The Heartstone Trilogy, Book 1
Ashera del Cid is a talented demon hunter, but when she kills a demigod’s pet dragon, the hunter becomes the hunted. Her only potential ally is Ramiel, a sexy-as-hell demon. Now the two must work together to battle dragons and demigods…and the chemistry crackling between them.
Ramiel has his own reasons for offering Ashera his protection. He knows her true identity and the real reason the demigods want her dead. What he can’t predict is how she’ll react when she discovers he knew who she was all along…
Ashera is shocked to discover that she is the only daughter of the last slayer. To claim her destiny, she and Ramiel must join forces to face down danger and outwit their enemies. Only then will she be able to truly accept her legacy…
“Here, have some Sex.”
I looked up from my desk at the sound of Valerie Johnson’s voice. Thirty years old, she was my sister—well, foster sister. Anyone looking at us would know we didn’t share a drop of common blood. Valerie was the only child of my benefactor and a partner at the firm founded by her great-great-great—repeat that many, many times—grandfather. I’d just made junior partner the year before, the youngest such in the firm’s illustrious five-plus centuries of history. We took care of all types of supernatural matters: hunting trespassing demons, casting made-to-order wardings, detoxing demon poisons, brewing specialty potions, performing exorcisms and divinations.
Valerie tossed a vial at me and leaned against the doorframe. With her hip cocked, she looked like a model who’d just stepped off a glossy page in a fashion mag. There were artful red streaks in her auburn hair, and a ruby halo formed around her head under the fluorescent lights.
I caught the small bottle and wrinkled my nose. “Fresh?”
“The very best.”
Damn. The higher the quality, the worse it tasted.
“Don’t be a baby, Ashera. You know you need it after a hunt.” She quirked an eyebrow. “Unless you’re planning on getting it from the source?”
That was a joke. Everyone knows that the ultimate source of Sex is the Federation of Mageship, and Valerie was well aware that I was on their shit list. I sighed, opened the vial and sniffed. Strong musk and lemon, a combination I didn’t care for. But there was something else. “What the—is this flavored?”
“Cinnamon. I thought you might like it better.”
I could feel my face scrunching. I swallowed the murky goo and clenched my teeth to keep it down. There was way too much spice, and it burned my throat.
“Quality stuff, huh?” Valerie said, a smile in her voice.
“Ugh! Next time stick to the regular unflavored kind.”
“Can’t. Supplier wants to sell those. We get seventy-five percent off retail.”
“Still twenty-five percent too expensive.”
She shrugged. “Everyone else liked it.”
Translation: everyone else who didn’t have to take this swill regularly. Valerie never had to drink it since she didn’t hunt. I should’ve moved to some seedy place with lots of strip joints and streetwalkers. And learned how to collect and store Sex—assuming the Magical Enhancement Agency would take me. I was more likely to get hit by a falling plane than be accepted into their ranks.
“Now that that’s taken care of, we need to talk.” Valerie’s large green eyes were blank and pleasant.
“I was getting ready to leave, but come on in,” I said, keeping my voice as blank and pleasant as her eyes. Much as I loved her, she had a nasty habit of springing bad news on me at the last minute, and I didn’t want to give her any advantage.
She entered my office and closed the door behind her, completing the sphere of wardings cast around the space. Every single darkmotif was Valerie’s original design; wardings are her specialty. They protected us from uninvited demons—oops, supernaturals—didn’t want to offend anyone. Some people could be ridiculously politically correct about stuff like that.
Her eyes scanned my office, from the medium-sized desk with its heap of documents to the wall covered with certificates and awards, the closet where I kept the tools of my trade, and the two plush black chairs for those who deigned to visit my humble little space. I gestured for her to sit down, but she didn’t. Maybe that was how she kept her black Armani suit wrinkle free this late in the day. Or maybe she really was one-eighth fairy like everyone whispered. There’s nothing like fairy glow to enhance mortal beauty without really turning it otherworldly, and I’d never seen her less than impeccable in all the years I’d known her.
“Can you stop off somewhere on your way home?” she asked finally.
I leaned back in my chair. “For what?” I really don’t like it when people ask me to do something right as I’m about to leave. In this case it was especially irritating. I’d been working like a maniac to wrap up a mountain of paperwork. Hunts were great, but all the follow-up reports and forms? Ugh. I always put them off until the very last minute, and Jack had told me if I didn’t catch up on them this time I wasn’t taking tomorrow off, even if it was my birthday. I was considering hiring a freelance writer to make stuff up. I mean really, how many different ways can you say, “I came, I saw, I killed”?
