The bell ring as the door flies open and before me stands our latest customer. Some of the cold autumn chills sneaks into the tavern before I make the door close, startling her somewhat.
“What was that?!” she exclaims and turn around.
“Welcome to the Inn of the World, dear,” I said with a voice calculated to send chills down her spine. “ How may I serve you. She nearly jumps up at this and looks around in confusion before finally spotting me. Her heart rate settles as I counterpoint my spooky introduction with a kind smile.
“Don't startle me like that!” she demanded. “I'm on edge enough as it is.”
“I'm sorry,” I said earnestly. “This season makes us all a little bit... frightful, does it not?”
“Yes,” she admitted.
“So, what can I help you with?
“I'm going to need a room, please,” she said before her stomach interrupted her. “Oh, and maybe a small meal if it isn't too much trouble, and some malted milk for my baby.” Only then did I realize that the bundle she carried was actually a little foal, wrapped in several layers of comforters and blankets. The baby took one look at me, blinked once and began to cry, prompting the mother to cradle it in her front legs.
“Ssssh,” she said to the the foal. “Everything is going to be all right, don't you worry.”
“It is definently not too much trouble, will a tasty mushroom stew suffice?” She nodded and I turned towards the kitchen. “Hey cook, one stew and a bottle of gruel for the little one!” The cook let's out a disgruntled roar from behind the screen, causing chills to once again travel trough the spine of my guest.
“Pay no attention to him,” I said. “He's always a little grumpy this time of the month. It's the moonlight, it puts him in a quite a... hairy situation. Still cooks like an artisan, tough.” The cook growled contently at the praise.
“But nevermind,” I continued. “You should know that this is not your normal establishment. I do not accept bits, gold or diamonds, but stories. You have my full hospitality, if you can tell me a story that entertains me.” The other customers turned their heads towards the young mare, and she met their looks with a soft, uncertain smile.
“All right,” she said before clearing her throat.
How I Met Your Father
The story I'm about to tell is a true one, I can assure you all. As I recall, it happened almost a year ago, and I personally know the poor soul who had gotten into this. At the time of the winter holidays, it is common for families in Canterlot to visit some of the more rural parts of Equestria, as a vacation of sorts. It is also common for groups of teenage ponies - without their families' company or even consent - to do the same on their own. What better opportunity for these young mares and colts to get to know each other at a more... intimate level.
The mare who I know, Tender Kindle by name, was one of those ponies who practically ran away with a cute colt in the middle of the night, hoping this will be the ride of their lives, topped with an extasic night they will surely never forget. She most certainly did not forget it, I can also tell you that.
The two were headed to a small town called Ponyville, and from Canterlot the most convenient road leading there was the railroad. The train they took departed late into the night, one that everypony else climbed off of, and no one else climbed up on.
"See, I told you we would get here without getting caught!" said the colt, excitedly eyeing his mare compatriot.
"Woody, I'm beginning to think this wasn't such a good idea after all."
"Aww, don't tell me you've turned pristine saint all of a sudden! I’ve seen you jumping in the air when I’ve asked you to come, how come you’re so bashful now?"
"No, it's not that. Okay, not just that. I just feel bad about leaving my parents like this, without any-- Oh, no! NONONONO!"
"What's the matter? You didn't take birth control?"
"No, I didn't leave a note at home! My parents are going to kill me when they come after me and find us!" Kindle shouted in panic.
"But you did take birth control, right?"
"Oh, for the love of... yes, of course I did.” She didn’t know why she lied here. “How can you be so insensitive? Honestly, it's like I'm talking to a piece of wood."
"Hehheh, you said 'wood'.” came the answer she should have seen coming.
"That's it, I'm getting off this train."
"The only way to do that is to jump off, right into the gorge next to the rails."
"The train goes around the mountain, since the main tunnels are under construction again. Meaning you'd be jumping off the cliff." Woody opens the cabin window and leans out. "See? there's the-- hey, what the? Tender, come over here." Tender Kindle also leaned out the window, perplexed as to what could possibly be spotted in the dark at this time.
"What should I be looking at?"
