BLACK CAESAR: The Stone Ship Rises
“Yo ho, haul together; hoist the colors high.
Heave ho, thieves and beggars; never shall we die.”
The young man who sat opposite Caesar slapped his olive-toned forehead. “You play mankala like a man possessed!”
“In my homeland, we call it wari,” Caesar said. “The game is very popular and to lose is to suffer teasing from one’s entire village.”
“So, you practice…err…wari as diligently as you practice that tricky African fencing of yours, eh?”
“Yes,” Caesar answered, staring at the gently rolling ocean.
“Wari? African fencing? Sounds…intriguingly savage!” A voice, with a thick Westminster accent, said from behind Caesar.
Caesar reset the beans in the mankala board and then closed it. The brass latch locked the two wooden halves of the board together to form the shape of a fish. “Leave us, Yuen. Tell Sifu Bo that my wife loves the tea.”
The young man leapt to his feet and bowed in respect to the ebon giant.
Caesar returned the bow.
Yuen sprinted off and Caesar placed the mankala game between his feet, never turning around to look at the man who stood behind him.
A middle-aged man – dressed in a ruffled, white shirt, tan trousers and a tan leather vest – sat down in Yuen’s place.
The man extended his well-manicured hand. “Hello, sir; Hawkins, at your service.”
Caesar shook Hawkins’ hand. It was smooth and soft. “So, Mr. Hawkins, are you buying…or selling?”
Neither. I am merely here to exchange stories with fellow adventurers.
And what tales might you have?” Caesar asked. “You don’t seem to be a man of the sea.”
“I have one very interesting tale with which to regale you,” Hawkins replied, placing a gold doubloon on top of the barrel. “It is a tale of mutiny…and death.”
“I’m listening,” Caesar said dryly.
Hawkins slid a silver flask from his vest pocket. He unscrewed the top and thrust it toward Caesar, who shook his head in refusal. Hawkins shrugged and took a sip, frowning as the contents of the container hit his throat. “This tale is about a mutinous dog with supernatural abilities that made him one of the most dangerous men alive. He was once a slave – as black as a million midnights – who toiled upon a ship called The Golliwog – a fitting name, for the majority of the crew was just as black and savage as the subject of our story.”
Hawkins studied Caesar’s dark brown face and strong, African features. “No offense, mate.”
“Please, continue,” Caesar responded.
“Well, the Captain of The Golliwog was a wealthy merchant and a man well-travelled,” Hawkins continued. “This Captain – Delaney was his name – had suffered great loss at the hands of pirates and turned to the dark arts to rectify the problem.”
Caesar locked his gaze on Hawkins’ angular face. The Brit seemed to be searching for something deep behind Caesar’s eyes.
“Interesting,” Caesar said.
“One night, Captain Delaney used his knowledge of the occult to summon and bind an elemental spirit of molten stone,” Hawkins said. “Delaney’s crew of Irish indentured servants and black slaves hammered and carved the creature until – months later – it was formed into the shape of a war-galley. The crew then set about adding wooden decks, masts and the like and within a year, the first seaworthy stone ship set sail.”
Hawkins took another swig from his flask and then continued his tale. “The ship was nigh impenetrable and no ship or sea-monster could defeat it. Captain Delaney, however, had not bound the elemental stone-spirit properly, however, and the ship began to infect the Captain and his crew, its sickness spreading faster than crabs in a brothel.”
“Infected?” Caesar inquired.
“Yes, and it changed them,” Hawkins replied. “All became monstrous creatures of earth, stone and sea…and their hearts grew as dark as the ocean depths. All, that is, except that mutinous black bastard of whom we speak.”
“And what of him?” Caesar asked.
“He changed too, but differently from the rest,” Hawkins answered. “The slave grew to be twice as strong as the strongest man on land or sea…and a hundred times smarter than the most sagacious royal advisor or architect. So smart, in fact, that he figured out a way to cripple The Golliwog and send it – and its crew – to Davey Jones’ Locker.”
“If the slave sank the ship, how – pray tell – did you come to hear the story?”
