Agent Henrik Abrams paused at the top of the stairs to unclip a flash grenade from his belt. He tossed it like a bocce ball into the basement before closing the door in front of him. Four muffled thuds and one burst of light later, Henrik began his descent.
He crept down the passageway, knife in hand. The potential for hostages demanded a munitions-free approach. Looking over his shoulder, he signaled for Agent Benson to holster his sidearm and follow.
The basement reeked of mildew. Haphazardly placed candles cast flickering shadows throughout the otherwise empty chamber. Benson donned a pair of brass knuckles as he and Abrams made their way for another door on the far side of the room.
It was locked.
“Now what?” Benson whispered loudly enough to sound irritated.
“We knock,” Abrams answered. “Unless you’ve got a key there, Wally.”
“I’m pretty sure anybody who’d answer already heard that clankin’ flashbang I told you not to throw.” Walter Benson and Henrik held the same rank, though both of them considered the other subordinate. “I say we kick it in.”
“Go for it,” Abrams backed away from the door.
Benson, all six feet and 230 pounds of him, charged forward. At the last moment he recoiled his foot up and then let his leg spring toward the door like a cobra. When his boot made contact, a spark brighter than the flashbang sent Benson flying backward.
“See?” Abrams said, “gotta knock.”
He stepped over Benson and rapped his knuckles against the barrier in a seemingly deliberate pattern of varying rhythms. Henrik then raised his foot exactly like Walter did before, but this time the door went flying off its hinges upon contact.
“Consider it seen,” Benson replied as he rose to his feet.
He gave an exaggerated bow only to look up and brandish his most shit-eating of grins.
“After you, monsieur,” he said with a gesture becoming of a maître de.
“When’s the last time you ate at a table, let alone in a restaurant?” Abrams asked, a valid question given Walter’s couth, or lack thereof.
Instead of waiting for an answer he brushed past Benson, crossing the threshold. Splashes of illumination trickled in from the tiny flames peppering the other room, revealing dingy mattresses sat atop rusted cots.
“Well, we found where they’ve been keeping’em.” Benson said. “Can’t say I was expecting a basement orphanage.”
“Seems they were expecting us.” Abrams opened a storage locker, empty save for a worn-out mop.
Flashlight in hand, Benson lagged a few steps behind Abrams. His spotlight wandered along the peeling wallpaper, drifted to the black-and-white linoleum floor, and finally settled on a section of tiles that appeared off-center.
“Rik. Over here,” Benson said. “Looks like this onion has another layer.”
“They always do,” Abrams muttered under his breath. Crouching, he wedged his knife into the grout and pried loose the patch of flooring lit by Benson’s torch. Underneath there was a circular hatch.
“Let me guess, locked as well?”
Abrams put his hand against the metallic lid. “I don’t feel any wards,” he said. “My guess is this was meant to stay hidden.”
Opening the hatch revealed an access shaft with a ladder.
“No flashbang this time,” Benson warned. “Those kids’ve got to be down there. Let’s try not to rattle’m too much.”
Henrik clipped the grenade back to his belt. “Am I that predictable?” he asked.
Benson grumbled to himself as he hopped onto the ladder, flashlight in mouth.
Watching the beam of light diminish to but a speck, Abrams waited for Benson to signal it was all clear before joining him. Minutes later they were both standing at the end of a long hallway dimly lit by red emergency lights. The corridor extended thirty yards or so before terminating at a cavernous opening.
“You’d think a buncha captive brats would be makin’ a bit of racket, no?” The more nervous Benson became the more he voiced rhetorical questions.
“Stay sharp,” Abrams warned. “Secret bunkers are pretty high on the list of top-ten places I don’t want to die.”
“Yeah, yeah. I still don’t get why they sent the two of us to rescue som—“ Benson lurched forward as if he had tripped on his own foot. Head slumped and knees buckled, Walter hung mid-fall like a clumsy marionette. A shadowy tendril pierced his chest, pinning him in the air.
Another apparition flew toward Abrams. The ethereal spear appeared as an absence of light even darker than the shadows cast by the red glowing lamps. Henrik tried to roll forward to avoid being impaled moments too late, yet the tendril passed through him without effect.
He had no time to ponder the implications of his immunity. Henrik sprung up from his somersault and darted for the chamber. Only a few paces in, all the emergency bulbs overloaded, lining the walls with a brilliant flash of sparks before the lights went out.
Abrams cracked open a glow stick. It took a second for his eyes to adjust to the soft, neon-green hue that barely lit the room. He could make out the dark outline of a huddled mass in a corner.
“Hello?” Henrik called out as he approached.
He paused when he was close enough to confirm his suspicion: the children he was sent to save were discarded, tossed into a pile, each with a black puncture wound in their chest just like Benson’s. Abrams took a step forward.
“NO! Get away!” a voice cried out.
Two tendrils snapped toward Abrams but again both passed through him harmlessly.
“I’m not here to harm you.” Henrik took another step.
“Leave me alone, I said!”
Henrik could see a concentrated dome of dark energy when he peered through the mound of orphans. The voice of a frightened child emanated from it.
“Where did everybody go?” She started sobbing.
Abrams reached into the darkness and pulled out the scared little girl. The dark protrusions impaling the rest of the orphans writhed as they shrunk away, dissipating into nothingness by the time he set her on the ground. Henrik rushed to every tiny wrist hoping for a pulse. None were found.
Kneeling down, Abrams looked into the eyes of the little girl. A blackness reminiscent of the tendrils lingered for a moment before fading to reveal an otherwise normal pair of green eyes.
“I’m Henrik,” he said, forcing himself to remember she was still a child despite whatever energy might be flowing through her. “What’s your name?”
“Juniper.” She responded.
“Do you know what happened here, Juniper?”
“They… they told us to climb the ladder.. and took us here, to the dark place,” Juniper stammered between sniffles.
“I… I.. I don’t know. They left us. I was afraid, so I closed my eyes, and then all the others stopped talking. What’s hap.. happening to me?”
“It’s okay, Juniper. Let’s get you out of here,” Abrams said. “Follow me.”
As Henrik approached Benson he expected the man’s fate to be the same as the orphans’. That Walter was once again stubborn enough to prove him wrong came as little surprise. The barely-conscious agent’s breathing was shallow but stable.
“Sit tight there, bud,” Abrams offered in consolation, setting down his glow stick near the wounded man. “HQ’ll send in the med team as soon as I get topside.”
“Make sure they knock,” Benson said as Henrik started his climb up the ladder, Juniper clinging to his back.