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Karon woke up slowly, his eyes gradually opening millimeter by millimeter. When his blurry vision cleared, he saw that he was laying on a mattress on a wooden floor. Next to him was Twilight with her forelegs draped around him protectively.
He remained still and watched her sleep, her chest rising and falling with calm breaths. Whatever effect experiencing Erik's memories had had on her wasn't affecting her sleep apparently, and it brought Karon some relief to see that she'd been spared in that regard.
Eriks' memories; that was how he thought of them. Not his, not Karon's. There was a feeling of displacement, like he was still getting used to the idea of who he was, but the more he thought about it, the more he realized he hadn't been Erik for a very long time. The boy who had burned his life to the ground, the boy who had apprenticed under Varsif, was dead. He had been dying for years. Ever since he lost his family, he had, little by little, lost himself to the pain and despair. Until eventually he had left Varsif, and alone with only his desperate need to see his family again, he had slowly lost his identity until he simply became 'the mage'.
That had changed with Loke. Something had awakened in Erik from the tragedy, and it had changed him. It had stayed dormant within him even after the fire – Erik had been focused singularly on his family after all – but as Erik slowly died, it was given the chance to grow, and Loke had seen this. He had felt it when the mage had sent out his calling within the void, and, seeing the opportunity, he had chosen to answer. He had tricked the mage, and through his trickery he had granted Karon a chance to be born.
Loke had seen the conflict within him and had seen Erik's desperation, how it was whittling him away bit by bit. He had seen 'the mage's' empty obsession, and he had seen the seed that was Karon. So he had broken down 'the mage's' body and reshaped it as he saw fit. Karon nearly snorted when he remembered the explanation that Loke had given him about the body being Karon's ideal self image. It was another lie. Loke had shaped Karon's body in his image, the image of a trickster. The first step towards killing Erik and 'the mage', and allowing Karon to emerge.
In hindsight it was all so obvious. The only reason he hadn't seen it then was simply because he had been too busy tormenting himself and finding distractions.
What part destiny had played in it he didn't know. Most likely there was simply a need for a Karon, and Loke went with it because he liked the idea of helping another trickster come into being. That, or maybe he had just been bored. It didn't matter, as he had given Karon the chance to truly be born. Erik was dead, as was 'the mage'. Karon had outgrown them.
And it had been thanks to this world. It had been thanks to the challenges he had faced in Equestria and beyond. It had been thanks to the kindness and joy he had seen and been allowed to share in with Applejack, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy and even Rainbow Dash. It had been thanks to Lyra's friendship and Feather Touch's goodness, and Trixie's need for someone to love and be loved by.
And perhaps most importantly, it had been because of Twilight. Through the hope he had seen in her eyes, she had shown him that even in the empty void, there can still exist the strength to become more than a slave to your past mistakes, and that the fear of what would destroy you can be denied.
He smiled at the purple unicorn sleeping peacefully, and he leaned in and kissed her carefully on the lips. Then he rose from the mattress and took a closer look around, and after a few seconds he realized they were in Fluttershy's house.
Twilight must have taken him there after the connection between their minds had been severed. He didn't remember all of it. After the memories had been unleashed, he had not been lucid, and the only things he could remember were the intense pain and Twilight's eyes reminding him to be strong.
He walked over to a canister standing on the kitchen table, and after sniffing the contents and determining it was water, he drank from it. The water flowed down his throat and settled in his stomach, its cool presence soothing whatever frayed nerves that remained. Inside he didn't feel anything else besides a sense of … emptiness. Not the emptiness of the void, but the emptiness left after an intense release. The quiet calm after the storm.
It felt like a scab had been removed, and that he was just now realizing how it felt to be without it. It was the guilt and torment that had festered within him and grown to a part of who he had been, and now that it was gone, he could feel the difference and what it meant. He was Karon, and he was free.
The thought was so simple, but therein laid so many possibilities that it baffled his mind. He was free to pursue his life without the weight of a troubled past bearing down on him, free to enjoy or suffer whatever experiences he sought. He could very well end up causing another great tragedy like the one before, but the risk of something like that happening was a part of the freedom, and should it ever occur again, he would not be broken by it.
He was Karon the trickster, and his way laid open for him.
“Dramatic, but you also know what that means.”
