Ether scientists say that the veil between the land of the living and the land of the dead is unusually thin in New Washington. Evidence supports the claim; we have no shortage of ghosts, zombies, vampires, revenants or other lovely critters from beyond the grave.

It's also been established that Samhain is a day where that same veil thins all around the world, making the tenuous barrier between death and life here even weaker than it usually is.

I can't explain why I chose Samhain to be the day I put my business to rest, but honestly I've never been the sort of guy to worry about what other people think. With a few notable exceptions.

I stepped out from the Rail station around 23:30 to a blast of frigid air. It had been a fairly mild season so far, comparatively speaking, and only when November was about to hit did nature decide that it was time for us to start wearing coats. I hadn't brought mine, unfortunately, and I ducked my head and quickened my pace toward my destination. Luckily, it was only a block away and I reached it within a minute or two.

I halted for a moment just short of the door to the place and looked up at the sign, which proudly displayed its title in garish neon. No one ever argued that The Killing Blow was an inappropriate name for the Mercenary District's third most dangerous bar. For better or for worse, the people who frequented the Blow were some of the most skilled and deadly mercenaries in New Washington outside of the Shadowflame Organization. I myself had been grandfathered into the bar's library of regulars easily a year before I could hold my own in a fight there. I was friends with another regular, and to this day I thank my stars for allowing me to live through that time.

Shaking myself once, I pushed through the door into hazy yellow light and loud Grindfuck music. I picked out the smell of at least seven different types of tobacco and three or four heavy drugs the moment I walked in, a heady melange that recalled days of womanizing, heavy drinking and friendly swordfights. I also saw someone familiar-- or rather, something familiar. The man himself was too far down the bar for me to recognize his face, but it's hard not to be distinctive with a giant pair of scissors strapped to one's back.

"Blaine!" I shouted over the din as I pushed my way past the crowd near the door. "Blaine Shear-wielder!"

Blaine looked up, surprised to hear my voice. His face broke into a grin right away and he vaulted from his stool. "Iyesu!" he exclaimed, shoving a few patrons aside as he approached me. "Johnny Holiday!"

I grinned in spite of myself, seeing his broad-shouldered form approach me. It was difficult to be too serious around Blaine. "The one and only," I said, spreading my hands.

"Where the shit have you been?" He asked, holding forth one heavily-calloused hand. I clasped it with mine, enduring Blaine's signature death-grip with as little of a wince as I could manage. "I thought you was dead, vanishing for almost half a year!"

"Training," I replied, then thought and spoke again. "Thinking."

"You ain't in a thinking man's job, Holiday," Blaine said in a disapproving tone. "No wonder it took you eight months." He grinned and released my hand. I gratefully took the appendage back, flexing it a few times and waiting for sensation to return.

I composed myself and put my game face back on. "Mazu still hang out here?"

Blaine's face became uncharacteristically serious. He'd heard about my run-ins with Mazu. "Yeah, in the VIP room," he said, then, "Why." It wasn't a question.

"We have business to finish," I said, and started to walk by him. A heavy hand on my shoulder stopped me.

"Lag it, Sir Gawain," Blaine said, his eyes boring holes in my head. "Mazu owned you twice already."

I shrugged and held up three fingers.

"Don't you Rule of Threes me, asshole," Blaine snapped, shoving me. "He beat you twice, yeah, but he spared you twice too. You my man, Holiday, and you're good-- but you ain't THAT good. You don't want to Rule of Threes with Mazu less you want to die."

"I hear this is a pretty good day for it," I replied with a smile, then slipped past Blaine before he had the chance to stop me again.

Realizing it was too late, he called after me. "Gawdam it, Holiday, you had better fight like a fucking demon, you hear me?! A demon!!"


I snaked through the bar's labyrinthine hallways and mini-bars, shouldering myself past people with biceps the side of my head, guns the size of my forearm, swords the size of my . me. The key to it, really, was not to look like you were affected by any of it. The drinks at the Blow are pretty good, but the patrons' favorite dish is and always will be fear. After a bit of wending I made it to the VIP 'room', which was really a whole extra bar tacked on to the back of the Blow itself.

