For Chuck’s flash fiction challenge, Fairy Tale Upgrade.
Grandmother’s house was deep in the forest on the edge of a lake. At her top speed, it took the Red Hood less than a minute to fly there from the city. She did a circuit around the lake, peering into the trees. She didn’t have any sort of enhanced vision or anything, but she suspected the Devourer was not above laying a trap for her. The Woodsman wasn’t in the habit of warning Megawatt of forest trouble unless it was serious.
Before helping her friends, though, she had to know her grandmother was safe. Taking a deep breath, she landed by the front door and turned the handle. Away from the windows and tucked into a corner was a modest bed, occupied by an old woman.
“Who’s there?” The voice shook, feeble and quiet. “Come closer, I need to see who it is.”
Red stepped into the cabin and closed the door, removing her mask and drawing her hood back. “It’s me, Grandma. It’s your Babs.”
“Babs… Babs? Where have you been?”
Suspicion crawled around, restless, in the back of her mind. Her grandmother’s body was brittle, but her mind had been sharper than this. She took another look at the woman in the bed.
“Grandma… your eyes…”
She remembered them being a dark brown that had begun to lighten with her advanced years, not the dull red that gazed at her. Without warning, arms of impossible length reached out, one hand grabbing her wrist while the other snapped to her neck. As she struggled, the visage of the old woman melted away. The Devourer’s true form was amorphous, not subscribing to any anatomy known to man. The appendages holding her became dark tentacles. Her free hand grabbed the one around her neck.
“Please, do struggle more. The more of energy you expend, the more delicious you will be when I overwhelm you.”
She grimaced. Its grip threatened to sap her strength entirely. Her mind raced, attempting to understand why she couldn’t beat this thing, when she could single-handedly demolish high-rises and carry armored cars over her shoulder like a sack of laundry. They were powers she’d had ever since…
The memory washed over Barbara unbidden. She remembered her father, missing an arm and bracing himself against the door to her bedroom, shouting at her to get under the bed. The thing that now gripped her appeared in the hallway and her father raised the shotgun against his shoulder. The weapon roared and something wet and warm hit her face. Everything after that was screams and horror.
More tentacles emerged as the Devourer expanded to its true dimensions, crushing the bed beneath its bulk. A circular maw filled with rows of serrated teeth opened in the midst of its many red eyes. It hissed, a wholly inhuman sound, and its breath stank.
If her father could wound the thing with some buckshot, why couldn’t she beat it herself? Tentacles were wrapping around her ankles. Any moment, it would lift her into the air and swallow her.
She closed her eyes. She reached into her mind, to the first time she thwarted a robbery, the battles she’d had alongside Megawatt and the Woodsman, the way it had felt to do good with her gifts. They were emotions and motivations entirely her own, untouched by the Devourer’s influence. She held onto those feelings, nurtured them, like the embers of a fire ready to roar into life.
“You cannot resist.”
Her eyes opened. “Yes, I can. And I will.”
She pulled her right arm back, planted her feet, gripped its slimy tentacles in both of her hands, and swung with her hips as hard as she could.
The mass of the Devourer slammed into the wall of the cabin. Years of weather and the tender mercies of the forest had weakened it, and the wood collapsed. Timbers fell and broke around Barbara as she summoned all the strength she could and aimed for the sky.
For a spine-chilling moment she went nowhere. The Devourer’s maw was inches away. She kept her eyes on the clouds above her head, willing herself to close the distance. Moment by moment, inch by inch, she climbed. The Devourer lashed at her with its many appendages, but her struggles kept it from dragging her any closer. Gravity had a hold on it, while she was still capable of flight.
Red Hood pulled her arms closer to her body as she flew ever higher. She planted her feet on the Devourer and glared down at it.
“An appetizer. I will take back what you stole from me.”
“Maybe. Provided you can fly, as I can.”
With that, she grabbed hold of its tentacles and pulled while pushing as hard as possible with her legs. Inhuman tearing sounds filled the sky. Tentacles snapped free.
“You utter bitch.” The words were a hiss, not the scream she expected. Somehow, it still terrified her even when she had the advantage.
“I am what you made me.”
Unable to maintain its grip, the Devourer plummeted. She watched it fall. It took a few seconds for the black, writhing mass to hit the ground. With a scream, she followed it, crossing the distance in the blink of an eye, hitting it with the force of a speeding train. She pounded it until it stopped moving. For a moment, there was quiet, broken only by Barbara’s rapid breathing. A form approached through the dust and she whirled, ready to strike.
“Easy,” said a deep, male voice. “It’s me, Red.”
She exhaled. The Woodsman stood by her, leaning on his axe. In the crater, the black mass hissed and bubbled. The Red Hood sat, looking at what she’d done. She watched the remains of the Devourer until the last bit of its putrid, spitting mass of semi-liquid evaporated, absorbed into the earth. Then the woman a dead family had called ‘Babs’ lowered her head, pulled up her red hood, and started to cry.