The blasted landscape of Equestria had seen a late afternoon that had lasted for 15 years. The few scattered pockets remaining of normal ponies had only the faintest memories of the concepts of night - of what a sunrise or a sunset looked like. The vicious mutants didn't even have a memory of "The Before Time." For them, late afternoon was simply what was - ever-present waning, reddish light, diffusely spreading across the brown, dead landscape. Stories told them by the monstrous Sweet Apple Acres ponies of 'night' and 'day' were dismissed as obvious lies - attempts to control them, or legends of their monstrous dead goddesses, Celestia and Luna.
In one part of Equestria, that late afternoon sun shone down upon a small town where all records of it ever being called Ponyville were destroyed. It was now simply "The Compound," surrounded by a makeshift wall covered in spikes, to protect it from the unnaturally magical ponies from the Everfree Forest.
Inside the wall, the compound was a mess. Old, broken carts were scattered around the burnt-out shells of buildings. What materials remained were built into barely servicable ramshackle huts and shelters and boarded-up old buildings that looked like they were one good breeze from falling over - not that there had been a wind at any time in the last fifteen years, either.
In roughly the center of the compound, the central square was nearly clear - no shelters or shanties, just piles of refuse blown up into the corners, or up against the base of the massive old dead tree in the middle of the square. Its empty branches clawed at the orange sky, but within lived only a single pony, caretaker of The Machine.
The massive device was cobbled together from scrap metal, jars filled with odd liquids, and a perplexing mass of crystals and shaped wire forms within. She spent her life caring for the machine, coaxing it - replacing burnt-out crystals, fixing bent and twisted wire-forms, trying to get it to eke out just a little more of the dull grey goo which was The Compound's only source of food.
She controlled the food - she had power, but she served the other mutants. They didn't know how to take her - was she slave? Was she master? Well, no. The Master was someone else.
Her name was Broken Spoon, her cutie mark the split bowl of a spoon, with the handle twisted and bent almost double on her flank. Her pelt was a dull purple color, almost grey, and her mane was a pale grey, ragged and half-ripped out. She covered herself with a long, dark black cloak, her hood up over her horn, hiding herself from that constant red sunlight and the accusing eyes of the other mutants.
Not that the other mutants looked any better - but she didn't like being with other ponies. She liked being alone. Being with ponies brought pain. Left alone, she could take care of The Machine, and only see the ponies when passing out the bowls of mush that it dispensed.
And yet, they kept coming to her anyway. "Broken Spoon?" came an uncertain voice from outside. Broken Spoon jumped and closed the book she'd been looking at. She picked it up in her mouth and hurried over to her bookshelf, sliding it onto the shelf and then pulling the metal sheet across it. It looked like just another random jutting on The Machine.
"Who is it?" Broken Spoon called out, her heart thudding fearfully. If anyone caught her with a book ...
Broken Spoon let out a sigh and went to get the first aid kit. "Come in!" she called.
Hoofcutter kicked the door open, entering along with two pegasi of her gang. One was sporting a black eye - the other, a lump on her head.
"Fought the Crusaders, did you?" Broken Spoon asked.
Hoofcutter let out a grunt. "Just fix them up," she demanded.
Broken Spoon let out another sigh. Why did they always come to her to fix them up? Seeing those wounds made a pain ache in her chest - she didn't understand why. Why would it hurt to look at an injury?
"Not as many injuries as usual. Let that white one open her mouth again?"
Hoofcutter swelled up indignantly. "You totally don't know that! Like, maybe we just beat them this time, y'think of that?" Broken Spoon just leveled a flat look at her. Hoofcutter sighed. "Well, she just started ... right out of nowhere ... " She sighed, and hung her head. "I'm a horrible leader."
Broken Spoon shook her head. "No, you're the second toughest pony in the whole compound. Only The Colossal himself is tougher, and he doesn't go out to face the Crusaders. You do."
Broken Spoon took some cloth, carrying it over to The Machine. She ripped out a large square from the cloth and laid it under a spigot, before twisting the handle. Big chunky ice cubes started falling from the spigot, piling up on the cloth. She tied up the corners of each cloth around the ice cubes, making an ice pack. She repeated the process for a second, then brought them both back to put on the black eye and the big lump.