Hawkins slid the flask back into his vest pocket. “You see, that’s where the story really gets interesting! Captain Delaney had time to cast one last spell before The Golliwog went down. One last spell…and the captain and crew of that old, stone ship yet live. And that slave – none the wiser – went on to Captain his own ship, thinking his secret was buried a hundred leagues under the sea. That slave – Black Caesar was his name – thought he was safe…until now.”
Caesar leapt to his feet, driving his fingers into the top of the barrel that stood between him and Hawkins. With a swing of his powerful arms, he hurled the barrel off the dock.
The heavy oak container flew over the ocean toward the horizon until it was just a tiny dot in the sky.
“You were foolish to come alone,” Caesar said.
Hawkins stood, smiling. “I didn’t.”
Suddenly, six men peeked from behind the Brit. Their faces were perpetually grinning caricatures of Hawkins’ visage.
Caesar’s eyebrows rose. “Sink me!”
The squad of Hawkins doppelgangers exploded forward.
Caesar drew something from under the wide left sleeve of his overcoat that looked akin to a barbed riding crop.
As the first doppelganger closed on him, Caesar slashed downward with his weapon, ripping a gash in the creature’s forehead. The doppelganger froze in place.
Caesar pressed the tip of his index finger to the doppelganger’s chest and pushed the paralyzed monster onto its back. He then raised his weapon above his head. “Come on! Come taste Manta’s sting!”
Caesar carved figure-eights in the air with Manta – a short whip made from rhinoceros leather, with the barbed, venomous tail of a stingray sewn into its shaft.
Hawkins and his doppelgangers encircled Caesar slowly.
In unison, each doppelganger drew a flask – identical to Hawkins’ – from their vests. In the hands of the grinning creatures, the silver flasks began to pulse and to warp, becoming soft and then breaking down into a liquid that flowed around each doppelganger’s right hand.
The doppelgangers extended their right arms, brandishing the blades of flesh and silver that now protruded from their wrists and then – in unison – they charged forward.
Caesar leapt high into the air, avoiding the thrusts from the doppelgangers’ blades.
The ebon giant thrust his hand into his overcoat and quickly withdrew a bronze disc about the size of his palm. Around the circumference of the disc were triangular blades, which gave the weapon the appearance of a sun. Caesar hurled the disc toward the ground as he somersaulted backward, high above the doppelgangers’ heads.
The heavy weapon skipped off the ground with a dull thud and flew upward, its razor-sharp blades tearing into the arm of a doppelganger.
The creature collapsed. A scream erupted from its still grinning face as its severed arm bounced across the dock.
Caesar hurled another blade toward the ground just before he landed. The blade skittered along the dock three times before it found its mark – a doppelganger’s leg, just above the knee. The doppelganger fell onto its face as its lower leg was separated from its body.
Two more blades flew from Caesar’s deft hands. Two more doppelgangers fell as their legs were rent from beneath them.
A doppelganger slashed at Caesar’s neck. He ducked the blow and then exploded upward with a crushing head-butt to the doppelganger’s chin. The creature’s eyes rolled back in its skull as it was sent flying off the dock and into the ocean.
Caesar spotted movement off to his left side. He spun toward it, slashing with Manta. The whip struck the last standing doppelganger across the jaw, tearing open its grinning maw. The creature froze as the whip’s neurotoxin severed the connection between the creature’s brain and its muscles.
Caesar drove the heel of his boot into the doppelganger’s chest. The creature flew backward from the tremendous force, landing – with a loud splash – several yards from the dock.
Hawkins turned on his heels and ran, but Caesar was on him.
A quick slash across the back of Hawkins’ neck from Manta stopped the Brit cold.
Caesar walked around Hawkins to face him. “You are paralyzed, but you can still feel pain. The paralysis lasts about an hour. During that time, you will feel every cruelty I inflict upon you, but I promise you – I will make your death quick – and a lot less painful – if you tell me exactly where I can find Captain Delaney.”
