An excerpt from Heroes Fall by Morgon Newquist
The Rage of Achilles
RAGE -- Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles...
Serenity City burned around him. His eyes watered from the smoke and his lungs burned from breathing it. The black cloud swallowed the sky above him. The sun, the skyscrapers, his coworkers’ news copters...it devoured everything.
Portia screamed nearby, but Hugo Bloom couldn't see her either. He could barely hear her over the snapping metal and collapsing buildings. Hugo had left war coverage to avoid experiencing this again. He never thought he'd find it in the city, of all places.
Ezra appeared next to him, making his way through the smoke. A layer of black ash covered the lenses of his glasses and dust colored his dark hair and beard grey. His small sound recorder hung around his neck on a lanyard. This freed up his hands but meant he’d still have top-notch sound for the evening broadcast. Today’s events would be the biggest story for years to come, and none of them wanted to miss recording a single second of it.
The wind shifted, blowing the smoke to the south. Portia, in her navy blue skirt suit and perfectly applied makeup, reappeared. The kid, the intern, Colby, stood next to her. Panic filled every inch of his young face. He'd lost it even before Portia. And the on-air anchor was well known for her fits of hysteria. But she had a pretty face, and her daddy had money, so they endured her off-camera antics. Neither Portia nor Colby knew how to handle a scoop gone wrong, though. Hugo and Ezra would have to drag them through it.
Out of kindness, so there wouldn’t be video evidence of their mutual breakdown, Hugo turned his camera away from them. He reached out with his other hand and grabbed the collar of Colby's polo shirt. The kid gasped, flailing ineffectively as Hugo yanked him close.
"Kid, get it together! Get on the damn radio and find out what's going on," Hugo said gruffly to him. He didn't bother with Portia for the moment. As long as she was safe, he'd figure out where to plant her and coax a broadcast out of her later.
Colby swallowed hard and nodded. The whirring of helicopter blades buzzed overhead, but the smoke blocked any sight of the aircraft.
"This is Colby! I need an update!" he demanded. Hugo rolled his eyes at the kid’s entitled tone. Ezra managed to get Portia to stop screaming while he dealt with the intern.
How had the day gone so wrong? By the time Hugo and his team had arrived at the hospital, their golden Triumvirate seemed to have the incident under control. An escaped supervillain opening a black hole in the middle of downtown definitely made one hell of a mess. The Banshee, Achilles, and Pendragon had saved them from Blackout before. No one doubted they’d be able to do it again. It would be like all the other jobs Hugo had worked covering the superheroes of Serenity City - stand back, get some excellent footage, congratulate everyone on a job well done and a safe city. Done in time for drinks at the bar and an early evening catching up on his favorite television shows.
Now the mysterious Thanatos appeared, and the city burned like a war zone.
"Trying to figure out what’s up," said the coworker on the helicopter circling overhead. The radio crackled and screeched from interference.
"Is it Blackout?" Colby asked.
"No, looks like Pendragon took out Blackout," the pilot answered.
The four of them stood silently. Was Thanatos the source of all this destruction? If so, he was more powerful than anyone had realized. How had he done so much damage with his poison cloud? Did the supervillain have more gifts that no one knew about? The thought sat badly with Hugo. None of this made sense, but in the middle of a crisis wasn’t the time to puzzle it out, either.
Hugo wiped his forehead on his shirt sleeve. The air temperature heated up around them. The worst of the fires couldn't be too far away now.
"We either need to hightail it out of here or find some action, standing around here is stupid," he commented grumpily. Ezra nodded in agreement. Hugo took a couple of steps in the direction of the hospital, gauging if there was anything worth filming there. Everyone struggled to get good footage of the heroes, especially the Banshee. Maybe he could get some killer shots out of this disaster after all.
"Blackout is dead, confirmed!" The crackling voice came back over the radio. Another boom, this one closer, rattled Hugo's teeth down to his fillings.
"Then what’s going on?" Colby screeched. More glass shattered nearby, and he jumped almost three feet into the air. Hugo snorted. This young guy needed to find his testosterone before he fainted.
Only static answered Colby. The intern repeated the question, but no one replied.
Ezra heard it first – he had excellent hearing. He was the best sound guy in the city, after all. Without his skill, they’d all have died.
"Incoming!" Ezra shouted. He wrapped his arm around Colby and pushed him forward towards the businesses around them. The whirring of the news copter, usually a reassuring sound, buzzed above them again. But now it was close - too close.
A terrible crash screeched over their heads, forcing them to duck. Hugo still couldn't see anything, but a deafening mechanical whir echoed out of the smoke. Seconds later the helicopter spiraled out of the cloud, ricocheting off the storefronts around them.
