Return to Sue Lynn Tan’s highly acclaimed, bestselling Celestial Kingdom fantasy romance duology with a new compilation of stories–Tales of the Celestial Kingdom publishes February 6th with Harper Voyager. We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from “Battle with the Bone Devil”, along with accompanying illustrations by acclaimed artist, Kelly Chong.
文智: Battle with the Bone Devil
The lake was encircled by ancient pine trees. They reminded me of my home—my courtyard, always fragrant with their woody scent. Except here, the rust-colored bark was veined in gray like a web of shadow had been strewn across it. Their feathery needles glinted as though tipped in iron, clinking ominously as the wind blew.
Unease darted across the back of my neck before it was swiftly extinguished. The futility of fear lay in slowing the hand and dulling the mind, when one most needed them. I had grown accustomed to numbing myself to it, to give it no place—as I had courted danger for long as I’d wielded a sword. It did not matter what form an enemy took, they wanted the same thing: their victory in exchange for my defeat. I would deny them all. To some it was a game, a toss of the coin—but in my childhood, one slip could mean death. There was little room for mistake, for misplaced trust and flawed judgement… though it had not deterred me from entering the fray.
If one did not play, one could never win.
There was little joy in what I did, despite my accomplishments. It was easy to forget the beauty in the realm, its wonder, when one was mired in despair and death. But I would not falter now, when the end was in sight—everything I had planned and striven for all these years. There would be time enough for the pleasures of the world when I had secured my place in it, along with the safety of those who relied upon me.
“Is this the Bone Devil’s hideout?”
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Xingyin’s voice broke through my thoughts. She stood beside me, her dark eyes moving from side to side, assessing the terrain. There was no trace of anxiety; her spirit as steady as her aim. We were alike that way, holding our ground, making our way without need of another—it was one of the reasons I trusted her. While she bore secrets of her own, they did not overly concern me for her honor shone clear.
Unlike yours, my conscience whispered before I silenced it.
“The bodies were found not far from here, drained of their lifeforce and blood. One of the victims was still alive when our scouts found him,” I recounted. “The creature is hungry, after being imprisoned for so long.”
She frowned. “How did it escape? I thought Celestial prisons were impenetrable. Impossible to escape from.”
“They are. The worst Celestial prisons are windowless pits of hell. Most prisoners lose their minds after a few decades. Each is held captive in a unique way, fashioned for them alone, in the most torturous and suffocating of binds.” I spoke slowly, wanting the words to sink in.
Her lips curled with revulsion. “Even monsters deserve mercy.”
Even demons, I wanted to say. I’d told her this story in part calculation, to show her Celestials hands were not as pristine as they wanted the rest of the realm to believe. They could be cruel too, except they concealed it better, shaping the truth to favor them alone.
“The Bone Devil meditated for centuries to strengthen its power. It possessed a secret trait that we discovered too late—that once it advanced to the next stage of its magic, it could morph into a new form, one that rendered its existing binds useless.”
She frowned. “Is the creature more powerful than when it was first captured?”
“Unfortunately, yes.” I raised my voice so the others would hear. “The Bone Devil cannot be allowed to escape again. It’s out for vengeance, viciously killing all who cross its path. Its magic is strong, as its physical form, and it moves like the wind. A single puncture from its fangs and claws will inflict grave injuries.”
“How many victims did it claim this time?” Xingyin sounded tense, bracing for the worst.
“Ten. Two were children.” Anger seethed in my gut at the creature’s wickedness. Death was a soldier’s shadow, but the slaughter of innocents sickened me still.
Her mouth thinned. “It will pay.”
“We will make sure of it.” I nodded toward the tallest of the six soldiers, the one who stood closest to me. “Soldier Yang, stay here with the others, and take the lead. All of you must weave your wards around the lake. The Bone Devil does not like water for it obscures its senses, and this will help conceal our magic once we lure it here. Stay hidden, until commanded otherwise, and hold your shields firmly so the creature cannot escape.”
The soldier bowed, though a frown marred his seeming compliance.
“Speak freely, Soldier Yang,” I told him.
“Why must we stay hidden?” he blurted.
“If the Bone Devil can’t see you, he can’t attack you. The wards will be safe.”
The soldier’s frown deepened when another, more battle weary, might have rejoiced. “But if we stay hidden, how will we kill it?”
“That falls to the First Archer and me.” I inclined my head toward Xingyin.
