The Fang of Tang Cutlass

 

∴ A Sailor’s Delight ∴

Waist-deep water chills you to the bone. Still you step into the dark, one hand trailing the seaweed-slick wall and the other hovering at your hilt. You mark time to the sloshing of steps behind you, a wet reassurance that your men are still there.

It was no easy voyage, and you’d forgive them for thinking you mad and deserting. After all, it was only a tale that took you this far. A tale and a tip-off from a ragged lad in Dawan Bay. He wouldn’t say who sent him.

But as soon as he mentioned the cave, you felt that old keenness of the kind that had brought you to these strange shores so many years ago. The tales of China your father told in your boyhood, of the voyage he took with the Dutch East India, at the head of a five-ship fleet.

You loved to hear tales of the terrible storms at sea, the strange and elaborate customs on land. But best of all, you loved to hear about the sword. He only glimpsed it for a moment, he said, as he fought off a raid in the South China Sea. But even in that flash of steel, he knew it was the Fang.

Broad and curved of blade, with the sweeping guard of a cutlass and the gleaming gold habaki of a dao. Wielded by the same dynasty for eight generations, it was said to be the sorcery that kept them in power over the seas.

But it was never the power you chased. It was simply a touchstone to your father’s memories of a time and place where magic still ruled. And now here you are, wading into into some Paracel Island cave on a moonless night. Magic indeed, you think.

Suddenly the slime-rimed wall gives way to warm nothingness, and you throw out both arms to stop the men behind you. A slap of hand against wet leather. Then there is only their breathing in the darkness. Only the arrhythmic drip of stalactites.

A familiar hiss as a gas lamp is lit, and the cavern’s dome is filled with flickering amber light. You cannot suppress a gasp. The space is filled with barrels and chests, just as your informant said. The last and fitting act of the greatest pirate dynasty China had ever seen: to bury their treasure at sea.

Your heart races as you detect a sudden movement, then nearly stops as you take in its maker. A woman. Slight and smiling with raven-black hair and a brine-soaked white dress, she rises from the shadows of the cave.

You stand frozen as the vision picks her way through piles of treasure like she knows her path by heart. Her eyes, still smiling, remain fixed on you.

And in her right hand is the sword.

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The Antilla Cuttoe

∴ A Wicked Tide ∴

It is the owl that first alerts you. Not the rounded, woodwind hoot of the copper-feathered birds who nest in the foothills, but the brighter screech of something that does not belong on the island. Not an owl then, but a human call. A secret signal in the dark.

Nervous now, you edge to the bow of your beached fishing boat and grope for your machete. You remember your brother’s tales of smugglers in this cove, their craft lightless and silent, carried by a phantom tide. Knife in hand you pull yourself to your knees and stare out to sea for a sign of the ghost ship, but the moonless night gives nothing away.

A sudden rush of foliage snaps your attention to the swampland at your back. A raw yet rhythmic slashing as green wood meets metal, and the crackle of crushed mangrove roots. Heart pounding, you dart toward the pile of nets beside the boat, hoping to conceal yourself. Your passage is blocked by the shock of cold steel skimming the skin of your throat. A scream lingers beneath the blade – you open your mouth, but no sound escapes.

“Quiet now lad,” sounds a wicked hiss in the darkness. The shutters of a lantern slide open, bathing the blade in sudden candlelight. Wide and pleading, your eyes follow the curve of single-edged steel, past the flash of copper at the guard and the spiralled leather of the grip, to the grinning face behind it.

Your fear finds its release, not in a scream but two whispered syllables:

“Pirate!”

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