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Tropical Heat

"There she is Captain." The first mate of the Claudia said as he peered intently through his spyglass at the stricken ship on the horizon. "She's flying the banner of distress, alright."

"Good work. Let's go see if we can lend a hand." Gilder answered with a grin. "There might be a damsel in need of a handsome prince onboard."

"Or an old crone looking for a little adventure." The first mate snickered. "Or a hag with a face that only a mother could love. Might make even Clara seem appealing."

"Royce!! Don't say that name!!" Glider hissed looking over his shoulder nervously. "She might hear you and come looking for me."

Royce, the first mate laughed as he guided the Claudia in the direction of the unmoving cargo vessel that he had sighted in the distance a few moments earlier. It bore the markings of an Esperanzan transport ship and was flying the yellow and black distress flag. The vessel had either broken down or been damaged in some way and was unable to move under its own power.

The Claudia was a slim hulled cutter that had earned quite a reputation for herself in the skies of Arcadia. Her graceful design gave her a great deal of maneuverability as well as speed and her lower decks housed an arsenal of powerful cannons on par with any Valuan warships. She was Gilder's pride and joy and had seem much action and adventure in her own time.

The sight of her must have been quite a relief to the crew of the cargo vessel. As the Claudia drew up beside the ship several sailors gathered at the railing to welcome their rescuers aboard with a grateful course of shouts and smiles. As they waved vigorously at him Gilder couldn't help but notice that every sailor aboard was a woman. He smiled widely at the prospect of a whole crew of grateful ladies in need of his assistance.

"My my my. What a pleasant surprise." Gilder cooed. "A whole crew of princesses just waiting for their knight in shining armor."

"But sir, doesn't that strike you as odd? A whole crew made up entirely of women?" Royce replied, his voice full of suspicion. "I don't like this."

"Nonsense. This is an all male crew isn't it? And…..ugh, Clara has nothing but female crew members on the Primrose right?"

"Yeah, and you see how much trouble they are." Royce finished. "Look, all I'm saying is that it's a little out of the ordinary. Let's just keep our guard up."

"Point taken. Now, where's my cologne?" Gilder answered, the argument already being chased from his mind by the pearly white smiles of the damsels, err……sailors.

The Claudia slid in beside the cargo ship, which bore the name Hard Times upon its bow, and a plank was extended between the two ships. Gilder, Royce and the other members of the crew crossed over to render what aid they could. The all-female crew seemed all too glad to accept.

"Hello strangers and welcome aboard. I'm Hannah, Captain of the Hard Times." A lovely young woman purred as she approached Gilder, her eyes smiling. "I'm guessing that you aren't here to do us any harm. Well, no permanent harm anyway."

This situation is getting better and better. Gilder thought to himself. Hannah was just his type of woman: beautiful, witty and flirtatious. He sincerely hoped that she had been at sky for a LONG time without laying eyes on a man. Judging by her attitude, it was a safe bet. Gilder returned her smile with a lecherous grin of his own.

"It is indeed a pleasure to meet you Captain. I am Gilder and this is my first mate Royce. These other two blokes are Alan and Vic. We are the captain and crew of the Claudia. We saw your distress flag and felt it was our duty as sailors and as gentlemen to lend our assistance in your time of need."

"We appreciate your efforts gentlemen. As you can see our ships engine has stopped and we don't have the proper tools to repair it with." Hannah explained. "And the skies in this region are very dangerous. We're all just relieved that you showed up when you did. We've heard reports of Black Pirates operating in this area."

Both statements were true. The Claudia had sailed into the region of the Green Moon because Gilder had heard those same rumors himself. The area around Ixa'Taka was a dangerous place for sailors in and of itself. With its strong winds blowing in from the south ocean it was an easy place to become shipwrecked in. The lands themselves were harsh and unforgiving. A lush rainforest teeming with wild animals and tribes of hostile natives made it a poor location for a breakdown. And this was without the threat of Black Pirates.

"Well, have no fear ladies. My men and I will see you all safely back to port." Gilder reassured them with a smile. "Vic, you and Alan go see what you can do with the engine. Royce and I will secure things here."

Vic and Alan were led to the engine room by a trio of deckhands. They grumbled all the way there, wondering aloud exactly what it was that the captain and first mate needed to "secure". Gilder grinned nervously at their mutterings but Hannah and the other sailors seemed to find it amusing. Yes, things were definitely looking up as far as Gilder was concerned.

