Here is chapter 15 for those of you still reading this twisted story from my imaginations. I hope you like it
as much as the others before it. This is more of a cerebral part of the plot line but important to understand Andrew more than you already do. I appreciate the feedback I've been getting from those who have been leaving comments and those who have joined the site and PM'd me. Thank you again for reading the story and I'll have the next chapter posted as it comes to me.
The silence and darkness were a welcome change from the fire in my blood until that sensation faded. I was adrift in darkness, weightless with no sense of direction. Things slivered and whispered in the darkness. I could feel indescribable caresses along my skin under my clothing. The stagnant oily taste of the air as I breathed; and the air smelled of rotting corpses and other sickly sweet scents I was unable to identify. The darkness was so profound that I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open or closed, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to see what resided in the space around me. There was no sense of time passing here; even my perfect Time Sense from that sphere wasn’t working. That worried me because it meant that I was in a space in which time was a meaningless construct. Most people even many Mages see time as a line flowing in one direction, a theory call Linear Time. To most this is true, however as you learn and work with Time Magick and your understanding of time you realize that it is an artificial construct created to allow people of all kinds to understand what is happening.
My spine crawled under my skin as felt some kind of hard chitinous tendril slither up my leg before it withdrew. My heart was racing as I tried to understand what was happening and where I was. I had a theory that I didn’t want to accept as it meant that I couldn’t get myself out. I reached out actively to sense what was around me with Magick and that is when I realized there was no connection to it. I could no longer feel my Avatar, the connection was there but no magick. That cemented my theory about where I was. Todash Space. The space between spaces where Cthulhian nightmares lived. Now I was glad that I didn’t have the option of shedding light on the situation. I was stuck here for how long I wouldn’t be able to tell as the Tellurian’s rules had no effect on that which existed outside of it. The only advantage to being stuck here was the same disadvantage; they had all of eternity to find me and I would be stuck here without changing. I was going to be stuck here until someone on the other side could figure out where I was and how to get me back from here. All I had to do was hope my sanity remained intact while I was here.
When you exist in a timeless state where nothing and everything is happening at the same time it is difficult to know anything for certain. I’m not sure if I had, am having or will have the thought that I now know how Schrodinger’s Cat felt about the box, but at some point in every when and no when the thought happened. I tried to focus on Sindee and my friends but thoughts and memory are fleeting in eternity. I believe that Hell would have been a better place to be stuck than in this dark nothingness that followed no rules or rhyme or reason. In order to protect my sanity I started to go over the events of my life in order from my youngest memories to my recent experiences. I was thankful that I had cast a Mind Magick spell on myself that gave be perfect recollection from that time forward as well as enhancing those memories I already had.
I drifted there lost in my memories for and indeterminate frame of reference. Going through my memories wasn’t helping as I lost sense of order in them as there was no frame of reference for time here and my mind was adapting to that fact despite my efforts. I worried that my memories weren’t real, that I only imagined everything; that my life was nothing more than a dream in a timeless place. The thought of that possibility filled me with a dread far worse than the whispers in the darkness ever could have. I mentally gripped the image I had of Sindee and held on for dear life, using that as a mental focus.
I focused on the memory of her eyes and the last time I had seen them. The silver flecks inside the grey storm cloud irises. From there images flowed to me or time we had spent together. If this was a dream that never happened I wanted to hold onto it anyway. Then the image of her coming into a hospital room passed through my mind. Then there was an image of her in a white gown, hair pulled up tight into a complicated braid, then the image of her in a green dress standing in the summer evening. The image of her in a sapphire dress under the moon and stars was next. An image I didn’t remember came next; she looked older and was walking with a dark haired young woman through a park talking. After that an image of her younger, dressed in jeans and white shirt. The shirt was stained red with blood flowing down her right side from a wound in her shoulder and chest. Then an image of her fighting some kind of magic user passed through my mind. The images flashed in an ever changing menagerie of possibilities from her with children and grandchildren running around and playing to her alone and angry at the world to her teaching medicine; images of her as a Mage, a Vampire and other things. Then an image formed of her pale, eyes closed and features completely relaxes; peaceful as seen only in death.