"You don't need to be that way, Hoofcutter," Broken Spoon said firmly, then retreated before Hoofcutter's glare. Hoofcutter's confidence was her strongest asset, but last time she had lost her confidence, she'd been beaten up by every other pony in camp. Not that Broken Spoon cared, she hurried to assure herself - it's just that Broken Spoon, of course, had to bandage up every bruise. "You are, without a doubt, the -" -bravest-
Broken Spoon clutched her head and let out a cry of pain as a sudden headache shot through her temples. Her eyes squeezed tight against the dampness in the corner of her eyes. She had to avoid those words, those thoughts.
"I mean you're awfully -" -dedicated-
She let out another cry of pain. The other ponies used to have the same problem, back in the early days ... but they'd all grown out of it. She was the only one who still got these blinding migraines.
"Stubborn! The most stubborn pony in the compound, and that's why if anyone will defeat the Crusaders, it'll be you! Especially since The Colossal can't be bothered to move his tail out of the compound, and I'm no closer to discovering the origin of magic that those blasted Everfree Ponies keep secret from us!"
HoofCutter snorted, no sign of the self-doubt in her now. "Yeah, sure is taking you long enough," she said rudely, taking the other two pegasi with her as she left.
Broken Spoon let out a sigh of relief. She went over to her hidden bookshelf, uncovering it to reveal her few scraggly books that she'd salvaged from the ruin of this tree. She took one of the books in her teeth and turned back to the table, kicking at the metal to push it back shut over the bookcase. Where had she been? Ah well, didn't matter.
She fumbled at the book with her hooves, trying to turn the delicate pages with great care. No, wait. Perhaps this time ...
She planted her hooves on either side of the book, lowering her horn over the cover and straining, pushing, striving, her tense muscles a reflection of the mental strain she was putting herself under. Her horn sparked and sputtered fitfully. "Oh, please ... come on ..." Her horn faltered, then suddenly glowed with a soft purple light.
Yes! YES! She was doing it! Understanding started to fill her, rushing from some clouded piece in the back of her head. The book surrounded itself with a weak, grey light, the cover fluttered, then lifted, opened, the pages flipping past. Broken spoon felt a surge of joy and pride. She'd done it! She'd used magic!
Blinding, dreadful pain speared through her head, dropping her to the floor as she pressed her forehooves to her temples helplessly. The tears flooding down her face weren't for the pain, though - it was the way the understanding and memory were wiped from her brain as the migraine shot through her. For just a moment, it'd all crystalized ... but every time, every time ... it disappeared. Next time ... next time, she'd remember. This couldn't happen every time she finally made magic work, right?
She didn't even hear the door opening and closing, caught up in the pain and fury, until she saw the hooves before her eyes. Up, up her eyes went, to the towering royal pony before her. His coat was the pale off-white color of bones, and his tail and mane seemed to drip, drip, drip down his flanks, his pale coat, like it was freshly drawn blood. His horn was long and seemed to be made of bone itself, and his huge wings fluttered at his sides, unable to fully spread even in the large room. From his coloration, a pony would expect him to be skeletal, but he was powerfully built, and over three times as tall than any other pony she'd ever seen. Incongruously, on his back, was a small pony wrapped up in black cloth, twisted and wracked, with only a single hoof reaching out to steady himself on the massive stallion's back. She knew that the one leg was all he had left.
"C ... C ... Colossal!"
"That's MASTER Colossal!" screamed the tiny, twisted pony on the Colossal's back. "The MASTER is the important part! My magnificent mind is far superior to even his powerful body! The Colossal is simply my slave! Isn't that right, Colossal?"
The royal pony nodded his head obediently. "Eeeyup," he said, his voice low, dangerous.
"I ... I beg your apologies, G-Great and Powerful Master Colossal! I was surprised... y-you're early!" Broken Spoon cowered down, her chin pressed to the floor.
"Well," said the self-absorbed voice of the small, twisted pony on Colossal's back. "I felt like a victory snack. I found something that should finally end my miserable agony and entrapment in this time - " He cut himself off, and his voice changed to the eager, unctuous tone that he always used before hurting somepony. "Now ... what is *that*?"