“A new client,” Valerie said. “It’s urgent.”
“He can wait.”
I lifted a shoulder. “Whichever.”
“She was referred to us by one of our former clients.”
“She can still wait.”
“Come on yourself. You know my rule—I don’t extend my day for new clients. A current one, maybe. A new one, hell no.” Before she could argue, I continued. “The past few months have been crazy, what with all the incubus attacks. Last week alone I billed over a hundred hours. This was supposed to be my ‘easy week,’ and I’ve bagged thirty-one demons already. Besides, the ‘easy week’ was your idea.”
Valerie held up a perfectly manicured hand. “I didn’t want you burning out.”
“And Jack okayed it.” That should shut her up. The firm had two kinds of people: Jack, and everyone else. As the firm’s managing director and the only high-level diviner on the North American continent, he was the biggest cheese around. I’d seen politicians and top executives beg for Jack’s services without success. Also, he was Valerie’s father and my foster father.
“If you go tonight, she’s willing to double our rate.”
Ah. The real crux of the matter. Out of all the partners, Valerie was the shrewdest—or should I say the greediest?—when it came to finance.
“She’s been leached of all her Sex, it seems. Some creature of nightmare really got to her.”
Damn. I hated incubi even more than I hated working late. I twisted the silver ring on my index finger. It was inlaid filigree with a large M in the middle, a reminder of a vow I’d made to hunt down the one responsible for destroying the best chance at happiness I’d ever had. For a long time I’d gone after every incubus and succubus I could, but not anymore. I still wore the ring, but I also began to realize that the probability of my finding the one who killed Miguel was about the same as finding a needle in the middle of Nebraska.
Still, sooner or later, fate would deliver the bastard to me.
“Come on, Val. I need my beauty sleep. I’m officially not as young as I used to be, starting tomorrow,” I said.
She waved her exquisitely painted nails about. “You’re going to be twenty-seven, not sixty.”
“Send a team of junior hunters.”
“Can’t. She wants the best.”
Clever Valerie, appealing to my ego. I don’t want to sound immodest, but I am the best hunter in the country, if not the entire hemisphere. Countless framed awards and certificates on the walls, tiny jars of specimen samples—ones I had bagged myself, of course, since I wasn’t going to pad my collection with store-bought items like some other hunters I could name—and shiny trophies on my desk. There’s a reason I’m the youngest partner at the firm.
My specialties: dragons and creatures of nightmare. Dragons are rare, but creatures of nightmare are everywhere, just waiting for a chance to pounce on some unsuspecting mortal.
“If I sent someone else,” Valerie continued, “I’d have to tell her that you’re not the best in the firm.” The corners of her mouth bent downward into an expression of perplexed regret. Clearly, this would be a terrible turn of events.
I forced my body to remain loose and relaxed. Being the best hunter was my thing. A woman’s gotta have something to fall back on, especially if she doesn’t have the looks to smooth things out for her. Though Valerie would have tsked at the idea, the best I could aspire to—with hours of professional help, mind you—was maybe a five out of ten. On my own, I was a solid three.
My eyes were great—an electric blue—but the rest of me was lacking. An uneven complexion full of freckles, slightly asymmetrical facial features that created an unfortunate Picasso effect, a functional but overly lanky body and easily damaged frizzy brown hair did nothing for my sex life. But my hunting ability sure helped my career and consequently my bank account. And I’d be damned if some fresh-faced staffer got to be the “best” hunter. I’d held the record for the most creatures of nightmare captured for the past three years.
Home versus work. Me versus Valerie. Watching the latest foreign soap—thank god for the Internet—and eating extra spicy General Tso’s chicken versus beating the hell out of an incubus. Hmm…dilemma, dilemma.
“All right,” I said finally. “But you owe me.”
Valerie smiled. “Of course. The client sheet is ready for you.”
Valerie left, and I stared at the closed door. She had totally outmaneuvered me. But then it was my fault for hating the creatures as much as I did and having such a huge ego.
