Never mess with the relics of the old gods… or the pixies who once guarded them.
After her mom’s disappearance six months ago, Bethany Aodhán has been running their tavern in old Deva—something her family had been doing ever since a light-fingered pixie lost them the job of guarding the treasures of the old gods eons ago.
Then her brother, Lugh, is attacked, his best friend murdered, and the tavern firebombed. A confrontation with a former lover leads to the discovery of another murder and a missing jewel from a godly relic, and Beth learns that the Éadrom Hoard—one of three godly hoards now guarded by the elves—has been stolen.
But this is no ordinary theft. Darker forces are at work, and they’re not only seeking the means to resurrect a god of destruction but the power to forever banish daylight. That power lay with Agrona’s Claws—three godly artifacts that, when used together, give the user full control over night itself.
With the webs of suspicion drawing ever tighter around them, Beth & Lugh—with the help of two sexy elves and a cantankerous old goddess who knows far more than she admits—race to find the missing artifacts before those intent on unleashing chaos.
It’s a race they must win, because it’s not just their lives on the line, but the fate of modern-day England.
CROWN OF SHADOWS, the first novel in the Relic Hunters series by NY Times bestselling urban fantasy author Keri Arthur.
Crown of Shadows by Keri Arthur
SERIES Relic Hunters | GENRE Adult Urban Fantasy
PUBLISHER Independent | PUBLICATION DATE February 22, 2022
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CROWN OF SHADOWS
A Relic Hunters Novel
© 2022 Keri Arthur
If you believed traditional folklore, pixies were short folk blessed with a love of dancing, a fondness for stealing, and a penchant for leading travelers astray. Some believed we had pointed ears and wings, while others declared we were green of skin and clothes.
Absolutely no one ever painted a pixie as a six-foot-six bear of a man with short but unruly red hair and eyes the color of frost-kissed grass.
“Bethany, my darling,” he said as he stumbled down the tavern’s old wooden entry steps and then staggered sideways into a table. Wood splintered under the impact, but he either didn’t notice or didn’t care. “It’s been ages since we’ve seen each other.”
“It’s been a whole week.” I crossed my arms and regarded my brother from behind the relative safety of the bar. “I thought you’d given up drinking?”
“I have.” He lowered his voice and dramatically added, “Nary a drop has touched my lips since All Hallows’ Eve.”
Meaning he’d lasted nearly a month and a half. Which, if I was being at all honest, was something of a record for him.
He crashed into another table and then tipped over several chairs. I briefly considered going out to help him—maybe directing him onto a chair rather than into them—but he was ten inches taller than me and twice my width. If he toppled, he’d not only take me with him, but damn near crush me.
“So if this”—I waved a hand at his unsteady progress forward—“is not drunk, then what the hell is it?”
“This is … I don’t know what this is.”
I raised an eyebrow, absolutely not believing a word. My brother was capable of many things, but lying well wasn’t one of them.
He slapped a hand on his chest, the sound echoing through the tavern’s shadowed stillness. “I swear—on our sainted mother’s soul—that I have not had a drink tonight.”
Our mother had been no closer to sainthood than one of the shadow folk, but he’d never make such a declaration if it weren’t true.
He crashed again, this time driving a table into one of five sturdy oak posts that basically held up the place. The table shattered, and he crashed to the floor in an ungainly heap.
“Up,” he muttered, suddenly sounding a whole lot more sober and serious. “Help me up. I need to leave.”
“When you’ve only just gotten here? This has to be a record for sibling visits, Lugh.”
“It’s not a visit. I was just taking a shortcut.”
“To the lane? Why?”
“Easier to get lost.”
“And why do you need to get lost? What have you done this time?”
He waved the question away and, with a low growl, rolled onto all fours and made a somewhat ungainly attempt to rise. He didn’t succeed.
“Damn it, Lugh, will you just stay down? I’ll get you some coffee to dilute whatever the hell this is—”
“It won’t help.”
A statement that said he at least suspected what was happening to him, despite his earlier disclaimer.
He slapped a hand against the oak post, and an odd sort of a shiver went through the building. I briefly raised my gaze, studying the old beams as dust rained down. It almost looked as if the smoke-stained floorboards above our heads were crying, and, in some respects, that wasn’t far from the truth. It wasn’t only the two branches of elves—light and dark—that had some form of rapport with nature. We pixies did as well, and for our particular branch, it was trees. Whether they were alive or dead, in the forest or in furniture, didn’t matter; we could manipulate it all. That oak post—and indeed the entire structure of the building—had reacted to the unintended fierceness behind the blow.