Hugo, his camera still rolling and on his shoulder, grabbed Portia by the wrist and slung her into a nearby storefront alcove. He dove in after her. Ezra and Colby were on their own. The helicopter pirouetted only feet away before crunching into the asphalt frighteningly close to their shelter.
Fiery air blasted down the street, burning all the hair off Hugo’s arms. His body hair wasn't exactly sparse, either. Portia shrieked ear-shattering screams again from somewhere in front of him. Hugo took some comfort from the screeching because it meant she was still alive. Bits of the building facade thundered down in front of them.
Hugo wasn't much of a churchgoer, but he said a prayer for his fallen coworkers all the same. They couldn’t possibly have survived that crash.
This was it. If he got out of this, he would retire. He didn't need the money, and he had a grandbaby to spend time with. If shooting local news had become as dangerous as Afghanistan he was done with it.
After a moment the flames died down, and another gust of wind whistled down the street. The full horror of the crash revealed itself. Only a crushed and twisted metal wreck remained of the news helicopter. White hot flames blazed across its surface. The burning skeleton of the aircraft blocked the entire street in front of them.
Colby spoke in a steady stream of expletives that only stopped when he had to breathe. Portia sobbed hysterically. The sound was only a small improvement over the shrieking.
Hugo couldn't imagine what caused this kind of destruction, but it didn't matter. They needed to get out of there, reporting it be damned. He'd keep the camera running, and he would salvage whatever footage wasn't total crap from the tape later. The black smoke from the new fire poured around them, making visibility even worse than it had been before.
The downed copter blocked the street in front of the news crew. Heat radiated from it, making the air around it too blistering to skirt around the wreck. All four of them would have to turn around and go back, closer to the nexus of it all - South Serenity Memorial Hospital.
Hugo, still holding onto Portia's wrist, called out for his companions. They both answered amid coughing fits. He dragged Portia with him and found Ezra and Colby together down the road.
"It's time to bail," he said to Ezra. Ezra grimaced.
"You think?" he asked sarcastically.
"Stay together the best we can. We need to move out of the smoke. If we can get far enough away I'll set up again for better footage, but right now the focus is getting out of this hellhole," Hugo spoke with authority. His terrified coworkers immediately deferred to him. Portia's sobbing dropped to frequent sniffles.
They crept forward six feet, stepping carefully since the smoke obscured their path. The bright red plume of a Corinthian helmet appeared in front of Hugo. It bobbed and shifted in the smoke. His heart soared.
The kind and righteous strongman of Serenity City’s beloved hero Triumvirate stood only feet away. Finally, a stroke of good luck! Whatever happened, Achilles would make sure they were safe.
Hugo pulled on Portia's wrist to move her faster.
But as they all rushed forward and the wind changed again, the scene before him unfolded into the last thing he'd expected to see in his life.
Achilles fought an armored foe, sparring violently with him while fire and destruction surrounded him. Uncharacteristic rage consumed him. Hugo realized that he wasn’t dueling a villain- not Thanatos, not Blackout - but Pendragon.
Hugo froze in shock. Slow on the uptake, Colby bumped into him before stopping.
"Why’d you stop?" Colby demanded. His eyes shifted to the street. The intern swore so caustically at the sight that it impressed even Hugo.
Achilles held Pendragon by the collar of his armor, gripping so tightly with his huge hands that the metal warped under the pressure. Anger burned in his eyes, so fiercely that even the shadows of his helm could not hide it.
Cold dread filled Hugo’s chest. In all his years on this beat, Achilles had never looked like this before. Behind the fighting men, as far as Hugo could see, Serenity City burned.
Neither one of them seemed to care.
A guttural scream of fury tore from Achilles' lips. The news crew stared in horror as he punched Pendragon so hard that the hero’s metal armor crunched inward. The blow drove Pendragon backward several feet.
Achilles pounded brutally on his friend. Pendragon could only block about half the strikes raining down on him. Utterly lost to fury, Achilles bashed more and more deep dents into the knight's once immaculate, shining armor.
"He's going to kill him!" Portia shouted in horror. Hugo desperately quieted her as she started to scream again.
"Over here!" he cried. He motioned to the overhang of a downtown coffee shop. He didn't have to tell them twice. No one wanted to be in the path of the dueling superheroes.