With a long sigh, I got up and unlocked the closet in my office. I wasn’t going on a hunt in a suit, even if I had probably paid less than a third of what Valerie had paid for hers. I changed into Under Armour, all black, all formfitting, and grabbed a hunter pack. Although I always carry my primary weapon with me, I kept two packs, one at home and one in the office. You never knew when you’d need something. I’d thought about carrying one in my trunk too, but I didn’t like the idea of leaving hunting gear there. Some idiot might steal my car, do something stupid with the weapons and end up disemboweling himself.
Then sue me for damages.
I walked out of the office and saw Sandy. She was our receptionist/administrative assistant, beautifully tanned, green-eyed, and just the kind of snotty bitch who made the unpopular girls’ lives hell in high school. In a word, a bully. But she was good at her job.
She handed me the client info sheet. “She goes to sleep early so you shouldn’t have any problem. Oh, and nice outfit, Ashera. It really complements your complexion.”
I glanced up from the paper. “Thanks,” I said blandly. Black doesn’t complement anything, and Sandy’s smile wasn’t reaching her eyes. I sniffed and wrinkled my nose delicately. “You should get some sleep tonight and burn off that tequila you had yesterday. Partying two nights in a row… Not a good idea during the workweek.”
Sandy’s jaw dropped and it was all I could do to leave without bursting out laughing as she surreptitiously checked her breath. I’d happened to overhear some gossip that afternoon about a rather rowdy bar scene. Didn’t feel too guilty about using it.
The client info sheet was succinct and to the point: Selena Morales, twenty-five years old, SWF, her address and the directions to her place in Fairfax, just a mile off the junction of Route 50 and I-66. She was expecting me at eight, and I had just enough time to get there.
So no dinner. But I never eat anything right before a hunt anyway. You never know what will happen in the dream world, and I didn’t want to risk eating something and then heaving it. Clients really hate it when you puke all over their dream.
Of course, there was the small possibility that this woman could be a faker—an exhibitionist who liked to have someone watch her have sex in her dream. If so, I might ask Valerie to triple our normal rate.
Valerie was in the parking lot, waiting for someone on her phone. “Kick some ass,” she said.
“Screw you,” I muttered and heard her laugh. Lame, I know, but it was late and I had low blood sugar.
The drive to Morales’s Fairfax townhouse didn’t take much time. Fortunately, I was going to the suburbs instead of downtown. I didn’t want to be in the city just then. With the rumors of the Triumvirate of Madainsair’s impending visit, Washington, DC, had turned into the world’s biggest cluster-fuck.
Selena’s neighborhood was immaculately groomed and impeccably maintained. Not a tree branch stuck out the wrong way, not a sparrow dared to sing off-key. Boring but reliable Toyotas and Hondas dotted the driveways. A few family vans and SUVs provided diversity to the otherwise all-sedan collection.
I parked and grabbed my hunting gear from the trunk of my brand-new silver Audi. The address on the client sheet pointed me to an end-unit townhouse. The streetlights lit dark red bricks and ostentatious white bay windows. Yellow lilies burst open like miniature fireworks in front of a row of dwarf bushes. Very nice, very upper middle class.
The door had a small talisman, the kind you can buy from a cheap fortune teller’s stall at a county fair. It was made of silver, tarnished now from a long period of neglect. The circular shape with a few nonsensical inscriptions might have fooled a layperson, but to anyone with even minimal training it looked about as real as a Las Vegas Elvis.
I rang the doorbell and waited. As the seconds stretched, I thought maybe Selena wasn’t there, which meant I would get to go home and the firm could still bill her. The idea perked me up.
I had started to think seriously about leaving when the door finally swung open. A pale blonde stared at me. Her runway-model height made her look excessively thin, to the point of gauntness. If I hadn’t known better, I might have labeled her a cocaine addict. Her murky brown eyes slowly focused on me, never blinking. They reflected the lifelessness of a spider’s food post-feeding, an empty dry shell, and suddenly I found myself infuriated. We gave supernaturals equal rights under the law—okay, property rights only, but they count for something—and this was how they repaid us?
“What?” Her voice was rusty, as if she hadn’t used her vocal cords in a while. Or maybe she’d just been screaming in ecstasy too much.
“Ashera del Cid.” I extended my hand. She didn’t take it, and after a moment I dropped it. Friendly. “You wanted to talk to a creatures of nightmare specialist?”
Frowning, she pursed her lips. “I wanted a hunter.”
“That’d be me.”
“The best hunter.”