"There, see it?"
"Is that... a pony? Trying to climb in a cabin window!?"
"Uh huh." still leaning out, Woody turned around to face the train's forward direction. "Uh oh."
"The tunnel. It’s not far off, we’ll be entering it soon." Woody answered calmly.
"You said the tunnels were under construction!"
"Not this one it seems."
"Oh, Celestia, that pony's gonna fall off if he can't climb in real fast!"
"Let's see, one, two... Okay, it's eight cabins afar, I'm going there and try to help him.” He closed the window and stepped out the door. “Stay here, and be sure not to hump anyone while I'm gone!" He stood there with a grin, waiting for a reaction.
Kindle facehoofed. "Just go already!"
The foal gave out a sudden cry, and the mare began soothing it.
"Shhhhh, it's okay, we're not on the train, this is just a story, we're okay, we're not on the train anymore." said the ragged mare as she desperately tried to calm her child. The cries faded eventually, as the foal was lulled back to sleep.
"I am sorry. Poor baby gets scared easily." said the mare, wearing a smile that tried to deny what she said.
As her less than chivalrous knight went off, Tender Kindle was left in the company of her own thoughts taunting her, with silence only interrupted by the rattling of the train. How could she forget to leave a note, when she always makes sure her father always knows where she is, else she’d have to suffer through hours of interrogation and lecturing. She had repeatedly noticed before: it’s as if Father regularly rehearsed the bad cop role on her. One time he slipped and had actually said ‘slammer’ during a ‘session’. She’s going to be so in for it this time.
But at least Mother is always there to comfort her. Kindle was never afraid to talk to her about colts, even though there wasn’t much to talk about, until Woody came along. So far, everypony called her ‘Kindle’, as using her first name was generally deemed too intimate, a right reserved only for Mother. Woody turned out to break the convention.
Her thoughts turned to more pressing matters: the situation at hoof. Far from home, on a train ride she never rode before, waiting for a colt who’s too immature for his own good, with whom she’s supposed to do it for the first time ever. At least he had enough guts to go help the poor pony hanging outside, but that meant he had left her alone, only with the train noise to keep her company, and the ever-louder knocking on the window she so far managed not to notice somehow.
Kindle turned to the corner of the cabin window and saw a foreleg mercilessly pummeling the glass as if someone’s life depended on it. As she approached the window to open it, a grey figure of a head pounced on the glass, at which she closed the curtains as fast as possible. She didn’t see exactly what it looked like, and wasn’t sure what to do. The knocking stopped.
Driven by curiosity and with a hint of carefulness, she pulled the curtain up by some inches. She wished she hadn’t done so, her petrified body screaming with her to look away. A smile. A sown smile on a piece of grey cloth, with oval, empty eyes, slowly ripping up its sewing, opening its gigantic maw for a silent laugh, so wide as to devour her with it.
She finally closed the curtains full, not letting any area of the glass cast a glance upon her. A screeching horn screamed at the front of the train, but with a different tone than usual, as if muffled by surrounding walls - tunnel walls. Not much time until this wagon also reached the tunnel. The pummeling returned, more furious than ever. She grabbed the curtains, preparing to swipe them away and open the window.
“A-bloogey-woogey-woo!!” said the figure behind her with a grey mask on, with hollow black, oval eyes and the same sown smile. A loud smash could be heard outside. Tender Kindle opened the curtains, and now there was nothing outside but the tunnel walls madly rushing away, as if the train itself was motionless and the world was racing past.
“Congratulations, idiot! Now I’ve missed it because of you!” she yelled while showering her masked coltfriend with painful slaps.
“Hey, oww, what, what did you miss?” yelped the colt, trying to shelter his head from the violent assault.
“The pony hanging outside! He was here, he tried to climb in!”
“Over my dead body! I saw you first!”
Afterwards he wished he hadn’t said that. When the storm of smacks had finally stopped, she took the mask off her coltfriend, examining it thoroughly. It was a small sack with rough facial features on it, most prominently a sewn smile wickedly grinning at her.
“Where did you get this thing, anyways?”
