I was never meant to be here.
I wasn’t born on Mab, or even in Scotland. I was born in some small town in Hungary that I don’t know the name of, to parents I don’t really remember. My father was Scottish, middling at magic, and apparently looked like me. My mother was Hungarian, had green eyes, and specialised in banishing and purification rites.
I know. The irony isn’t lost on me.
When my parents first brought me to Mab, people still called me Tamás and I barely spoke English. I knew “hello” and “thank you” and Kit very quickly taught me “no.” We all spent a day playing in the ocean, and then my parents and Cormac left Kit and me with a friend and went off to Skye to try to banish a nuckelavee. My parents didn’t come back.
I never expected to stay on this rainy island that time and God forgot. My parents weren’t supposed to drown and I wasn’t meant to spend the rest of my life ten minutes outside a village called Towe, living in a house with too few bedrooms, being raised by my father’s aging former tutor alongside his strange, unmagical grandson.
When I left Mab, I spent a long time convincing myself that it wasn’t my home — that I wasn’t tied to it. I told myself I couldn’t be homesick if it wasn’t my home.
But looking at it now, I know that was bullshit. This place tugs at my inside in a way only home could.
Cormac Macrae’s house — my house — sits at the top of a hill overlooking the North Sea. Standing at the kitchen window you can see everything. The village of Towe, which is nestled on the jagged cliffs and looks like it’s about to slide off and get bashed to bits on the sea stacks. The curling coastline that snakes around the bleak beaches all the way to the drowned causeway, and the dark mass of Eòghan's Cave. As a boy I could stand in Cormac’s kitchen and see the boundaries of my whole world.
Cormac’s house sits just outside of Towe on the farthest point of Mab, away from the larger villages and one ferry town where the tourists visit. It’s probably the most isolated spot on the island; even hikers and tourists barely pass by, despite the the sea stacks and causeway and general unsettling beauty of the place. It’s like there’s some kind of energy rolling off the coast saying “don’t come any closer, fuckers.”
I’ve always thought that was kind of the nature of Mab. The magic feels woven into the landscape and beaches, keeping itself and the folk who live here safe. It’s like a defence mechanism; it’s gorgeous to look at, but if you look too closely, it draws you in and drowns you.
According to Cormac, the magic comes from the Seelie that first settled the island. I never really believed that, though. Faeries are kind of cliche.
Living in Cormac’s house as a kid felt like living at the end of the earth. There’s only one other house at Eòghan's Point, but it’s farther down the hill, closer to the shore and just on the other side of the old fishing road. So when you approach Eòghan's Point from the main road — the only road that runs all the way through the entire island — Cormac’s house is the only one you can see, standing small and solitary above the ocean.
It’s also standing empty.
There are no lights or signs of life when Isla and I get off the bus at Eòghan's Point and head to my home, and everything is shut up tight.
“Owen?” I ask, knocking on the wind-stripped black door. “You home? It’s, uh, Thomas.”
It goes unanswered.
With a sigh, I scrounge for the key that Cormac kept on a piece of string above the door. It’s rusted from the salt air and it sticks in the lock, and for a moment I think the door won’t open.
“Shove over,” Isla mutters, elbowing me aside. She hasn’t spoken to me since the ferry, and in the dim grey light of the early morning, she looks exhausted. She cracks her neck to each side, and then throws her shoulder into the door.
The door screeches open into a house that smells stale. It’s not dusty or decrepit, but it is abandoned, and the hair on the back of my neck starts to pinprick the moment I cross the threshold.
The house is neat and tidy, but it feels like life just stopped. There’s nothing in the den except orderly stacks of cardboard boxes. Down the hall, my old bedroom looks exactly like it used to — one single bed shoved against the wall with the window, a crooked Talking Heads poster with one corner curling over. Books I haven’t seen in years are arranged on the shelf, and my tatty old Hungarian flag is still hanging by one pin.
Cormac’s room is the same as I remember it from childhood, even though he’s been dead for over six months. I don’t linger, because the smell of pipe tobacco and his awful cinnamon candies is so overpowering that my memory feels like it’s going to leak out my brains.
Taking a deep, steadying breath, I open the door to Kit’s room. A stripped double bed, one bare night stand, the door to the empty wardrobe hanging open. Picked clean. I keep my eyes from the rust coloured spots staining the green carpet in the far corner, and don’t go past the doorway.
