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In our river valley, there is one thing remaining of the time past that reminds us of the decision our ancestors made so long ago -- one thing that reminds us of what we have given up, and what we have gained: the ziggurat.

A pale sun marked the dawn in the Incira Desert. The sand was hard, rocky and uneven. Dane paused his steed. A thick rope was tied about Pangeri's ankles and loped around Dane’s saddle horn. Dane looked down on the bloodied body that writhed at the end of the rope. “I know you stole the ring,” said Dane to the semi- conscious Pangeri. “Its lustrous aura has marked your filthy soul. I’m tired of dragging you through the desert. So, for the last time, tell me where the ring is. I cannot reclaim our river without the Ring of Gherith!”

Dane knew that it had to be Pangeri, the filthy wretch. It was more than the glorious aura that shown brightly to the eyes of the Shumi priest. An aura that only a priest of the Shumi clan could see. Pangeri was also was a black Tuma. Dane's blood boiled with hatered for his treacherous brothers. Dane still could not understand how any Shumi priest could turn so evil, but Pangeri was one of the few. The one who stole the ring had to be a black Tuma. There was no forced entry and no searching. The thief knew exactly where to go and how to enter. It had to be an ex- communicated priest.

"Where?" Dane demanded through clenched teeth.

"Not on this planet, you yokel." The Tuma roused, his eyes in their bruised sockets lighting with contempt. "And your barbarian tricks will never bring it back. Poor, petty little creature. You understand nothing."

Dane looked up at the dark blue morning sky. He saw three moons: Taxit, Rowen and Dinual. He waited. Pancii erupted from behind Rowen. Pancii is a small satellite that rockets across the Incira sky, orbiting the large planet of Owaska 4 times in 30 days. Pancii is home to Neghrita, the goddess of ebon fate. Neghrita is worshipped by the Black Tuma. Dane glanced vehemently at Pangeri. The dark priest’s eyes were closed as he prayed. A Black Tuma rite; give thanks at the first sight of Pancii. Dane knew where the Ring of Gherith could be found.

"I understand this. Now you I do not need."

He pulled his sword from its scabbard upon his back and imbedded the point within Pangeri's breast. The Tuma's eyes bulged, but he died silently. Dane cut the rope at the Tuma's feet and wound it into a tight bundle -- he placed the bundle in one of his saddlebags.

From the same saddlebag he withdrew a New Man's crystal; made from the same material as the ziggurat itself. Golden threads of circuitry patterned its ochre surface. If any item could be used to ransom the Ring from the Tuma's allies, it would be this.

Dane looked up at Pancii, a black moon of endlessly shifting iron sands. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. If the ring was there, in the great monastic city dedicated to the worship of the implacable Neghrita, he was going to need help. Getting to Pancii was the first challenge.

He tucked the New Man's crystal back into the saddlebag, gently. Such tenderness was not necessary, for the crystal could not be harmed by human hands. But he'd gone so far to find it, he felt that it was almost a part of himself.

Slapping his beast on the shoulder, Dane turned and continued on toward the great desert trading port of Khalin. There, he would find help, or he would find death.

Dane rode into Khalin. He approached the shop of Af’nee. An unsavory merchant. Yet necessary. When he saw the Wei K’ holy man and his disciples, he quietly dismounted. He heard the holy man's words. “I remember the jungle heat -- it hurt to see! We were blinded from its brightness, we stumbled through the dense growth. Our feet cut by the small Kowwi plants. Our arms and faces torn by the Cumilly vines. Yet we drew our strength from the promise of the treasure that awaited us. The Blessed Ziggurat. We only had six hours to find the closing gateway. Lest our people wait another 216 years for such an opportunity.”

The Wei K' were not to be taken seriously -- at least as far as their religion went. Their belief, that the ziggurat is in truth the gateway to heaven, was the ridicule of every other faith on the known planets. Historical records, those few that remain, might indicate that the ziggurat is a gate to something, but only the Wei K' persist in believing modern men have any hope of solving the puzzle that has proved unsolvable for millennia.

