[from Crane and the Book of Esther, Part II]
Crane had roamed the fertile crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for nearly half a century, an outcast and a maverick. He had wrung many secrets - and won his magical sword - from wary sorcerers, while learning how to bypass the boundaries that God himself had set.
Once in possession of the sorcerers' mysterious arcane knowledge, he had penetrated the dome of the heavens and dueled diabolical creatures with limbs like the masts of ships. Wings like huge leather tarpaulins wrapped him in their evil embrace as caustic saliva dripped off fangs like sabres and burned his skin.
Leaving these monsters in tatters, Crane descended then to the underworld where he encountered fearsome beings made of searing white light. Yet the flash of Crane's great sword was too much for these demons, and he left them blinded and dazed as he returned to Earth triumphant.
Against the wiles and guiles of human foes he was no less invincible. He had stood his ground against emperors and imposters, astounding them with his prowess in single-handed combat.
Feared and hated by the evil and the righteous alike for his uncompromising independence, the great Crane had never answered a summons, though he was always ready to support a worthy cause - provided he did it on his own terms and unfettered by those who would call themselves allies.
He had, of course, heard of Queen Esther. He had even met the old king's troops in battle, defeating some few score of them before vanishing beneath the waters of the Tigris.
He had thought no more of Susa as he continued on his adventuring, but as the legends of the Warrior-Queen spread - with a fulsome extravagance that challenged his own reputation - the great Crane became curious.
And so, to the Kingdom of Susa he journeyed.
For a hero who could pass through earth and sky, entering the Queen's citadel would have required little effort. The guards at the gate were no great challenge - he had bested soldiers twice their size without breaking a sweat - but he chose instead to steal in unnoticed, passing virtually under their noses as he took the form of a shadow and moved quickly past.
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Once upon a time there was a warrior queen who loved peace ... Mild-mannered writer Samuel J. Burnside is working on his latest adventure story, set in ancient Susa, where Queen Esther is teaching former harem slaves how to fight! But can Sam's new...