Argus made a quick palms-down motion with his hand, whispering sharply, "Down!" He dropped to the ground behind thick bushes, pulling Sester half on top of him.
The other two flattened themselves on a dense pile of wet leaves as a group of fashionably scruffy slavers came into view. They carried stripped-down weapons, light and dangerous looking, easily concealed inside jackets. Their eyes were sharp and they walked with quick, sure steps.
"They've got to be around here somewhere," said a gaunt-faced man, "They can't get far, not with the blind one."
Avon's lips curved in a scimitar-edged scowl but he stayed still.
Next to him, Servalan spit out a soggy leaf and kept her head down. Avon's warm flesh next to hers might be a delicious sensation, a welcome compensation for this travesty of a rescue, but the slavers were far too close for comfort. The idea of running teasing fingers along his back and feeling him tense was a prize she would reserve for later.
"Fan out and do a sweep of the area. Back here in fifteen." The authoritative voice came from a woman with her hair tightly wound and pulled back in a pony-tail. Her hand gripped a long-barrelled pistol. The men obeyed without question, radiating out in an ordered pattern. The woman stood for a moment, looking around, her gun covering the area.
A flutter of movement caught her eye and her gun swung around quickly. A bushy-tailed creature blinked at her from a branch at eye-level. It scurried away as the woman continued her search of the area.
Argus followed her movements. This woman was good. Too good. It was only a matter of time before they were discovered and their options were limited. He could easily take the woman out but that left the ten armed men. If it was just himself, he would chance it and run, but he couldn't abandon the others.
They had to distract the woman without revealing themselves.
Cally sat up at her flight station, her face tense and with a faraway look in her eyes. She said to no one in particular. "I can't find Avon."
Vila looked up, pausing as he was about to throw another playing card into an empty box perched on the couch. "He's down on the planet."
"No." Her eyes focused on him. "I can't feel him. I don't sense anything."
One brow lifted. "Well, it may not mean anything. Avon's like a rock sometimes…most times."
She frowned in irritation. "You don't understand. I can always sense his presence when I'm concentrating. No matter how far he is. The only time I can't is…" She took in a shaky breath. "…is when he's in trouble."
Vila straightened up, dropping the Jack of Diamonds on the table. "But…shouldn't you feel if he's in trouble?"
"That's the problem. I don't sense anything. It's as if…" The thought tightened her throat. "There is something blocking my ability to sense him."
Zen interrupted, "Information. Incoming communications signal from the planet."
"Onscreen, Zen," said Cally.
The grim-faced Reya appeared. "Cally, the men are missing."
Argus popped up from his hiding place and raced away with a heavy burden across his shoulders. He slipped on the wet ground, slowing for a moment, just long enough for the slaver leader to catch a good glimpse of him before he disappeared into the trees.
"Everybody on me!" the pony-tailed leader shouted. "They're getting away!" She ran after him. The crash of men rushing back indicated they were all on the chase. The forest was filled with barks of command and confident shouts to frighten their quarry as the slavers moved to set a trap. The sounds moved further away. It wasn't easy to catch this prey and Argus was no mouse.
"That was entertaining," said Servalan, her superior voice intact as she got up, brushing sticky leaves from an increasingly stained white dress. If only she could see herself now…someone's head would roll.
She touched Avon's arm, offering to help him up. For a moment, his intense 'glare' made her hesitate but her icy self-control prevented her from pulling back. It was like putting her hand in a trap and wondering when the jaws would clamp shut and cut her arm off.
He took hold of her forearm and pulled himself up. "We need to move before they come back."
"That's the best idea you've had all day," she said with light mocking sarcasm. They headed in the direction Argus had pointed out before he took off. "Damn." Servalan grimaced as her left shoe sunk into the wet ground, breaking at the heel.
Avon cocked his head, listening. "What is it?"
"They don't make shoes like they used to." With a savage rip, she tore the heel off the other shoe as well.
"Few things are."
Argus rushed headlong, crashing through bushes, pushing aside low branches. His well-developed muscles, each one a perfectly sculpted piece of human engineering, bunched and released in explosive energy. He barely felt the weight of Sester on his shoulders.
The slavers huffed and puffed, falling farther behind, their plans a shambles because it was impossible to catch the wind.
For Sester, it was a heart-pounding experience in more ways than he dared to count. To be held, his bare flesh pressed firmly against such a magnificent body, feeling the intimacy of the living energy beneath him was intoxicating. The hard muscles. The smooth, powerful motions.
I’ll distract them; lead them away, Argus had whispered back in the bushes, his urgent tone drawing their attention like a magnet. Go in that direction. He pointed. I'll find you. Then without warning he hefted Sester up on his shoulders and sprinted off before anyone could object or express surprise.
Sester suppressed a smile. Argus couldn't trust that Servalan would burden herself with someone she might have to carry. Avon was a different matter, but Sester was an expendable liability.
Forest thinned and a strong hint of salty air reached their nostrils. "I think we're running out of trees," Sester remarked with an oddly amused tone.
Argus skidded to a stop as the trees ended abruptly in a high cliff. Rolling waves stretched out before them, the sun's rays sparkling between the crests. He turned his head to look behind them; there was no sign of their pursuers. "We have a minute at most." He lowered his burden to the ground.
Craning his neck, Sester looked below them at the crashing waves. "I can swim if that helps."
"There's an overhang." Argus knelt down, reaching out with his arm. "I'm going to lower you down."
"That's the first thing they're going to think of when they don't see us."
"They will see us. At least…" He got up, brushing dirt from his sweat-glistening chest. Now that they were stopped, he could feel an itch in the only piece of clothing he was wearing; probably dirt from when he was lying on the ground. It itched uncomfortably and he squelched an urge to scratch. "They'll see me diving."
"You're…leaving me here?" Sester leaned forward a bit more, looking at the overhang and wondering what it concealed.
"Watch it!" Argus grabbed his arm before he went too far. "We don't have time! They'll be here soon." A crack of a branch made them look behind.
"I'll come back for you."
"I'll be waiting."
Concentration was exhausting. Avon gripped Servalan's arm tightly, forgoing the urge to reach up and strangle her instead. The proximity was tempting. His ears strained, listening for any sign of the slavers returning. The forest was noisy, full of unfamiliar sounds. Every brush of leaves held unknown dangers.
He stumbled on something hard, probably a stone, and fell against Servalan.
"Clumsy," was her only remark as her arms went around him, keeping him up.
Avon scowled as he pushed away from her. "Don’t get any ideas."
"It's a little late for that."
"Once this is over…"
"It will never be over. Not between us."
"Don't flatter yourself."
"Now, shall we continue or should we skip to the insults?"
"We need to find a place to hide. We're too exposed here."
"One of us is." She smirked, admiring his nearly-nude form. Leather, Avon and a thong, what an inspiring combination…but survival first.
Avon's lips seemed to be in a perpetual scowl. "There is no time for this nonsense."
"I quite agree." She added under her breath, "For now." There was no telling when Argus would come back, with or without the irritating psychostrategist - preferably without. What they needed was a map, a communications device or at the very least a place to hide before nightfall. And a platoon of troopers to wipe these people off the face of this planet.