Once I saw my mix of characters for the fight, it was pretty obvious that this match would involve a face-off between immortals. From there, I may have researched a bit too much for some details. I wanted to pick a big, epic setting for the fight–that’s always what you get for the best fights in Combatant #1’s series, after all. If I had time and room, I’d have even written out a flashback; instead, that bit got reduced to a mention of Xianniang, who I first came across on Combatant #2’s Wikipedia and was too cool to leave out entirely. Once immortals were on the table, I figured Combatant #3 would best figure in all this as involved by way of his own immortal enemy. …I also may have read a great deal about Chinese and European swords from the Tang Dynasty on into the 18th century.
After all that, it was just a matter of writing an action sequence that didn’t drag, and sneaking in as many musical and wardrobe references as possible.
The cavernous halls of the Basilica Cistern were empty—a shocking occurrence for such a popular historic spot, even in February. Outside, signs hanging on the main entrance read “Closed for renovations” in Turkish, English, and several other languages to maximize the number of tourists disappointed by the news. The guard posted at the gate would confirm the closing to anyone who asked, then retreat into his security booth to go on counting the fat handful of cash that bought his complicity. Ticket counters were quiet; the cafe and gift shop were dark. No voices could be heard among the endless rows of massive columns, which were still lit dramatically at their bases but stretched up into the shadows of stone arches above. Clear water swirled gently throughout the halls, as undisturbed as in centuries past.
A lone figure, concealed in a long coat and hood, moved cautiously through one tiled chamber after another. Their footsteps made almost no sound on the tile, further concealed by keeping pace with a constant dripping of water that echoed somewhere nearby. The intruder kept one hand under their coat, and their hood searched continuously down side passages and behind columns the whole way down to a smaller chamber deep within the site. They paused to consider a sign that prohibited public access to the chamber, then walked on without a second thought.
Once inside, the intruder stopped and pulled the hood back, seeming to take in the surroundings for the first time with quiet wonder. Her hair, black and sleek, fell around her face as she stepped onto a bridge and peered over the balustrade at the rippling waters below. Her reflection peered back at her from the surface—thoughtful, even troubled.
“You look as if you don’t recognize what you see,” came a voice from somewhere in the shadows. The woman spun around in an instant as a man strode out from behind a nearby column, his hands shoved in the pockets of his coat.
“You?” A stunned recognition dawned on the woman’s face as he took a few more steps in her direction. Her voice gained an edge of accusation. “They said a long time ago that you were dead.”
“Yes, well…” He smirked and pulled a hand out to run it through his thick black hair. The boyishness of the gesture surprised her. “I’m glad to hear that, actually.” A long silence fell between them; each sized the other up, as if comparing a past memory to the present reality. The man suddenly brushed off the tension and glanced up toward the gold- and blue-lit colonnade. “Remarkable place, isn’t it? Built in the sixth century. Justinian’s architect really could do wonders with salvaged parts. The cisterns helped the city last months in a siege. Even when the Ottomans came.”
The woman’s jaw tightened. “No,” she said, her eyes distant and solemn. “Not even two months, when the Ottomans came.”
He looked back at her with a sympathetic nod. “Ah,” he said, “of course. I hadn’t realized…” He dropped his conversational tone. “Every empire must one day fall. Not even we can stop that, Mulan.”
The show of sympathy surprised Mulan. “Those are interesting words from a man I knew as a conqueror. Or am I supposed to believe that the centuries have changed you, Methos?”
He shrugged. “I admit I don’t do much conquering these days.”
Slowly, his smile faded. Her own expression hardened, and her hand crept back into her coat. “I know about the Pit, down below,” she said. “I know what it can do to one of us.”
Methos shook his head and sighed. “You have no idea what it can do,” he said. “But now, at least, you know I can’t let you leave this—” With half a moment’s warning, he ducked just out of reach of the quick sweep of a blade. The flashes of metal that followed pushed him several hasty steps back into the shadows of the great columns, until out of the folds of his coat he pulled a sword of his own. His broadsword came up just in time to deflect a particularly vicious slash to the face.
Mulan pulled back for the moment. Her eyes fixed, unblinking, on him as she circled her opponent, and he mirrored each cautious step. Though one hand stretched forward as if to keep Methos at bay, her sword whirled eagerly in the other hand, flicking its red tassel like a snake anxious to strike.
“That looks familiar.” Methos kept a column on his left, to hinder the other right-handed immortal. He took the opportunity to steal a wary glance at the weapon that threatened him. It had a single straight edge, narrow guard, round golden pommel. “Did you have it the last time we met?”
“No,” Mulan said, “but Xianniang had it, as she died defending her father’s kingdom from you!” She whirled away from the obstacle beside her, bearing down with a two-handed swing.
Methos pivoted his sword up to parry. “Mulan, wait—” Her sword coursed through an arc that met his blade then flowed swiftly into the next attack. “I can’t undo what I’ve done—” Another storm of strikes followed that did not break her enemy’s defense, but still forced him back into the open walkway. “—And I’ve no right to ask anything of you—” Metal sparked from a blow with strength enough to push him backward onto the bridge. “—But now I’m here for a friend—” Her strikes were erratic, unpredictable; the elder immortal kept pace with her, but only just.
“Some friend,” Mulan spat back.”You should choose better company.” Finally she drew back for an angry thrust to his heart—and Methos caught her sword with the guard of his own. He dropped into a crouch, and her strike did little more than slice his turtleneck collar. Still propelled by the momentum of her attack, Mulan toppled forward over his shoulder, and over the balustrade.
