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Ever Westward

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The ship sailed west.

At least, Juan thought it did, but he had no way to confirm what all his instincts assured him to be true. The compass spun at random. There were no stars to steer by, nor had there been any for a very long time. There was no sun and no moon, no way to differentiate noon from midnight, not in this perpetually twilit realm.

Juan refused to give up hope though. He measured the speed of the wind and the speed of the currents and kept track of their directions relative to each other. He kept his charts, sextant, and astronomical tables always at the ready. All he needed was one break in the cloud big enough to reveal one recognizable celestial feature, and he would find his way out of this, find his way home. He had to. Death was not an option even to consider; that was the whole point of this quest. Somewhere in this godforsaken stretch of ocean was an island with a fountain which granted Life Unending, and Juan was going to find it.

He scanned each desolate black tooth of rock he saw jutting out of the equally black water for recognizable features. This time, he found none, suggesting that Juan had never visited this exact location before. He shuffled through his pile of charts until he came to one unlike the others. The rest of the charts had been created by master cartographers, the finest Spain had to offer, covering nearly the whole of the world, but if any cartographer from any nation had ever visited this place, they had never returned to share their findings. And thus Juan was now forced to draw this new chart as he wandered across the waters.

He had spent year after year, his whole life, following other men's orders and other men's maps. It was supposed to have been for the glory and profit of Spain, but what good was any of that when Juan had nothing to show for it personally but a few Escudos, long since spent, greying hair, weakening muscles, and aching joints? That was in the past, though. Now he was captain of his own fate and teaching himself a rough semblance of cartography as he seized this final chance. He would map this shifting, contradictory wall-less labyrinth which ensnared him, find his way out of it, find his way back onto the seas which other men charted long ago, and then sail back to Spain as a greater hero than any other who had gone before. He would be forever known as the man who had disappeared into the greatest mare incognitum of them all and returned with a chart of his own making which showed the way out to one and all.

With such glory at stake, who could ever stop to consider death as an option? Certainly not Juan, not now, not ever. He ignored anything else he happened to see through his telescope. Those skeletons were not the bones of men he knew, and they should have known better than to attempt landings on such dangerous shores. Their heads did not turn to follow the progress of Juan's ship with empty eye sockets as he drifted past. One of them definitely did not salute while another made a much ruder gesture. That would have been ridiculous.

Juan carefully dipped his pen in the inkwell and, with his hand steady despite his chapped and peeling skin and the perpetually heaving deck of the ship, marked out the shape of the small island at what was his best estimate for the distance from the last island he had found. He made another, more jagged mark surrounding the island to indicate the navigation hazard, his only acknowledgement of the human remains he had seen, and then went to note the discovery of the new island in the logbook, only to pause at the unpleasant realization that he was unsure of what date to write down, having completely lost track of the passage of time. Frowning, Juan marked his current place in the logbook with a ribbon and then paged his way towards the front in an attempt to count his way backwards to the last known date, but there were so many undated entries that he had apparently made since arriving in this place, page after page after page after dozens of pages of them. In fact, there seemed to be far too many, more than the book should have been able to hold and yet somehow it did.

He continued paging backwards for several more minutes, only to be interrupted by a familiar voice calling his name. Not even bothering to check the ship's deck around him (because he knew that it would, as always, be empty), Juan looked over the rail, and his frown turned into a full scowl. There, cutting through the water alongside the ship as leisurely as if she were not moving at all instead of matching the ship's current speed of three knots, was another mermaid, just as he was beginning to think he might have seen the last of them.

A mermaid. Others had looked and sounded like his mother, his grandmothers, sisters, aunts, wives of old friends, and sometimes even long-forgotten lovers. This one looked and sounded like his wife had on their wedding day, but their wedding day had been many decades ago, and when last Juan saw his wife she had been as old and grey as he was, so he would not let himself be fooled by this impostor however appealing she might be. This mermaid, like all of the mermaids he had met in this place, was a blatant temptress hoping to use a false face and friendly voice to lure him to his doom. Even as he scowled at her, she spread her arms wide in supplication and, in a perfect imitation of his wife, begged him to abandon his ship and his quest, to slip into the steel grey water and sleep in her embrace forever.

Juan turned away from the railing, back to the empty deck of his ship. The mermaid continued, to call to him, begging and weeping now, as if her nonexistent heart were breaking at his refusal to join her. They always did, sometimes for what felt like days before they gave up. They sounded so piteous that a lesser, more gullible man might believe the mermaids truly sought to bring comfort and peace to his soul as they claimed. Juan was not a lesser man though, so he ignored the noise and returned to his work, only to realize that, with the brief distraction, he had lost track of how many entries he had counted in the logbook. He did not wish to try counting again until after that accursed wailing ceased.

As a matter of expedience, Juan wrote down a question mark for now but left enough room to add the correct date once he had the opportunity to do a full count of the previous entries and calculate it. He was going to have to do it for all those other blank dates anyway, so what was one more added to the pile? He looked to the ship's official hourglass to check the time, only to discover with some annoyance that the sand had run out at some point when he had not been paying attention to it, and no one had marked the occasion with bells and turned the glass as was proper protocol. There was no one but Juan himself to blame for the lapse, seeing as how the shadows that passed for the ship's crew these days did nothing without being specific orders first. However, all was not lost. The sand could not have run out more than a few minutes ago, he was sure of it, and a few minutes' error in the logbook did not matter much in the grand scheme of things, not if it only happened this once. Juan turned the hourglass and made a note of the potential deviation in timekeeping in the logbook.

As he did so, he felt a brief moment of déjà vu, but knew that was only his imagination. Juan brushed the feeling aside. He did not have time for such flights of fancy, not when the island he had just marked on his map was already falling away into the distance behind the ship while the hint of another jagged rock poked its tip above the horizon ahead. Maybe that would be the one which held the Fountain of Life Unending. With determination, Juan replaced the cap on the inkwell and neatened his pile of charts. Then he took his place at the ship's wheel, ignoring the sound his bare finger bones made against the wood as he grasped the wheel firmly and adjusted the ship's course by a fraction of a degree.

In the water alongside the ship, the mermaid continued to weep and call to Juan, promising him peace and reunion with all who held him dear, but he did not heed her. No, Juan could not rest yet, however much he might otherwise wish to, not when he was so close to his goal. Death was not an option. It never would be, because Juan knew that if he just kept searching, he would find a way out of it.

The ship sailed west.

At least, Juan thought it did....