Robert Alford knew. It had not been his best season, but he had not been burnt like that in some time. He had watched Odell Beckham Jr. fly by him, been beaten by Sterling Shepard, and felt the wrath of the referees. If locker room ribbing and a Marquand Manuel tongue lashing were the worst he could expect for it, that would be alright, but Alford feared darker tidings.
He was therefore not surprised to hear Dan Quinn’s voice come through the ornamental snake skull that served as a loudspeaker for the locker room.
“Robert Alford,” Quinn said, his voice seeming to slither through the humid air, “if you could come see me in my Den of Bones, er, office.”
The defensive backs exchanged looks. Had they not fought their way past the Bridge of Dunta, through the surprisingly easy-to-pass Zone Flames, they might have thought nothing of it. But having done so, and having been changed irrevocably by fighting their own dopplegangers in a battle way too exciting to be written up in an article, they knew what this meant.
“Should we come with you?” Desmond Trufant asked.
“I am prepared to knock the flames to the ground and glare at them, if necessary,” Brian Poole added.
But Alford shook his head.
“This fight is mine alone. I who have been burnt must face the flames, as was prophesied by Blidi Wreh-Wilson before he escaped into the ductwork,” Alford said.
After pausing for a loud bang from the vents above, Alford took his leave of his teammates, who stood and watched him go with solemn faces.
Though the hallway seemed to darken and distort as he walked down it, it did not take long for Alford to arrive at Quinn’s door, though he passed by it at first. When he opened the great iron portal, the floor was so warm he nearly stepped back out.
“Ah, Robert, I have been expecting you. Sometimes early, sometimes late, but you always do arrive,” Quinn said softly.
Alford blinked. It seemed as though Quinn was a thousand feet away from him, perched as he was in a tall throne on a tall mound of clay littered with Falcons helmets and jerseys. He did not look pleased.
“You know, I would think after escaping the Fire Forges of Kroy Biermann the Red-Eyed that you would have gotten the message, to say nothing of destroying my beautiful army of homunculi,” Quinn continued, “but it appears that there is always one man who does not truly understand the stakes. Robert, tell me, how many times were you penalized against the Giants?”
“Two, I think, sir,” Alford responded.
“And how many yards did you allow?” Quinn pressed
“Over 200, I believe,” Alford said.
“Over 200!” Quinn bellowed, flying to his feet so fast that his black robes fluttered like raven wings behind him. “On a night where I sacrificed two of my favorite goats to ensure that we could stop Saquon Barkley. DO YOU KNOW HOW ADORABLE GOATS CAN BE?”
Alford recoiled. His coach’s eyes were filled with a terrible fire he had seen too recently, and he began to edge toward the door. The door swung shut when he was just inches away from it, which he acknowledge silently was all too appropriate.
“Clearly,” Quinn said, his voice more subdued, “it is more effective to make an example of one man than to sacrifice you all. I am capable of learning, even if I never have any idea of what the hell time it is thanks to the clock in my office. So you will face the flames anew, Robert Alford, in honor of your being crisped on Monday night. And this time, the flames will be even hotter.”
Alford laughed in spite of himself. “You turned up the heat? That’s it? Man, I fought a giant, whip-wielding Cristobal Rojohombre on a flaming replica of the I-85 overpass. You’re talking about a temperature change? Pfft.”
He was still grinning when Quinn angrily jabbed the button on his throne, and chortled softly on his way down to the pit for the second time in the last month. Quinn could only seethe silently as his floor, which had been recently repaired due to a problem with the closing mechanism, closed. All was silent for a moment, until a familiar pair of baleful eyes popped up in the corner of the office.
“I mean, has he seen the heating bill for the pit of flames?” the Great Metal Falcon roared. “I’m made of darksteel, not money!”