A gurgling sound rumbled in Hawkins’ throat as he tried to scream, but no sound could escape his paralyzed vocal cords and his lifeless lips.
“The Devil’s Triangle is purported to wreck havoc with navigational systems and clockwork, sir.” The smell of copper filled Caesar’s cabin as a puff of steam escaped the bronze lips of the metal man that sat opposite Caesar. “We do not want to the entire crew to shut down on us.”
“I believe it’s Captain Delaney who is wrecking havoc in The Triangle, Kol,” Caesar replied.
“Only one way to find out.”
A beautiful woman, with smooth, cocoa skin, entered the cabin. On her back – strapped snugly and securely with a colorful blue and white cloth that matched the woman’s dress – was a plump, dark brown baby who possessed a head full of curly, black hair.
Caesar smiled warmly. “Fatou, is the crew well-fed?”
“Wood chips, iron shavings and hot water for all, my husband,” Fatou replied.
“And what about my Binta?” Caesar snickered. “Are you well-fed too?”
The little girl peeked under her mother’s arm and smiled. “Yes, Baaba. Baama’s milk was quite satisfactory.”
“So, when does The Anunaki set sail?” Fatou asked as she sat down beside Caesar. “My blunderbuss has not tasted battle in months!”
“You do love a good fight, don’t you ma’am?” Kol sighed as he tilted his head in order to tip the iron top-hat attached to it.
“That I do, Kol,” Fatou replied. “It’s in the blood; fourteen generations of warriors.”
“Fifteen,” Binta said, raising a tiny hand.
“Apologies, love,” Fatou said. “Fifteen generations of warriors!”
‘We set sail for the Devil’s Triangle immediately,” Caesar said. “Captain Delaney won’t wait long before he sends more of his monsters to kill me. I want to take this fight to him!”
Kol rose from his seat. The hum of gears and the steady tick of a clock could be heard behind his thick, iron breastplate. “I will get the crew into gear, Captain.”
“Into gear?” Caesar chuckled. “That was a good one Kol.”
“I try, sir,” Kol said as he exited the cabin.
Caesar turned to Fatou and placed a gentle hand upon her cheek. “Eat and rest well, my love. We’ll have to be at our best when we come up against that monster – Delaney – and his hellish ship!”
The gentle breeze felt warm and pleasant against Caesar’s skin. He turned his gaze from the still, deep, azure ocean to his crew – thirty men of iron and bronze – standing shoulder-to-shoulder upon the main deck. Steam billowed from their top-hats as Kol and Fatou fed iron shavings into the flames that burned within their bellies.
“Don’t let the calm fool you, hearties,” Caesar shouted. “The stone ship will show and when she does, we will all step-to and give no quarter!”
A metallic cheer rose from the crew and echoed across the noonday sky.
In answer, a sound, like thunder, rolled across the still waters, kicking up waves as it grew louder and louder.
The Anunaki rocked from side-to-side as the waves became more violent.
“Prepare yourselves!” Caesar shouted over the terrible din of thunder.
Suddenly, the clouds above The Anunaki grew thicker and turned from pristine to a muddy brown.
Out of the clouds descended a massive war-galley of earth and stone.
“Sink me!” Caesar gasped. “That old bastard has given the ship the power to fly!”
Caesar turned to his wife, who stood a few feet away, nursing Binta to keep her calm. “Are you ready?”
“Of course,” Fatou answered, nodding her head, which was covered by a large oval hat that made it look like the bulbous cranium of an octopus.
“Cannons!” Caesar shouted.
“All hands…cannons!” Kol repeated as he pulled a cart full of cannonballs toward the crew.
The crew sprang into action, forming five columns of six steambots each. Kol busily snatched cannonballs from the cart, placing a pile of the ammunition at each steambot’s feet. In unison, each metal man reached down, grabbed a cannonball and then stuffed the heavy, iron round into the muzzle of its top-hat.
“Fire!” Caesar shouted.
“Fire!” Kol echoed!
The steambots fired a pulverizing volley into the hull of The Golliwog. Pebbles of stone and gray dust fell upon The Anunaki’s quarterdeck.