An electric pole loomed over their spot, half broken from the helicopter crash. The wires atop it crackled and sparked. Panic crested in Hugo's chest, and he did his best to force it back down. It wasn’t a safe place to stay, but the burning helicopter cut off one path of escape and Achilles and Pendragon the other. Hugo dodged around a small street sign adorned with a pithy quote written in chalk. A bundle of shiny balloons, tied there to celebrate the coffee shop's one year anniversary, tumbled to and fro in the powerful winds. The effect of viewing the fight through the brightly colored balloons tickled Hugo. He bit back hysterical laughter. If he fell apart, so would everyone else. He definitely needed a drink later, provided the man they thought their hero didn't murder them in his anger.
Achilles punched in the center of Pendragon’s armor, right at his sternum. Air exploded from Pendragon’s lips, and he staggered. Achilles drove forward unrelentingly, grabbing Pendragon under the shoulders while his guard was down. Pendragon attempted to counter the grab, but Achilles' crushing strength kept him from breaking the hold. The man in hoplite armor roared and swung his weight around, pitching Pendragon into the sky.
The knight crashed into a second story window of the office building across the street. Every window on the entire floor shattered from the force of Pendragon’s impact. Huge shards of glass rained down on the road, a cacophony of exploding glass joining the chorus of destruction. Pendragon's beaten body tumbled into the building’s dim interior. Screams of fear echoed out from inside the office. Hugo sighed with relief, glad he'd chosen this small coffee shop awning instead of the other side of the street.
Achilles turned and stalked straight towards them. Hugo froze. He had absolutely no defense against the onslaught that a man like Achilles would bring. How far into madness had the man gone? Had his rage completely consumed him?
Hugo pushed Portia behind him and backed up as far as he could into the shadows of the awning. Achilles didn't even notice them. Adrenaline strong enough to make Hugo feel nauseated blasted through his body. His knees shook uncontrollably, and Portia whimpered in his ear.
The colossal man stopped in front of a blue sedan parked on the street. The raging hero picked up the car easily, turned while holding it over his head, and then pitched it straight at the second floor of the building. As he did so, the back end of the vehicle swiped the little sidewalk sign, knocking it flat. Portia jumped from the noise. Hugo clamped a hand over her mouth to muffle her scream. The balloons, freed from their weight, floated upwards out of Hugo's sight.
It was now or never. Achilles' back faced them as he charged across the road, relentlessly pursuing Pendragon. Apparently throwing a car at the man did not sufficiently satisfy Achilles’ rage.
Hugo frantically motioned for everyone to follow him. He planned to run like hell for the hospital. Right now anywhere would be safer than here, as two titans tried to beat one another to death. His companions responded immediately. They scrambled out into the sun, ready to make the run for South Serenity.
The air above them erupted into flames again. A massive fireball drove them to their knees as the escaped balloons exploded. Hugo’s ears rang and the skin on his neck burned.
Tangled in the half-destroyed electricity pole, the coffee shop’s Mylar balloons had bounced off the electric wires. Without any warning, the metal in them completed a circuit - but the balloons couldn't hold the voltage. The wires and balloons exploded with an ear-splitting boom.
The blast blew away the last bit of stability the pole had. It crunched ominously before breaking completely. The pole plummeted towards them.
Hugo tried to push them all back under the awning, but they wouldn’t be fast enough. They would fry to death because of his poor judgment call. He yanked Portia underneath him to shield her - she might be air-headed and silly, but she was only twenty-two. If anyone died today, it would be him, the old man. He dropped his camera on the ground and used both hands to cover her.
A pale blur phased out of the shadows on his right, near the office building. It pitched a small tech device at the ground. The tiny disk hit the pavement, and a burst of light flared out of it. A shimmering blue force field activated, blooming over their heads and stretching to the ground. The falling, sparking electric pole bounced off the shield and hit the street, barely avoiding crushing them. The fire it started, however, raged on, joining with the destruction and smoke from the helicopter wreck. Within seconds the new fire hopped into the second story of the building they sheltered under.
Hugo sputtered. Someone with tech like that could only be the Banshee. He stared at their savior, Portia still tucked beneath him and screaming like...well, like a banshee. Any other time he would have smirked at his unintentional pun. Not today.
The haunting woman swept across the street towards him. Her feet never even touched the ground as she glided over to the force field. She stopped in front of it.
For the first time in his career, Hugo stood face to face with the Banshee. He had never managed to score a coveted shot of Serenity City’s ghostly heroine. For years Hugo had desperately wanted a shot like this. Of all the Primes, only Thanatos was harder to see than the Banshee. But here she stood in broad daylight.