I began to hate myself for leaving her alone, with me gone and unable to protect her from the world I exposed her to. I was determined to be the first person to find a way back from Todash. I was not going to wait to be rescued; I was going to find a way out of the space between spaces if it killed me. I was a Mage and just because no one has accomplished something before didn’t mean it was impossible. It just meant that no one was smart enough to think their way around the problem. I tried to think about what Todash was and wasn’t when I hit the proverbial wall of my limitations. It’s is almost impossible to focus one anything this when you perceive an eternity and a moment as the exact same thing. When time doesn’t exist in a place it fractures your sense of the real.
And that thought gave me what I needed to work up a way out of Todash. I told you a while back or was it that I’m going to tell you about how reality works. Reality to most beings is consensual as it is formed by what the Consensus of those in it believe. No one believes in dragons anymore therefore they ceased to exist and any skeletons found are written off as being dinosaur fossils. For Mages reality in conceptual as what they can imagine and conceive they can create with enough power, skill, knowledge and will. I knew what I could attempt to do but thankfully I didn’t have to worry about time. I started to speak to the whispers in the darkness, telling the entities stories of Magick and Avatars. When the whispers quieted I knew they were listening so I spoke more of the planes of existence describing scents and sounds and how this felt and tasted. I spoke nothing of visual deions as there was nothing to see her in darkness and they would have no point of reference for the deions. I just continued to speak for as long as my voice help out, encouraging the listens to pass along my tales to everything else in this purgatory I find myself in. I didn’t know if this would work but I had to try something. I did everything I could to bring most of the laws of reality to this place leaving out the concept of time so that I would not need to worry about if having its effects on me causing me to age or to starve as the body wasn’t being supported in a physical sense.
I didn’t stop my talking, whispering, pushing the information out to the denizens of this pitch black nothingness that surrounded me in fear that if I stopped talking I would forget the idea. If I forgot what I was doing and why in this place it would be as if nothing had ever happened with no concept of time everything I worked to change would cease. There was no way to say how long I was speaking or what was said to push things to the point I needed and wanted. All of a sudden I felt as though I had never lost my connection to Magick and speaking aloud what I was doing to keep the sensation real in the mind around me as well as my own, I tapped into the magick and used Correspondence, Spirit, Life, Prime and Matter Spheres to yank myself back into the Prime Material Plane from where I left. As there was no sense of time the Time Sphere was useless in Todash. I felt fire along my skin, ice in my veins and though it is hard to describe the best words to convey the feeling is sandpaper on my brain and the inside of my skull as I pulled myself through. I hit something solid and felt gravity and that alone made told me I was out of Todash. Then I blacked out.
I awoke staring at a star filled sky. I was surrounded by trees and mountains as the rain fell upon me skin. I just laid there letting the sound of falling rain and the feel of the water on my skin slowly bring me back into a linear reality. After an eternity and a moment of which I had no idea how long each was I needed to readjust to the flow of time. After the rain stopped I managed to sit up against a rock. I opened my eyes to see the clouds traveling past and the evening sky clearing as the sun set over the ridges bring darkness and a star filled sky. I rested to regain some peace of mind, however it wouldn’t last. I needed to find out where I was and even more importantly when I was since there was still something wrong with my sense of time. My stomach took that moment to growl reminding me that the human body had limitations that I once again had to pay attention to. I drug myself to me feet and started walking toward the east as toward the west and the setting sun I saw more and higher peaks. It took me a few hours to find a mountain stream which would serve for water and a way to get my stomach filled. I crouched on the side of the stream looking into the crystal clear water trying to spot a large fish swimming near me.
I was crouching there for what felt like forever but was not really more than an hour when I spotted this huge trout in the water moving toward the edge nearest me. I reach out with Life magick and had it swim towards me. When it was right near the side and out of the currents I used matter to raise the fish out of the water then used forces to cook it instantly. I felt drained from such simple spells almost right away; I needed to replenish my body and my reserves of quintessence or primal energy to what they used to be soon. The food would help but I needed to find a way to replenish the quintessence. I continued to travel slowly on foot through the mountains for a couple of days. I had some food and access to water but I needed to find civilization soon or I would be in trouble. I stumbled out of the trees into a small town on the afternoon of the third day. I was walking towards a small diner when I collapsed on the side of the street from exhaustion, last thing I felt was my head hitting the sidewalk.
