Dying never gets any easier.

These were Furude Rika's thoughts as she drove the long blade of the stainless steel butcher's knife into her neck. Pain shot through her, no less unbearable for being familiar. It was a white-hot point of agony driving into her flesh. She could not bear it, could not resist it; she could only flow with the pain until it carried her away to the Place Between Worlds once again.

Rika still remembered her first death. She remembered all of her deaths, every detail of the Eternal June, but her first death stuck in her mind most off all. She hadn't been expecting it, then; the chain of deaths attributed to "the Curse of Oyashiro-sama" (oh, how Hanyuu hated that blood-stained name!) had still been fresh and horrifying. And then came that fateful night, after the Cotton Drifting Festival, when Hanyuu had awakened her, screaming "Run! Run!" Rika had run outside, right into the waiting hands of her Enemy.

Rika drove the knife into her neck a second time. It might not have been necessary; the neck was the most vulnerable place on the body to knife wounds, after all. With both the carotid artery and jugular vein cut open, death would come within seconds. But this pain, bad as it might be, was nothing compared to what she would be forced to endure if her suicide attempt failed. She knew that from experience, and her days-long stay in Sonozaki Shion's "Fun-Fun Underground Torture Chamber" was something she had no desire to repeat. So she ignored the pain and rammed the knife in deep, feeling her precious blood spray from the wound.

Her first death had brought her to the kakera-musubi, that Time Out Of Time, the Place Between Worlds. There, Hanyuu had explained: her Enemy had caught her. She died, eviscerated while alive and her viscera spread around the Shrine of Oyashiro-sama. But Hanyuu, who had been alone for so long, could not bear to lose her only friend. So she had tweaked time a little, a small application of what little divine power she retained after her own death so long ago, and brought Rika to the Place Between Worlds. Her Hinamizawa was not the only Hinamizawa, Hanyuu had explained. There were many worlds. They would go to a different world. There they would be able to live happily.

Warm blood gushed down Rika's side, flowing down her skin, soaking into her dress. Her grip on the knife loosened, and it clattered to the floor. Rika crumpled down after it, her legs no longer able to support her as massive blood loss sent her body into shock. Shion was laughing, the damned sadist. ...No, it wasn't Shion's fault. It was the Hinamizawa Syndrome, the parasite poisoning her brain from within. Rika couldn't stay angry at her. Most probably Shion would be perfectly normal in the next world, and someone else would succumb to the parasite's effects. That was the nature of the Eternal June, one of the rules keeping trapped in this Labyrinth of tragedy.

World after world, it had been the same. Some details had differed: the exact events of the Cotton Drifting Festival, the person to succumb to Hinamizawa Syndrome afterwards, other little things. But her death before the end of June, that was an inevitability. She ran; her Enemy caught her. She hid; her Enemy found her. She fought; her Enemy overpowered her. Again and again and again it happened. Hanyuu said they only had to be patient, that sooner or later they'd end up in a world where her Enemy didn't exist. But if it's true what they say, that a strong will can determine Fate, then her Enemy's will was indomitable. No matter how much Rika fought, no matter how much she struggled, the same grim Fate always reasserted itself. Hanyuu tried going back farther, to give Rika more time to prepare: a month, a year, five years... but the Rules of the Labyrinth held fast, always guiding Rika back to her Enemy no matter which path she took. As Rika grew older, in mind if not in body, she came up with more elaborate plans: seeking help from the police, from the Sonozakis, from the Yamainu. But she was always betrayed. She tried learning self-defense: kendo, jujitsu, knife-fighting. But even decades of training and practice could not compensate for her frail ten-year-old form. Over a hundred years or more, she memorized the Labyrinth: every twist, every turn, every possible permutation of the events leading to her demise. But to her eternal despair, there was one thing she was never able to remember, and that was the identity of her Enemy. She had seen her Enemy's face before, she knew it, smiling down at her as they cut open her chest and pulled out her intestines; but with each new world, the memory deserted her, and she was left clueless once more.

Hanyuu was crying. Hanyuu always cried when Rika died. She remembered that clearly enough. "I'm sorry," Hanyuu said. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." Hanyuu had been alone for so long. All she had wanted was a friend; someone to laugh with her, play with her, love her. And because of this, she had created the Eternal June; because of this, Rika had suffered torture and death and dismemberment thousands upon thousands of times. Rika didn't blame her, but she knew Hanyuu blamed herself. Such a poor, lonely girl... She had sacrificed her life to atone for the sins of the inhabitants of Hinamizawa, only to see them gleefully commit ever-greater sins in her name. She had seen thousands tortured to death over as many years, had seen the name "Oyashiro-sama" deified through fear and horror. She had thought that sacrificing herself would free others of their sins; but they had only concluded that sin could be expiated by sacrificing innocents in their place, and now Hanyuu had to bear the weight of those sins as well. "I'm sorry..."

There was one consolation. Dying here, by her own hand, would spite her Enemy. Shion's exhilaration was well worth the spiteful pleasure of denying her Enemy the pleasure of dissecting her alive on Oyashiro-sama's Shrine. It was a hollow victory, for her Enemy would be lying in wait for her once more in the next world, but she would take even a fleeting victory over despair. She could despair, she could surrender, she could tell Hanyuu not to bring her to the Place Between Worlds and let her die her final death; but that would leave Hanyuu once more alone in this cruel world, and Rika would die a thousand more deaths before she would ever allow that to happen. No matter what horrors lurked in the Labyrinth, no matter what tragic Fate awaited her, no matter what tortures she must endure, she and Hanyuu would always be together.

"I'm sorry," Hanyuu said, as Rika's body died and her mind departed to the Timeless Place.

"Don't cry," Rika told her. "Everyone has the right to pursue a happy life."

"Even me?" the goddess asked.

"Even you," Rika affirmed. "The only difficult part is working out a compromise for that right."

Rika took Hanyuu's delicate hand in her own, and the two faced each other in the Place Between Worlds.

"Come. Let us go to our next Hinamizawa." Rika said.

And so Furude Rika's thousand-year journey in search of a miracle continued.