Her outfit blew about in an eerie, invisible breeze that didn't match the wind blowing around the city. A gauzy, semi-transparent weeping veil covered her face, blurring the grey and ghost-like features beneath it. Her long and tangled red hair drifted in the same wind that gently pulled on her cloak and veil. Blue eyes stared at him, shining through the shroud she wore to protect her identity. Hugo could see fear in her eyes. That terrified him more than anything else he'd seen that day.
What happened on top of that hospital to make even the Banshee afraid?
She nodded almost imperceptibly at him. Then she turned and floated back into the shadows, following her dueling compatriots.
Pendragon leapt out the window of the office building before Achilles could reach him. He ran full pelt towards the burning helicopter, his damaged armor clinking. Sirens wailed in the distance as Achilles hunted Pendragon. When Hugo looked back, the Banshee's ghostly grey form had vanished in the smoke.
Hugo picked up the little shield generator. He gingerly punched the black button in the center of it, hoping it would turn the shield off. Their protective dome flickered and disappeared. Hugo paused to snag his heavy camera from the ground. If he left it, his boss would make him wish he'd died in this disaster. He wouldn’t mention to the man that he’d completely missed filming a career-making shot of the Banshee.
Hugo ushered Colby and Portia back under the awning of the coffee shop. The upper floors of the building burned, but the fire hadn't spread to the ground level yet. He didn't want to cross the street in case the wires from the downed power line were still electrified. They dashed under the awning, passing several shops until they came out the other side. The departure of the fighting heroes opened up a clear way to safety. Hugo urged them on, and all four of them ran full speed towards the hospital.
Once Hugo could see teams of medics and firefighters, he stopped. Here they would have help. And he needed to do his job again. He turned around to see what would happen, poised to heft his camera back onto his shoulder at a moment's notice.
He didn't have to wait long.
A terrible keening wail echoed through the streets. The sound pierced his heart like an arrow. The despair and sadness in it consumed him. Tears glistened on his companions’ faces, leaving stark tracks in the dust. Stunned, Hugo touched his cheek with his free hand, and his fingers came away wet. All the activity behind him from the first responders died down.
What in God’s name was that?
The mournful cry came again, louder this time. It ratcheted up in volume and pitch until it drove him to his knees. Involuntary tears rolled down his face. Everyone around him writhed in pain from the noise.
When Hugo thought he could bear it no more, it stopped.
A silence more terrible than that wail fell across the entirety of Serenity City. Everything stopped. For an eternity the crackle of flames and the rumble of shifting rubble were the only sounds at all.
Out of instinct, Hugo remounted his camera on his shoulder and prepared himself to catch whatever came next.
"Oh my god," Portia whispered. She pointed in front of them.
Through the smoke came Achilles, their great champion.
In his arms, he carried the body of the Banshee.
The edges of her torn veil fluttered around her exposed features. Her blue eyes were no longer afraid. Emptiness filled her gaze, and the sight of it burned into Hugo's brain. He sadly noted how young, and how pretty, she was. Not even her macabre makeup could hide her beauty. The Banshee had an aristocratic face, with high cheekbones and a slightly big nose that only added to her unique appearance instead of taking away from it.
Achilles had lost his iconic helm, his face on display for the entire city to see. Hugo had never seen more than his eyes staring out of the darkness of his helmet. Achilles looked like one of those classical Greek statues, with shoulder-length black hair and a strong chin. Every inch of his handsome countenance reflected agony. He could have stepped out of a Greek tragedy.
The strongest man in the world could bear the weight of what he carried no longer, and he collapsed onto the ground. Achilles couldn't muster the strength to lift the body of his wife. His despair stripped him of his powers. He sat in the rubble with the Banshee draped across his lap, all the strength gone from his arms.
Hugo could do nothing but stare through his camera at the terrible anguish in front of him. Even Colby and Portia fell silent when faced with it.
Achilles tenderly clutched the body of his wife close to his chest.
Hugo Bloom won the Pulitzer for that shot. He put the prize money in a trust for his grandbaby, never touching a cent of it. Then he buried the congratulations letter deep in his desk drawer where he would never have to look at it. Hugo wanted no part of any fame or reward that came from that event.
Despite his earlier all-encompassing rage, Achilles did nothing to impede the horde of SWAT that surrounded him. Everyone stood at a tense standoff for almost ten minutes, until one of the medics took a chance and approached him.
The broken hero did not lash out at him. Achilles only had eyes for his wife. When he did not attack, the police quickly swarmed in to arrest him.
Hugo watched with trepidation, but Achilles did not fight them. He silently accepted the handcuffs that he could have snapped with a flick of his pinky finger. SWAT led him away, camera flashes following him until they shut him in the back of an armored truck.
Hugo filmed it all and wondered what really happened atop that building between the Triumvirate and Blackout.