Methos scrambled to his feet, spinning about to watch his opponent’s fall. Instead, he turned just as Mulan completed her swing under the railing and came up with a flying kick that hit him square in the stomach. He was thrown across the bridge, but she landed just in time to catch a handful of his sweater before he sailed over the opposite railing. “I’m here for a friend, too,” she snarled. He was still gasping for air when she pulled him toward her and pressed her blade to his neck. “And I won’t let your friend kill MacLeod for a slim chance of stealing his immortality.”
“Mac—” Methos looked at her wide-eyed, now more bewildered than dazed. “MacLeod?”
In the shadowed rafters high above their heads, an observer had decided to make his move. His feet curled for balance as he stood from his perch on one of the metal beams that added support to the ancient stone vaults. The conversation had, instead of answering questions, only created more. Lots more. When they started fighting (with swords… okay), it was clear that this wasn’t going to get him anywhere. Time for a more direct approach.
Nightwing glided through the arches of the cistern, alternately catching one support beam with a trapezer’s grip to swing himself to the next. Despite the rust that covered them, the bars were actually pretty sturdy. By the time the duelists were just reaching the footbridge, Dick was just about directly overhead. He continued to make his descent by jumping and tumbling between two pillars. He kept the sound of his movements beneath notice, thanks both to years of practice and to conveniently clanging metal nearby. The fight almost had a winner, it seemed (was that a Chinese dao? Huh, nice), but that also meant he’d better jump in quick, in case things could get messy. His legs pushed off from the pillar and, with a quick vault off the handrail to slow his somersault, landed nimbly next to the strangers.
Which might have been a mistake, in retrospect.
Methos was the first to shoot a glance toward the the unexpected visitor, but Mulan’s sword was just as fast. Nightwing threw his head back and his body followed. When he straightened out of his backflip at a safer distance, his chin was bleeding and his hands held a pair of batons at the ready—which were immediately put to work. His arms whirled to fend off the cuts and swipes that buffeted him left and right. Mulan slashed high and fast, Methos low and heavy. He couldn’t disengage.They wouldn’t let up for a moment. Nightwing made a steady retreat, if only to keep either opponent from circling around to flank him. He stopped thinking, managing the frantic rhythm of defense on instinct and muscle memory. A glint of metal sliced up near his face. His baton caught the dao an inch from its target, but the move blocked his sight and threw him off balance. A moment later his leg was burning; Methos had used Mulan’s distraction to rake a long cut across the back of Nightwing’s thigh. He drew a hissing breath and twisted away.
“Holy…” Nightwing growled through gritted teeth, holding one hand to his thigh. “You two work surprisingly well together, considering you were just at each other’s throats a minute ago.”
“A minute ago,” Mulan said, only now out of breath, “We didn’t have a common friend.”
“Or a common enemy,” Methos agreed. One deep breath and he straightened into his confident posture from before. He circled behind Nightwing in slow, easy strides, keeping the broadsword pointed at him. “Lucky for us, you showed up.”
“Glad I could help.” Nightwing tried to keep an eye on both fighters as they spread to either side. The adrenaline rush was subsiding; he winced when shifting into a ready stance.
Mulan scowled down at him. “Where is he, assassin?”
Nightwing blinked. “Assassin?”
Her frown deepened. “Where has your master taken MacLeod?” she demanded.
“We already know your leader’s attempting some kind of ritual with him.” Methos sounded almost amiable. “If you tell us how to find the Lazarus Pit, you can walk away from here.”
“Wait, what?” Though still out of breath, Nightwing managed a laugh. “You think I’m working for Ra’s al Ghul?”
Methos smirked. “Can’t say I’ve met many masked fighters who weren’t assassins of some kind.”
“Heh, come meet my family sometime,” Nightwing muttered. “Look, I’m trying to find Ra’s, too, and—what? What is it?”
The sword fighters had taken their attention off him and were casting nervous looks around the halls.
Mulan nodded at Methos. “Someone’s here.”
“Feels like two,” Methos said grimly. “Two fools, hoping to take MacLeod’s head if the ritual fails.”
“Two more test subjects for Ra’s, then,” Nightwing said, “if I’m reading this all right.”
Mulan considered him again, and she seemed to decide in his favor. “You two go on and find the pit.” There was an eager glint in her eye. “I’ve faced worse odds than this.”
“Oh, no,” Methos said with a grin. “I won’t leave them both to you. Clearly I’m already out of practice as it is.” He shook his coat off one sleeve at a time, keeping his own weapon at the ready.
“In that case,” Nightwing said, giving each fighting stick a twirl, “it looks like we outnumber them three-to-two.”
“Has to be one-on-one, I’m afraid,” Methos said. “Rules of the Game. You should find that Pit, though.” He took position next to Mulan. “We’ve got a common enemy, after all.”
Mulan glanced over her shoulder and looked him over one last time. Her eyes lingered around his thighs. “Just watch your… cut.”
Nightwing decided he might ask about that later. “Fine, then. I’ll be back when you’re done.” He took a running leap up the columns again to start his search. It hurt like hell, but what’s a little pain when you’re showing off?
Somewhere in the halls of the cistern, the echoing footsteps of new challengers approached. The newfound allies raised their blades and exchanged confident looks. “Now then,” Mulan said, “Let’s get down to business.”