“Up,” he repeated. “I must get up.”
I rolled my eyes and came out from behind the bar. Obviously, he wasn’t in a sensible sort of mood tonight. If I didn’t act, I might not have a tavern left in the morning. And this place—which Mom had renamed Ye Olde Pixie Boots when ownership had passed to her a hundred or so years ago—was not only right in the medieval heart of Deva’s walled town and one of the oldest in Cheshire County, but part of the heritage listed Deva Rows. Its destruction would lead to all sorts of dramas with the local heritage council, and we were still in their bad books after Gran had made an illegal extension to the roof structure—one that had made the third floor livable for us taller folk—some one hundred and fifty years ago.
Lugh waved in my general direction. “A little help here, if you please.”
I gripped his hand but didn’t help him up. Instead, I stepped closer and pressed my fingertips into his shoulder. He might be ten inches taller and physically stronger than me, but pixie women had one advantage over our male counterparts: an ancient goddess had blessed us with the so-called six gifts of womanhood—beauty, a gentle voice, sweet words, wisdom, needlework, and chastity.
Of course, the women in our particular branch of the pixie tree had apparently gone into hiding when most of those womanly accomplishments were being handed out—especially the whole chastity thing. The only virtue we really could claim was a variation on the gentle voice and sweet words theme—we could calm people down with our voice and our touch.
It was a very handy gift to have when running a tavern that served all races, though it wasn’t exactly a cure-all when it came to fights. Humans and shifters were easily swayed, as were the bulk of those who came under the fae umbrella—faerie, other pixies, dwarves, and most of the night folk—but it was a very different story when it came to the two branches of elves. For one, they had an intense dislike of each other and weren’t easily distracted when things got inflamed; two, neither could truly hold their alcohol; and three, they were immune to our wiles. It made for some interesting evenings when things inevitably got heated.
Which was one of the reasons I usually wore my knives when working.
“Lugh, please stop trying to get up and just sit still.” My voice was soft and melodic, filled with magic as powerful as it was old. “I’ll go make you a coffee and then we’ll sort out the problem, whatever the problem is this time.”
“Damn it, Beth, don’t you dare magic me.”
“Too late, brother mine. Now sit back against that pole while I go get your coffee.”
“Damn it,” he repeated, even as he obeyed. “I hate it when you do this to me.”
I smiled, but concern rose. His skin had gained a sheen that really didn’t look healthy. He might not be drunk, but something was definitely wrong.
“I’d love to say I’m sorry,” I said, keeping my voice even, “but I’m not.”
“You are so like Mom sometimes, it’s scary.”
“Thanks for the compliment.” I patted his shoulder lightly. “Tell me what happened tonight.”
“What happened to the coffee?”
“Your skin is gray. I want to know why.”
“Later. Go lock the front door. And then you’d better ring Darby.”
Those slivers of concern deepened. Darby was a longtime friend of mine, an elf healer who specialized in poisons.
“Just do what I ask. Door first.”
I spun on a heel and strode toward the front steps, the old floorboards bouncing lightly under each step. “Why is locking the door so vital? Shifters patrol the tourist quarter, not human cops. No sane thief or thug will be out looking for mischief.”
“It’s not the sane thieves and thugs I’m worried about.”
A smile twitched my lips, despite the deepening concern. “Does that mean an insane one crossed your path tonight?”
“No. Just lock the damn door.”
I raised my eyebrows at the edge in his voice but didn’t say anything. But as I neared the heavy oak door, a shadow crossed the leaded glass windows to the right. I paused, unease prickling across my skin. There was something very odd about that shadow—something misshapen and grotesque.
“Lugh,” I asked softly, “were you followed here?”
“For your sake, I hope not.”
I glanced around. His gaze wasn’t on me but rather the window, and the frosted green depths of his eyes ran deep with worry. It only reinforced the suspicion that he knew exactly what was happening.
“Hope?” I said, voice still deliberately light. “Since when does an antiquarian ever rely on hope?”
“Since things went ass up four nights ago. Lock the door.”
I slid the old iron bolt into place, then dropped the wooden latch. Though the shadow had disappeared, I didn’t feel any safer.
Whatever that thing was, I had a bad feeling it wasn’t going to be stopped by the door’s medieval hardware. Whether the strings of magic that protected the building from unauthorized out-of-hours entry would hold was a question I fervently hoped we didn’t get an answer to.
“Now ring Darby.”
