The Man in the Cot
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The Man in the Cot

Darkness. All that surrounded him at that moment, all he could sense, all that *was*, was darkness. He had known where he was but a moment ago, and had been exceptionally aware of his surroundings. But now, all he knew, and what felt like all he had ever known, was the heavy darkness weighing down his limbs and soul. As he began to make peace with this new, black existence, trying his hardest not to panic, the rocky walls surrounding him came into view.

A hearty chuckle came from above, and a soot covered man holding a lantern made himself known.

"Sorry to put the light out on ya, kid. Just lookin' for a laugh, I guess. I know you're new, but you oughta get used to the dark if you're going to get anywhere down here. Mining's no easy job, and sometimes we've got to work in the places no one else can see."

Atlas picked up his sledgehammer, and proceeded further down the shaft. Though he had to hunch to navigate the sprawling tunnels of the mineshaft, he was able to locate his station, and looked around at the stony prison which surrounded him. He had spent his youth on the peaks of great mountains, where he had first learned how to survive. A childhood in the freezing temperatures of the mountains makes one a hardy man, though Atlas was still quite scared of this place. With the walls threatening to close in or collapse any moment, Atlas wished he was back on those peaks, feeling the ice and snow below his boots, and the freezing wind against his skin. The wind to him, though it posed a grave and ever-present threat of death, felt like freedom. Instead, he felt the gravel and rock underfoot, and the stale air and low vibrations of the bowels of the earth.

Atlas contemplated his position in this mine. A lifetime of following leads and chasing ghosts could not buy him more than satisfaction, and one needed money to prosper in this world. Though in his childhood, he had grown up as a curious wanderer, often getting lost tracking some sort of trail in the snow, he now felt as if it were time to settle down. He had spent his last few coins on a masterfully crafted sledgehammer, something certain to outlive even him. As he felt the last vestiges of his old life slipping away, he took aim, and swung the hammer down upon a steel spike. It rang out with a satisfying clang, and sank deeper into the stone. Once more Atlas swung his hammer, and finally sank the steel spike all the way into the stone. Another man rushed in to remove it, and stuffed the hole with gunpowder. A bell was rung, and all the miners fled.

When the smoke cleared, the tunnel was filled with scattered rubble. Pieces of stone, ore, and coal were gathered into carts, and shipped off down the line. As the miners began to clear out of the tunnel, only the man holding the sledgehammer was left. In the rubble, tucked under a large stone, a glimmer in the dark caught his eye.

A ring, he thought. What is a ring doing down here?

Though he did not know it at this time, the ring would be first trace of the mystery which would define his life. He knelt to pick it up. The silver band was much too large for the hands of any normal man, but fit snugly onto the finger of Atlas. As he placed the ring on his finger, he felt a sharp, stinging pain flare from where he put it on. What felt like molten metal rushed up his arm, searing his blood. He dropped to his knees, and all went black.

Atlas awoke with a start in a canvas cot. The ring which had been around his finger for years beforehand was now gone, the silver making its way into his veins, in the same manner than Valentina had described. The material of the cot scratched at his skin, and equally scratchy bandages were wrapped around his right arm. The pain in his arm remained, though this time it was the remants of the spider's venom being flushed out of his system. The burning had reduced in his sleep to a dull throb, and Atlas found himself now able to move it with relative ease. As he turned on his side to look around, ignoring the pounding in his head, he saw a woman in white tending to another man on a cot in what looked to be a makeshift infirmary. Though she was facing away from him, engrossed in her work, her movements betrayed a certain tiredness to them. Not the kind of tiredness that is evident in a person at the end of a particularly long day, but the kind of tiredness that only shows itself in a person after a life consisting entirely of struggle, strife, and loss. Atlas did not know why or when this woman began to carry such weariness, only that she now bore it.

As if sensing the musings of her other patient, the woman stood up, and left the room, leaving Atlas alone with the other man in the cot. With the obstruction of the tired woman now gone, Atlas could observe the patient unimpeded. He wished he hadn't, though. The man in the other cot was tied down to the bed with rope, and alternated between struggling against his binds, and lying still and sobbing gently. The sobs were what disturbed Atlas the most, though. Each sob was accompanied by a soft gurgling from the man's throat. Each breath, which only occured once every thirty seconds or so, was rough and ragged, as if the man was choked by some sort of gel. He continued the pattern of struggling against his binds, gurgling violently, then descending into a sobbing stillness, until the rage welled up in him again.

In one of the man's spells of stillness, his soft crying was interrupted by the footsteps of the woman, returning from the other room. She carried a tray with water, bandages, and some soft food, presumably for the man in the cot. Upon seeing her, the man's sobbing lessened, to a few sniffles and low gurgles. As the woman knelt down beside his cot, she offered him a spoonful of the food she had brought for him: some kind of broth. The man seemed calm at first, but jerked his head away, almost involuntarily, at the last second. A crunching noise was heard, though the man seemed unaffected. He turned to the woman once more, and began to sob. She, too, began to sob, seeing what had become of him. She held her hand, on which Atlas caught a glipse of a gold band, to the hand of the man, which was already crawling with worms. The woman seemed unbothered by the worms, only wishing to spend one more day with the man it seemed to Atlas she had spent her life with.

Watching this unfold, Atlas began to stir from his stupor. Wormrot was something he was all too familiar with, and watching it take another would be too much for him. He carefully undid his bandages, and slowly stepped out of the room. His steps did not betray his location, and he carefully made his way out of the infirmary. As he stepped outside, seeing the choking fog clouding the streets, he could not take it anymore.

Atlas sat down on the cobbled streets, and for the first time in what felt like years, wept.

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