“Kit definitely hasn’t been here,” I call, backing out of the bedroom and into the kitchen where Isla is waiting for me.
I was always envious of Kit’s room because it’s right in the heart of the house. It was his father’s before him, and probably Cormac’s at some point as well, and it has the best light and the biggest bed. It’s right off the kitchen where Kit and I used to congregate late at night when we were supposed to be in bed, hiding under the table with torches and books. And later, when we were older and Owen came to live with us, it’s where we would meet up to eat Nutella out of the jar and snort quietly, trying not to wake Cormac.
Owen dyed my hair green here when we were fifteen, and the dye seeped into the gnarled oak of the table and the pine floor and splattered across the walls. He said the kitchen looked like it had been hit by tree jizz.
It’s where Kit kissed me the first time, when I was seventeen and falling apart and he was the only thing in my world that made sense.
That’s not the kitchen I’m standing in now, though. The walls are the same, the furniture is the same, but something is different. Something feels off.
Things are flickering at the corner of my vision. There are dirty cups stacked in the sink, but when I look closer, it’s just a lone sunbeam. Boots kicked off by the door are actually a stack of boxes when I blink. Every corner seems to shudder with things that are there and not there. Like I’m looking through two worlds and seeing them collide.
“Kit doesn’t live here,” Isla says. She’s standing in the doorway, square in the frame of the green Dutch door that leads from the kitchen to the outside. Cormac marked our height there until we were eleven and then got too lazy to keep going once I started sprouting. There’s no height markers now, though. “He hasn’t lived here in years. He moved right after you left.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I feel slightly nauseated, like the walls are moving and the corners are crooked, but I know they’re not. It’s just me. It’s just whatever is wrong with me, it has to be. There’s no reason why a house could be wrong. I blink twice and shake my head. “Why didn’t we go straight to his house?”
“I thought we were,” she responds with a shrug. She seems completely unbothered by the fact that this house is flickering around us. “He lives just down the hill.”
Pushing aside the fact that Isla is apparently fine with casual breaking and entering, I try to focus back on the house. There’s a pressure building in my head and it feels like I’m moving through heavy jello as I head to the door. My movements are slow, delayed, like I’m being stuck in place.
This house is sticky.
I should check the loft where Owen slept — sleeps, maybe? When we last talked I was under the impression he was still living here — but nausea is rolling thick through my stomach, and the idea of climbing the ladder seems impossible. I’m stuck to the floor where I stand, and I’m struck with the absolute certainty that should I attempt to climb the loft, I’ll simply slide off like oil on water.
“Does this… does anything feel odd to you? Or different?” I choke out, reaching for the door. Isla steps away and down the cement steps and lands in the grass, and I stumble out after her. I feel like I’m pushing through a membrane to leave the house, but once my feet are on the stairs, I can breathe again.
I almost drop to my knees to gulp in the briney air, but I don’t go that far. I’m not that dramatic.
“No. I wouldn’t know, I’ve never been here. Do you feel magic? I mean, you did magic here, didn’t you?” Isla says, unwrapping a small packet of ginger biscuits that she must have dug out of a pantry. She bites into one with a loud crack, and then spits it out immediately, looking bereft.
“It’s stale,” she says quietly, like this is the biggest issue we’re facing today.
I survey the house behind me. The windows look like they’ve moved slightly to the left. The stain of dirt against the white roughcast is almost too deliberate. It’s my childhood home in broad strokes, but wrong in the details, like someone tried to recreate it from a picture but went too fast. Everything is just a bit squinty.
“Cormac never did magic like that,” I respond, shaking my head. “Don’t worry about it. It’s probably just my… condition.” I turn toward the sea and take another deep breath.
It’s a lie, though. My visions have never been like that before. I never feel them at all, not unless I’m dreaming. “Alright, where’s Kit’s house, then?”
Isla leads us to the sloping track that winds down the hill, skirting just along the edge of the cliff as it snakes around to the base of the shoreline. Cars don’t typically use this track, but I remember bumping along in Cormac’s old jeep one rainy night, speeding down to John Andrew’s house because he’d broken his leg and had called us for help.