She sized me up and finally stepped aside. “Come in.” She shut the door after me. “You look so young.”
It never failed to amuse me that people assumed I must be older. I flashed her a quick professional smile. “If you want, I can leave and send someone who’s older but not as good.”
She shot me a sharp look. Once I’d taken care of her demon, maybe we could start our own mutual admiration society.
Her townhouse was full of wardings, the cheap variety like the one on her door. Why did she even bother spending money on that stuff? No consistent motif, no geometric precision… Just a bunch of pretty but pointless swirly silver medallions that wouldn’t have scared a fairy. She could’ve gotten the real deal from the firm. But then we were expensive. Really expensive.
You get what you pay for.
I held on to my bag of gear and scanned the living room. It was sparsely furnished—surprisingly so given that it was a woman’s place—with an ivory loveseat and a small oak coffee table the only furniture. I walked across the scuffed and scratched wooden floor. Selena did have excellent taste in electronics. A flat-screen TV hung from the white wall, complete with a surround-sound audio system. Maybe she’d let a gadget-crazed brother decorate.
She noticed my look and said, “The stuff is my ex-boyfriend’s. He hasn’t come back for it yet.”
Interesting. Why would a guy leave his prized possessions behind? Unlike everything else in the house, they were spotless.
The kitchen was the same—a bare minimum of appliances. She hadn’t cooked in ages from the looks of things. The barrenness of the place left a sour tang of unease in my mouth. Something as intimate as a home reflects the owner’s personality, and incubi rarely go after sterile people. There’s nothing like a bit of eccentricity and spunk to heighten the pleasures the creatures of nightmare derive from their victims.
She gestured around with a bony hand. “I’m thinking about moving.”
I nodded and sniffed the air. It smelled stale and saccharine sweet and tasted of power. Someone had spilled Sex and left it for days.
Another strange note. Sex is the most easily obtained magic booster on the market, enabling its users to perform spells beyond their natural ability. The Magical Enhancement Agency within the Federation of Mageship keeps the method of extracting and bottling Sex secret, but every practitioner knows it comes from copulation, and that time tends to lessen its potency. You can tell how stale it is by the way it smells—all sweet and cloying. Sex as old as the stuff in Selena’s home wasn’t good for anything except ruining your palate.
Whoever stole Selena’s Sex hadn’t stored it or used it. That made me suspect the attacks were personal. Or maybe the incubus didn’t need a magical boost. It was just having fun.
“How long have you been under the influence of the creature?” I said.
She crossed her arms. “I already told your company.”
“I know you did, but I want to hear it from you.” I kept my voice low and soothing. “It’s important.”
I didn’t blame her for her defensiveness. After all, she had been getting raped in her dreams. Whether or not she enjoyed it didn’t matter. Giving away her vital energy hadn’t been part of the bargain as far as she was concerned.
A long sigh escaped her, and her eyes slid sideways to look out her kitchen window. “It’s been about five weeks, I think. I bought wardings to keep him out, but he was too strong. He would come to me… I knew what he was, but I just couldn’t stop it,” she whispered. “The pleasure… It was unbelievable.”
Classic. Intense sexual high to make the victim unable to resist the dream invasion. Even when the woman wants to find recourse, it’s difficult to hire someone and admit she’s found pleasure in the unnatural coupling. Just like a rape victim who’s reluctant to cooperate with the police because she feels ashamed. And, of course, if the creature disappears, there won’t be any more highs.
Hell of a dilemma for some.
“Does it visit you in every dream?”
“Yes.” She paused. “Is that important?”
“More interesting than important.”
“Most creatures don’t suck their victims dry like this. Maybe you pissed someone off.” She could’ve been exaggerating, but it didn’t sound like it. “Badly enough to destroy your astral self.”
“My soul, you mean.”
“No. You can live without your soul. Plenty of people have sold theirs and gone on happily for the next several decades. You can’t do that without your astral self. It’s your ego, your psyche, your essential life energy.”
Selena frowned. I guess it was too much for her to process.
I tried again. “A Level One astral mage can kill you without spilling a single drop of blood by destroying your astral self, but he won’t be able to touch your soul. That’s between you and your god.”
The mention of God made her even more tense, if that was possible. “I never invite the thing willingly,” she said defensively. “I sometimes fantasize, but that’s not a summons, right?”
“Your fantasies don’t happen to include an incubus, do they?”