He did, and Karon stared down into the canister and looked into the water thoughtfully.
“It's not very fair.”
“Life, remember? It is what it is, and considering all the things we've had to face, I've gotta say that there were far worse endings than this one.”
“One ending, one new beginning.”
“Still ... it's disrespectful towards her considering all she has done for us.”
“Twilight has her own role to play, and we have no more of a place around here than Discord had. What would have happened in all the places we've been to if there hadn't been great conflicts for us to meddle in?”
Karon sighed and put the canister back down, and the water inside rippled with the movement.
“If there had been no conflict, we would have created one sooner or later.”
“It's our nature, and someone like that has no place here in Ponyville or with Twilight.”
“So we'll leave them again.”
Karon turned his face and looked at the sleeping Twilight. There were no words meaningful enough to describe what she had done for him. Not by healing him or talking to him. It had been through no magic that she had helped him. She had merely served as the example, and that had been enough.
He wanted to leave this knowledge with her, to let her know that it was not through any fault of hers that he had to leave. He walked over to a nearby table where there stood an inkwell and quill right next to a pile of paper. He took the quill and kept it hovering over one of the parchments uncertainly, having no idea where to start.
Then a smile crept unto his face, and he remembered that a lot – if not all – of Twilight's friendship reports had been lost in the fire – unless Celestia kept copies. Also, there was something fitting about Karon adding this one piece of what he had learned during his stay on the world of the ponies.
So he put the quill against the paper, and wrote:
Dear Princess Celestia,
I've learned that sometimes even the tiniest of actions can have enormous consequences, and a mistake made in naïve innocence or childish carelessness can led to something beyond horrible. But I've also learned that no matter how much you suffer because of it, living in pain is a choice.
Sometimes you might forget how to look beyond it, but that doesn't change the fact that the pain only lasts because you choose to hold on to it, and if it has ever gone so far that you don't know how you'll ever let go of it, then there will always be others to show you the way. Not to take the pain away from you, but to show you how you can do it for yourself and that the joy of living is always within reach for those that dare to desire it.
Karon blew a little on the paper to make the ink dry, then read through it with a careful eye. It was short, but Karon doubted he would be able to properly explain all of it no matter how many words he used. Some truths can not be told, they can only be felt in silence.
But his small addition to the collection of friendship reports was not enough, not for Twilight. So he dipped the quill in the ink again and picked another parchment and started writing.
I don't know exactly how I am supposed to write this down without it sounding hollow and pointless, but I need to say something as a good bye. You have been closer to me than I think any other being ever has – you literally lived inside my mind for a time – and now you've seen what I did my best to keep hidden from even myself.
You have been close to me Twilight, and it is thanks to you that I could be freed from my past. Loke might have been the one that sent me here, and I have had a lot of help along the way from others, but at its core I owe it all to you. Before I arrived in Equestria I was not Karon in any other way than some small dream locked away inside the shell of a man I once was. You made me real Twilight, and for that I will always love you.
I never really understood the meaning of friendship before meeting you either, but now as you have looked into the darkest parts of my past and still did not abandon me, I understand. You are a true friend and I will carry the lessons you have taught me close in my heart wherever my road may lead me. But I need to go, I don't belong here. Perhaps it isn't just that I don't, but it doesn't change anything. I wish you and all the other ponies as much out of life as you can possibly have, and if fate is kind (or I find a way to trick it), I will get to see all of you again.
Your friend, Karon
He blew on the ink as before and put the quill away. It wouldn't be enough to spare her from grief, nothing would. She would be disappointed and hurt that he had left her once again without even saying farewell in person. But it couldn't be avoided, so Karon walked over to the sleeping unicorn and looked down at her with a sad smile on his lips. He wished he would get the chance to see her some time again before he died, so he could see how she would grow – how they would all grow – without him interfering in their lives.
He took a blanket from the couch and tucked her in tightly, then without a word, he walked out the door and left the cottage behind, grabbing Promise on the way out. The path towards Ponyville was clear in the dawning light of the rising sun, and the quiet calm was only interrupted by birdsong. He knew that there would be a train leaving about once every hour beginning from dawn, so hopefully he would be back with Trixie before the day was over.