The Golliwog answered The Anunaki’s attack with a storm of fist-sized, flaming stones.
Kol darted about the main deck, spraying jets of water from his mouth to extinguish the fires set by the stones as the crew fired another volley of cannonballs.
More flaming rain pummeled the main deck of The Anunaki.
The Golliwog descended lower. Ropes dropped from the sides of the hovering ship.
“They are about to try to board,” Caesar shouted. “Prepare to drop!”
The steambots maneuvered themselves into one row that ran the length of the ship. Each steambot locked arms with the one on either side of it. The metal men folded themselves over the cannonballs, forming a pipe-like structure. A whirring sound from beneath the floor of the main deck signaled the activation of the massive magnet that locked the crew into place.
“Let’s go,” Caesar shouted to his wife.
Fatou nodded and – with Binta cradled in her arms – sprinted through the door that led to the bowels of the ship.
Caesar followed closely behind them, taking a final look toward The Golliwog before darting into the doorway. Creatures with flesh of moist soil, descended the ropes with one hand. In their free hand, the dirt-creatures carried cutlasses forged from jagged stone. Yams and other tubers grew, in rows, down the center of each creature’s back like a fin.
The Anunaki began to sink into the ocean.
The force of the ship’s descent generated a column of air that snatched the boarding crew of The Golliwog from their ropes and the creatures went, screaming, into the deep.
The Anunaki disappeared from sight moments before The Golliwog belly-flopped into the water, kicking up a massive wave. And then…
The Anunaki shattered the silence, rising up through the surface of the water, less than two yards from The Golliwog’s starboard.
Caesar burst from his cabin.
Fatou – with a giggling Binta on her back – sprinted behind him.
“Kol, have all hands beat the barnacles of The Golliwog’s keel if we haven’t returned within the hour!”
Kol unfolded himself and craned his neck up toward the quarterdeck. “Boarding The Golliwog, sir?”
“Yes,” Caesar replied. “Fatou and I.”
“Ahem,” Binta coughed, placing her little fists on her plump hips.
“And Binta,” Caesar sighed.
“Very good, sir,” Kol said with a slight tilt of his head.
Caesar took a knee.
Fatou climbed onto his massive back, placing the brass barrel of her blunderbuss – which she gripped in both hands – across his barrel-like chest and wrapped her legs around his sinewy waist.
Caesar exploded upward, propelling himself – and his passengers – from the quarterdeck of The Anunaki to the main deck of The Golliwog.
Fatou climbed down from Caesar’s back and pointed the flared muzzle of her blunderbuss under her left arm.
Binta reached her hands into a slit in her mother’s “octopus-head” hat and withdrew two fistfuls of small, white cowry shells.
Binta dropped the shells into the muzzle of the blunderbuss and then repeated the process.
“Ready yourselves,” Caesar shouted. “Here they come!”
A score of the dirt creatures charged toward Caesar and his family. Their stone cutlasses were at the ready as they sprinted from The Golliwog’s fore to its aft.
Caesar hurled two skipping blades toward the deck. The heavy, sun-shaped blades ricocheted off the deck and struck two of The Golliwog’s crew.
One creature collapsed onto its back as the blade sank deep into its earthen neck. Slick oil sprayed from the wound as the creature flopped violently on the deck.
The other creature staggered backward, clutching at its groin. It let loose a raspy scream as two turnips fell from the tear in its trousers.
“Kill these wretched abominations while I deal with Captain Delaney!” Caesar said, pointing up toward a hulking figure standing on the poop-deck.
Fatou nodded as she twisted a knob on the mahogany stock of her weapon. The hissing of steam rose from inside it.
Caesar leapt up to the poop-deck in two powerful bounds. Below, he heard the first thunderous shot from Fatou’s blunderbuss., followed, a second later, by the screams of those whose bodies were ripped to shreds by the blast of cowry shells.
“So, the prodigal son returns.”
