When Artina awoke, it was into pitch-black darkness and ice-cold air.
She frowned in confusion, examining her surroundings - or, at least, she tried to, for the air was so dark that she couldn't see anything, not even her own hands in front of her face. The absence of light and warmth felt nearly suffocating to her, but worse still was the intense but inexplicable feeling of foreboding; she could feel dread and horror crawl down her spine and throat like icy needles, amplifying her terror. It all felt too familiar, but when had she been here before?
The words drew out of the darkness in a slow hiss, softly but menacingly, echoing endlessly in the intense blackness of the dream.
The word repeated itself, its slow, venomous drawl burning her ears. She tried to ignore it - she'd wake up soon, wouldn't she? Hadn't she always woken up before?
They hate you.
The words slithered into her heart and rooted themselves deeply; she could feel the pain start then, just a pinprick now, a small ache of doubt and guilt, but -
You don't care for them. You don't care for him. Selfish girl.
- but she knew it would grow, grow inside her like it always had, sprouting thorny tendrils of hatred and regret that clung to her heart and strangled it.
Is that two men you've destroyed, now? Two men you've left to wither and suffer?
She hadn't, though, Artina wanted to say - she'd tried so hard to help him! She'd called out to him for a hundred years, pleading for him to see her - what else was she supposed to do? And how could she know about the Tyrant's sad fate? How could she possibly have known, chained to Nemo's side by duty as she'd been? It wasn't her fault. It wasn't her fault.
But that didn't matter, Artina thought. That didn't matter, because no matter what she'd known, no matter what her intentions, she was still a miserable, pathetic -
Artina let out a small cry, feeling the word - that furious, familiar word in that furious, familiar voice - rip through her near-physically. She clutched at her arms, hugging herself tightly, shutting her eyes even though she couldn't see a thing anyway. It would go away - it would go away like it always had -
Disgusting failure. You're just a disgusting failure.
That voice - she knew that voice. But even in his darkest hours, had that voice ever seemed so full of malice? Against her will, her eyes opened, and a humanoid figure appeared to her, cloaked by darkness yet still horribly familiar to her. Its form shifted unsteadily - one second he seemed younger, smaller, clothed in the garbs of a hospital patient, and the next he seemed bigger and stronger, the form of her worst enemy and worst mistake -
"I'm trying," Artina said, her voice wretched and her stare hopeless. "I'm trying my hardest for you..."
"What if it's too late, Artina? What will you do then?"
Of course it's too late, some ugly part of her answered - of course it's too late. A man left for four hundred years, all alone, without a single word of comfort or direction - he was beyond hope. He'd been beyond hope since he'd stopped believing in angels. She could collect all the money she wanted, but in the end, wouldn't she just have to kill him anyway?
"...I don't know," Artina whispered finally, feeling the last remnants of strength leaving her. She didn't have the energy to fight this dream - she felt like she'd never have the energy to do anything again. She just wanted to curl up and succumb to it, let all the misery just take her over...
"I know," she whispered back, and she looked down, unable to bear even the sight of his face. It was so tempting to let it win, to let this twisted, negative dream completely consume her - but she couldn't. She had fought worse before, after all. With a hard, determined frown on her face, she looked back up and stared Nemo down.
"But I have to try."
Those words - spoken with a sense of true conviction - echoed throughout the dark landscape for a few moments. Nemo stood completely motionless, staring at Artina; then, slowly but surely, his features started melting away, his nose and eyes sucked into his melting face like some kind of horror movie. At the same time, he was getting smaller - his muscles melted into him, his entire body shape changed and warped, his clothes shifted and changed. Artina stared in fascinated horror as the transformation continued, as his features became more and more familiar yet again...
After a moment, the bubbling and melting of skin stopped, and in Nemo's place stood yet another Artina, clothed in a nun's outfit and with her pink hair let down. Her soft, blue eyes met the angelic Artina's, her face pulled into a sympathetic, sad smile.
"Please don't be sad, Artina," she whispered; as she spoke, she stepped out of the darkness - no, the darkness itself seemed to part for her - and moved towards Artina. Artina herself didn't move a muscle, staring at her double in shock, still shaking violently; she just let her human self come closer, closer, until her face was not two inches from the other's.
"Whatever happens - however much hope you lose, however much you come to despise your mistakes - I will always believe in you."
And then, cupping her cheek with a gentle hand, the human Artina tilted her head and softly kissed the other, her lips warm. Artina could feel the energy flowing back into her from the kiss, the energy and confidence and happiness that had been so drained and destroyed by the dream, and she kissed back as though by instinct, her arms wrapping around the other as she did. The warmth and comfort was irresistible, and Artina deepened the kiss quickly, feeling an intense, burning need rising in her stomach that she couldn't even begin to understand -
And just then, Artina truly awoke, sitting straight up in her bed and gasping for air, drenched in sweat and trembling. It took her a moment to process her new surroundings; finally recognizing her room in the Netherworld, she took one deep, shaky breath and clutched her knees to her chest, trying to calm down.
Yet she didn't feel terrified or on the verge of tears - no, for some reason, this iteration of the dream had been different. Overlaid on the fear and regret like a soft, comforting blanket laid the last images of her human self, smiling sympathetically.
Artina didn't have the strength to recoil from the memory of the kiss.
Instead, she held on to the bit of warmth it had given her and prayed it would stay with her