“Ain’t it cool?” Woody said after getting it back “I found it in the cabin where I headed, the one where we saw the hanging dude.”
“And you just took it?”
“Yep. Don’t worry, no one was there, and the window was closed. Someone must’ve left it on the train after Nightmare Night or something.”
“Nightmare Night was more than a month ago. They regularly clear the cabins, you know.”
“Doesn’t matter, have mask.” shrugging as he said it. He playfully began to spin it around, then turn it inside-out. “Oh look, there’s writing inside! Let’s see.
“It said, property of Ca-” Here, the brown mare stopped herself, not wanting to say what exactly was written on the inside of the mask. She did write it down for me, but I can't tell you what it said, my children.
Kindle’s eyes widened at the utterance of the name. Suddenly she wasn’t sure whether to embrace her companion in fear and never let go, or to run away from him as far as she could, while she could.
“Tender, you alright?”
“No, I’m-- uh, I-I don’t know. Haven’t you heard of Can--” she fell silent before finishing the question.
“Heard of whom?”
“Forget it, let’s, let’s not talk about it.” Kindle hesitantly and hastily dismissed.
At this point, Woody had had enough of what he thought to be simple feminine secrecy.
“What’s the matter, love? You’ve been so excited about this trip all day, and now that we’re here, you barely look me in the eye.”
Her voice turned noticeably gentler in reaction, “I’m just worried about it. We’ve never done anything like this before, and I feel we’re not supposed to be here.”
“Is that mare-code for ‘I suddenly dig dudes with masks who scale trains in the middle of the night’? Cause if it is, then I’ve got a mask and I’m not afraid to use it!” said in a threatening tone, shaking the grey cloth in front of him.
“I honestly don’t get you,” shaking her head, “what’s with all these bad jokes all the time?”
“It’s how I cope. I need them. They’re my drugs.” tightly hugging the mask all the while.
After looking at him for a while, still hugging that damned rag, Kindle felt she had enough of standing for the night, and lay down the cabin bed. At this point, all she wanted was a good night’s sleep: a chance to get away from everything, even if for just a short while.
“So, you ready for this?” Woodie asked with bursting enthusiasm, jumping up and down on the springy bed.
After the vertical commotion abated, and some seconds more had passed, Kindle answered. “I want to ask you something beforehoof. Why did you bring me with you? Why me?”
“Frankly, just wanted to hear you scream my name. ‘Oh Woodie! Woodie! Can I go for another ride?’” badly imitating the last part with a girly voice.
“Oww. You’re seriously asking why I like you?”
“No, that’s not what I... Ugh, look. Out of all the mares, I was the least likely you’d want to bring with you. One, my father, Sergeant ‘I-Shall-Beat-The-Living-Daylight-Outta-You’ Flaming Brand, would no doubt try to track us down. Two, I’m not exactly the prettiest or the sluttiest mare around. Three, I thought you dated someone else.”
“Correction: out of all the mares, you’re the one whom I want to be with the most. One, Canterlot police is restricted to Canterlot and its close district only, meaning your father can’t leave the city while on duty without going against royal order; and we’re supposed to come back before the weekend anyways. Two, I’m into braided ponytails. Three, I used to, but she had some faults. Namely, no braided ponytail.”
She gave him a hard glare, for the last two answers no doubt.
“Like I said, you’re asking me why I like you, but you’re too afraid to ask me straight.” Seeing that the glaring hasn’t stopped, he embraced his love tight, looked in her eyes, and continued softly, “I just like you, without any reason. I feel like I need you. More than my jokes. I don’t ever want to let go of y-- hey, where’s my mask goin’?” Woody sat up after feeling the cloth getting away from his hooves.
The mask, the little grey sack with an evil smile wasn’t there anymore: it was fleeing through the corridor, as if reeled in by some invisible thread. It could be heard as it went, for it was laughing, with no lungs nor face behind it. And not just about anything. Laughing at him, for letting her go.
He began to pursue his cloth quarry, letting go of the words thrown at him to stop. Kindle soon lost sight of him after enough wagon doors had opened and shut before her. An eerie darkness kept crawling towards her, reminding her she’s hopelessly alone, and yet, that she is not. Eyes were looking at her, peering through the darkness, gazing into her soul and departing with it, leaving her cowering and unable to advance.