The simple, unmarked door was unguarded. I walked directly up to it and placed my hand on the handle, then dropped into a fast crouch as Machination Kate's Plasteel leg whirled in a deadly arc where my head had just been.

I tumbled to the side quickly, my scabbards clattering on the floor, and rolled quickly to my feet. Kate was almost on me already, her lithe form pulled into a kickboxer's pose. I quickly eyeballed the cybernetic left half of her body. It would be a much worse threat than the other half, but Kate probably knew that most opponents would think so.

I tilted my head just in time to dodge a punch of HDP-shattering strength from the cyber-arm, then pressed my advantage by lowering my shoulder and moving in. Kate was ready for me and grappled my free arm with her right hand, sliding her artificial foot against mine and cutting off my balance. I stumbled a bit, then grabbed her flesh arm with both of mine and hooked one leg around hers. My balance did the rest.

Machination Kate hit the ground first and I landed on top of her. There were cheers from nearby patrons, and Kate glared at me. I gave her a smile. "Sorry, was that too forward?"

"Sorry, Holiday," she replied. "I have a fiancée." I heard a whirr of servos and found myself flying through the air briefly. I hit the edge of the bar painfully and tumbled to the ground. As I picked myself up groggily, I saw Machination Kate kip-up to her feet and regard me indifferently.

"Color me a little impressed, Holiday," Kate said, tossing her head to get her bangs out of her eyes. "Given your recorded combat rating, I would have expected to take you out with that first punch."

"Thanks," I replied, rubbing the spot on my back that had hit the bar.

"So what the fuck are you doing trying to access the VIP?" She asked, folding her arms.

"I want to talk to Mazu," I said.

Kate raised an eyebrow. "You want to die?"

"I hear it's a good day for it," I said dryly.

Machination Kate paused, considering it. I knew full well that if she didn't want me to get in, I wouldn't. I debated arguing my case a little further, but realized quickly that she probably knew everything I might be able to tell her. I fell silent and watched.

After about fifteen seconds of thinking, Kate looked me in the eyes. I looked back and held up three fingers. She nodded.

"Yeah," she said. "I prefer it when things end properly." Without turning toward the door, she reached her cybernetic arm back and tugged on the door, which slid open forcefully.

"Good luck, Holiday," she said with a little smile, standing to the side so I could go through. I started to walk. "You're going to need it, as well as a few other things."


The VIP room wasn't exactly 'lavish' so much as it was 'appropriate'. The bar had every kind of liquor I'd ever heard of and twice as many that I hadn't. There was a row of the most popular game machines in the back and doors to private rooms scattered about the area. A deejay pounded out Grindfuck beats next to a dance floor that I suspected doubled as a fighting arena when it needed to. Gorgeous attendants of all genders and races carried drinks and flirted with the patrons. The customers here carried themselves with an air of confidence and skill, and many carried fearsome-looking artifact weapons. Scariest of all were the ones who carried no weapons at drive the point home, an unarmed, waifish looking high-elf gave me an appraising look as I entered the room.

I was walking with the arch-mercs now. No fear.

I instantly spotted Mazu. He was sitting at a round table in the center rear of the area, his feet propped up on the table's surface. His gauntlets were off, and stood on the floor next to him. A pair of attractive young men tended to him; one massaged his shoulders and the other crouched nearby as Mazu scratched his scalp like a dog's. Both looked very happy.

Across the table was Juanita Yeager, better known as "Fusillade" . Mazu's agent and a deadly fighter. She was wearing her weapon-coat, which I am told weighs well over two hundred pounds and can make the wearer match a Juggernaut Suit in single combat. One of her spider drones skittered by the legs of her chair, and another sat in her lap. She was actually petting the thing. Unnerving.

I found myself abruptly fighting a wave of nausea at the concept of going through with this, but either this issue was going to give me closure or death was. I wanted answers. I steeled myself and walked a straight line toward Mazu.

Mazu and Fusillade didn't even acknowledge me at first, even once I was well within range of sight and notice. Even as other patrons noticed how straight my path was. Not until I was about ten paces away, at which point Fusillade simply said "Stop." Her command was so final that everyone in a ten-pace radius of the table obeyed, looking curiously toward the woman. Mazu's pretty attendants looked concerned. I paused, shifted both of my katana then stood still.