I opened my eyes to the smell of strong coffee and the sounds of classic rock playing overhead. I was sitting in a booth inside the diner; across from me was a sheriff deputy. She was blonde with it tied back in a ponytail, had bright royal blue colored eyes and wore little make-up. She was sitting there staring at me from across the table sipping from a steaming mug like the one sitting in front of me. There were clouds in the sky outside the window so I didn’t know the time, “Hello,” I said to her.
“Hello sir, how are you feeling after the bump to your head?” she asked in reply.
“I have a headache but that’s to be expected. I think I passed out from a lack of proper food and rest. Can you tell me where I am?” I asked her.
She smiled which was nice but nothing compared to Sindee’s before answering. “The coffee and a couple of Tylenol may help the headache. The food here will handle the second part. As for the where; welcome to Wolf Lake, Wyoming.” She took a breath and continued, “Now I gotta ask, if you don’t know where you’re at how did you get here?”
“I don’t quite remember. Around three days ago I woke up in the mountains out there and saw the sunset. I saw that in the west the peaks got higher decided to head east as the fastest way out of the mountains. I walked my way out of the mountains to collapse on your street out there.”
“Well stranger, do you have a name or do you not remember that either?” She asked.
“Forgive my manners,” I reached out my hand across the table. “My name is Andrew Graves, and do you have a name Deputy?”
She reached over and shook my hand, “Jacqueline Depree, most people call me Jaq Mr. Graves.” My stomach chose that moment to growl loudly again. She let out a soft chuckle incongruent with her hard edged deputy appearance, “Sounds like you haven’t eaten a proper meal in days. Doc said he’d be here in a few minutes to check you out from hitting your head and then we can let you eat. Maddie back there is the best cook you’ll find anywhere.”
“Well Jaq, that sounds like a positive endorsement if I ever heard one,” I reached for my back pocket to get my wallet when I realized it wasn’t there. I grimaced and looked at her, “You didn’t happen to find my wallet or phone on me by any chance?” Not that I was expecting her to have them because if memory served they were sitting in the new house on a small table in the basement.
“Sorry Mr. Graves but that would be a no.”
“Call me Andrew; Mr. Graves is too formal for this setting and the fact that you have me calling you Jaq.” I grinned, “I was hoping for a different answer but not expecting one. I’m gonna have to pass on Maddie’s cooking until I can get ahold of someone who can wire me funds for a bus ticket or flight home.”
The doctor took that moment to arrive. In walked a man right out of an old television show. He looked to be around fifty or so, stood about 5’7” and was a little soft and round in the stomach area. He was dressed in gray slacks and a wrinkled white shirt and tie. His salt and pepper hair was slicked back but a few strands were loose on the sides. He wore his stethoscope around his neck and carried a small back bag. “Hello Deputy Jaq, is that the stranger you called me about?”
“Yeah Doc, he just walked out of the mountains and passed out on the street. Cracked his head pretty good in the fall but seems coherent enough,” Jaq told Doc.
“I better check him anyway just to be on the safe side.” Doc walked over and set his bag and paper on the booth’s table and pulled a chair over. He sat facing me as he opened the bag. I looked at the date on the paper to see how long I’ve been gone as he started checking me over. He used a scope to check my pupils for signs of a concussion first which made checking the date difficult until my vision cleared up. I sat patiently through the physical exam as he made sure I’d done no permanent damage to myself during the trek through the mountains. He stepped back after completing the exam which is when I finally saw the date on the paper. It said July 2nd which was fine, but the year was the problem. In reading the last two digits it said 08 and I thought I had been gone for almost a century before seeing it was 2008. I was 3 days before the night that changed my life forever, the night I Awakened and lost most of my family.
The Doc started asking me questions about how I got out into the woods, where was I from and so on. I had to answer that I didn’t remember to most of the answers because my history wouldn’t match up to the reality. The Doc suggested that my memory loss would most likely be temporary and likely a result of whatever trauma put me out in the middle of nowhere. Jaq offered to get my lunch but I offered to do some cleanup or repair work around the place for Maddie to pay my own way. Maddie told me I could wash dishes and take out the garbage for my meal, so that’s what I did. The food was probably the best I’d had in forever.
Jaq had waited while I ate and made a radio call. Around the time I was finished another sheriff’s deputy came in with some paper and an Ink pad. “Going to get your prints and run a search for them, see if we can maybe find more information to help you with your memory Mr. Graves.”