The drunken lilt remained in his voice, but it was pretty obvious now that it had nothing to do with alcohol. I tugged my phone out of the rear pocket of my leather shorts—which, along with the leather-and-lace corset, thick woolen leggings, and pointed leather boots, were all part of the tavern’s “gimmick” to attract tourists. The other part was the multitude of bright-colored “pixie” boots hanging from the ceiling’s beams—some of which were real but most simply playing to tourist expectations.
Hey Darby, I sent, are you able to come to The Boot and check Lugh for me? Now, I mean?
Her reply was almost instant—Sure, can be there in ten.
A smile tugged at my lips. Darby had always fancied my brother, even if he generally considered her nothing more than another kid sister, and an annoying one at that.
Use the lane entrance, I sent. There might be problems out front.
Has Lugh stolen something he shouldn’t have again?
Not sure. Maybe. Theft was an unwritten and unofficially approved part of his job at the National Fae Museum, after all, and a good third of the artifacts now held within the museum’s hallowed halls hadn’t been legally procured. Of course, said artifacts had often been initially stolen from the original owners—and from the old gods, in some cases—and then sold on to private collectors. To quote my brother, the thefts his small team indulged in were really nothing more than a righting of past wrongs. And when it came to the artifacts of the old gods? Well, many of them were simply too powerful or too dangerous to be in the hands of private collectors who had no clue as to what they were really dealing with.
Best put your knives on then, just in case his problems followed to your place, Darby sent. I’ll see you soon.
My gaze returned to the window, and unease stirred again. I shoved the phone back into my pocket, then walked over to the bar. While we did have a proper coffee machine in the kitchen, I’d only just finished cleaning the thing, and there was no way I was going to fire everything up for a couple of black coffees. I grabbed the old kettle we kept under the bar for emergencies, topped it up with water, then plugged it in and turned it on.
“Darby on the way?” Lugh asked.
“Yes. Who poisoned you?”
“Don’t know.” He scraped a hand through his already unruly hair. “I really shouldn’t stay here, Beth. It’s dangerous.”
“So is being poisoned. Who did it?”
“Then where did it happen?”
“I was approaching The Cross from Watergate Street when I felt a shadow slip behind me, so it most likely happened then.”
The Cross was a monument that stood at the center junction of the four main streets within medieval Deva. It wasn’t an actual cross, but rather a red sandstone shaft topped by a crown, a finial, and a ball. The wide, three-stepped plinth was used as seating by tourists and pigeons alike.
“The problem with that statement is the fact shadow folk can’t cross into our world when there’s a full moon.”
The shadow folk generally weren’t the monsters or demons that many believed, but rather an offshoot of fae who lived in Annwfyn—the lands beyond, or Otherworld as some also called it. It was a place that existed alongside and yet apart from our world, with the two being joined by bridges of darkness. Humans often referred to Annwfyn as either the home of the gods or the dead, but in truth it was neither. It might be a world of permanent twilight, but it wasn’t an incarnation of hell and, from what we could discern, really not all that different from our own world.
Of course, the Annwfyn were also fierce warrior hunters and considered human, elves, and the like something of a delicacy.
“So legend would have us believe,” Lugh was saying, “but there have been multiple examples over the centuries speaking to the falseness of that.”
“Even so, why would they be targeting you? They usually prefer easier game.”
The kettle boiled, so I made our coffees, then grabbed my knives out of the still open safe. The old gods had gifted them to my family back in the days when we’d been their guardians and, as such, they could only be used by someone from our bloodline. They’d also been blessed by multiple goddesses, which made them a very effective counter to all sorts of magic—and maybe even certain gods, if the legends were to be believed.
Of course, in this day and age, old gods weren’t such a problem, given most had left long ago, but the wickedly curved blades were made of silver, and that always made the most aggressive shifter or fae think twice about tackling me. No matter how clever their fabled healers were, not even elves could easily fix a wound made by blessed silver.
“Until recently, I would have agreed,” he said heavily.
“Seriously, can you stop dribbling out bits of information and just get to the point? What the hell happened four nights ago, and what has it to do with you being poisoned tonight?”
I slammed the safe door closed with my foot and carried the two drinks over. He accepted his with a nod. The gray sheen, I noted, was worse.
“Nialle was murdered four nights ago. I think they’re now after me, but in a more subtle manner.”
I stared at him for a moment, then dropped hard onto a nearby chair. I’d known Nialle for most of my life—he’d gone through boarding school with Lugh and had often come here during school breaks rather than go home to his family’s estate when his parents were either overseas or in London.
“How come you’ve not said anything until now?”
“I didn’t want to get you involved.”