As the soldier glanced at her, his lips pursed in seeming disdain. My jaw tightened as I fought back the protectiveness that had risen in me since Xingyin’s near death at the hands of Governor Renyu. The memory seared, it always did—and how I wished I’d killed him that day. It had taken every bit of my willpower not to strike the final blow. When I had returned to the tent to find her on the brink of death—yet not a victim, for she was never one—something in me had snapped. A primal urge reared, to destroy the one who had hurt her. The emotion evoked had been so strong, it disconcerted me. I had always respected her skill and intelligence, even as I found myself intrigued by her. The more time I spent with her, the stronger the sensation grew, awakening new and inconvenient ones: the reluctance at having to deceive her, resentment when sadness clouded her face, knowing she was thinking of the Celestial who had broken her heart. A lift in my chest when she yielded one of her rare smiles.
I did not like this. Emotions were unpredictable—perilous, in my situation. Xingyin might despise me if she knew the truth of my heritage. While she did not seem blindly loyal to the Celestial Kingdom, she would not look lightly upon my deceit and the role I had to play here. My instincts cautioned me to wait, to learn what she was concealing—I knew the signs having studied them myself. While I was curious, it would change nothing about my regard for her.
Until then, I would keep my silence. I would not jeopardize all I had fought for, no matter the temptation. I would bide my time, earn her trust. She might rage upon learning the truth—but over time, she would understand. Our connection went deeper than such matters.
I had not lied about my background; rather, I’d omitted certain facts. Yet with her, I had always been my true self. I would not willingly deceive her about who I really was, not in the way that mattered. For we were cut of the same cloth, of the same stubborn and unflinching nature—and we would either soar to new heights or destroy each other.
Never the latter, I swore, for I would win her to my side.
Not just because she would be a useful pawn or powerful ally, although there was truth in both. In the beginning, I’d wanted to keep her close for those reasons, after witnessing her unexpected bond with the Jade Dragon Bow. If I delivered both the legendary weapon and its wielder to my father, I would earn his favor, securing my place as his heir. Only then, would my mother and those under my protection be safe, for my accursed brother would no longer be able to threaten them.
This was what I had worked so hard toward, I could not rest till I had achieved it. But while my ambition remained the same, my path had shifted. The thought of my father using Xingyin for his own ends repelled me. Despite her innate strength, her refusal would not matter for he could bend her mind, manipulate her to do his bidding. Few could match his skill in those arts. My stomach turned, not just because of my inherent distaste for this use of our magic, but because deep down, I did not want her to change… even if her changing meant she would be mine.
No, I wanted her to remain who she was, to come to me of her own will. It would be a hollow victory otherwise—a meaningless one. I resolved then to never tell Father of her gift, to keep her and her secret safe. And if it came down to it, I would fight to protect her.
Soldier Yang cleared his throat now, likely emboldened by my silence. “The Bone Devil is dangerous. Perhaps another might accompany you?”
I reined in my annoyance. The soldier was new; I should not intimidate him. He was still eager for glory, impatient for fame. Likely he imagined that I was playing favorites, allowing the First Archer the choicest part of the assignment—though it wouldn’t take long for the tarnish to set in, for him to sigh with relief rather than envy those chosen for the front line. Xingyin might not appear dangerous at first, but only to the fools or untrained. Any formidable warrior could discern the intensity in her gaze, the deadly grace of her movements, the power with which she wielded her weapon. Watching her fight stirred something inside me, just as when I’d first seen her shoot down General Jianyun’s targets: Admiration. Respect. And an inexplicable, infuriating, sense of wonder.
I never thought anyone could capture my attention the way she had. I had hoped it was a brief fascination, as a child with a new toy—but it deepened along with our acquaintance. She had proved me wrong again and again, and I was beginning to thrive on the challenge.
I glanced at her, trying to read her expression. The soldier was both right and wrong; I did favor Xingyin’s company above all others, though she had more than earned her position through merit. Yet a good commander did not demand blind obedience. Far better to earn it, to teach the soldiers to think for themselves and guard against every eventuality.
“All of you must remain here,” I said to the soldiers. “We are laying a trap to lure the Bone Devil to the lake, so we can fight it together. Just the First Archer will accompany me to seek out the creature, as speed will be essential rather than numbers. If our group is too large, the creature will not approach. It is cowardly at heart, only attacking when it knows it can prevail—seeking victims, not a fair fight.”
Excerpted from Tales of the Celestial Kingdom, copyright © 2024 by Sue Lynn Tan.