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Matsu’s soul tore free of its human vessel.
Whether severed from Chieko’s body by Hatakeyama’s sword or ripped asunder by her own despair, she was reborn in a netherworld of the damned, in an icebound Naraka, a Buddhist hell fashioned from her own karma.
In temporal terms, only a day had passed since she and Chieko first met. With every faculty concentrated on survival, Matsu had given little thought to what had happened at the bathhouse in Kudoyama. But slowly the events of that late summer afternoon blossomed in her mind.
In order to escape the Shogun’s forces, she had disembodied her physical being and melded Chieko’s soul with her own. That meant Chieko’s body was her body. Chieko’s husband was her husband. And Chieko’s unborn child-
Matsu had destroyed what she loved and what she had no chance to love. An eternity of suffering was her rightful reward.
The infested waters of the Sanzu River gave up her shipwrecked soul to the permanent midnight of a windswept tundra. The bitter air stabbed at her lungs. The aching cold wracked her body. Her tears froze before striking the ground.
But the pain was a flea bite compared to the millstone of guilt strapped to her back. So many lives would have been so much better off had she never been born.
She had one recourse left to her–to embrace the hell within and be reborn as a hungry ghost. Every time Hatakeyama and Ouchi died, she would await their reincarnations and hunt them down and haunt them to their miserable deaths.
In her mind she could hear Priest Gendo quoting his gods: “Self-mortification is as grievous a sin as self-absolution.” And Chieko quoting hers: “Vengeance is mine.” But vengeance was hers and she would repay. She gritted her teeth. Placing one frostbitten foot in front of the other, she set off toward the bleak horizon.