Mazu sighed heavily and looked at me. "I told you," Fusillade told him. "You don't leave things open-ended like this." She turned her head toward me and looked over her square, wire-rimmed glasses. Fusillade had a striking appearance; she was second-generation Chinese-New Washingtonian, so her skin was unusually pale and her features more angular than most people were used to. In addition, she was of fairly slight build. Word on the forums was that she was completely augmentation-free, which was a dubious claim.there was little other explanation for how she could possibly use the weapon-coat.

Fusillade tapped the drone on her lap, which skittered to the floor. I could swear it almost seemed disappointed. She then stood, allowing the coat to fall in its full glory. In truth, it wasn't too much wider than a typical duster, but it was just bulky enough to clearly contain a small arsenal. To drive the point home, the weapon-coat made ominous noises as she moved; sounds like safeties clicking off, guns reloading and cocking, energy weapons powering up. I stood my ground. Her eyes bored into my head.

"I'm not here to talk to you," I told her.

"And Mazu isn't here to talk to you," she replied icily. "Moreover, if I chat you, we chat. Ping?"

I didn't reply.

"Ping?" Fusillade repeated. Her drones moved to either side of her and I heard their weapons unholstering and priming. I found myself wondering if I'd even have the opportunity to die at Mazu's hands. Nevertheless, I refused to acknowledge her.

"'nita," Mazu muttered. Fusillade didn't turn, but her eyes flickered for a moment, acknowledging Mazu.

There was a pause during which I realized that the entire VIP room had fallen silent. Everyone was watching.

"This isn't an anime," Mazu said to me, still not looking at me. "Having an extra sword isn't going to win this for you."

"I'm not allowed to learn a new style?" I asked.

"What the hell do you want." Mazu asked. Sort of.

"Answers," I replied.

"You want answers, you stay home and ask the Ether," Mazu snarled. "I don't have answers for you. I didn't even finish Uni."

"You've got these answers and I want them." I replied steadfastly.

"It sounds like you want to die." Fusillade cut in.

I finally acknowledged her, looking at her face straight-on. "I hear this is a good day for it."

"Let me handle this, 'nita," Mazu said, waving one hand. His nubile attendants fled quickly, obviously relieved for being able to depart.

Fusillade looked irritated at being dismissed. "Mazu, you."

"Just let me handle it."

Fusillade gave me a withering glare, then moved back to her chair and lowered herself into it as the weapon-coat made more worrying noises.

Mazu looked at me. I returned the gaze. Mazu's appearance was as it ever was; his shoulder-length black hair hung around his face. He had a five o' clock shadow that gave him that 'ruggedly handsome' look that helped make him so popular. I noted that his forearms, free of the gauntlets, were calloused and covered with cuts and scars from the machinery of his deadly weapons.

"This time you can't blame me for the timing of this."

"Rule of threes," I replied.

"Holiday, Holiday, Holiday." He chuckled and shook his head. I couldn't tell whether he was acknowledging the Rule or admonishing me. "So what, you want to fight me again?" He leaned back and stuck his arms into his gauntlets. They closed over his arms with a loud ratchet and clack noise.

I set my jaw. "I already told you what I want, Mazu."

"I can't answer questions you don't ask, Holiday."

"Okay," I replied. "I've been reading up on you, Mazu."

"That's not a question," Mazu said.

I ignored him. "In the history of your recorded career, seventeen mercenaries have stood against you and survived, not including me. Of these men, not a single one was deliberately spared. All were grievously injured, maimed or left for dead. You never had a single occasion where there was a reason to believe that your opponent was not dead. The only reason they survived is that you seem to disdain delivering an execution blow to 'make sure.'"

The room listened to my speech attentively. I continued.

"That said, though, you disdain leaving an opponent merely 'defeated'. Even after breaking all of Lydia Nussbaum's limbs, she was still moving so you dropped a car on her. Grey Patterson surrendered to you, so you crushed his head with your gauntlet. The would-be Shadowflame 'Elk' had been rendered unconscious by the knockout gas from his own security system.good on you for that one, by the way.but you knew he wasn't dead so you put a Tear through his eye."