"So, what brought you gentlemen all the way out here?" Hannah inquired. "Not there we're complaining, mind you, but Ixa'taka is a dangerous land. Not the kind of place for a leisurely cruise, unless you've got serious business out here."

"We heard the reports concerning Black Pirate activity in this area as well. We decided to investigate. Maybe bring in a nice fat bounty and have a little fun in the process." Gilder explained with a wink. "We're Blue Rogues you see? This sort of thing is part of our calling. Rescuing hapless sailors is too, by the way. But that part of the job has never been quite as…….rewarding as it is this time."

"Oh, you'll get something out of this. Don't you worry." Hannah flirted. "But it's not just Black Pirates that you have to watch out for in this neck of the woods. There are also those horrible Ixa'Ness people to consider. Have you heard of them?"

"Uh……Captain?" Royce murmured. Gilder didn't seem to hear him. His attention was fixed on Hannah at the moment. Something about what she had said sparked a memory at the back of his mind. The name Hard Times sprang up in his thoughts but Gilder was unable to recall why that name should mean something.

"Yes, those Ixa'Ness girls are supposed to be some pretty rough customers I hear." Hannah continued when Gilder didn't respond. "Raiding ships and carrying off the crews to do who knows what with. I'd sure hate to run across anyone like that. Wouldn't you?"

"Captain….." Royce muttered again. The sailors were snickering and whispering amongst themselves now. Hannah grinned widely at Gilder who began to fidget uncomfortably. Something about this woman's feral smile was starting to give him the creeps.

"CAPTAIN!!" Royce bellowed. Gilder spun around in surprise to see the cause of his first mates agitation.

"What is it Royce? Can't you see I…….oh my stars and garters!" Gilder gasped at the sight of his first mate being held at bow point. His hands were raised in surrender as a smirking young lady leveled a loaded crossbow at his back. A handful of similar weapons were being pointed at Gilder now as well.

"Yes sir, those Ixa'Ness girls sure are troublesome aren't they?" Hannah giggled. "Raiding ships and carrying off the crews to do who knows what with. I think you'll find that out soon enough, eh girls?"

"Y,you're the Ixa'Ness?" Gilder stammered as the sailors-turned-raiders broke out in a chorus of laughter. The stupidity of men never ceased to amuse them.

"You're just now figuring that out?" Hannah laughed turning her attention away from him and gesturing a member of her crew forward. "Nixie! Signal the Viper."

"Aye ma'am!" The girl named Nixie moved to follow her leader's order. Stepping away from the group she raised a small pistol towards the sky and pulled the trigger. With a dull clap and a whoosh of smoke a flare shot upwards. Apparently whoever or whatever this "Viper" was would be making an appearance shortly.

Within a few moments of the flare being fired an ominous sail rose into sight from behind a large stand of trees on a nearby island. Sheltered in the shadows of a hidden clearing the dark green sail had been almost impossible to spot from a distant. The white snake coiled around an arrow embroidered into its fabric told Gilder that the Viper was in fact a ship. And judging from the situation it was probably a pirate vessel.

As the Viper drew closer Gilder could only gaze approvingly at her design. Low slung and narrow the Viper was a clipper whose construction was almost identical to his own beloved Claudia's. The ship's twin foremasts were set at the outer edges of her deck in a V formation. From these hung a pair of triangular sails of deepest green. The main mast jutted from the deck behind these and sported a larger sail in the shape of an irregular rectangle. It was this sail that bore the snake and arrow symbol. A flag bearing an identical standard flapped lightly in the breeze from the top of the main mast and the barrels of several cannons could be seen jutting from her lower decks.

The ship's hull had been constructed from an exotic type of wood with a rich dark brown hue. This along with its deep green sails made for excellent camouflage in this heavily forested region. But Gilder was quick to note one other striking feature in the menacing ship's construction as well.

Below the Viper's short spar rode a stout brass ram. Its edges gleamed dully in the waning light of early evening. Gilder was certain that if this ship was as fast as the Claudia then it could gain enough momentum to drive this formidable weapon deep into the hull of an opponent's ship with little or no effort causing far more damage than any cannonball was capable of.

"Don't fret little boy. Our captain isn't as bloodthirsty as some of the Black Pirates you've probably encountered in the past." Hannah said seeing Gilder's eyes fixed on the rapidly approaching Viper. "You might even live long enough to enjoy yourself one last time."

"Hmph. I thought you said that you were the captain." Gilder sulked. He wasn't in any mood to swap innuendo's anymore.

