Panagakos, Eldest and Most Revered, hovered menacingly near the student section.

The Alexylva crowd was deafening, and fires had begun to break out in the crowd. The university police, utilizing trebuchets loaded with stun salts set up in the empty lot outside of the field, began heaving casks of the noxious mixture into the stadium to quell the riots.

They started quickly. A short pass to Nereus for three, followed by a run from JaMarcus and another from Cron to get the first down. They were past midfield, but they needed a touchdown. The clock hit 1:30 as Cron handed off to his star back and JaMarcus disappeared in a flash through the Yale defensive line. He appeared downfield, at the twenty-three yard line, before being swarmed by defenders. 1:12.

On the next play Cron caught a javelin in his non-throwing shoulder, and he could feel his blood dispersion system activating. As he moved to step back into his huddle after a pass thrown into the stands, he felt a sudden weakness on his left side. Looking down, he realized the javelin had nicked a hydraulic line, and he was now leaking fluid. Alarms sounded in his head as he realized he was only minutes from total hydraulic lock. As he hobbled back towards his team, Yuri moved to pull the javelin out of his shoulder.

“No no no, don’t worry about that,” he said, waving him off. “I’ll be fine, trust me.” That javelin is the only thing holding you together right now. You lose that and you lose pressure on the line, and that’s the ballgame. Suck it up, wonder kid.

They lined up on the twenty-three, and Cron handed off to JaMarcus. The back tried to cut left and then back around the right, but a Yale precog sleuthed him out and hit him at the line of scrimmage. The clock continued to wind down, and while Alexylva managed to pick up a first down on the next play (an eleven yard pass to the right for the tight end) it was at the cost of precious time. The clock slipped beneath thirty seconds before the team got lined up again. A missed pass stopped the clock, but with only twenty-six seconds remaining the situation was not great.

“Alright,” Cron heard a voice in his head, “the time is ripe. Let’s blow out the asses of these pompous dick shits. Use the spell, Cron. Let’s open this up.” The voice of Coach Panagakos lingered in his ear for a moment more.

They snapped the ball. Cron rolled right, then left, then back right, pursued by Yale defenders. Twenty seconds. “Use the goddamn spell, Cron,” the voice said. “What in the everloving fuck are you doing?” Nineteen seconds.

Then he spotted JaMarcus streaking into the endzone, the winged defender hot on his tail. A pass here would result in an interception. 89% chance of failure. An attempt to run into the endzone would result in a sack. 93% chance of failure. As the world seemed to slow around him and his probability engine began to accelerate to compensate for the influx of new information, he cast his eyes up into the stands. Amid the teeming mass of fans in Alexylva crimson and Yale blue, a man stood alone near the top of the stadium. He wore a long black coat with gold buttons and large, round black glasses. His silver hair tied into a tight bun behind his head, and on his chest Cron could make out the letter A emblazoned on a gold pin.

The curiosity of this didn’t hold him for long, because as his probability engine began to wind down (having finished its calculations), the world around him began to speed up. The closing defenders grew ever closer, their eyes fixed on his like a wolf on its hapless press. In the distance, he could see JaMarcus’ hand, waving in the end zone, his other trying to fight off the defender. And in his head he still heard the voice of Coach Panagakos, screaming at him to use the fucking amulet already. Sixteen seconds.

With a sickening crunch, Cron used his free left hand to pull the javelin free from his shoulder. He steadied himself, lined up his shot, and flung the spear across the field and into the unsuspecting side of the winged Yale safety, who screamed and crumpled to the ground. With his other hand, he flung the ball to JaMarcus, who stood alone in the end zone with both hands outstretched. As the ball left his hand, Cron glanced back to the stands. The man in the black coat was gone.

The next thing Cron saw was the blue of three Yale defenders coming down on him as he collapsed to the ground, and the next thing he heard was the roar of the crowd. For us? For them? As his body slipped into hydraulic lock, he closed his eyes and took in the sounds around him. His body seized, and the world went dark.

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