Mazu smiled faintly, recounting the memories.

"L'Oiseau survived her encounter with you because she plummeted to her apparent doom, only to manifest the mental flight ability that neither of you knew she had at the last moment. Conrad Blake was pinned under structural debris for three days without food or water, but made it out because you thought he'd been killed by the falling pillar. Nobody would have believed that Bruno Lawton would survive being struck by forty-eight of your Tears while unarmored, but he did. All survived. All accidental."

"So the fuck what." Mazu said flatly.

"So me," I replied, pointing at my chest. "You spared me not once, but twice. You knew I was walking away from the situation, you knew none of my wounds were fatal. Yet here I am. What's so special about Johnny Holiday that mighty Mazu would change his M.O. for him? You've murdered better mercenaries than me, and worse ones too. I want to know why."

"I'm not allowed to learn a new style?" Mazu mocked.

I chose to ignore that. "I figured I would do some looking, hoping Icould find it. Did you know that your childhood and early life are actually fairly well-documented? With a little help and a little persistence, I found out a lot. I know where your mom and dad lived, where you went to school. I know your criminal record, what jobs you took. But you know what? There's this funny little period."

Mazu's face went stony and I realized I was on the right track. There was no turning back now.

"This little period, just a few years in your late twenties. I can't find a damn thing. It's like you systematically erased it from your history, or someone else did. When you went in, you were Amaterasu Albright, a bright young man with a solid future in the automotive sales industry. You only had enough combat training to get by in the professional world. You'd learned CCDM and trained with a pistol. Then you vanished from the radar. Next anyone knew, you were the cold, brutal killer-for-hire we all know and love." I moved in for the kill. "Wearing a pair of gauntlets you'd had specially machined, each one holding a handful of projectile knives. Mazu's Tears."

I looked him square in the eye. "That was the last major change in behavior. You've had none since, until me. The way I figure it, there is a connection there. Johnny Holiday has something to do with Amaterasu Albright becoming Mazu. So my question is this: who am I to you?"

I pulled back and delivered the final blow. "And exactly whom are all those Tears being cried for?"

Mazu's response was a guttural growl. There was a loud banging noise from the hand I couldn't see and my vision was suddenly obscured by a flat black surface.I barely had time to register that he had sent the table flying toward me. I let my newly-honed reflexes take over.

With a bright flash of Plasteel, the black surface parted in the center. I set my shoulder and the two halves of the table caromed off my body, tumbling into the watching crowd. Mazu had already launched himself from the chair; he was only a few paces from me and was getting closer quickly. I lashed out with the hand not holding a katana, slamming it into his shoulder, and leapt. I sailed over Mazu smoothly before he had time to react and landed behind him, then turned and swung the katana. Still with his back to me, Mazu caught the blade on one gauntlet and struck me in the solar plexus with his other elbow.

I stumbled back a pace and caught myself just as Mazu turned, firing a spray of Tears as he did so. The onlookers shouted as they were suddenly subject to friendly fire, but most were able to block or withstand the hits without too much adverse effect. None were willing to turn away from the fight. I ducked below the Tears and threw my legs into a pinwheel kick, which Mazu deftly leapt away from. I drew my legs in front of me, bunched up and kicked both of them upward simultaneously, catching Mazu in the chest hard. Surprised, he grunted and stumbled back. I kip-upped to my feet.

Mazu only hesitated for a moment before swiping a gauntlet forward like a claw. I sidestepped it quickly and brought my katana upward, which he deflected with a gauntlet. We had several back-and-forth blows in this vein, now cheered on by the appreciative crowd. A virtual unknown in the VIP room was holding his own with Mazu and they were drinking it all in.

After a few exchanges with Mazu, I made an error; I telegraphed an overhead swing too much, and he reached up and caught it with one gauntlet. The other gauntlet lashed toward my face, but I quickly released the katana and ducked the blow. In a fluid motion, I drew my other blade and let loose a powerful slash at Mazu's chest. It caught him full-on and he staggered, releasing my first blade. I caught the sword in my free hand and fell into a two-sword stance with my right sword forward and my left sword reversed. I stared at Mazu.