Despite their religious eccentricities, the Wei K' were the masters of the greatest inter-system trading organization. They alone possessed agreements with the Neghrita that gave them access to black Pancii.

Dane was no fool. He knew that the task that lay before him was not an easy one. He knew that if he was every going to be able to get to Pancii and the Holy Temple of Neghrita he was going to have to convince the Wei K' that he was a Black Tuma priest. Dane reached into one of his saddle bags and pulled out the symbol of Neghrita which he had removed from the body of a black Tuma years before. His first kill. When Dane was but a child the elder had told him that each killing served a purpose. Dane could now see the purpose for that first killing of a wayward brother and was glad of it's doing.

Dane looked at the symbol. The gold chain was heavy in his hand, but not nearly so heavy as the gold inlaid black stone it was holding. The black of the stone was deep and seemed bottomless. He could feel it's draw. Dane was always careful not to gaze at the stone for to long less it draw his soul in as it had done to other Shumi preist before him. Dane turned his gaze back to the prattling Wei K' priest and slipped the chain about his neck. The stone lay burdensome upon his chest.

“Everyone knows but it's never been found! It’s a myth!” Shouted a drunken tar. He sloppily carried a flagon of ale. His sword hung loosely at his waist.

“Just because no one has found it, doesn’t mean it’s not real,” calmly replied the Wei K’. He guided his flock away from the tavern.

“Its a crok! A lie. Damn blasphemy to Princess Rowden!” The tar slammed his flagon to the ground and lazily drew his sword. The sword’s tip twinkled from the noon sun. Just six inches between the tip and the priest’s throat.

“So, you would kill me for a pale monarch? A fragile shell? Go on then...”

Dane, who had started towards the priest, stopped dead in his tracks. He could not believe his eyes or his luck. Dane had immediately recognized the brew stoked warrior. Barton, a true friend and allie. This could be the break that he needed. Dane prayed to the god of the Ziggurat that Barton was not so slowed by drink that he would comprehend what Dane wanted, needed.

"Back off heathen dog." Dane moved, coming quickly between the Wei K' and Barton as he pushed the Tar away.

Barton growled and raised his sword to cleaver the newcomer. As his eyes met Dane's they widened and a look of confusion momentarily crossed his face. Barton quickly looked from Dane's face, to the stone, to the Wei K' Priest and back to Dane's face. Dane prayed. Barton smiled, but quickly covered it with a sneer.

"So now we see what we have always believed," he said loudly, "The Tuma are the Wei K's bodyslaves. Well I don't kill whores, not even religious ones. Get your 'master' out of here before I flay him."

"Come," Dane turned to the Wei K priest, "Let us move away from this. This crazed fool is drunk out of his mind, and he is a nothing; not worth wasting reason on. Come."

Dane and the Wei K' quickly walked away from the conflict.

"Come back anytime if you want to try your luck, slave." Barton hollered after them.

"Vermin!" The Wei K' priest spat. "Your brotherhood should do away with them all!"

"We are working to that end, Kinsman." Dane could recognize an opening. "As a matter of fact, it is imperative that I return to Pancii. I have vital information that could put the overthrow of this weak goverment into action."

The Wei K' stopped and look at Dane, perhaps trying to size him up. "Yes. Well then, we must get you there."

It was well past dark when Dane entered the Tavern. The odor of smoke, vomit and old sweat assailed his nostrils.

Layered below was another sickly, sweet odor. A sense of dread filled Dane's soul. Evil had walked this way. A Tuma master had recently been in this Tavern.

Dharker watched Dane enter the Tavern. The stone threw a glint of black light across the dim room. _Dane. Disguised as a Tuma master. Why? Kristo will pay well for this information. Very well!_

Dane cautiously walked deeper into the tavern. Why did he feel such dread. What Tuma could possible have at his disposal power such as Dane held. He considered for a moment immediately leaving the tavern, but he was here for a purpose. As Dane intensely scanned the smokey room he missed the shadowy figure that slipped out of the door behind him.

"Um, sir."

Dane turned towards voice and found the short, fat tavern master. "Yes," he replied.

