Author's Note: This is a retelling of an obscure Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale, The Travelling Companion (also called The Spectre). I started writing it over a year ago, and though it's still not finished there are only another five chapters left to write (...I hope).

Like all my stories, this is a first draft. It's full of plot holes and continuity errors, and the general mess that first drafts always are. Hopefully there's someone out there who can enjoy it in spite of all that, and if anyone has any suggestions for how to improve it, they'd be most welcome!

I'll post the prologue today, the first chapter tomorrow, and the second chapter on Thursday. After that it'll update on Mondays and Thursdays (though with two interruptions, as I'll be on holiday for two weeks with no internet).

In a Weary World

Prologue

Some humans would do anything to see if it was possible to do it. If you put a large switch in some cave somewhere, with a sign on it saying "End-of-the-World Switch. PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH", the paint wouldn't even have time to dry. – Terry Pratchett, Thief of Time

The pub was crowded, and correspondingly noisy. In one corner a group of friends were laughing about something someone had done. In the middle of the room a man who'd had far too much to drink was singing loudly and off-key. And at a table near the door, another man had just finished telling a story to a group of listeners.

Most of the listeners wandered off to rejoin their friends when the story ended. Two of them didn't.

"Tell us again," said the first listener. "What happened at that funeral?"

The storyteller laughed drunkenly and waved his half-empty bottle around for emphasis. "'Twere a very strange business, so they say. The family insisted on not lettin' anyone see the body. So the coffin was always closed, till they was carryin' it into the church. Wouldn't you know it, the idiots carryin' it went and dropped it. It opened and all sorts o' strange magic jewels fell out, and so did the corpse. And while the mourners were wonderin' what had just happened, the corpse sat up and started puttin' the jewels back in the coffin! They was too scared to finish the funeral after that, and it's said the coffin and corpse are still sittin' in the church, waitin' for someone to bury 'em."

"A fascinating story," the other of his listeners said, glancing around as if he expected the coffin and corpse to appear in the middle of the pub.

Another of the pub's customers called on the storyteller for a different story, and the two customers who had listened to that one were left alone.

"A very fascinating story," the first listener said thoughtfully, echoing his companion. He was a short, fat man with a scraggly beard and a fading bruise at the side of his face. "Of course I don't believe that nonsense about living corpses, but there must be some truth in the part about the jewels."

"Didn't you hear what he said?" the second listener demanded, looking around fearfully. He was slightly taller than his companion, and just as fat, but with a more timid air about him. "They were magic jewels."

"There are no such thing as magic jewels. That part of the story must be designed to scare treasure hunters away from the church. We'll go tomorrow night, and see for ourselves."