That day was miserable. Cormac had given him a tonic that I’d made to ease the pain, but he wouldn’t fuck with the leg. The bone was sticking through the flesh and John was being stoic about it, but I wasn’t. One look at it gave me the boke, and Owen had to put his head between his legs. Only Kit was really able to handle the blood.
John’s house is the only one that sits on the trail this far down, so it has to be where Isla is leading me. Of course Kit would live in the loneliest house on the island. From down at the beach, you can’t even see Cormac’s house, or the lights from the village. All you can see at night are the stacks and the sea cave and the distant blinking of the lighthouse on the far side of the island.
“The tide is in,” Isla says, stopping suddenly. I skid a bit when I stop as well, and the dewy grass squeaks under my trainers.
“So, the tide is in,” she says, pointing to a patch of beach that’s under water. “It’s too early for high tide, isn’t it?”
“I dunno. It’s Mab. Things never work like they’re meant to here.”
“The tide always works the same way,” Isla grumbles, but begins to walk again.
“Did John move out?” I ask, surveying the sea and changing the topic. I’d forgotten that this walk feels like it takes years, and you just keep going until you see something other than grass and sea. Glasgow has spoiled me. I’m winded just going downhill.
“I don’t know who John is,” Isla responds. “But Kit rents the house at the bottom of the hill. I think the owner moved to Birth.”
“You mean Perth?”
When we reach the base of the track where the old, half-flooded fishing road picks up, the house comes into view. Small, made of grey stone and white roughcast walls, with a wee garden allotment ringed by a low stone and searock wall. There’s no back garden; it just leads down to the low sea wall that keeps the tide back.
If there were any question about whether Kit is living here, it’s answered when I see Cormac’s rusting blue jeep sitting in the dirt drive.
Aside from the traumatic ten minutes I spent staring at John Andrew’s busted leg, I’ve only really been in this house once, when I was twelve, the day that Owen came to live with us. Cormac had sent Kit and me out to play, but it was raining too heavily for us to make our usual wanders and the tide was in so we couldn’t cross the causeway to Eòghan's Cave. John had taken pity on us and let us sit in his kitchen and watch as he fixed lines and sharpened blades and retooled his fishing nets.
The house had stunk of tobacco and fish and the stale, mouldy scent of wood left by the sea too long, and I told Kit that I would rather chib myself in the eyeballs than spend an afternoon in there again. He had kicked me and told me to keep my voice down, before scrunching up his nose and nodding in agreement.
But now it’s unbearably cosy.
The detritus of the old tenant’s life has been cleared out and the house has been cleaned, but it doesn’t have the sterile, empty feel of my childhood home. Books litter the kitchen table, papers stacked neatly on top of them, and dried herbs and garlic hang over the windows and doors. A large jumper rests on the radiator to dry and there’s tiny signs of friendly life everywhere, from the half-eaten toast on the counter to the square faced tabby cat asleep in the window.
“Hob!” I exclaim, reaching over to the cat. He must be older than God by now — the cat has been around since before Kit or I were born — and from the look he gives me, he’s still just as mean as I remember. I love Hob. I missed him a lot.
“Careful, that thing bites,” Isla says, dropping her rucksack by the door. “It wouldn’t shut up when I was here the other day. I have no idea why he’d get a cat.”
“He was Cormac’s,” I respond, pulling my hand away from Hob seconds before he swipes out with a huge brown paw. “Kit must have taken him in when Cormac died.”
Isla stops in the middle of opening the bread bin and spins. Her wild black curls smack her in the face, and her round mouth is set in a soft frown.
“How did he die?” she asks quietly. Her tone makes me pause; she actually sounds sad. “I didn’t know he had, I was kind of worried something had happened to him too when I couldn’t find him. When did it happen?”
It occurs to me that she probably knew him. Kit probably introduced them. Cormac probably loved her. He loved rude people.
“About six months ago,” I respond, inspecting the rusty horseshoe that’s inexplicably tacked above the door to the bedroom. “I don’t know the details, really. Owen called me up, said Cormac had left me all his books and artefacts, but I was in Norway at the time so I didn’t come claim them.”
I never really planned to come claim my things, to be honest. I’d gotten Owen’s voicemail too late to come to the funeral, and when I called back I lied and said I’d come home soon. Then I hung up the phone, sat in the woods and had a wee cry, and went and had an exorcism.
