Carol noticed Rogue turn and saw the flare of neon return to Rogue's eyes before the other mutant took a step towards the stone. Frowning, Carol grabbed Rogue's arm and yanked her back again.
"What do you think you're doing?"
Rogue didn't appear to even notice Carol; she simply pulled her arm out of Carol's grasp and continued forward. Annoyed, Carol grabbed Rogue by the shoulders and pulled her back away. "I thought we agreed that you're not going to awaken anything. Seriously, Rogue, what are you doing?" She spun Rogue around in her arms so that the southern belle was facing her. Rogue's eyes dimmed for a second to their newly natural black color while she stared at Carol, seeming to try to comprehend something.
It was something Carol never expected to feel towards this particular mutant, but she was getting a little worried. Rogue wasn't responding normally and the distant look in her ever-changing eyes brought more than just concern to Carol's usually cool demeanor. "Are you alright? Rogue…?"
Upon receiving no response, other than the spine-chilling gaze, Carol shook Rogue by the shoulders. "Snap out of it."
Inside, Rogue was raging a losing war against the calling need to return to the emerald. The voice inside her mind only grew as she turned her head away from Carol's violent shaking to the stone. Nothing can stop you from reaching the stone…
Rogue blinked and turned back to Carol who was still holding her firmly by the shoulders, but had stopped shaking her. Instead, Carol was pulling her away from the giant emerald, in hopes of bringing Rogue back to her normal self. It was a useless battle.
NOW Rogue turned back to Carol, with an unbreakable desire to reach the stone, her eyes flared and she gripped Carol's arms with her gloved hands. With a forced effort, she pushed the surprised mutant off of her and turned on her heel to head back to the emerald.
Although Carol didn't completely understand what was going on, she could tell something was wrong with Rogue. And since Rogue was trying to get to the stone, her best bet was to stop Rogue from what she was trying to achieve. Then she'd figure out what to do with her later, but for now, preventing Rogue from reaching the stone was her only goal.
Carol pushed herself up from the ground and jumped on Rogue's retreating back. At the same time, she leveraged her legs against Rogue's form and pushed sharply downward so that her feet firmly planted against the back of Rogue's knees. Unsuspecting and apparently unaware, Rogue went down like a ton of bricks. Carol quickly swiped at Rogue's hands to prevent Rogue from reaching back, but she wasn't quick enough. Rogue's fist arched back at a nearly impossible angle and connected solidly with Carol's jaw.
Carol grunted as her head was thrown back from the force behind Rogue's fist. Rogue took quick advantage of the distraction to flip on her back so that Carol was pinned under her. Carol's head banged against the crumbling ground beneath her and she winced. But Rogue's flipped position gave Carol the advantage, Carol levitated them both into the air, her body carried Rogue upward and she harshly reared back her head to bring it crashing forward into the back of Rogue's skull before the other mutant could react from being lifted into the air.
The action sent a wave of pain and an instant headache to Carol, but had apparently also hurt Rogue a lot more. Rogue's head snapped forward and a low moan escaped her slightly parted lips. She pulled away from Carol, but before she was able to completely turn, Carol detected a dark red stain spreading to cover her chestnut hair.
If Carol had been hoping the jar to Rogue's head would bring the obsessed mutant back to her senses, she would have been disappointed. Rogue's eyes were still eerily glowing a deep green color and she only appeared more enraged from the harsh attack. Then, for a half of a second, she froze and Carol had a fleeting hope that Rogue was back, but in another second she shook it off and her light eyebrows crossed in a dark, angry manner. Without further hesitation, she roughly pulled off her gloves and flew at Carol with her bare hands outstretched.
Carol's eyes widened in fear and apprehension as she barely avoided contact with Rogue's deadly flesh. By the time she had turned around, Rogue was already charging back at her. This time, Carol wasn't quick enough.
She avoided direct contact, but Rogue managed to grab her shirt and roughly pulled Carol towards her. Carol frantically grabbed for Rogue's other hand, which had arched towards her exposed face, she managed to catch her by the shoulder merely an inch before Rogue's hungry hand touched her face.
Sweat dripping down her brow, Carol struggled to push Rogue's hand away by forcing her body further away. To her absolute horror, Carol couldn't push Rogue away. She was pushing back on shoulder with all of her strength, but Rogue wasn't budging. That shouldn't be surprising, since Rogue had absorbed her strength and they should be exactly even in strength. But, after a moment that felt like an hour, something happened that increased Carol's fear by a tenfold. Carol's arm wavered and Rogue's hand inched closer, to the distance of only a centimeter away.
Desperate now, and near tears, Carol tried to call out to Rogue. Her voice was strained with fear and forced out through a hoarsely raw throat. "Rogue…please…no. Not again." It was a beg, Carol was begging Rogue, the woman she hated most in the world and, at this moment, the woman she was most afraid of by a single touch.
Nothing changed in Rogue's passive features and Carol's arm quavered again. Rogue was stronger than her, she was going to win. Carol let out a cry of anguish and flipped around. It was a last ditch effort and it didn't work. Not completely, at least. Rogue's hand brushed Carol's exposed face for a fraction of a second and Carol felt the all too familiar nightmarish feeling of draining. It lasted for no more than that half a second, but it left Carol drained and weak. She fell from the sky to land harshly on the single, middle strip of land.