Mazu looked down at his chest. I had cut through his dura-kev shirt, and a thin red line showed where I had cut him. Not a deep cut, but the very first time my blade had ever drawn his blood. He looked at me with disbelief.

"Impossible," he said. "It hasn't even been a year."

"It's amazing what having a purpose will do for a guy, isn't it?" I said, then pressed the attack.

I let loose a flurry of blows from both sides. Mazu parried each one, then roared and thrust both gauntlets forward, striking me. As I started to fall backward, I heard the now-familiar sound of Mazu's gauntlets preparing to fire, and I rolled desperately to the side. My path was immediately followed by a wave of tiny blades, each one shearing into the HDP floor of the space where I had just been. With a quick surge of muscle, I rolled to my feet.

Mazu pointed the gauntlets at me and geared them to rapid-fire. I stood my ground.

Time seemed to slow down. I could see the Tears sailing toward me. I knew where they would strike. I could stop them. I swung both of my katana through the air in front of me, neatly cutting the Tears in half as they drew within range. First two, then six, then a dozen, then twenty.I began cutting several tears with each swing of the blade, letting my reflexes guide the blades on the most effective path. It seemed to go forever, and I fell into a trancelike state as I watched Mazu's astonishment grow, realizing that I was thwarting his most deadly attack.

There was a dull clack as Mazu's gauntlets indicated that they had wept their last. There were simply no Tears left, and I was upon Mazu in a moment.

On my first pass, I leapt over him and delivered a pair of gashes to his shoulders. Coming down, I cut him behind his knees, forcing him down onto them. I turned and braced a foot against his shoulder and vaulted off, throwing him forcefully onto his back. Turning once more, I placed a foot on his chest and leveled one katana at his neck. I sheathed the other.

There was a long, deadly silence.

"Iyesu," Fusillade murmured behind me.

I stared at Mazu for a few moments.

"Do it!" He said.

"That's not what I came here for," I replied.

"Just fucking do it."

Something glinted on Mazu's neck. I knit my brow curiously. Keeping my sword level with his throat, I crouched down, putting a bit of pressure on his chest, and reached down to find a small pendant chain, possibly made of real metal. "What's this?" I murmured.

"Leave that alone. What's wrong with you?" Mazu struggled, but I pressed down with my foot and he grunted and lay still.

I drew up the chain, pulling the pendant from behind his armor. A beautiful diamond hung in a setting from the end of the chain, glittering in the low light of the bar. I tilted my head and examined it closely, then drew my hand down the chain to touch the jewel.

"Don't." Mazu shouted as I touched the jewel.

I saw myself, standing in an atrium. No, not quite me. Subtle differences here and there, but still. Could have been my twin.

"Is it steady, 'ma'su?" My doppelganger asked.

"Almost." A louder voice, closer to the camera. Mazu . no, sorry, Amaterasu came from around the camera's sight. It was an old recording, held as a memory on the diamond.

Amaterasu. 'ma'su. Mazu.

He went to stand with his lover, my clone. The two of them stood together in easy comfort, a couple made for each other. They posed. A flash and they were frozen in place, a picture-perfect picture.

Everything came back to me, in the exact same place as when I touched the diamond. I dropped it onto Mazu's chest and looked at him. Things start to come together.

"What . happened to him?" I asked quietly.

Mazu is silent for a moment, then responded only loud enough for me to hear. "He was married. Never told me in three years. On Christmas, his husband found us together and shot him. I shot the husband."

I was quiet for a moment, then removed the point of my blade from Mazu's neck. His face contorted with rage. "What's wrong with you?!" He shouted. "Do it, coward!"

"It's already been done," I murmured and sheathed the katana.

I turned and strode from the VIP room unaccosted.


On the way out, Blaine saw me. "Iyesu, Holiday," he asked. "How'd it go?"

"I don't know," I replied. "But it's dead now."

I shouldered my way out into the cold New Washington night.