It didn’t stick.
I pick up a book on the table and flip it over. It’s one of the magic books that used to be crammed into every empty spot of Cormac’s house. One of the books that was meant to come to me. Of course Kit just took them. He was always the reader, of the two of us. I never used to have the patience.
Not that it mattered much; Cormac was big on oral learning. His way of teaching magic was to tell you a forty minute story about Seelies stealing your name and scraping out your bones and then tell you to go scry using fish guts.
I poke around the kitchen, searching for any signs of a struggle, but it looks like an average day in Kit’s life. Boots kicked off by the door — probably done when he got back from his morning walk down at the coast — toast made, crusts torn off, partially eaten then abandoned. Mugs of half-drunk tea in the sink, and I know there will be at least two more forgotten on his bedside table, probably along with a packet of Rolos.
A wave of cold discomfort rolls through me. I hate this. I hate that I know these things, that I’m still so familiar with him and his life and his routines. I hate that nothing about him has changed, except for where he lives.
“Nothing looks disturbed,” I say finally, dropping the book back onto the table. The papers and notebooks are lined with Kit’s neat, even handwriting. Firm and sensible, nothing like my chicken scratch. It looks like he was researching something, taking notes, but—
“Through here,” Isla says, standing at a door off the kitchen. “The real shit show is in the bathroom.”
Maybe it’s because Isla has been talking like there was a massacre here, or maybe it’s because I live in a neverending nightmare factory, but the bathroom really isn’t that bad. She’s been a bit dramatic about it.
There is blood, though. Pooled on the white ceramic of the bathtub and smeared across the warped, flaking mirror in a streak that could only have been caused by a hand. But there’s not that much. Enough to be concerning, but not so much that this couldn’t have been caused by an accident.
I don’t think it was an accident, though. Kit isn’t particularly clumsy, and although he is messy… he’s not messy like this.
“Help me find something that you know is Kit’s DNA. Like a hair or something,” I tell Isla, bending down to inspect the blood more closely. I reach out to scratch a finger through it and it hums softly, like the electric crackle the precedes lightning.
I don’t think it’s Kit’s. His blood feels like thunder.
“Will this work?” Isla asks, reappearing with a hairbrush. It’s full of hair, and I carefully pull out one long black strand. Kit must have grown out his hair over the past few years.
I can’t really picture that.
“Stand outside,” I instruct, placing the hair on the edge of the tub and taking a deep breath. I’ve never done this spell before, but it’s rudimentary. Basic magic. No problem. Piece of piss.
“Why?” Isla asks, but she steps out of the room anyway, crosses her arms, and leans against the doorframe.
I ignore her, focusing instead on the strand and closing my eyes. Basic. Rudimentary.
Please work. Please work.
This is another time that I wish for the magical words and wands. But it’s never that easy. Magic is old. It’s wild and unknown, constantly contradictory and only partially compliant. Channelling magic is just… intuitive. Natural. Tapping into the basic spirit and idea of what you want to accomplish, hoping magic agrees to help, and nudging it along.
There are magicians like Fadwa who are more learned and have specific instructions for everything, who follow set steps, but I’ve never been able to pick that up. I’m not good at the activeness of magic, except for healing. I like the ideas behind it, though. The herbs and the meanings and the intentions. Fadwa calls it “folkloric magic”. Cormac just called it hedgewitchery.
Cormac always taught me to just feel my way around the magic, and I’ve muddled my way through. He said it’s how it should be done, how it used to be done — he said it’s how my parents did their magic.
I don’t know about that. I don’t remember their magic. So I guess I just took his word for it.
Picking up the strand, I crouch back over the tub and pull a lighter from my pocket. It takes me two tries to get it to light. When it does, I hold it up to the long black hair until the flame catches on the strand, and then I drop it to the blood.
The hair burns up neatly, and the blood doesn’t react.
“Is that it?” Isla asks, frowning. “Where’s the boom? Did you do it wrong?”
It’s entirely possible that I did do it wrong, but I’m not going to tell her that.
“Magic is kind of underwhelming, sorry,” I say with a shrug, and then roll my shoulders. I’ve a horrid crick in my neck. “I don’t think it’s his blood, though. It doesn’t feel like it.”