“Then you shouldn’t have taken a shortcut through my tavern. Besides, telling me he’s dead doesn’t get me involved.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Doesn’t it? So you’re not already plotting ways and means of uncovering how he died and who’s responsible?”
“But only because you haven’t had the chance to as yet.”
That was a truth I couldn’t deny, and the amusement creasing the corners of Lugh’s eyes said he was well aware of that fact. I took a sip of coffee and then said, “Was he also poisoned?”
“No. Beaten and then knifed.”
I blinked, then scraped a hand across my eyes. My fingers came away wet. Poor Nialle. He’d been a gentle soul and certainly hadn’t deserved such an ugly death. “Do you have any idea why?”
Lugh reached into the front pocket of his jeans and pulled out what looked to be a simple black stone. “It might have something to do with this.”
I carefully plucked the stone from his fingertips. Power caressed my skin, and something within sparked to life. Visions rose—visions that spoke of fire and darkness, bloody death, and deep deceit. Surprise hit, along with thick trepidation, and the urge to throw the stone away was so damn strong I actually half raised my hand before I stopped it.
While second sight did run in the family, it was something that had never truly plagued me. Mom used to get visions at annoyingly regular intervals, however, including one on the day she’d gone missing.
Had this stone somehow stirred that dormant ability to life? If so, how? And why did I get a bad feeling that this was just the beginning?
I rolled it around my fingers uneasily. “What is it?”
“Some sort of key, I think.”
My gaze shot to his. “What sort of weird-ass lock uses a black stone as a key?”
“A lock made by the old gods.”
Which might well explain the deep thrum of power evident within the stone’s black heart, but not the images I’d seen.
“It’s black, so if it was a key, it would have to belong to a god or goddess of night.” Light ripped jaggedly through its heart as I spoke, its color a deep, dark purple. “So if you have this key, why was Nialle killed?”
“Because I think he stole it and then posted it to me for safekeeping while he made his way back to England.”
“Think? You’re not sure?”
“The address was typed rather than written, but who else could it have been from?”
I suspected that was a question we’d be seeking an answer to sooner rather than later. “Where was it posted?”
“Nialle was in France, so likely from there.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Does that mean he didn’t return home immediately? He’d have gotten here quicker than the mail, otherwise.”
“He did, and that’s probably the only reason we still have the key. My place was ransacked the same night he was murdered.”
I dropped my gaze to the stone. Power hummed deep in its heart, and it whispered of death and darkness. Some godly artifacts were cursed rather than blessed, and those who handled them were often dealt a swift death. If this was one of them, well … maybe I’d better start getting my affairs in order.
“He obviously suspected he was being watched if he sent this to you,” I said. “Was there a note with it? Something that might explain where it had come from or what it might lead to?”
“There was, though it was somewhat enigmatic.” Lugh reached into his other pocket and handed me a small, crumpled envelope. “But the stone has to be connected. He’s been working on a case for over six months now, and his trip to France was the first time in ages he’d pulled his nose from the parchments in the museum’s crypts.”
Which did not contain coffins or bodies, although there were some lovely religious relics in the crypts’ older sections. What they did hold were all the precious artifacts that weren’t currently on display, as well as those that were simply too dangerous to be placed in front of the general public.
I put my coffee on the floor, then opened the crumpled envelope and pulled out a small piece of parchment—the real stuff, made out of old skins. My gaze shot back to Lugh’s. “Parchment? Actual vellum parchment? Did he make a habit of using it for notes?”
Lugh nodded. “He made the stuff in his spare time.”
“He did? Not in his apartment, I hope, because eww.”
Lugh smiled. “No, he owned an offsite factory.”
“But … why?”
“Because there’s a demand for it, believe it or not.”
I glanced down at the note. That which seeks darkness also draws it, it said. Use the Eye only when it calls.
“The Eye? Why would he call it that if it’s a key?”
“I have no idea.”
“But the writing is his? Because it looks a little too spidery to me.”
“It can get that way when he’s in a hurry.”
He wasn’t sure, in other words. I replaced the note and then smoothed the envelope out on my knee. “Lugh, this isn’t addressed to either of us.”
And it had been sent to the tavern’s post office box rather than his home address, which was odd.
“Yeah, but he could have done that to throw people off the scent.”
People meaning his murderers, no doubt. “There isn’t a postmark, either.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time mail has somehow skipped being postmarked properly. Besides, he was dead by the time this arrived, so it couldn’t have been hand delivered.”
“Why not? He could have given it to someone else to deliver if something happened to him. Someone he trusted.”
“He didn’t even talk to his parents about his research; he certainly wouldn’t have trusted the delivery of something like this to a stranger.”