Her blush was answer enough.
“Sexual fantasies are beautiful things. But when they include an incubus as a prominent character, those bastards regard it as an invitation. Then you’re truly fu—uh…out of luck.”
She turned even redder, which made her complexion look like salsa spread over cardboard, but I wasn’t going to apologize for what I’d said, even if it meant that she might bitch about my “unprofessionalism” to Jack himself afterward. If I could stop even one woman from getting victimized by those predators, it would be worth one of his you-have-to-be-nicer-to-the-clients talks. Demons are as bad as serial rapists or killers. Worse, actually — they leave no trail or forensic evidence. You have to catch them in the act, and there are only so many hunters in the world.
“Why don’t you show me your bedroom?”
It was on the third level of the townhouse. The master bedroom suite had a white ceiling fan, two large windows and enough mirrors to keep an international convention of narcissists happy. She must’ve liked to stare at herself. Either that or her ex was kinky.
A king-size bed dominated the room, the emphasis almost vulgarly obvious. Crimson sheets, silky and opulent, lay tangled on the bed. At least the carpet was a neutral beige.
I unzipped my bag and draped dark sheets embroidered with wardings over all the portal points — mirrors, windows and doors, including those in the master bathroom. A supernatural could enter easily enough. Leaving would be another matter.
Selena watched me with an apprehensive interest. “What are you doing?”
“Getting ready. You want the creature caught, right?”
She swallowed, then nodded. Still a hint of hesitation even though the thing was killing her.
I suppressed a sigh. Dealing with reluctant clients was my least favorite part of the job. Selena was an adult. Unless she was considered incompetent to make her own decisions by a court, she had to call us, sign the never-ending release forms and complete the contract herself. “Who asked you to hire a hunter?”
Uh-huh. Her answer had come a little too fast. But whatever. At least she would be getting the help she needed. Maybe the incubus would resist capture and I could kill it legally. I could only hope. Creatures of nightmare deserved to die, even if their deaths did create a purgatory of paperwork.
“Look,” I began, “two more nights and I can guarantee you won’t have anything left. Then the creature will move on. You’ll pine for the high and wither away like a plant starved for water.”
She turned pale and nodded again.
My watch told me it was 8:55 p.m. Early for sleep, but there were potions for that. Selena had already signed the release forms, which explained the procedure as required by law.
“Get ready for bed,” I said. “I’ll do the rest.”
“Okay.” She disappeared into the bathroom.
I stopped and breathed deeply. This room also smelled of stale Sex. It was faint, but everywhere, like the smell of fruit in a tropical country. Whoever was dream raping her must’ve spilled at least a quarter of what he’d extracted from her here.
I drew a circle with ashes of thyme on the carpet at the foot of the bed. This was where I would be—physically anyway—while Selena dreamed. The circle was big enough to accommodate my movements. It would be catastrophic if any part of my body went over the line. High dream magic does peculiar things to unprotected mortals.
Selena reappeared in a slinky silk nightgown that looked even worse on her than it would have on me. She glanced at me nervously, and I gave her my Number One Winning Smile.
“Don’t worry. It’s going to be fine.” I pulled out my katana—the real thing, not a fake like some hunters carry—from my bag. The work I’d done to earn my blade was a secret I’d carry to the grave, but it was sensitive enough that the zaibatsu family had rewarded me with a daisho set and five tantos. “Can I get a little bit of your hair?”
“I need it to establish a link between us.”
She shrank back a bit but nodded. I cut about two inches and placed it inside the circle.
She gestured at the ashes on the floor. “Shouldn’t I get a circle around my bed too?”
“If I put one around your bed, the thing won’t be able to enter your dream.”
“So why don’t we just do that? Then you can leave, right? I mean, we don’t have to fight.”
“It would probably decide to come after you in this plane, physically. Might take a while, but it would find you. Incubi tend to take things like that personally.”
She slid under the covers and pulled them all the way up to her neck, as if she were a Victorian maiden. But the porn-star sheets and nightgown ruined the effect.
“So I just go to sleep, right?” she said.
“No. When it shows up, you’re going to ask me for help. I cannot use violence in your mind without your explicit permission. It’s illegal.” I hate lawyers, unless they work for me.
Selena nodded. “That’s it then. I sleep and ask for help in my dream.”
“Yep. Then stay out of the way. I don’t want you getting hurt, or worse, used as a hostage.”