“I’m sorry, what—” she starts, but I cut her off.
“I think it’s more likely that it’s Owen’s, actually. It kind of sounds like him.”
“It sounds like him?”
“We need to track down Owen,” I say, standing up. “Worst case, he’s hurt. Best case, he’ll be able to give us some answers.”
“Look, I really don’t know who this person is,” Isla says, her face a mask of sheer annoyance. I think she’s getting sick of me. It’s somewhat mutual, but I’m at least trying to be nice. “Why don’t you just call him up and ask if he dropped a few litres of blood in Kit’s bathroom?”
“I don’t know his number, or I would,” I snap. He only ever called me from Cormac’s line, and we were never exactly text buddies. I don’t really text anyone but Fadwa, and that’s just her reminding me to drink water. “I thought he was living at Cormac’s house, but clearly no one is living there.”
“Who is he?” Isla demands. “This is the second time you’ve brought him up, but I swear, Kit never mentioned him. Neither did Cormac.”
I chew on my tongue. How do I explain Owen?
“He was our friend. I don’t know what Kit’s said, but Cormac raised me after my parents died when I was small. He was my father’s teacher. I’m sure you know that Kit’s dad did a bunk, so Cormac raised him too. Owen came and joined the pack when we were twelve. It was like a wee wayward home for boys, you could say. We were all… close.”
“What happened to his parents?”
I pause and try to dig through my memories. Owen didn’t talk about himself much, and he sort of dodged the question when it came up. We never pressed, though; Kit always figured there was something bad behind him. We didn’t want to make him relive it.
“I… I don’t know, actually. Cormac never told us. But it didn’t matter. We were all best friends; I can’t believe that Kit never mentioned him. I know they stayed close, even after…” I pause. “After I left.”
Isla doesn’t look amused. I think even her freckles are starting to look annoyed at me.
“Is he a magician? Could he help?”
“What? No,” I say, shaking my head and trying not to be offended at how easily Isla is trying to swap me out for someone better. Honestly, I’m not sure if I’d actually mind. Being back home is making me deeply uncomfortable. “No, Owen is human. Totally normal. Makes a mean egg, but no magic.”
“Alright, then he’s not really a priority for me,” Isla responds, turning and marching out of the bathroom. “Let’s stop wasting time and work on a spell or something. You can track people magically, right?”
“Uh, kind of. I’ll need a map, I think we should start with searching the island, because that’s most likely—”
I grunt as Isla grabs a rolled up map from the table and shoves it into my arms.
“I found this before I left. Thought it might be useful. So, go on, do it.”
I don’t particularly like being made to do magic on command, like it’s some kind of party trick or easy thing I can whip out. Fadwa probably could. Rimi and Resha definitely could, the wee monsters. But the whole thing makes me feel a tad queasy.
There’s also the fact that I haven’t seen a nightmare creature once or had a single vision since getting to Mab, and the absence of them is almost more terrifying than the actual monsters. They tend to react to magic, though. So I imagine I’ll be seeing one soon.
“I need salt,” I tell her, rolling the map out on the floor of the kitchen and sitting cross legged in front of it. From this angle I can see a roll of cat fur under the table, and that Kit needs to clean jam off his lower cabinets.
This doesn’t exactly feel like the kind of place one does magic.
Isla passes me a tub of Saxa and collapses to the floor. She hasn’t even taken off the parka I gave her; she looks ready to jump up at any moment and kick the shite out of this mystery with her too-big boots.
“I’ll need a knife as well. Sharp,” I add. Isla huffs, but complies quickly, handing me a steak knife that doesn’t look all that sharp. Lovely.
I take a deep breath, then put the knife to the palm of my hand and push.
“Don’t!” Isla exclaims, leaning forward, but it’s too late. I’ve already broken the skin, and I pull the blade down as quickly as I can to make a gash.
Isla looks away and scrunches up her face.
“Don’t like blood, eh?” I ask with a grin, uncapping the salt with one hand and shaking it out into my other. I hiss as the salt seeps into my open wound, and Isla blanches. “Here’s a tip: don’t hang around with magicians. Most magic requires some kind of sacrifice, and blood is usually the easiest.”