And Thanatos, he reminded himself. Where was Thanatos? No one seemed to think about him in the chaos left by Achilles’ rampage.
But only three men knew the truth of it, and Hugo Bloom knew his questions would never be answered.
* * *
Pendragon, ordinarily lively and charming - the perfect interview subject - spoke morosely as he answered all of the questions every reporter in the city fired at him. Deep dents pockmarked his once carefully shined and repaired armor. Scorch marks streaked his breastplate, and fire had burned away the plume on his helm. He no longer looked the perfect Arthurian knight. Despite the damage, his armor held and he had survived the day. By all outward appearances, Pendragon had come through the fire battered and bruised but not broken. But the man beneath the armor despaired, his soul utterly shattered.
"Pendragon! Pendragon! Can you tell us what happened?" one reporter shouted out. Pendragon breathed deeply to prepare himself.
"Blackout attempted to open a black hole in the center of the city this afternoon. Achilles, the Banshee and I stopped him. I finally killed Blackout, my great nemesis, during the fight.” A little bit of his customary flair returned as he announced his victory. Internally, he wondered how quickly he could get out of here. He usually loved the limelight, but today he wanted nothing to do with it. He wanted to be alone to mourn the loss of his friends.
"Is the Banshee dead?" another reporter asked. Pendragon's face twisted into an agonized expression before he could control it. His breath caught in his chest. To answer the question made it real. But no matter how much he wanted to avoid it, it was real.
"Yes." He could only muster a simple answer.
"And what about Achilles?" piped in yet another reporter. Their numbers seemed endless to him. Their questions would be too.
"Achilles..." he paused. How to say this? Camera lights shone in his eyes, and a sea of faces, eager to drive their ratings with his personal tragedies stared back at him. With all the stimulation and pressure, it took Pendragon several moments to compose an answer appropriate to feed their news machine. Everyone waited with bated breath, jostling in the silence.
"Achilles broke under the stress of the job. In his rage, he attacked me and forced me to fight. I saved the city from him and helped capture him before he could cause any more harm. He is now incarcerated in Northmill Heights Penitentiary," Pendragon finally explained.
A collective gasp rolled through the crowd like a wave. Their champion...their Achilles, locked away with the likes of Vesicant and Vesuvius? If anyone but Pendragon had told them so, the masses would never have believed it.
The shock passed quickly, however, and the glee set in. Pendragon could see it in their faces - they wouldn't get a story as wrought and dramatic as this again for years. His shame and anger churned inside him, but never touched his face. He could never let them see it.
He could never let anyone see it.
"No more questions," Pendragon declared. He turned away from them all. He expected to have to push his way through the crowds to escape, but today they parted for him. Behind him, Serenity City still burned, black smoke blowing out across the bay. It would take hours to contain all the fires, and months to clean up the wreckage from this day.
Shouted questions still rang in his ears even as he walked away, but Pendragon didn't answer. It was time to go home and remember the friends he'd lost. One to insanity, and the other to death. He disappeared down the street, leaving pieces of his ruined armor behind as he walked. Pendragon wondered if he could ever don it again after the day that would later be called The Rampage.
In his jail cell across the city, the once mighty Achilles watched his former friend on the television. He growled deep in his chest at the sight of Pendragon, unfathomable rage that time could not diminish roiling in his soul.
Victoria doesn’t need a cape and a name to be a hero.
Living and working in the slums of Serenity City, she has become its faceless and nameless defender. She turned her back on the glittering world of professional superheroes years ago. If she has her way, she’ll never go back.
But the young and forgotten teens she helps are disappearing from the street, and nobody seems to care. As Victoria unravels this mystery, she is lead back to her old life in the star-studded glamourous superhero circles. No matter how much she hates it, she can’t abandon the helpless when they need her the most.
All clues point back to The Rampage, the terrible day when Serenity City's mightiest champion Achilles fell to darkness. Will Victoria uncover the truth of what actually happened twenty years ago in time to help her lost boys and girls?
And what will happen when the fallen hero Achilles escapes, and Victoria is the only one who can stop him?
Morgon Newquist blazes on to the Superhero scene with the first Serenity City book, bringing nuance, emotion, and superpowered fights in spades. A solid, engaging launch to the brand new shared Heroes Unleashed universe, Heroes Fall will hook readers right in and leave them wanting more.
Can Victoria solve the twenty year mystery of Achilles’ fall from grace in time to save Serenity City? Or is there another, more sinister player who will destroy the very idea of superheroes?
Unravel the mystery and fight the villains with Victoria. Buy Heroes Fall today!