It was time to seek refuge in an old friend, the only thing she could trust at nights like this. Inside the cabin, she produced an old candle holder out of her saddlebag, a simple stick-shaped one with a wooden plate under it. Once lit, it burned with a ferocious flame, acting as a tiny beacon in the sea of night, keeping away the invisible sharks that otherwise drain her dead.
* * *
“This is the last wagon” Kindle thought, as she slowly opened the heavy door. Cabins. Again. An endless row of cabins holding empty darkness, gently lit by the dim candlelight every time she passed one, checking that it’s empty. Empty, all of them empty, she thought at first, until she heard a familiar voice calling out.
“Gotcha, you rascal! Now on you go--” interrupted by a sound of ropes unrolling and running tight.
She ran as she could, quickly checking every cabin, even though she knew which one was the one where the voice came. At the last one, the candle didn’t shine forth, its light stopped at the belly of a familiar coat of fur. She almost screamed in delight. Then she screamed in horror.
The body was floating in the air, his legs limp and lifeless. Rope ran around his neck, coiling many times over, going up through a hook on the ceiling, and finally fastened to a nail on the wall. His face wasn’t visible, for it was covered with the sack: the crowning mask to celebrate the ascension of the colt.
Tender Kindle collapsed on the floor, and quietly wept for him, and for herself that she couldn’t stop him. Not long after, she untied the rope and let the body slowly descend. She stared into the empty, hollow eyes of the sack, and could feel anger and rage rapidly building inside, wishing to burn the cursed cloth. Until she finally noticed: it was staring back. It looked deep into her, grinning endlessly and uncontrollably, unable to resume the perverted joke of defiling the sacredness of life.
Finally mustering enough courage to take it off of him, she slowly reached towards it, but could touch it. Her foreleg was stopped by another, the hoof of the dead that stood before her.
“Don’t you like my face as it is?” asked the familiar voice under the bag.
“I-It isn’t y-yours.” Kindle gave a quivering answer. “Look what it did to you.”
“Don’t you want to look what it did to me? Let me take it off for you.”
The revelation brought forth a face she never witnessed on the colt before. Its whitened eyes gazed into nothingness, and a scared surprise was frozen on its face, as if it reacted to what it saw on the other side. Its lips were blue, and as they moved, its vaporous breath told of death freshly delivered.
“Is it better now?” the body asked, as it began to slowly approach her.
“Woody? Is it still you?” Kindle was forced to slowly back away into the corridor.
The mask, without a rope this time, flew back on his head, his eyes now piercingly staring, his mouth silently widening for a terrible laugh. The cloth slowly stretched and grew as it reached his shoulders, then his forelegs and hooves. What was left of Woody was slowly consumed right before her eyes, until he was completely swallowed by the nightmare woven in grey. The clapping of his hooves stopped, but the approaching figure didn’t. They weren’t touching the floor any more.
“What do you want from me?” Kindle asked, holding the candle before her, as if trying to fend off the grinning horror with it.
The figure stopped, as eventually the mare before him. An infernal laughter struck, akin to none she ever heard before, sinfully mocking his quarry into a whimpering collapse on the floor. As she wasn’t holding it any more, he took the candle and held it close to his own visage. He leaned down to the mare, and the mockery he had for a face crept ever closer to hers, until it was the only thing in the world she could see.
“I want to hear you scream my name.”
* * *
The impossible morning eventually came, scattering snow and sunshine all around Ponyville. At the station it found a train standing, on it a worn out mare with signs of a struggle, knocked out on the cold floor, next to her a handle with a candle in it. It was still burning.
"Excuse me,” I ask when her story is finished, “But please tell me, how old is your foal?"
"He was born a month ago, why you ask?" answered the mare with a tender voice.
"Is he a... normal baby?"
"Yes, yes he is. He is in good health, thank Celestia."
"What is his name?"
A bitter smile was brought to the face of the mare. She looked at her son and answered.