“And you’re gonna catch him.”
“Or kill it.” I didn’t want her to give her tormentor any human qualities. “Whichever makes the most sense.” The courts allow hunters to kill if necessary. After all, incubi are deadly creatures.
“What if you can’t?” Selena said.
“I can.” The only way I wouldn’t get it was if it didn’t show, or if she screwed up. I somehow doubted the former.
With the sword still in my hand, I stepped inside the circle, then let a bit of magic flow from me to the ashes and sealed it off. Eldritch power coursed along the line, and I took a deep breath.
Burrowing deeper into the mattress, Selena stared at my weapon. “You know what you’re doing…right?”
Too late to ask for references, baby.
“Yes.” I gave her my best professional, I-know-what-I’m-doing smile. Most clients need a lot of smiles and assurance. “Now go to sleep.”
“A smashing debut to a thrilling new series!” — Ex-Libris
“…one of the best I’ve ever read…” — Booked Up
“A gripping plot, likeable characters, well written and imaginative…I give it five stars and urge all lovers of urban fantasy to read it, especially if you’re into dragons.” — Tahlia Newland
“Sometimes I read a book and I’m left wanting more. The Last Slayer was one of those books. Nadia Lee’s world of demons, demon hunters, and dragonlords was convincing, and I’m so glad that it’s part of a trilogy because I can’t wait to read more about Ashera’s quest. This is one of those books that will appeal not only to fans of urban fantasy, but also to those who enjoy more traditional fantasy reads, so if you’re in either one of those categories, you are in for a treat.” — All About Romance
“If you’re looking for a genre-blender of fantasy, paranormal and urban fantasy, then I totally recommend this for you.” — Basia’s Bookshelf
“…a little bit Urban Fantasy, a little bit Paranormal Romance, a little bit Fantasy and a lot of beautiful world building…looking forward to the next book...” — A Buckeye Girl Reads
“With an engaging wise-cracking heroine and a smouldering hero, and epic fantastical tone, I highly recommend The Last Slayer if you fancy something new.” — The Book Pushers
“I adored this book. It was reminiscent of Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter meets Thea Harrison’s Elder Races series. We have a kick ass heroine in a fascinating supernatural world featuring a hierarchy of dragons and demons. Can’t wait to read more!” — The Raunch Dilettante
“I absolutely recommend it to people who like dragons, demons and sexiness!” — The Yearning Mermaid
“…an Arthurian good versus evil theme…light eroticism…vivid descriptions…a phenomenal amount of world-building… I enjoyed The Last Slayer very much.” — Book Lovers Inc
“I didn’t know what to expect from this book when I started it but WOW this is a seriously good fantasy...is definitely going to leave you wanting more.” — Melanie, Goodreads
What inspired you to write The Last Slayer?
When I was a kid, I read a lot of Asian comic book series (not manga), and one of them had the following lines that really stuck with me.
“I never wanted you to know what blood smells like.”
“Every time I see you, you’re bleeding.”
The entire story was initially envisioned from antagonist Nathanael’s point of view because the first quote was something that he might have said to the love of his life. However, when I sat down to write the story, I decided to tell it from Ashera’s point of view, since Nathanael could never have a happy ending. (Think of him as a tragic hero figure.)
How was writing The Last Slayer different from your other projects?
The Last Slayer was my first full-length paranormal project. Also my previous ones were category length (50,000 words or so). So in some ways it was challenging to do worldbuilding, and it felt daunting to write 100k words. But I think it was a good experience to expand my writing horizons, and I’m very happy with the work.
Who was the easiest character to write, who was the hardest, and why?
The easiest character to write was Shark, the firm’s attorney. He was just so deliciously confident in his ability to sue and win, and he also humiliated one of Ashera’s old enemies, so it was just fun to write that short scene with him as the highlight.
The hardest was Alexandros. He’s an incubus king, 100% politically incorrect, and utterly unconcerned about anything except himself in the story. I also had to make him compelling as well, so it required some balancing act.
What kind of research did you do?
I didn’t do any special research per se, but a lot of ideas and so on came from reading a ton of pseudo-historical accounts of famous Chinese warlords and strategists. I’d love to tell you what they are, but I read the Korean translation, and I doubt most of you could read them or even find them. They’re currently all out of print even in Korea. It was a near-miracle that I was able to get them at all.