Broken Spoon cowered even closer to the floor, preparing for more pain - this time, from her master. "Itsa... itsa... it's a b-book, M-master..."
"And ... how do I feel about books?"
"You b-banned them, Master. But ... but I thought ... "
"Mmmmhmmm... and were you able to read this book?"
"No, m-master, but I thought, if I could, it might have something that would allow me to improve the machine!"
"Are you too stupid to figure it out on your own? I already gave you all the help you should need. I've got it making my dinner, after all."
"B-but you're too early! It's not done yet!"
"Give me what there is. I'll pick up the rest later... maybe if you weren't so incredibly backwards, you'd get it working more efficiently."
Broken Spoon scrambled to her hooves and tried to hurry to the machine. Still unsteady from the horrible migraine that'd incapacitated her, she found her legs wobbling, her course veering to the side. She plowed right into the side of the machine, bounced off, and stood there, legs trembling as she shook her head quickly to try to clear it.
"Awww... does it still hurt?" came Master's mocking voice. "Perhaps your tiny brain wasn't meant for such difficult work ..."
"N-no. As you say, Master." But in the back of her mind, she thought, /* Yes it was. Yes, I'm meant to do magic! I know it! */ And for some reason, that didn't trigger the headaches!
She got to the back of the machine, the output closest to the power core, and carefully unscrewed one of the taps, then gave a tug. A compartment opened, revealing a small pile of carrots - a little withered, but there, under the glowing radiance of several small, yellow crystals. She took a tongs between her teeth and pulled the carrots out, carefully. They smelled ... so GOOD. Her mouth watered as she set them on a plate, and carried the plate over to Master Colossal. He was the only one who didn't have to eat the gray mush. The majority of the magic that this machine could generate went towards making those few withered bits of real food for Master and the Colossal. "Here you are, Master," she said, softly, laying them down on the table, next to the forbidden book.
The Colossal didn't move to take them, yet, and Master's mocking voice said, "now, broken little pony... do you know why, despite all the times you have worked against me, I let you live?"
Broken Spoon shook her head, shivering, her head lowered. The previous punishments had ... hurt. A lot. Fear coursed through her. But he needed her. Who else would run the machines?
"Because I think the delicious pain I saw on your face when I came in is more exquisite than any torture I could put you through. To watch you try and fail, time and again, just because you're so broken and useless... it is a small joy for me."
The fear disappeared, replaced with pure rage. He would underestimate her, perhaps, but she would triumph! She would show him! She was not weak, or useless, she was -
The pain exploded through her head and she dropped to the floor, clutching at her head. Why?! She hadn't tried to use magic! She'd never felt such a terrible migraine, and she writhed on the floor, in horrible agony. Why?! Why did it hurt! She wasn't using a forbidden word! She wasn't even trying to use magic! She was just going to say her name! Her ...
She hadn't been going to say Broken Spoon ... what was she going to say? She couldn't remember!
She sobbed, painfully, in the hollowed out shell of the old library, as the Colossal lowered his horn and set the open book on fire with a small spark of magic, then levitated up the plate of carrots and walked out the door. She sobbed after he left, and this time it was solely for the pain, because she no longer despaired. She'd long ago figured that the pain had to do with the source of magic, and the worse that it was, the closer she got to figuring out the truth.
But why would her name be so very, very painful? And why wasn't her name Broken Spoon?
She got up, and stumbled over to the machine. She opened another secret compartment under the one she'd opened to get out Master Colossal's 'snack', and pulled out the tiny, withered apple concealed within. Her teeth bit into it, and she devoured it as fast as she could, core and all, crunching it hungrily and quickly. Only Master Colossal was allowed to eat *real* food ... but she ran the machine. She held the books. Ponies came to her, not Colossal, for help. And she was closer to understanding the secrets of those horrible magical ponies than any other - closer to figuring out how to use magic ... although ... Colossal could use magic. And she would continue to disobey him in every little way she could.
They wouldn't break her. Not Master, not Colossal, not all the ponies in the world, could break her. Not even the headaches that kept her from the truth would break her. What was the magic? She had her clue now. There was no Broken Spoon. Only understand that, and she could do anything.