For a full out minute, Rogue stared at Carol with a look that could be compared to regret. Her eyes were not their regular green, or even the bright neon that shone forth for the last twenty minutes, they were blue. Carol could only stare back into Rogue's confused and guilty face before the calling came back to Rogue.
Now, come. Unintentionally, Rogue felt her head lift to stare at the huge emerald that stood stiffly at the end of the pathway. All other thoughts erased and Carol saw the green glow wash over her gaze again. With barely a glance back at Carol, Rogue left the weakened Carol splayed on the floor and began to make her way to the stone. Carol's eyes closed in exasperation and she called out one last time. "Rogue, no…" It was meant to be a scream of resistance, but it came out barely above a whisper. Carol was sure Rogue had heard her anyway, but she didn't acknowledge her. She was solely fixed on her destination, the stone.
With two more long strides, Rogue had come upon the stone. She stared into it for what seemed like forever before stretching out one pale, exposed finger. Carol tried to get up and move, but the effort was too much. She couldn't do it. Carol was surprised she was still conscious, but at this point, she wasn't sure if the was a good thing.
Rogue's outstretched finger gently touched the stone and the reaction was immediate. Rogue's body stiffened and she let out a cry of pain. From Carol's point of view, it looked like Rogue had come back to her senses and was trying to pull away from the stone, but she couldn't be sure because Rogue's back was still to her. Either way, Rogue managed to pull away and reeled back from contact with the stone. In another moment, she fell to her knees and clutched her head with both hands, mumbling something incoherent.
Around Carol, the strip of land began to shake and all Hell broke loose.
Strong, vile voices, images, pictures ran through Rogue's mind and her feet gave way from under her as she clutched her head in a futile attempt to force them out. Destruction and death were clear in Rogue's mind. People, innocent people, were being tortured and killed to his pleasure.
Rogue saw the death and pain; she lived through it, as countless fell. The robed man had been right; there was no stopping this monster. Behind all the pain, Rogue heard a single, small voice calling out to her.
"Rogue…" Rogue opened her tear filled eyes and spun around to see Carol lying, almost as limp as a ragdoll, in the middle of the single strip of land that had begun to violently shake. Staggering, Rogue got to her feet and made the short distance over to Carol. Her eyes filled with horror at the memory of fighting Carol, of invading her. Again.
No longer even aware of her surroundings, strength left Rogue as guilt overcame her at the sight of Carol's weakened form and she fell to her knees besides the girl who hated her so much. Rogue's breath hitched in her throat as she tried to speak. "Carol, Ah-Ah'm so-so sorry. Ah-"
With what little strength Carol had, she stared up at Rogue and interrupted her softly. "Later Rogue, I…I know that wasn't you." Rogue's eyes widened in shock and Carol's darted away from hers. Instead, she glanced over the edge of the trembling pathway. "I…I think you'll have to get us out of here."
Rogue nodded agreeably before she held out her arms and picked Carol up. She cradled Carol to her chest as if she were carrying a baby and took off at a run down the pathway. She hadn't taken ten steps before the ground gave a particularly violent jolt and a creature rose from one of the pits below. It was one of the strangest, most foreign things Rogue had ever seen. The creature resembled a gargoyle, with dark, scaly skin and yellow gleaming eyes. Its wingspan was easily twice her height and Rogue estimated it to be a good two feet taller than herself. It had clawed hands and feet, and when it opened its mouth, Rogue saw the double rows of fangs. As soon as its mouth opened, it began to howl.
It was the worst noise Rogue had ever heard and it instantly went to her skull, giving her a throbbing migraine. The tone was so high pitched and concentrated that Rogue was sure it would have instantly shattered glass, had any been around. A groan escaped Rogue's lips at the sound as the throbbing in her head escalated as the gargoyle monster held its pitch. Below her, Carol had her hands pressing against her ears and her eyes tightly shut. There were tears streaming down her cheeks. At the sight of Carol, all small and vulnerable in Rogue's arms, Rogue picked up the pace even more as she began sprinting down the pathway, trying to escape the gargoyle's cries.
As fate would have it, the ground below her started responding to the gargoyle's scream. A piece fell away from in front of her as parts of the floating walkway crumbled. Around her, another dark form rose into the air, followed by two after that. Rogue's heart sunk as more and more dark skinned gargoyles flew into the air. There were thousands of them, lining the walls and staring down at her, as if waiting. Finally, the one who had started the cry cut off and there was silence. The only sound that could be heard was the panting of Rogue's breath and the flapping of thousands of wings against the stale air.
Rogue continued down the pathway, trying to ignore the yellow eyes that followed her steps. Carol's head turned up and around in wonder and fear as her gaze traveled around the flying beasts above them. Her forehead creased and her hands went to her head again as if she were in pain.
Rogue continued running. When she saw Carol's reactions, she grew worried. "Carol, what's wrong?"