The tavern master look very uncomfortable and fidgeted with his apron as he spoke. "There is a...gentleman...at the far east table that would like to speak with you."

Dane peered into the darkened room. He saw the man in question. Byk H’rpa. There was never a doubt concerning Byk’s honesty and reliability. It was his allegiance that was in constant flux. The fact that Byk wanted to hold conference with Dane wasn’t a good sign. The tavern master cleared his throat. “Sir, there was a gentleman that seemed quite interested in your person. He departed moments ago.” The tavern master said. Dane sneered at the tavern master. He gave the tavern door a cursory glance. He looked back at the small man. He shoved a silver pistyn into the tavern master’s palm.

Dane peered into the darkened room. He saw the man in question. Byk H’rpa. There was never a doubt concerning Byk’s honesty and reliability. It was his allegiance that was in constant flux. The fact that Byk wanted to hold conference with Dane wasn’t a good sign. The tavern master cleared his throat. “Sir, there was a gentleman that seemed quite interested in your person. He departed moments ago.” The tavern master said. Dane sneered at the tavern master. He gave the tavern door a cursory glance. He looked back at the small man. He shoved a silver pistyn into the tavern master’s palm.

Dane sat down across the table from Byk. "Well?" he asked.

"The Water Distillers' Guild is out to get you. They've hired Panjish to kill you."

Dane sucked in his breath. This was really bad news. It figured that the Distillers wouldn't want him to succeed, since that would upset the market for their product, but he hadn't quite expected them to hire the world's most famous assassin. More fool he.

"How do you know?" he asked.

"I have my ways, as you should know," Byk answered with a thin smile.

Dane bowed his head for a moment and thought hard. After a moment, he sucked in his breath and looked up at Byk.

Dane quickly blinked twice and his eyes darted left, right and then left again. His eyes widened slowly and he looked back at Byk. Byk's eyes narrowed.

"What?"

"A just felt a _te'm'ech,_" Dane said softly. "Twice now. Once with you and just moments earlier with the tavern owner. Someone is attempting to access the Ring of Gerith's power!"

"Dane. What are you talking about, I felt nothing."

"Most wouldn't but I am in phase with the Ring. It's power can be used in many ways. It can turn the present into the past, only a fool would try."

"Perhaps going back a few days might be profitable.' Said Byk. "I know quite a few deals that I'd change."

"It doesn't work that way. Only the one person in control of the ring would retain his memory and worse, to move back in time is to roll a snowball down a steep mountain." said Dane. "Once started it increases in speed and power. More than a few minutes and it's unstoppable."

"Not so good for us then?"

"No. They must be stopped. You can help. Our old friend Barton is in town. Have him meet me tonight at the temple and tell no one I am here."

"It's done."

Moving to the back entrance, Dane backed out, ensuring he wasn't seen. Turning, his mouth opened and eyes widened. His last thought was, "Did the dead walk?.

Dane's eyes fluttered and he moaned weakly. As the piercing brightness flooded his consciousness, he squinted and tried to shade his eyes. His hand wouldn't move. It couldn't move.

He was laying on a wooden table and around his arms, legs, and chest he felt ropes restraining him from sitting. He blinked harshly and quickly trying to see but it was all fuzzy. His head pounded with a thousand hooves pounding across his mind.

"He's awake."

Dane looked to the right. An blurry image slowly congealed into comprehending lines as a figure moved toward him. The hair was grey and long and a long black robe enclosed the figure's body.

"No," Dane whispered. "You're dead! I saw you die! I saw you die, Father!"

"Yes, my son," he said, his voice hauntingly familiar. "You saw me die. But there is something you must understand, something you've known all along."

Dane turned his head away, battling the tears. It could not be true. He would not listen--no matter what his father said. "Untie me."

"You must believe me..."

"Untie me!"

"I'm sorry, Dane, but I can't do that."

Dane decided to take what little control he could of the situation. His hands balled into fists and strained against the ropes holding him down and narrowed his eyes at his 'Father.'

"I saw you die, Father," Dane sneered. "I saw the blade explode through your back and drip with blood. I saw you hold your hands to your wound and hold them up to your face- -bloody. You collapsed and I felt your last breath on my cheek as I cradled your head.