He phased in and out of invisibility as he moved from place to place. The last thing he needed was to run into anypony that recognized him. On the way towards the train station, Karon kept looking over his shoulder since a tingling in his spine was telling him that someone was trying to focus their attention on him. However, no matter how hard he tried to spot anyone watching, he failed to do so.
The mystery was solved when he arrived at the train station, and saw a familiar pink blur zipping from place to place in a frantic search.
Karon dropped the invisibility, buckling beneath the pressure of the Pinkie's focused attention, and came into view standing just beside her.
“Looking for something?” he asked and held back his laughter when the pony flew up into the air and span around several times before crashing down to the ground on her back.
She stared at him upside down, and a huge grin spread over her face.
“Hi Karon! I was trying to find you here, but I couldn't find you, but that's okay because you found me instead!” she said with a giggle and bounced up into a standing position.
“What made you think I would be here?” Karon asked with a raised eyebrow.
“My Pinkie sense woke me up and said you were going to leave again,” she told him.
“I thought the Pinkie sense wasn't specific?”
“It usually isn't, but when my ears get spunky and my tail twitches the Equestrian national anthem while my left hoof gets itchy, that means that Karon is going to leave.”
“Great, now I have a Pinkie sense sequence.”
“Uh, why does your Pinkie sense have something just for that?”
“Because you've left us like a million times now, duh! Anyway, I guessed you would be here at the train station since Canterlot is really far away so I started looking, and here you are now.”
“And what do you want Pinkie?” he asked with as much calm as possible. The last thing he wanted was for her to plead with him to stay or cause a heart rendering scene making full use of her pony cuteness.
Thankfully she did neither.
“I just wanted to say good bye, and hear you promise that you'll come back again some time,” she said with huge eyes of blue.
Karon swallowed hard when those eyes reminded him of another similar pair, and he found himself unable to just outright deny her. Even so, he hesitated in making such a promise. He could lie of course, but in this particular case it felt like a coward's way out.
“I promise I will come back one day if I can,” he said as a compromise, hoping it would be enough to placate her.
Pinkie's eyes turned sly and she asked again in a sweet voice.
Karon sighed and rolled his eyes before answering.
“Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye.”
Pinkie's eyes widened even further after he had dutifully sworn the sacred promise, and somewhere in the back of Karon's mind where his animal instincts resided, he heard a voice saying it would go very bad for him if he ever broke that promise. Even if it was because he had died. Such a thing would not be a valid excuse to Pinkie, and it wouldn't keep him safe from her either.
The train arrived soon after, but the small window of time was big enough for Pinkie to squeeze in a rambling conversation ranging from topics such as chocolate vs. vanilla or if alligators could wear hats like Karon. The result of this was that as soon as the train had arrived, Karon was on it, and doing his damn best to ignore the pony jumping up and down on the other side of the window waving at him. It hadn't stopped him from giving her a goodbye hug though.
Eventually the train left and he spent the journey towards Canterlot looking out the window, and enjoying the bittersweet emotions he felt. Despite his sadness over leaving Ponyville again, he felt a much grander sense of joy overshadowing it. This was only the beginning. He had been stuck in a loop because of the memories and the small shreds of Erik that still clung to life; without them he was now ready for so much more.
When he arrived in Canterlot it was growing late, and, with a bit of effort, he was able to slink through the city towards the palace without being gawked at. As soon as the guards at the gate saw him, they called one of their colleagues over and Karon was taken straight to the princesses. He very much doubted he would have to report his success in taking care of Discord since the lack of chocolate rain should be enough of a hint.
He was taken to the throne room, where both the princesses were gathered together with a familiar figure. Karon was left standing in the doorway staring at Varsif who was sitting cross legged on the floor while talking to the two alicorn princesses like it was nothing out of the ordinary for him.
He finished what he was saying, and both Celestia and Luna burst into loud laughter, then he turned his head around and faced Karon.
“Are you going to stand there gawking for much longer? I have things to do,” the old wizard said and waved him over.
Karon slammed his mouth shut and walked over to the trio. On the way, Celestia turned to one of her guards standing close by and asked him to tell Trixie that Karon was back. Luna shifted her eyes between Karon and Varsif, and her fascination with the old man was written plainly across her face.