Carol rubbed at her skull as her breathing grew ragged. "Something's talking to me. Can't you hear it?" Rogue shook her head. "It's calling out to me—God, ow!" Carol cradled her head in her hands. Rogue's joints screamed in protest as she tried to push them even harder and her lungs seemed to lodge in her dry throat. Her esophagus was burning, but Rogue knew she couldn't stop. If she stopped, she might not be able to start again.
"Don't listen to it, Carol. We'll be outa here soon."
Carol rubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand, keeping them tightly shut and one hand still holding her head. "I don't think so, Rogue. You haven't awaken the Guardians yet."
Rogue's eyes travelled around her at the gargoyles. "Then who the hell are they?"
Carol kept her eyes shut. "They're here to help the ceremony."
"What are ya talkin' about, Carol? What ceremony? How do ya know all this?"
"Rogue, stop running." Without questioning why, Rogue pulled up short. Her legs gave out from under her as she collapsed to the walkway floor, breathing raggedly and inhaling sharply. Carol opened her eyes as Rogue laid her down for a moment, trying to catch her breath. Carol's blue eyes were shimmering with unshed tears and it was obvious that she was trying to hold them back. "Listen to me, Rogue."
Rogue forced herself to open her eyes and look at Carol. Carol was biting down hard on her lower lip to keep the tears from coming. "What is it?"
"I…" Carol breathed in deeply as humid air filled her needy lungs. "I want to say that I'm sorry, Rogue. I'm sorry for not forgiving you for absorbing me all those years ago." Rogue's mouth gaped open, but Carol held up a hand to let her finish. "I know you've changed since then and I've been unfair to you by holding a grudge. I forgive you for what happened that day." Carol exhaled quickly then sped on, "If I don't make it out of here—"
"Carol! You're goin' ta make it out of here!"
Carol wore a pained expression. "Rogue, please—"
"No, Carol, Ah promise Ah'm goin' ta getcha outah here. Ah'm not goin' ta let ya down again."
"It won't be your fault." Carol whispered.
Rogue blanched. "What? Carol?" Carol didn't respond. "Do ya know somethin' that Ah don't?"
Carol swallowed thickly and turned away. Rogue's eyes widened in understanding. Carol had apologized to Rogue because she knew she was about to die—and she didn't want Rogue to go through the rest of her life guilt-stricken about it. Rogue's lips parted as a small gasp escaped between them. It was the most selfless thing Carol had ever done for her. "Carol, ya have ta tell meh what ya saw."
Carol shivered slightly, despite the heat. "There's no way out if the Guardians are not awoken—we'd be stuck here forever. But to wake them…you need to sacrifice your Guardian in reverence so that they can come to you."
Rogue drew in a deep breath. "Ah'm not goin' ta kill ya, Carol."
"You don't really have a choice." Carol turned her head to the side again and flames reflected in her eyes. "They're already here for you."
Rogue followed her gaze and found herself staring at a grand altar before her. The platform widened into a circle and flames licked either end along the sides. The giant emerald stood behind the raised circular platform. Gargoyles lined the edges of the circle, all passively sitting and watching. At the very far end of the circle sat a larger gargoyle, bigger and more intimidating than the rest. In one of its claws, it grasped a razor sharp knife.
Three of the gargoyles began approaching and one scooped down to pick Carol up. "No!" Rogue screamed and lunged for the gargoyle, but its two companions grabbed her and hauled her back. Rogue fought with all her strength and succeeded in kicking one gargoyle off the ledge. The other grabbed her arms, as if to withstrain her, but his strength was nothing compared to hers and she easily pushed him aside as she struggled to move forward.
Other gargoyles moved to intercept her, but the one that had taken Carol stopped them with a screech and laid his fangs against Carol's neck in threat. Rogue froze, afraid that he would bite Carol if she continued fighting, but torn between the desire to help her. Carol gave Rogue a meek, forced smile and Rogue wondered why she wasn't fighting for herself. The question only lingered momentarily before it hit her—Carol was letting this happen, accepting death, for her escape. The thought made Rogue sick. Carol was giving up her life for her.
Two gargoyles stood on either side of the raised middle circle. One held Carol's arms down while the other grabbed her legs. Carol sat still, letting them hold her down as the lead gargoyle approached Rogue. Others pushed her forward from the back until she was standing right before Carol's prone body.
Drive it straight through her heart. The gargoyle pressed the knife into her hands and Rogue was alarmed when it slightly cut into her palm. The knife was able to cut through her invulnerable skin—which would undoubtedly cut through Carol's too.
Time seemed to freeze, in Rogue's opinion. She stood before Carol with the knife in her hands, frozen, unable to move. Rogue was certain she'd never be able to kill this girl. She had stolen so much from Carol already, she didn't deserve the right to take her life as well. Carol deserved to die a hero, known and celebrated, not alone with her most hated enemy in the depths of hell without anyone witnessing her sacrifice.
Below her, Carol judged Rogue's indecision. "It's okay." Her voice was strained and low, silent almost. "You have to escape, Rogue. One of us does and it's not going to be me. Do it. I forgive you."
The knife grew heavier in Rogue's palm.