"I know you died," Dane continued. "I know you died and I buried you. You are not my father. Who are you?"

"Oh, Dane," the gray-haired man slowly shook his head and looked down at his son. "I'm so sorry. My doppleganger's death was unfortunate and a great inconvenience. It postponed my return to my own world for three years. But I'm here now. And now you must listen to me. The fate of not only our world but of every world in this galaxy is very nearly sealed.

"And the only way we can prevent the collapse of the time- space continuum is by killing you."

Oh Shit.

"Well, screw the space-time continuum! It never did anybody a damn bit of good anyway!"

The old man coughed. "Dane, this isn't going to do you any good-"

"No, you just listen to me a minute! I'm not going to be some cross-dimensional fruitcake's sacrificial goat! Use that dried-up walnut-sized brain and find another way!"

"But-"

"Shut it! Start thinking, old man."

"Dane!"

Dane fumed through flaring nostrils and sneered through saliva-soaked teeth but quit talking. His father approached him and grinned slightly as he placed a gentle hand on Dane's shoulder. Dane fliched automatically but held his tongue.

"Still as impulsive and rash as you were as a boy. Always willing to fly off the handle before hearing the whole story." Father shook his head softly and then looked directly into his son's eyes. "You felt the te'm'ech?"

Dane furrowed his brow and nodded slightly. "Twice."

"Yes," Father nodded. "And now you have two dopplegangers roaming around out there. You are not the doppleganger or you would not have felt the te'm'ech at all. Neither of them. But do not doubt it: You have two dopplegangers and they both - You, in essence - must die."

"Very well, my Father," said Dane, controlling his rage with difficulty. "I must die. Every man must die. But how soon must this event take place? If there is time, I may still change my fate."

"I may be able to delay for a few days, perhaps even a week, but no more," said the old man.

Dane's hopes rose. If he could gain access to the Ring of Gerith . . . but first things first.

"Let me loose of these damned bonds, Father. If I can get to the Wei K', I can get to Pancii. If I get to Pancii, I can find the Ring of Gerith. Then, and only then, I will be able to stop the collapse of the space-time continuum. After that, the power I receive from the Ring will allow me to get rid of the doppelgangers." "It may just work," mumbled the old man, stooping over him to untie the ropes. "If you do not achieve these things you have just told me, there is no way I, or anyone else can save you. Do you understand?"

Dane jumped from the table. "I understand."

The wooden floor that he was standing on started to warp and bend like a small earthquake under the tavern had just started. As the tavern shook powerfully things all over started smashing to the ground.

"What the heck is going on?" Dane shouted

"One of the doppelgangers must be close by the time space continuum is starting to warp severely. You must hurry go out the back and take this with you." His father handed him a golden compass. "This will always point in the direction of the Ring of Gerith."

Dane quickly ran out of the tavern.

Just as he did so, Dane ran straight into his own doppelganger. Space-time warped and then split apart where they met and started to propagate outward shredding the tavern and then the street and everything about the neighborhood.

As this happened the golden compass began to open up a vortex gateway to the place where the Ring of Gerith was. The vortex whirled violently and sucked Dane in, warping and contorting the space-time field that held the golden compass. Dane screamed like a little girl.

Since the vortex always pointed in the direction of the Ring of Gerith, it became a tranwarp quantum wormhole tunneler and the space-time continuum started to rip itself apart. As Dane neared the Ring of Gerith through the swirling void, however, he was able to put it on and stop the warping of space-time and save the universe.

Slowly the swirling of oderless, tasteless gasses slowed to a syruppy eddy and Dane was soon able to step out from the undulating vortex and emerge into what ever randomly appearing space-time reality he could find refuge in. He only hoped it would be his own.

As Dane emerged from the swirling vortex, he realized he was surrounded by an immense darkness. Several coughs echoed in the distance. He could tell in the dark he was standing on a rubber surface. Suddenly a voice boomed out, "Are you reeeaaaddeeeee... tooo.... RRRUUMMMMMBBULLLLLL?"