The wizard rose up and rolled his shoulders gingerly when Karon stopped in front of them, and the two princesses followed. Karon was unsure of what to say, so he settled for a simple question.
“What are you doing here?”
“Isn't it obvious?” the old man responded with a twinkle in his eyes. “I'm here to offer you your old place as my student.”
The answer left the entire hall in total silence, where Varsif and the two princesses waited patiently for Karon to get his bearings and respond. It took a long time before that happened, and Trixie managed to arrive before Karon had gotten even halfway there. So instead, he blinked in surprise when a light blue torpedo hit him right in the back and brought him down to the floor. Before Karon could recover, Trixie had forced her lips hard into his and held them there until he started to kiss her back. They both hung suspended in time until the sound of a throat being cleared brought them back.
Trixie backed off Karon with an embarrassed smile, and he rose from the floor with an annoyed look on his face. If it was for the unexpected assault or the fact that it had been interrupted wasn't clear, but the unexpected kiss had brought him out of his stupor, and after he gave Trixie a loving smile, he turned to Varsif.
“Why would you do that?” he asked the wizard.
“You've dealt with that irritating door of yours, so I can now resume teaching you in good conscience knowing you might not snap one day and destroy Earth or something equally dramatic.”
“And how did you know I had faced what was behind the door?” Karon asked, already knowing what the response would be.
“I have kept an eye on you, as you well know, and I'm not the only one for the record. You've gotten quite popular ever since you turned towards the path of Karon.”
“You knew about that?”
“Please, I'm a wizard.”
Karon snorted and shook his head with a smile. It didn't come as a surprise that the old man had kept him under watch, and he already knew others were keeping interested eyes on him as well, but the offer left him standing on yet another crossroads that might lead in many different directions. Should he go with Varsif and take up his old training? Or should he remain in Equus?
“Before this conversation is taken any further, I would like to ask, what happened with Discord?” Celestia inquired.
A guilty look flashed across Karon's face, but it lasted for less than a second and neither alicorn caught it. The wizard on the other hand seemed to have done so, but he didn't say anything.
“I took care of Discord for good, you will never see him again. Please don't ask for more than that,” Karon said, and Trixie put a hoof on his shoulder when she heard the weariness in his voice.
Celestia obviously wanted to ask something further, but Luna gave her a quick glance that said otherwise. The princess of the night knew the trickster a little better than her sister, and evidently this was enough for Celestia. She nodded in understanding and asked instead, “What about the elements? What of Twilight and her friends?”
“They're fine, though Twilight's library was burnt to the ground. You should probably send somepony to fix that.”
The princess looked worried at the news, but she didn't ask anything else.
“Well, what will it be?” Varsif said with a hint of impatience.
Karon swallowed and looked down to Trixie, and the unicorn looked up at him with confusion.
“Varsif is offering me my old place as his student. He's offering to take me back to earth and finish my study with him,” Karon explained.
“But … what about me?” she asked fearfully.
“I'm not planning on leaving you,” Karon told her firmly.
“We've done enough of that for one day.”
“So you want me to go with you?”
“So you've made your decision then?” Varsif asked him.
“You know what I was going to say already old man. I was sent to this place for a reason and now that it's done, my time here is over.”
“Indeed it is, but I was concerned that you might have formed attachments here that might make it hard for you to leave,” the wizard said with brows slightly raised in question.
“I have, but I have learned how dangerous holding on to something you should let go of can be. If I stayed, it wouldn't lead to anything good sooner or later.”
“So what about her?” the wizard asked with a nod to Trixie.
Karon looked down at the unicorn and smiled down at her.
“Remember what I once promised you Trixie? When I was trying to convince you to become my apprentice and call me master?”
“YOU TOOK AN APPRENTICE!?” Varsif bellowed, and the walls shook with the power that trickled into his voice.
“It was just teaching her a few basics, nothing more,” Karon reassured him quickly.
The wizard calmed at the words, and Karon turned back to the unicorn.
“Yes, I remember,” she said to him.
“This is your chance. 'Do you want to dance in creation itself? Do you want to see all that life and death holds within their domain? Is the path of the arts truly what you want? To have tea and biscuits with gods and goddesses, to listen to demons and angels and spirits, to soar together with dragons, and look at eternity and see its course. To see what dwells within yourself, to call out to the ancient and that which is to come, to seek the divine and be welcomed to it with open arms.' That is what I asked you. It is the exact same words Varsif spoke when he first offered me a place as his student, and they still hold true.”
