The weeks spent on the ocean had made Markus feel dizzy and weak, so he was glad to be back on dry land. The path leading from the basalt shore had a slick, oily quality, making it treacherous underfoot. The crooked trees to either side were wretched, blackened husks that wept yellowed sap from where it looked like some panicked animal had clawed them ragged. Soft light shimmered between the trees, dancing like the corpse candles that flickered over marshland and drew unwary souls to their doom. The branches were hung with what looked like canopies of ragged muslin, and it took Markus a moment to realize they were swathes of cobwebs.
Wiry bracken clogged the undergrowth on either side of the path, rustling with the motion of unseen creatures shadowing their passage through the forest. Perhaps the rats infesting the ship had followed them. Markus had never caught sight of one, beyond a fleeting glimpse of a, black-furred body or the sound of claws on wood. He'd never been able to shake the notion that it sounded as if these rats had a few too many legs than any normal rat should have.
The island's air was heavy with damp, and his finely tailored tunic and boots were sodden with clinging moisture. He held a scented pomander beneath his nose, but it did little to disguise the stench of the island, reminding him of the charnel pits beyond the walls of Noxus when the winds blew in from the ocean. Thinking back to his homeland, he felt a brief twinge of unease. The revels in the catacombs far beneath the city had been a deliciously illicit thrill, a reward for following the secret symbol of the black-petaled bloom. Within the darkened sepulchers, he and his fellows gathered as devotees.
Where she awaited.
He looked ahead, hoping for a glimpse of the beguiling woman whose words had brought so many of them to this place. He caught a flash of crimson silk and swaying hips before the mist oozing between the trees obscured his sight of her. He'd thrilled to the sermons of her ancient god, and had been overjoyed when he and the others had been chosen to join her on this pilgrimage. It seemed like a grand adventure when they boarded the heavily laden barque at midnight, under the still gaze of the mute and hooded steersman, but being so far from Noxus had begun to dull his enthusiasm.
Markus paused and turned to look back along the path. His fellow pilgrims pushed past, like vacant-eyed cattle en route to the slaughterman's hammer. What was wrong with them? Behind them came the steersman, gliding over the path as though his feet barely touched it. His robes were undulant with motion and suffocating fear flowered in Markus' breast at the thought of being near this repellent figure.
He turned away, only to find himself face to face with her.
"... " he said, and the breath caught in his throat. He instinctively wanted to push her away and flee this awful place, but the intoxication of her dark beauty overpowered any thought of rejection. His sense of revulsion passed so swiftly he wasn't even sure he'd truly felt it.
"Markus" she said, and the sound of his name on her lips was divine, sending a surge of pleasure down his spine. Her beauty transfixed him, and he savored every detail of her perfect form. Her features were angular and sharp, framed by lustrous crimson hair, like that of a highborn girl he once knew. Full lips and eyes of dark radiance drew him deeper into her web with the promise of raptures yet to come. A cloak of sable, secured by an eight-pronged brooch, mantled her rounded shoulders. It rippled with motion, though there was no wind to stir it.
"Is something the matter, Markus?" she said. Her smoky tones soothed his fear like a balm. "I need you to be at peace. You are at peace, aren't you, Markus?"
"Yes, Elise" he said. "I am at peace."
"Good. It would make me unhappy to know you were not at peace when we are so close."
The thought of displeasing her sent a jolt of panic through Markus and he dropped to the ground. He wrapped his arms around her legs, her limbs slender and alabaster white, smooth and cold to the touch.
"Anything for you, mistress" he said.
She looked down on him and smiled. For an instant Markus thought he saw something long, thin and glossy shift beneath her cloak. The motion was sickening and unnatural, but he didn't care. She hooked a sharpened, obsidian-black fingernail under his chin and drew him to his feet. A rivulet of blood ran down his neck, but he ignored it as she turned and led him onward.
He willingly followed, all thoughts save pleasing her vanishing like wind-blown smoke. The trees thinned out and the path ended before a rocky cliff carved with time-weathered symbols that made his eyes sting. A shadowed cave gaped like a vile maw at the base of the cliff, and Markus felt his certainty waver as a sudden sense of dread uncoiled in his gut.
Elise beckoned him inside, and he was powerless to resist.
The interior of the cave was unnaturally dark and stiflingly warm, a clammy, fever heat that reeked like offal swept from a butcher's block. A voice deep inside was screaming at him to run, to get as far from this hideous place as possible, but his traitorous feet carried him still deeper into the cave. A droplet from somewhere high above landed on his cheek and he flinched at the sudden, burning pain of it. He looked up at the cavern roof, seeing pale, grub-like shapes hanging overhead and swaying with frantic, trapped motion. In the translucent surface of the fresh-spun web, a human face screamed in mute horror against the suffocating, silken net.
"What is this place?" he asked, the veils of deceit woven around him falling away.
"This is my temple, Markus" said Elise, reaching up to unfasten the eight-pronged brooch at her shoulder and letting her cloak fall away. "This is the lair of the."
Her shoulders squirmed as two pairs of slender, chitinous limbs unfolded from the flesh of her back; long, dark and tapering to razored talons. They lifted Elise up as a grotesque, bloated mass shifted in the darkness behind her. Colossal legs heaved its corrupt body forward, the faint light from beyond the cave reflecting on the myriad facets of its eyes.
The vast spider's bulk was enormous, furred and scabbed with wet, mutant growths. The terror of its nightmarish appearance shattered the last of Elise's hold on Markus, and he fled toward the cave mouth with her cruel laughter ringing in his ears. Ropes of stickystruck the rock beside him. Glutinous strands struck his flailing limbs and his pace slowed as he became more and more entangled. He heard the clicking of clawed limbs in pursuit and wept at the thought of her touching him. Yet more strands of her web snared him as something sharp stabbed his shoulder with astonishing swiftness. Markus fell to his knees, paralyzing spreading through his body and locking him in a prison of his own flesh.
A shadow fell across him and he saw the mute steersman with his arms outstretched. Markus screamed as the steersman's hooded robe collapsed, revealing that this was not a man at all, but a writhing nest of innumerablegiven the semblance of a man. They fell upon him in their thousands, and his screams were choked to muffled grunts as they crawled into his mouth, clogged his ears and burrowed behind his eyes.
Elise swung into view above him, borne aloft by the jointed limbs at her back. She was no longer beautiful, no longer even human. Her features were alight with a ferocious hunger that could never be sated. The looming form of her monstrous spider god lifted Markus from the ground with its razored mandibles.
"You have to die now, Markus" said Elise.
"Why...?" he managed with his last breath.
Elise smiled, her mouth now filled with needle-like fangs.
"So that I can live."