Standing before him was a giant of a man. Seven feet tall with long blond hair. his body was disfigured with muscles. He towered over Dane, wealding a large, bloody axe. The thunder of the crowd was deafaning, nearly pushing him to his knees. The man was twenty feet away, arms raised to soak in the favor of the crowd. Dane got his wits about him and looked around, he had apeared in some sort of colysium.

The man began to move torward Dane, axe moving readly between hands. "Dammit," muttered Dane. At that moment, Dane had enough, deep down in his subconcious, anger boiled, anger at being forced into this whole affair. "No more," he said allowed. Raw energy began to crackle about him. Starting at the ring but spreading about his whole body. His eyes blazed with the furry his heart felt.

His head snapped back and forward as the muscles in his back and neck spasmed painfully in response to the energy centering upon him as electricity to a lightning rod. For a moment incandescent light blinded him and a sharp persistent pain to his right shoulder awakened Dane to the realization he was now laying on his side, drenched with sweat and shaking with fatigue. Painfully he raised his head, blinking to clear away the tears, certain the first sight reaching him would be the sharp edge of an axe. Instead a familiar figure was staring at him from one of the seats below encircling the fighting ring in open mouth astonishment, bringing one thought swimming up from the depths before he himself sank down into oblivion. "What the hell is Dharker doing here?"

This was the last place he expected to see her. "Mother will be mad at you," Dharker muttered between clenched teeth. Dane sighed, ignoring the catcalls and booing from the audience, who were plainly disappointed they would not see his head severed. Dane dusted himself off and looked his big sister over. She stood a head taller, with the muscles of a prizefighter and all the humor of a rattlesnake. "You haven't changed a bit, sis." Dane slapped her shoulder with a comradely swipe. Dharker began to grin, "I'm going to tell on you this time, for sure, Dane. But first, tell me what brings you to this accursed place?"

"Just get me out of here, will ya sis?" he said looking up at her. Pain shot up his arm from the ring, making him fall to his knees.

"What's wrong with you?" Dharker said, standing there looking down on her brother. Dane winced and fell to the ground with an audible thump.

"This isn't right," Dane stammered.

A sensation of burning, followed by a crippling pain, spread rapidly through Dane's body. He battled with his conscientiousness. What was happening to him? He fought against the illusions around him.

"This isn't real!" He screamed.

Visions from the past haunted him. First his father and now his sister, both, in reality, long dead.

"Who are you? What do you want?" He yelled at his sibling's spectre.

"Dane knock it off. I'm going to tell," She told him with a pointed finger.

Dane concentrated on his inner self. He was determined that they would not beat him this way. He knew what was happening to him. He was under the psychic attack of a Tuma Priest. He struggled to remember the last thing he could be sure was real. He remembered leaving the tavern and more importantly he remember that someone else had left just before him.

Dane's greatest strength was to think quickly, this attribute had allowed him to escape innumerable mishaps and saved his life on many occasions. It was also his greatest weakness, for all too often his impetuous nature whisked him into the path of peril. Dane cleared away all thought and visualized a transparent psychic shield to block the Tuma Priest. For the moment, he was safe from the inundations to his mind. He listened to his instincts. "Go to a safe place...find help...strategy...the shield will be penetrated-reinforce it..." Dane was no longer alone in his mind, his shield had given way! A voice that was not his own, a voice that he felt more than heard, giving him warm shivers, filled his entire self. He was confused. From his deep sight he could see through the transparent shield at a Tuma Priest. The priest was unknown to Dane, and clearly attmepting to puncture Dane's psychic blockade. The shield was intact. So who was here? A confident, lilting voice spoke throughout Dane's entire being. "Shumi, you will find yourself in an isolated temple, where you will be safe. Choose wisely your companions. Your greatest ally is one you would normally discount. Do not haste in your quest, there is much you need to learn in order to succeed. I will help you only three times. Succeed, Shumi, you have been chosen. Reclaim your river." Dane paused, the clear feminine voice was soothing. "Who are you?" he inquired. "I am Antata, Goddess Of All That Is Fleeting. Awake in my temple and do not fear."

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