Caesar locked eyes on Captain Delaney, who was even monstrous than his crew. His head and chest were still that same Captain Delaney that Caesar knew – and loathed – so well – tan, well-groomed and a bit of a fop. The rest of the Captain, however, was quite…different.
His mid-torso downward was, what looked to be, a massive squid tentacle. His lean arms were human, but his hands had been replaced by the gaping maws of Great White Sharks.
“If I am your son, demon, then I have only returned to commit patricide.”
Captain Delaney extended his arms. His shark-maw hands bore their razor-sharp teeth. “We have unfinished business, boy, so come, let me send you to Davey Jones’ Locker!”
Caesar drew Manta from a sheath on the leather gauntlet strapped to his left forearm.
Captain Delaney slithered toward Caesar, the suckers on his underside leaving a moist trail behind him.
Caesar swung Manta at Captain Delaney’s head.
The Captain parried the blow with his left shark hand. The teeth sank into Caesar’s right forearm, rending flesh and pulverizing bone.
The ebony giant screamed in agony as the shark hand maintained – and tightened – its grip on his arm.
Caesar somersaulted sideways, grabbing the shark hand with his left. At the apex of his somersault, Caesar twisted the shark hand forcefully, breaking its “neck”.
Captain Delaney released his hold on Caesar’s arm. The shark hand flopped lifelessly and a line of spittle fell from its mouth.
Caesar exploded forward, slamming his shoulder into Captain Delaney’s chest. A loud crack followed the blow and a mist of bilious, green ichor escaped the Captain’s quivering lips.
Caesar felt something spongy and slick encircle his right leg. He looked down – Captain Delaney’s “tail” had wound itself around his leg from ankle to thigh. Caesar screamed as the tentacle tightened its grip. White-hot pain burrowed through flesh and sinew as hundreds of needle like teeth – forming a circle around the inner edge of each sucker – bit into his leg.
Caesar slashed downward with Manta.
A chunk of Captain Delaney’s flesh flew across the deck.
The Captain flipped into a one-armed handstand, hoisting Caesar high into the air by his thigh.
The Captain slammed the giant onto his back, driving the air from Caesar’s lungs.
Captain Delaney collapsed onto his back next to Caesar. Delaney’s chest heaved violently and his muscles tensed.
Caesar could tell the Captain was trying to fight the paralytic effects of Manta’s neurotoxin – as he was struggling to shake off the effects of the neurotoxin searing his veins.
With tremendous effort, Caesar shoved his left hand into his vest.
Captain Delaney roared as he whipped his arm toward Caesar’s throat. The shark hand opened its maw wide and a hiss escaped its “throat”.
Caesar snatched his hand out of his vest and thrust his fist – and the bowl-like abject he held within it – into the shark-mouth.
Captain Delaney smiled as the shark hand slammed its powerful jaws shut.
Caesar screamed as his hand separated from his wrist.
The giant fought back the pain and rolled sideways, quickly distancing himself from Captain Delaney.
A moment later, the Captain erupted into a ball of fire and then burst into chunks of smoldering, black meat.
“Caesar?!” Fatou screamed.
Caesar crawled to the edge of the poop-deck. He peered over the side.
Fatou was nursing Binta as she stood amidst a sea of dirt and yams.
“That was the grenado,” Caesar replied. Captain Delaney is dead. I’m afraid I’ll soon follow.”
“Hush,” Fatou said, placing her index finger to her lips. “You’re supposed to be the smartest man in the world. You should know better. The Devil’s Triangle can’t claim Black Caesar!”
Caesar stepped onto the quarterdeck. Fatou, with Binta on her back, Kol and the steambot crew stood on the main deck, looking up toward their Captain.
Caesar raised his left arm and formed the mechanical, bronze hand at the end of it, into a fist.
The crew cheered.
“Brilliant work, sir!” Kol said.
Caesar studied his handiwork. The clockwork gears ticked, whirred and hummed as they brought life to the hand.
“Where to now, my love?” Fatou inquired.
“To the nearest port,” Caesar replied. “I have to figure out how to make The Anunaki fly!”