At least I’ve done this spell before. Kit and I did it once, when I was fourteen and we were positive Owen was sneaking out with my girlfriend at the time. He wasn’t. He was just sitting on the hill above Eòghan's Cave. It was actually kind of humiliating when we realised we were wrong. We never told him about that.
Once the salt in my hand is stained through red, I close my eyes and sprinkle it on the map.
Kit. Kit. Find me Kit.
The salt begins smoking. It shouldn’t be doing that, not if —
The map goes up in a sudden burst of flames, the paper shrivelling in on itself and disappearing, leaving only a smoking, smouldering mess on the lino of the kitchen floor.
“That’s more like it,” Isla says, her face gleaming as she leans forward to inspect the ash. Her excitement falls as she surveys the mess, and her eyes narrow. “What does it mean?” She glares up at me. “Did you cock it up?”
“I don’t understand,” I murmur, poking through the remains of the map. That really shouldn’t have happened. I shake my head in confusion. “It’s meant to burn a hole through wherever he is. Not set the entire map on fire. He can’t be all over the island.”
“What if he’s not on the island? Or what if he’s…” Isla trails off, her annoyed expression gone, her face suddenly soft. Her eyes grow wide and suspiciously watery.
“It would tell me if he were dead,” I say, bluntly. “And if he were off island, nothing would have happened. I don’t know what to tell you, but this is weird.”
“Well, do it again. Make sure he’s not dead.”
I close my eyes and sit back on my heels and take a deep, steadying breath.
“I can do a rite specifically to see if he’s dead,” I say, and then immediately hold up a hand as she opens her mouth. “But not now. That takes a lot of energy, and I’m knackered as it is.”
Isla doesn’t like this answer. She’s disappointed by me, I can tell. I know I’m not what she expected from a magician, but I can’t help it. This stuff — the big, exciting things — that’s never been my forte. I’ve never really needed it.
Being a magician has always been a pretty minor part of my identity, all things considered.
“Fine,” Isla says, and gets to her feet. “Let’s find this Owen cow. Do you know any possible way to contact him?”
“No,” I say, feeling a flash of guilt. I really should be better at staying in touch. He was my best friend once. Well, one of them. “No, I don’t, but I know someone who would.”
I get to my feet as well and dust my bloody hands off on my trousers. I should pick up the smoking pile of paper in the middle of the floor, but Isla may kill me if I dawdle.
“Right, I hope you’re up for a wee walk, because I don’t know how to drive. The pub’s not too far, but we’ve got to get back up the hill first.”
“Pub?” Isla asks, already picking up her rucksack. Instead of putting it on, however, she bends down and shoves it into the cupboard under the sink, nestling it firmly behind a pipe. That doesn’t seem like a very safe space for her most prized possession, but I don’t point it out.
“Uh, it’s like a bar. Where you drink. And eat food,” I say, shifting. Isla turns on me, one eyebrow raised.
She thinks I’m an absolute fucking idiot.
“I know what a pub is, you wankstain,” she says with a sigh. “I was just wondering why we were going there. Are we going to eat?”
“Er, sure, I suppose we can eat.”
Isla’s eyes light up, and she lets out an actual, real life sigh of pleasure.
“Beautiful. Let’s go.”
I pull my jacket back on and go to open the door for her.
“Why can’t you drive?” she asks, shouldering by me and giving a leap off the concrete stoop. She lands with a confident thud, knees bent like she’s just jumped off a building instead of one wee step.
“I never learnt,” I say, digging around for my cigarettes. My head feels hazy and heavy, and I need to reset my system.
“How do you live in a place like this and not drive?” Isla asks, coughing as the cigarette flares to life. She moves around to walk on my other side, out of the smoke.
“I took the bus. Or my friends drove me. ”
Isla stares me down.
“My mum’s husband used to call people like that ‘freeloaders’, you know.”
“Your mum’s husband sounds like he voted for Brexit.”
Isla frowns at me in confusion as I take a long pull of the cigarette and point to the rusted death mobile that is Cormac’s jeep.
“Car’s right there. Feel free to teach yourself and drive us to the village, then.”
Isla inspects the jeep with narrowed brown eyes, and I can literally see her weighing the pros and cons.
“Nah,” she says finally. “It’d take too long. Just lead the way, stick man.”