I folded the envelope and handed it back. “So, no one else other than you knew what he was working on?”
“Don’t you have to make progress reports to the higher-ups at the museum?”
“We run pretty autonomously these days. Makes it easier for the museum to disclaim any responsibility if things go ass up.”
Which was one way of describing murder. I rolled the stone around my fingers, feeling the caress of its energy and the hint of deeper, darker secrets. “I take it you think the scrolls led him to the location of this stone?”
Lugh nodded and drank some coffee. His color did not improve. I pushed down the growing wash of fear and added, “What was he researching?”
I raised my eyebrows. “There’s a goddess called Agrona?”
He nodded again. “She’s an ancient Celtic deity who was apparently responsible for eternal rest and warfare.”
“The whole death and destruction field is definitely a crowded one when it comes to the old gods, isn’t it? You’d think one or two of them would have branched out and done something different.”
He smiled, but it was a pale echo of its usually robust self. “It’s more a case of new civilizations rising from the ashes of the old renaming the various gods or goddesses to suit their own beliefs.”
“A fact that doesn’t make it any less confusing.” I drank some coffee. “I take it Nialle’s research notes are missing?”
“I’d presume so, but I haven’t been able to get into his apartment to check yet.”
I frowned. “You didn’t find the body?”
“No, his girlfriend did. She did ask if I could go in and see what’s missing, but at this point, I haven’t been given permission.”
“Why not? I’d have thought that would be a priority in any murder investigation. Who’s leading it?”
The Eldritch were a small but specialized offshoot of the Interspecies Investigation Team that were called in on murders resulting from a strange or magical means.
“But Nialle was knifed, so that should have put him beyond their purview.”
“Yes, but his apartment wasn’t broken into, and the security cameras outside showed no sign of anyone coming or going. There was no trace of magic or electronic manipulation on any of the door or window locks, and no indication the security cams had been accessed or tampered with.”
Sweat now dribbled down the side of his face, and his breathing was becoming labored. I glanced at the old clock sitting on the wall behind the bar; three more minutes before Darby got here.
Fear strengthened, but once again I did my best to ignore it. Pixies—or at least our branch of them—were damnably hard to kill, thanks to the fact that the old gods had always favored us. No one had really been able to explain why we’d been so blessed, but Gran had always theorized it was because godly blood ran in both the Aodhán and Tàileach lines. It was the reason we were the two tallest branches of pixies, and also lay behind our being the guards of choice for gods and kings. Until, that is, an ill-advised theft by a Tàileach had cast both lines out of a job. They, of course, blamed us, and knowing my family tree I actually wouldn’t have been at all surprised if that were true.
“Was there any sort of power failure? Were the street or apartment lights off?”
He shook his head. “Both were fully lit.”
Which should have discounted the possibility of his murderer being someone from Annwfyn … and yet it hadn’t stopped the attack on Lugh tonight. If that’s who’d crossed behind him. It was possible it had simply been someone using magic to conceal his or her presence. Fae folk might in general be sensitive to the presence of magic, but that sense was not infallible—especially if we were in a hurry or our minds were elsewhere. And Lugh’s obviously had been. He’d been an antiquarian for a long time now; keeping alert during a hunt or a rehoming job was second nature.
A gentle tremor ran through the floorboards under my feet, an indication that someone walked across the rear veranda, heading for the security door. I tensed, but a heartbeat later heard the soft beeps of someone entering the code and relaxed. Only a handful of people knew that code, and only one person had any reason to be here at two in the morning.
Darby appeared a minute later. She was typically light elf in look—tall and slender, with long, pale-gold hair platted into a thick rope that ran down her spine and eyes the color of summer skies. Her features were sharp but ethereally beautiful, and she moved with a lightness and grace I could never hope to achieve.
She and I had been friends for a long time now, and it never ceased to amaze me that she and Lugh had never gotten together. Granted, the eleven-year difference in age between Lugh and I did mean it hadn’t been practical when we were in our teens, but those years were well past us all. There was a very obvious attraction between them, and she’d certainly made it abundantly clear she’d happily participate in any sort of sexual encounter he desired.
For some reason, he just didn’t desire, though I’d recently caught him studying her speculatively when he thought no one was looking.
KERI ARTHUR, author of the New York Times bestselling Riley Jenson Guardian series, has now written more than forty novels. She’s received several nominations in the Best Contemporary Paranormal category of the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Awards and has won RT’s Career Achievement Award for urban fantasy. She lives with her daughter in Melbourne, Australia.