I couldn’t exactly say no, that I didn’t want to know where I came from or how I got here. The only thing that put me at ease is that at 16 I hadn’t been fingerprinted for anything so nothing would come up when they ran the search. “Thank you deputies, I’m starting to wonder if my name is even Andrew at this point. Hopefully you find something.”
After I ate and cleaned up for Maddie to pay for my meal, I walked over and picked up the doc’s paper and began reading it. It was the same article I remember seeing on my way through Cheyenne when my family headed to the mountains. I sat down and tried to figure out a few important items. First was how I got to here in this place and more importantly, this when. I knew that as far as anyone knew traveling back in time and changing the past were never heard from again. This is assumed to have many possible reasons. My personal favorite among these theories is Branching Universe Theory. In this model of time every choice creates multiple timelines, a branch for each possible choice and all these branches have their own branches as more choices come up. We perceive only the timeline for the choice we made, but there are duplicates of us experiencing the other choices we made. Thus a Mage going back and changing anything ceases on this timeline and switches to another branch of reality.
I came to a decision that I might regret but I had to at least try it. Jaq came back shortly before the diner closed and told me that nothing came up from the prints. She explained that it just meant that I hadn’t been arrested or printed or professional reasons such as law enforcement or military service. Since I had no record she offered to put me up for the night since locking me in a cell would be wrong to do to anyone not under arrest. She set me up in her mother’s Bed and Breakfast in town. I meditated that night instead of sleeping, opening myself to the Quintessential energy that existed everywhere in the world, drawing it in to recharge my deplete reserves as I had some serious ground to cover if I was going to do what I felt needed to be done.
Come morning, I got up with the dawn and took a quick shower. I didn’t have anything but the clothes I was wearing to put on so I did so. I walked down the stairs and smelled something good coming from the kitchen. I walked into it and asked the woman in there if she needed assistance with anything. When she replied in the negative I headed outside and went to the sheriff’s office down the main street. When I got there it was to see Jaq sitting at a desk searching on the computer, “Any luck finding anything else about me?”
“Sorry Andrew but no. When I search for Andrew Graves I get an Actor and a District Attorney. You are too young and look nothing like the actor and D.A.s are printed and in the system just like cops.” She said the last pointing to the paper with my prints on it.
I reached out with Matter to ink used in printing me and accelerated the decay of the ink a paper so that they would be gone by that evening. I didn’t like doing it as Jaq had been nothing but respectful and helpful to me since I stumbled into her town, but I didn’t need a set of prints floating around that boredom might prompt her to pull out a file and run them again. Being the Fourth of July this town planned to celebrate in small town style with a community event at the local park that evening and that is when I would be heading out. When everyone was distracted by the night events I’d slip into the darkness and leave with me as just a memory.
It was a wonderful celebration for the holiday and I may have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t been so distracted with my plan. All the townsfolk showed up for the celebration, everyone wore their summer clothes and there were your farm girl fantasies all over the place. Jaq showed up to the party looking nothing like the deputy she was. Jaq was wearing a twilight blue linen dress that stopped halfway down her thighs showing off her long slender legs. Her hair was hanging loose like waves of blonde sil framing her face. She was wearing a pair of cowgirl boots that looked custom made for her that just accentuated how long her legs really were. In meeting up with her and dancing for some of the night I round she was 5’10 or so and could have been a model. I respected her even more as she chose to protect people instead of living off her looks. We spent the better part of the night dancing and she talked to me about her childhood in this small town.
I felt relaxed and at peace with her as we danced. It was a nice way to spend the evening, in the arms of a beautiful woman dancing. It was a sensation I missed and when she leaned in and we kissed I realized that I needed to get out of there soon. I was letting what I felt and missed cloud my judgment. When we broke the kiss I spoke up, “Jaq, I can’t do this. It feels somehow wrong. I don’t know why, maybe I have someone waiting for me or it could be something else. I wish I knew or that we met when I had my memory.” I stepped back away from her and headed into the shadows outside of the celebration area.