Trixie looked up at him with a hunger igniting in her eyes, and she slowly nodded. In that nod laid a powerful decision, and the brink Karon had been standing on vanished. Their course was set, their road was chosen.
“Okay … it's time to go home it seems,” he said to Varsif, and the old man looked pleased.
“Not that I wish to interfere, but isn't this a hasty decision? Surely there is time for you to consider what you wish to do thoroughly?” Celestia said and looked between those gathered with something uncertain in her eyes.
It surprised Karon to see her like that, but he laughed it off and smiled when he answered her.
“Tia, this might look like a hasty decision, but it has been coming for years now. The only thing that's changed about what's always been meant to happen is that I won't have to go alone,” he said and put a hand on Trixie's back.
The alicorn princess looked like she wanted to say something, to object for whatever reason, but she held her silence and seemed to accept the situation. Varsif huffed with impatience at this point, and made a quick cutting motion with his hand, and a gateway was swiftly cut through the very fabric of the dimension.
Karon eyes boggled at the display, and he was once again reminded of the fact that he was nothing compared to some of the practitioners out there. That in turn made him confident that returning to Varsif as an apprentice was the right choice, especially now that Trixie would go with him and that Lyra was already on Earth.
He had gotten rid of something bad here in Equestria, and he wouldn't leave without something good to take its place.
With a polite bow of farewell towards the princesses, Varsif entered into the portal and disappeared. Celestia took one step towards Karon and opened her mouth, but no words came out and she closed it after a few seconds of silence.
Karon and Trixie both looked at her strangely, but whatever it was the princess had on her mind, she had just lost the chance to say it. Instead she settled for giving Karon a quick smile and simply told him, “Thank you Karon, for everything you have done for us.”
“You're welcome, and thank you for everything you have given me.”
“I bid you farewell too Karon, and I hope your future will be bright,” Luna said with a smile.
With one last look between one another, Trixie and Karon slowly walked up to the portal, but before they entered, Karon hesitated and turned to the two princesses.
“They're waiting for you, you know? The ghosts of your parents are waiting. The entire kingdom that once fell is waiting for you to return. I know it hurts, I really really do, but you must go back and face it at some point. So just remember, they're waiting for you.”
Karon saw the war that started raging on their faces the moment the words left his lips, and it hurt him to see. He knew all too well what they were experiencing, so with a final smile, he turned away from them and walked through the gate with Trixie at his side, their first steps on the starlit path he had once promised her.
The silence stretched out for long after the strange gateway had closed, and Luna had her eyes fixed on her sister. Tia was busy staring down at the floor, and she didn't notice her sister's gaze until she finally looked up.
“What is it?” she asked carefully.
“Why didn't you tell him?” Luna challenged.
“I … I didn't feel it was the time for it. He has already faced enough, and I didn't want to burden him with more conflict now that he seems to have found some small measure of peace.”
“Don't you think this is something he deserves to know? Even if it would be a burden upon him?” Luna persisted.
Celestia sighed deeply and looked at the throne, her mind distant.
“Maybe I made a mistake not telling him, but it hasn't changed anything.”
“It would prepare him, it would keep it from taking him entirely by surprise.”
“He understands already that he isn't done with our world. There is still a piece of Equestria within him, and the blessing of the old forest has marked his spirit. He knows he will return here eventually.”
“You should still have told him,” Luna said angrily.
“What would you have had me say? Should I have told him that Discord wasn't the great threat I have felt coming for a long time now? Should I have told him that what I have sensed coming is something I also sensed in him?”
“It would have been right,” Luna told her sister with conviction.
“I couldn't Luna. I couldn't look at him and say something so awful now that he is no longer so tortured. He's free of what has been stalking us for thousands of years.”
“He will return some day Tia, and it will be our fault if he doesn't understand what his actions will do.”
“I know, and I hope that when the time comes for his return, he will come to save us.”
“And if what you fear comes to pass?” Luna said with worry in her eyes.
“Then he will return to end us.”
The sequel to Machinations of a Tricksters, Starlit Path, is now up. You can find it here, Starlit Path