's 2018 Horror Write-off:

Once You Pop...

Submitted by THE LESBIATHAN (email)

Lord Elritch Markolf carefully sat down at his elegant table in an effort to not disturb his esteemed guest, whom sat across from him. Markolf acknowledged his guest's presence with a slight incline of his noble head; to anyone watching they would barely notices the slight tremble in the noble's hand as he reached for his wine glass, or the sweat upon his brow as he nervously began to speak to his guest.

"So," said Lord Markolf, in an effort to fill the void of silence that had encased the dining room, "how go things down in..." He reached with his mind for where his guest did most of his business, and floundered; lamely he finished his thought with " the docks?" More of a question for himself than his guest, really. It was terribly rude, Lord Markolf knew, but the unnatural silence was getting to him, causing his nerves to fray.

The figure draped in shadow across from the lord gave a dry chuckle, before replying, "Close my lord, but I work with a caravanserai bringing goods in from the darkest heart of the Far Lands; to answer your original question, trade has been good, very good indeed."

The silence descended upon the dining room again, and once again Lord Markolf tried to fill it, this time with a loud slurp of his wine. Again, the guest gave a dry chuckle, and a hand wreathed in shadow darted out to grasp a glass of wine, before drawing it into the darkness that hid Markolf's guest.

Thankfully, for both Markolf and his wine, dinner was soon served and allowed for the silence to be filled the din of silverware on dishes, the sound of quiet chewing, and the occasional slurp of wine or soup. But this could not last, and as dinner was finished, the dreadful silence once again descended upon the room like a raven to a battlefield. And, again, Markolf attempted to fill it with something, anything at all, to avoid the silent judgement that accompanied it.

"So," said Markolf, giving a little cough to catch the attention of his shadowy guest, "you said business has been good?"

The shadowy figure quietly set down their glass of wine, which had not emptied once during the whole of dinner, and cleared their throat, before speaking. "Yes, my lord; it has been extraordinarily good to me and my company, in large part due to your patronage; without your financial aid and support, we could not have hired nearly as many guards or bought as many braces of silk as we did. You have my thanks, sir, as well as the thanks of my entire troupe."

The conversation should've been pleasant, Lord Markolf knew; whenever he spoke to the other companies that enjoyed his considerable patronage, it was a time of joy and happiness, when the rewards of his careful planning and support could be reaped, and proper thanks could be made. But this guest, this shadowy guest, had thrown the whole affair off, somehow. Somehow, Markolf did not feel the joy he normally associated with a business deal going well, but felt a quiet dread, as if something was looming in his future, something large and spider shaped. He did not care for this feeling of disquiet, he did not care for it at all.

His ponderings on the nature of the night's dinner and mood had caused him to miss quite a large chunk of what his guest had been talking about, and the noble found himself forced to ask for the guest to repeat themselves.

"It is no problem my lord," said the figure with just a hint of a smile in their voice, "No doubt you were thinking of matters of business. I was saying that, while in the Far Lands, I found a most amusing artifact, which I hope you will find as enjoyable as I did when I first encountered it."

So saying, the shadowy hand came forth and, with a solid sounding clunk, dropped a faded cylindrical tube, sealed with a cap of plastic, into the center of the table. Markolf looked at it curiously, distracted by the novelty of the item into ignoring the lingering dread and malice that hung in the air.

"What is it?" asked Markolf, reaching out and grabbing the item; it had some heft to it, and he was sure that it contained something inside. "What is it for? What does it do?"

Markolf was now sure the guest was smiling, for he could hear it in their voice. "Ah its an amusement from the savages of the Far Lands, my lord, one that I think you will find most enchanting, most enchanting indeed. The locals called it a prin-gulls cahn, and it offers a spiritual challenge, of a sort; you see, the Far Landers open it up by removing the plastic cap and issue a simple challenge: once you pop, you must stop."

Markolf had been slowly turning the prin-gulls cahn over in his hands, studying it. "Stop doing what?" he asked, as his eyes slid once again to the plastic capper on the can; it seemed to call to him, to invite him to pop it open and partake in the mysteries it contained inside.

"Just... stop," said the shadowy guest, giving a small shrug. "Would you care to try it, my lord?"

Lord Markolf nodded, sharply, and, with trembling hands, he removed the plastic lid of the prin-gulls cahn. There was a slight pop sound, as it came loose, and the air filled with the pungent scent of salt and vinegar; almost immediately, Markolf's mouth began to water, and, despite just having eaten, he was filled with a sudden, unnatural hunger. Greedily, almost without even thinking about it, his fingers slipped into the prin-gulls cahn and pulled out a crisp, oddly shaped oval. In the blink of an eye, the odd oval was on his lips, and he could taste the exquisite flavors of this strange foodstuff. With an almost orgasmic gasp of pleasure, he ate the oval and, as it slid down his throat, he felt he could see the face of God.

His taste of enlightenment faded as quickly as it had come, and he frantically searched for the prin-gulls cahn to obtain another oval from its depths. But it was not where he had placed it, rather, it had somehow made its way back to the hands of his guest. Seeing that they had his attention, the guest calmly said, "Now we see how long you can last without another taste; the Far Landers, savages that they are, theorize that these prin-gulls cahns were used by the Old Ones as ways to strengthen one's soul; by tasting Nirvana, you could be come stronger."

Markolf barely heard his guest, his eyes focused solely on the prin-gulls cahn at the far end of the table. He had to have more, he had to have another one; you couldn't just stop at one, he now knew, you had to partake in another, and another, until there were no more. His guest was still talking, Markolf realized, and he struggled to pay attention; after all, he might get more odd ovals from the prin-gulls cahn from his guest.

"I, on the other hand, do not thing the prin-gulls cahn is a self improvement device," said the guest, "but rather a torture device, one created to let you taste perfection, then have it cruelly ripped away by your warden." So saying, the guest passed Markolf another odd oval, which the noble greedily ate.

As Markolf descended into a hell of pure, perfect flavor, the shadowy figure examined the prin-gulls cahn, turning it over in their hands so that they could see the front; with a chuckle, they realized that what the strange mustached man was saying was true. Once you popped, you couldn't stop.