"Oh, I'm the captain of this ship alright. I took charge of it when we took it from its former crew last month. Since then it's proven to be quite an irresistible piece of bait for brave little fishy's like you. But with any luck I might be made captain of a real ship soon."

As her eyes swept greedily over the length of the Claudia Gilder suddenly remembered where he had heard the name Hard Times. It had been a merchant vessel that had been reported missing about a month earlier. He had paid the report little attention but now wished he had remembered it sooner. Now it seemed that the name of his own ship would be appearing on a similar report.

"Don't even think about it lady." Gilder hissed narrowing his eyes. "That boat is my life. And it's worth a whole lot more than yours is."

"What becomes of your boat and your life will be for our captain to decide." Hannah answered coolly ignoring his threat. "And it looks like you won't have to wait long to find out either."

After a few more moments the Viper drew up on the opposite side of the Hard Times. Without waiting for the boarding plank to be extended the captain of the pirate vessel and obvious leader of the Ixa'Ness nimbly leapt the gap between the two ships. She sighted Hannah and Gilder and approached them both, a wide grin on her face.

She was a striking woman Gilder had to admit. She wore a green bandana over her long platinum blonde hair, which flowed freely to just below her slender shoulders. A tight shirt of the same color did little to hide the delicate curve of her breast. It's puffy sleeves ended at her elbows and its hem was tied off just above her navel. She wore a pair of white billowing breaches with green stripes running their length and a pair of golden hoop earrings as well.

Her feet were bare and she sported a set of yellow and blue tattoos across her lean belly and youthful face completing the look of a savage-turned-pirate. A leather quiver full of arrows was strapped to her back and a long bow resting across her shoulder adding to the image of a feral female hunter.

"I am Kokyrie, Captain of the Viper. I see you've already met my crew." The leader of the raiders purred. She must have read Gilder's question in his eyes then. "And I imagine that you'd like to know what's going to happen next. Well, don't worry your pretty little heads over it. I can be sweet and gentle when I want to be."

The crew giggled amongst themselves. Vic and Alan were brought from below deck, their hands tied behind their backs, by the trio of sailors who had accompanied them. Gilder and Royce were similarly bound by Hannah and Nixie. Kokyrie looked on as this took place, a smile of satisfaction creasing her tattooed face.

"Alright, lets get these princes to the dance on time ladies. Stow them below and let's be off." Kokyrie commanded. Her crew began to hustle Gilder and the others towards the hatch leading into the ships hold.

"You stay the Hell away from my ship!!" Gilder warned over his shoulder as he was led away. Kokyrie had already turned her back on him and was listening to Hannah's description of their capture. Their eyes were on the Claudia the whole time. This made Gilder very nervous.

Gilder and his crew were taken into what must have once been a storeroom in the Hard Times's lower deck. They could tell that it had been used more than once to hold prisoners by the signs of an attempted break out. Whether it had succeeded or not was anyone's guess. Gilder was leaning towards "no" but he aimed to try it himself anyway.

The cargo ship suddenly lurched into motion and Gilder could also here the familiar hum of the Claudia's moonstone engine being put into drive. This gave him a sense of urgency. They needed to do something and do it quickly before they reached whatever location Kokyrie and the Ixa'Ness were making for.

"I hate to say I told you so." Royce chided as he and Gilder maneuvered themselves back-to-back in an attempt to loosen their binds. Vic and Alan did the same, and after a few moments it became evident that they were having no luck with the task. Gilder had been tied up by women enough to know that escape was a lost cause. The rope used to bind their wrists was too strong and the knots too well tied to be removed by anything other than a sharp blade. The Ixa'Ness seemed to know what they were doing when it came to taking prisoners.

After what seemed like an hour or so the Hard Times began to slow its pace. Soon afterwards the ship came to a stop and the sounds of the anchor being dropped could be heard. A short time later a half dozen raiders appeared at the door to their makeshift cell. Gilder and his crew were pulled from the storage room and led onto the deck.

They were moored in a shallow cove located on what must have been one of the larger islands of Ixa'Taka. The Hard Times lay at anchor next to the Viper. And on it's opposite deck was the Claudia with Kokyrie at the helm. Gilder clenched his teeth in anger at the sight, but his grimace was replaced with a vindictive smirk as the door to his cabin crashed open and Hannah leapt out followed by a familiar green feathered shape.

"Rawk!! Harlot, harlot!! Rawk!!" Gilder's parrot Willy screeched as he flew circles around the bewildered Ixa'Ness raider. He had been sleeping quietly on his perch when Gilder had boarded the cargo vessel. Apparently he found his new shipmates to be of lesser quality than he was used to. Good for you Willy. Gilder cheered silently to himself.

