UNDONE

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I met him in the last moments of August while London burned. Black, sooty rain fell from an orange sky as the ravenous flames consumed the South Quay Warehouses. The usual night sounds had given way to a cacophonous racket of alarm bells, shouting spectators, and the unnatural, demonic hiss of the steam-powered machines.

My Brougham had been rendered stationary by throngs of spectators, gathered to watch and cheer for the firefighters from no fewer than twelve steam-engines. Seeking a more private lane for my night work, I abandoned my carriage and driver and pressed eastward on foot, finally emerging from the crowd at the new Tower Bridge. It wasn't a bridge at the time, of course, merely a construction barge and a partially completed wall to hold back the fetid river tides.

It was in the formerly submerged, muddy hollow of the new river-wall that I found him. The site gave enough seclusion for the work I had hoped to attend, so upon seeing his form curled up in the shadows, I decided to investigate. It was indeed a man, though, to my disappointment, he wasn't deceased. I mistook him for an unfortunate victim of the fire — well, fortunate enough to escape the conflagration, but wounded enough to succumb on the banks of London's artery.

Lest anyone think I approached this victim out of mercy or other tender emotion, my motives were singularly scientific and improperly ghoulish. I was newly arrived in the professions as a physician, and had not always studied my craft on strictly legal cadavers. Finding this man in his vulnerable state, I was unsure of my intentions. Would I give him aid and comfort? Would I wait patiently for his eminent demise, or perhaps even hasten him towards it?

I approached, the ring of illumination from my lantern creeping ever closer until its light fell upon him. He turned his grim visage toward me with the speed of an alarmed animal. Seeing me, his gaze lingered for a moment on mine, and then the tension seemed to dissipate from him as if he realized I was not a threat.

Seeing him, my apprehension grew to levels beyond what I am normally accustomed. His clothing was scorched, and what I took for soot or mud on his exposed face and hands reflected red in my lamp light. It was, without a doubt, blood, and its source, an incapacitated woman at his feet. By her clothing, I marked her as a woman of the great city's unfortunate profession. I further deduced that he was neither administering aid nor extending his patronage.

Despite every urging of common sense my brain could muster, I found myself stepping nearer to the deathly couple. This startled the man a second time. He waved a dismissive hand in my direction and spake.

"You have nothing to fear from me, sir. Find your way elsewhere and think no more on what you've seen here." His tone and carriage were that of a man who knew with certainty that his words would be obeyed.

Again, I found myself surprised by my response. I stepped nearer still, and replied, "And you, sir, have nothing to fear from me. I am a physician, and might be of some service to you or... your companion."

He stood, and though he was shorter of stature than myself, gave the impression that he towered o'er me. Perhaps he expected I would cower or flee, yet I only returned his stare, finding him as curious as he found me.

I looked beyond him at the ragged woman in the mud. Upon closer inspection, I saw that her throat had been torn—not cut by a knife or razor, but savagely torn as if by a beast.

"You," the man said, astonished. "You see me for what I am. What manner of demon are you?" His blood-stained lips parted to reveal long, pronounced canines and pointed incisors. If the source of the woman's wounds had been unclear, the man's dentition erased all doubt.

"I am just a man, Sir," I replied, "but perhaps our similarities are greater than our differences."

"Similarities?" he asked. "For your sake, I pray we have none. My curse is mine alone, and heaven or hell willing, it shall pass with this wretched night."

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