QSFer Michael G. Williams has a new queer urban fantasy out, book one in the Servant/Sovereign series: “Through the Doors of Oblivion.”
REAL ESTATE IS HELL – SOMETIMES LITERALLY
Wedged between real estate speculators, startup bros, and gentrified neighborhoods, it’s gotten hard to get by in San Francisco and it’s getting even harder all the time. Now two witches have decided the time has come to do something about it.
Using all their arcane skills, Iria – tall, dark, and genderqueer – and their partner and mentor, Madge – the granddaughter of Chinese immigrants and a powerful magician – have summoned back to the world of the living one of San Francisco’s greatest eccentric heroes: Joshua Norton, self-declared Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. In the 19th century he issued imperial proclamations intended to combat prejudice and advance the interests of the destitute and downtrodden. Binding him to themselves and to the city, Iria and Madge need Norton’s charisma and tireless dedication to the city to help them save the city from a demon of greed.
With an exciting combination of spell-slinging and derring-do, Norton and his modern-day patrons embark on a series of adventures across San Francisco’s past and present in search of the keys to the city: objects from its past they can use in the present to save the city’s future from a demon of greed and his tireless efforts to rob San Francisco of its soul forever!
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Chinatown was never entirely silent or still, but in the very dead of night it could get reasonably close. Cable cars and buses weren’t running. Occasionally someone would stagger down Grant Avenue as it ran narrowly between shuttered shops full of tourist tchotchkes and imported goods, but they paid the pair no mind. The badged cars of ride-share services sometimes glided by on California. Lights flickered on and off as floors were vacuumed and baskets emptied in the spires of the Financial District a couple of blocks downhill.
“The witching hour,” Iria stage-whispered at Madge under the fading final peal from the tower. “The time when supernatural forces are at their strongest.”
“Women found out of their houses at this hour in the Dark Ages were often executed on the spot,” Madge said. “Did you know that?”
Iria busied themself setting out the candles and drawing a star on the ground. It wasn’t the typical five-pointed pentacle of most modern neopagan traditions. This one had thirteen points, the lines connecting them drawn in careful bands of red, white, and blue chalk. A matching tricolor candle sat at each point. Iria took their time inscribing symbols around the base of each candle.
Madge initially downplayed her sense of feeling exposed by doing magic in public like this. If two witches drawing a magic circle was the oddest thing anyone saw in San Francisco on any given night, it must be a pretty slow evening. But then… Madge swallowed hard. What if it worked?
Iria finished laying out their supplies and sat back on their heels. Their voice dropped an octave as they called the watchtowers, and Madge felt a breeze pick up, a little gust of air, like standing by a door when someone opens it and the air conditioning escapes. Iria’s voice turned from greeting familiar powers in English to calling on deities from a variety of traditions. Madge didn’t recognize all of them, but she knew the sound of chanting when she heard it.
Iria finished each step of the ritual with careful, deliberate movements, and as each completed, Madge could feel the wind get stronger. Notably, Madge realized, the candle flames never so much as wavered.
“Oh shit,” Madge thought. “It’s really going to work.”
Iria’s chanting got louder, more insistent, and Madge heard the world grow quiet.
Madge noticed sounds she wasn’t even conscious of before: the cough of someone sleeping behind the bushes in the shadows of Old St. Mary’s Church, the conversation of two runaways spending the night behind the locked gates of St. Mary’s Square across the street, the quiet Cantonese murmur of a woman phoning the old country on a balcony above them. Those sounds all fell away, too, as Iria’s chanting grew louder, and Madge could feel those people’s eyes on her apprentice and herself.
Staring intently at the loosely stacked pages Iria had torn from a half dozen of their books about Emperor Norton, then piled in the center of the circle, they struck a final match, tossed it onto the paper, and threw back their head. Their voice sounded like a cannon in the stretching silence. “Joshua Norton I, your Imperial subjects beseech you. Attend our requests now as you sought to do then!”
“Requests?” Madge whispered, eyes wide. She repeated it, mouth hanging open after. “Requests?”
Thunder rattled the glass in the street lamps on the corner: red bases and red frames at the top, with gold-painted dragons carved around the length of the green post. The street lamps were one of Madge’s favorite things about Chinatown. Her great-great-grandparents had been Chinese immigrants to the United States, brought here in conditions of near-slavery. Generally, those immigrants’ hopes and health were fed slowly into the gnashing machinery of railroad construction, mining, farming, and all the other forms of commerce fueled as much by human bodies as anything else. Then they and their descendants were isolated and denigrated as a blight on the moral fabric of the white people who brought them here. Chinatown was one of the few places in the country where a captured culture had managed to block out its captors, turning those who were not natives into aliens within their own borders. To this day, many people in Chinatown never bothered to learn English. They didn’t need it. Madge’s family hadn’t lived in exclusively Chinese environs or culture or language in enough generations that Madge herself felt no connection to those stalwart natives of a land some had never even seen, but she admired them all the same. They carved out a place for themselves in a world openly hostile to them. That was always worthy of respect.
The crown of the nearest streetlamp shattered as another massive peal of thunder rang out across the sky. The third boomed so close, the ground shook beneath her. For one breathless half-second, Madge thought an earthquake was starting.
The embers of the burning pages rose on the wind, twisting in a spiral, and Madge’s teeth buzzed with the low moan that emanated out of them. She could feel the magic in the air, could feel Iria twisting the threads of fate and of time and space as they imposed their organizing will on the junk drawer of consensual reality. Whatever Iria was summoning up was fighting back, straining against the forces Iria cast like a net to entangle it—and gods damn all the hours they’d spent in ritual, Iria had used the word “request” when Madge had said time and again to use words of power, words of authority: words like require. The forces of the universe can be commanded, but they rarely cooperate with a request.
“Don’t ask it.” Madge had to shout over the growing roar. “Command it!”
Iria focused their will and leaned toward the column of glowing sparks and smoke and burning pages. “By the powers on whom I call, Emperor Norton, I command you to return to the world!”
Michael G. Williams writes wry horror, urban fantasy, and science fiction: stories of monsters, macabre humor, and subverted expectations. He is the author of three series for Falstaff Books: the award-winning vampire series The Withrow Chronicles; SERVANT/SOVEREIGN, a new urban fantasy series featuring demons, witches, real estate scams, time travel, and one of San Francisco’s most beloved historical figures; and the science fiction noir A Fall in Autumn. Michael also writes short stories and contributes to tabletop RPG development. Michael strives to present the humor and humanity at the heart of horror and mystery with stories of outcasts and loners finding their people.
Michael is also an avid podcaster, activist, reader, runner, and gaymer, and is a brother in St. Anthony Hall and Mu Beta Psi. He lives in Durham, NC, with his husband, two cats, two dogs, and more and better friends than he probably deserves.