"Go on!! Shoo, shoo!!" Hannah yelled waving her arms in the air to ward off the bird. Willy took one last circling dive at the furious raider then made his retreat into the trees that surrounded the small cove in which the three ships were moored. Kokyrie laughed heartily at her subordinate's distress.

"You have some interesting possessions here." She called to Gilder from the deck of his own ship. "I assure you that they will be well taken care of."

"My possessions are hard to hold on to, as you can see captain." Gilder called back. "Don't get too cozy just yet."

"This is the finest ship I've seen since I acquired the Viper, almost her equal in speed and firepower. Another vessel like this will greatly increase my power and my income in this region. Your ship's fate has already been determined, but what will become of you and your crew is still up for grabs. You should worry more about your life and less about your little boat."

Gilder saw the threat behind her calm voice and decided to tone his attitude down until he had a better grasp of the situation. Hannah had been right. These didn't seem to be your average Black Pirates. The fact that they were all still alive was proof of that. Gilder was certain that whatever Kokyrie had in store for him wouldn't be to his liking but he wasn't sure if it would cost him his life either.

The crew of the cargo ship came forward and ushered the men from the Claudia down the gangplank and onto the coves narrow shore. From there they were led up a path and into the jungle. The path was well worn and in good condition, obviously used a lot by these women. Their base of operations must be in the area. Gilder realized.

After a short walk they arrived in a circle of primitive looking huts situated around the edges of a clearing. Several more Ixa'Ness women came out to greet Kokyrie and her crew of raiders. Many of these were older women or young girls unable to follow their tribal sisters into action. The latter of these made rude gestures and threw small stones at Gilder and his crew.

"Hannah, show our guests to their suite if you please." Kokyrie said. Then with a flick of her wrist towards Gilder she continued. "But bring that one to me later. I'd like to…..question him."

Hannah moved to obey her captain, a smirk on her face. Many of the young girls laughed and a few of the older ones blushed at this. Gilder had heard stories of what the Ixa'Ness did to the men taken on raids. The people from the village of Horteka told many such tales, some lurid and some terrifying. Gilder wondered which version he would be experiencing.

He and his crew were led to a small wooden shack in the midst of the huts. Iron bars on its windows and the sturdy lock on its door made it obvious that it had been built for the purpose of holding prisoners. But once they were inside Gilder saw that they were alone and that gave him another bad feeling.

It seemed that prisoners were only temporary occupants here. What had happened to the crew of the Hard Times when they were raided? Gilder wondered. He wasn't certain that he wanted to know but figured he would probably find out anyway.

"Well this is a fine mess you've gotten us into now isn't it?" Royce fumed. "I tried to tell you to be on guard and you didn't listen. Now were probably going to be spitted and roasted by these savages. Or sacrificed to the green moon. And I blame you Gilder."

"Stop complaining. We've been in tight spots before and always managed to get out of them." Gilder returned. "This time will be no different. I'll get us out of this one too. Trust me."

"Yeah, how? You going to charm that savage girl into letting us go and returning our ship? I don't think she's going to fall for your little games. She isn't Clara, you know?"

"Ugh. I TOLD you not to say that name. She might here you." Gilder blanched. But his first mate had a point. He had no idea how he was going to get them out of this fix since he wasn't sure exactly what kind of a fix they were in. Gilder decided to wait and see what Kokyrie wanted to "question" him about and play it by ear from there. He smiled as naughty thoughts began to creep into his head. Question him indeed.

As the sun set over the raiders village campfires were lit and torches were set to blazing around the clearing to chase away the darkness and keep wild animals at bay. One such brand approached the door to their cell and a key could be heard fumbling in the lock. Hannah pulled the door open and motioned for Gilder to follow her out. She was accompanied by a group of armed raiders so rushing her was out of the question. Gilder complied, leaving his crew behind for the moment.

"Alright handsome, your princess awaits." Hannah snickered. "I'll warn you though, these little interrogations of hers usually decide what happens to our prisoners. So don't hold out on her."

"Wish me luck then." He snickered as he was led through the maze of huts to a small log cabin situated at the far end of the village. Hannah rapped gently on the door and awaited a reply from within. A moment later the door was opened and Kokyrie beckoned them in. She was dressed in the same outfit that she had been wearing earlier in the day, but Gilder thought he detected the faint scent of perfume on her sun-darkened skin.