On I made it into the tree line, I headed deeper into the woods and mountains until I was too far away to even see the light coming from the celebration. I focused on Correspondence and Life spheres and focused on my own DNA to give myself a direction of travel by locating the presence of a second, or I guess the original version of myself. With correspondence it is possible to learn to travel great distances instantly, however this is not something I could risk. If you don’t know your target location perfectly you could wind up in a tree or underground or any number of other unpleasantness happening as a result of the spell. I chose a different approach and use the Life sphere for my next effect. I had always loved wolves and had studied them even before knowing that werewolves and other things existed. I altered my physical form to that of a wolf, keeping my mind intact and human by tying in the mind sphere. I bound time around myself to allow me to move faster and go longer than anyone else could have. I started running on all four legs headed toward where I sensed my other self.
I ran for the rest of the night, racing to get where I needed to be. I stopped at streams and rivers only long enough to drink and continue running. I tapped into the primitive side of my own mind when it came to eating as hunting wild animal and eating raw wasn’t something I felt comfortable with in my consciousness. I managed to choke down a couple of rabbits and a squirrel as I traveled. I was moving towards the cabin quickly when I came out into a clearing in the woods where there were deer grazing. I jumped as a loud bang rang out and the head of the deer closest to me exploded into a cloud of fine red mist. I turned quickly and spotted the hunter aiming his rifle at me to protect his kill. I jumped sideways left and landed poorly as I wasn’t used to fighting with four legs. I landed on my side and continued to roll that way until my feet were under me again. This clumsiness saved my life as the next shot hit the ground where I was trying to land missing me by a hair. I got back to my feet and using all the speed of my magick I charged the hunter. He was swinging his rifle in line with me as I ducked under it at bit down onto the arm holding the trigger housing. Warm blood flowed slowly into my mouth as he screamed. The rifle fell across my back and hit the ground. I released the hunters arm and reared back on my hind legs using my weight to knock him to the ground on his back. I bared my teeth and growled at him. He froze in place, staring with eyes full of fear. I padded over to the rifle he dropped and grabbed the strap in my teeth. I lifted the rifle the strap and dragging it across the ground I dumped it into the stream where the deer were drinking before he fired the shot that scattered them. I trotted back over to the wounded hunter and placed my forelegs on his chest. I moved my head down so my mouth was inched from his face and neck. I bared my teeth, colored red by his own blood and growled directly in his face. He pissed himself before passing out from the fear. I did a life scan on him using magick and saw that he would be fine and come to in about ten minutes or so. I left him there and continued along my path. I doubted he’d ever hunt again and wouldn’t be shooting at defenseless animals any longer. I’m no vegetarian and ever understand hunters, but I wasn’t big on being shot at as we’ve discussed before. I finally made it through a fight without injury so I was elated and had gotten my second wind. I traveled faster than previously and came to the area around the cabin just a night fell.
I laid myself down under the trees and brush outside the clearing around the cabin to rest. I kept my mind and senses alert even as I rested my tired body. I released the spell holding me in the form of the wolf. I cleaned myself and my clothes before resting. It was getting late when I saw the monster of my nightmares for the past 5 years drift out of the darkness to appear outside the cabin. I had to decide now if I was going to alter my future and past here and now. If I changed the past I could create a time space paradox and cease to exist, or I could ensure that the self-fulfilling prophesy occurred exactly as it was supposed to. It was not as easy a choice as one would think. On one hand I could save my family, causing myself to possibly never fully awaken to the potential of a Mage. Allow myself and my family to live out our lives blissfully unaware of what may have happened this night. I would however lose Sindee forever as our paths were unlikely to cross after this, I would most likely simply cease to exist in this world and any other in my current form. Simply destroyed by the fact that what created me never happened. Or I could ensure things happened the way they did and should again and simply find something to do for the next five years until I could rejoin my friends after I disappeared into Todash. That would force me to let my family be killed, to allow my father to suffer the loss when I could do something to stop it right here and now. Allow my younger self to endure what I went through all over again. However doing so would allow me to be the man I am today, would allow Sindee and I to come together and have the future together that we were trying to.
It was the hardest choice I ever had to make and I knew what I wanted to do, but I also knew from visions and dreams what the right thing to do was. I reached out with Prime and Mind Magick and practically shouted to myself and my Avatar that they were in danger and need to wake. Then I disappeared into the night to stop myself from doing what I felt like and letting what was right unfold. I spent the next five years traveling the world as only a Mage can. I learned a few new languages and studied the arts of swords in Japan and Europe during this time. I learned Krav Maga in Israel over the year I lived there. I traveled and learned and read as much as I could over that period of time to keep me from trying to return to Vegas earlier and creating a Paradox. I figured if I was going to be fighting a war I needed to prepare myself.
During the travels I went to Stonehenge, getting special permission to walk among the stones themselves. I meditated at the alter Stones on the morning of the Summer Solstice and I’ll tell you that Stonehenge is a Node of such immense power that it may be a gate or bridge between all the planes. I used my knowledge of finance and investing to make money and opened accounts around the world setting up homes and safe-houses all over. I made some contact and allies for the future, not all of them above board but you take what you can get when fighting a war. I used Life and Time to keep aging from affecting me during this time away.
I traveled to Hawaii to purchase some land and a beach house on one of the smaller islands in a secluded location at the start of the last six months before needing to head back. I took flying lessons for fixed wing aircraft while there and planned to continue the lessons for rotorcraft and other vehicles in the future. I headed back towards the continental states two nights before my disappearance were to occur using a false identity I had been using over the last few years. Once I landed in Vegas I took a taxi out to M resort and checked in using the same ID. I got a good night’s rest there and checked out early in the morning settling the bill in cash and walking out into the fall morning. I walked to where the house was built and parked myself in the mountains just outside the back of the home to wait for that night.
The evening came quickly and I could feel the power building and being drawn into the ritual I had crafted. I took my time to carefully draw enough magick and slide myself into the spell being crafted so that I could time this right. As the spell built towards conclusion I saw the glow and felt the energy spike as the Node formed. I used Correspondence Magick to step into the place that I had just disappeared from. As the bright glow faded I stood in the basement of my new home surrounded by friends and allies who had no idea what had really just happened.
The Node had formed perfectly and that’s what had drawn me into Todash as it was a bridge similar to Stonehenge, while not nearly as powerful. I didn’t just knot our plane and the Magick one but all planes connected to the Tellurian. I created a Node, but also a crossroads of sorts. It still required the ability to travel through planes under your own abilities but it would be easy to do from here. I did by accident something unintended and useful at once. Everyone relaxed some once the rituals magick faded and the flow of power from the node became a constant steady pulse.
As everyone settle down and cleaned up from the evenings events we headed upstairs for drinks and ordered some pizza to get some food to replenish our bodies from the expenditure of power. Arthur came over to me while we were eating and whispered in my ear, “I know what happened to you. Your mind was different at the end of the ritual and the change was sudden, shifted while we were all blinded from the glow. Come see me when you can and we’ll talk about what happened.” Needless to say I was stunned at the revelation of just what he could do as I felt no Magick from him beyond what was flowing into the ritual. Now I really wanted to know what he was as he had said he was once a Mage and was now something else.
The rest of the evening was relaxed even though there was no furniture in the house yet. We were using camp chairs to sit and the counters for our drinks and food. We were all talking about the future and the coming war. Arthur spoke up as we were discussing the Ascension war and what it meant for everyone here, “The Ascension War must remain a secret to the general public but must also be focused upon by all the supernatural beings because the is another war being fought that must remain hidden from all but those on the front lines of it. Andrew, you and your friends and allies are needed to take my place in the Ascension War here as my friends and I are fighting the Hidden War. I cannot and will not tell you about what we are fighting as the fewer people who know the more advantage we have in that war. We will continue to aid you in this but it’s your fight now.”
Everyone grew silent after this and the mood shifted to somber instead of celebratory of our night successes. We all had a lot to think about considering what has been revealed to us. The mood died down and we all decided it was time to head out and take the time we needed to think about what we were going to need to do for the foreseeable future. There was a knock at the door just as we were cleaning up to head out. I found that strange as we hadn’t moved in yet and were out away from most of the city population. I walked over and opened the door to a disturbingly familiar face. “Hello Mr. Graves, it’s nice to see you again after these last few years.”
“Good Evening Deputy Depree,” is all I got out before words failed me. There was Jaq standing before me as beautiful today as she was that night I left here at the celebration. Her hair had grown longer and was loose down her back; her blue eyes had a hard edge to them. She was dressed in a pair of black slacks and a red silk blouse, and was wearing the same black boots she had on that night. Clipped to her belt was the badge of a Deputy US Marshall instead of a small town sheriff.