Red 7 wandered across the desert, the weight on his back forcing each step deep into the sands. He’d been out here for weeks, searching for another to carry his burden. Not just anyone would do such a kindness for him–he needed to find someone one who was like him in some way, in color or number. A blue 7 perhaps, or a red 2 or 5. The desert played tricks on him, and illusory travelers appeared in hazy mirages, just beyond his reach.
The desert wind, formerly at his back, reversed suddenly, blowing the stinging grains of sand into his face. The winds of the desert reversed with frustrating regularity, leaving him in a perpetual state of disorientation. He began to stride in another direction. He had long since despaired of ever finding a way out of this blistering hellscape.
“You there!” Red 7 turned. He dared not trust his eyes…could it be? Towards him, down the slope of a dune, came another traveller, one who appeared–though it might have been mere hope tricking his eyes–to be red as well. Red 7 held his breath. He had been fooled before–caravans that had approached, only to skip past him, leaving him alone.
“Please, you must allow me to help you with that,” said the stranger.
Red 7 could scarce believe his fortune, until he saw the number of his rescuer. Red 0. He whispered a silent prayer of thanks to the Dealer. He’d always decried the Zeroed Brethren as a bunch of foolish religious zealots, but now, it was one of their number who’d come to rescue him from his burden. “Thank you,” he whispered, through parched lips.
The 0 watched him, as if waiting for something. Red 7 racked his mind. He thought he remembered something about the Zeroed Brethren…some sort of ritual or invocation that they followed, but what was it?
“Uno,” said the Red 0, with a sad expression on his face. “I’m sorry, my friend. I thought you had faith. But I see I was wrong. I pray that The One Who Is Taken Away shows mercy on your soul.” And, leaving Red 7 with his burden, the 0 rose into the air, ascending over the whirling sandstorm.
Red 7 screamed and cursed at the desert. It wasn’t fair. None of it was fair. The scientists were right–there was no reason or justice in the world, only the cruel caprices of chance. He kicked angrily at the desert sand.
His foot struck something solid, buried beneath the surface. Reaching down, he pulled a bronzed lamp from the ground, its polish dulled by the scratch of a thousand tiny grains. He rubbed the lamp to see if he could make it shine.
At his touch, the lamp began to shudder in his hands, and a shape, as of flame or steam, issued forth from the spout. It coalesced until it appeared almost human. As its form solidified, he saw that it took the shape of a woman–and oh, what a woman she was–a masterwork of elegant curves, each movement flowing with unutterable grace. Red 7 thought he was surely going mad.
“You have freed me from my prison,” the woman cooed, her voice as smooth as dripping honey. “What boon would you ask of me?” Her hue seemed to change with every word, cycling, red, blue, green, yellow, an unending carousel of color.
Red 7 had heard stories of the Wild Ones, but had never believed them. He’d always considered them no more than fabulous tales of magic and fantasy. The Wild Ones were often portrayed as being fickle and mischievous, but were known to look favorably upon those who helped them. It was said that a Wild One might grant your heart’s purest wish, or your soul’s darkest desire.
“I too seek an escape,” said Red 7. “I would rid myself of this burden, but there are none like me in this desert to take it from me. Can you help me?”
The Wild One looked at him with a coquettish smile. “I can…” She came toward him, stretching one hand out to tease along the back of his neck. “But such gifts come with a price.” He felt her warm breath against his cheek as she whispered in his ear. “Are you prepared to pay it?”
“Yes,” he said, thinking that this price might well have been another man’s first wish. He closed his eyes, and she kissed him, deeply. Her tongue was as delicate as a wisp of cloud as it played across his lips.
And then he felt a curious heat begin to wash over him. It started at the point where her lips met his, but spread outward, through his face and down his back, along each arm and leg, gentle at first, but building into an almost electric fire. It crackled through him until he thought he could take no more…and then the Wild One released him and the fire stopped.
“There,” she said. “Perhaps the desert will look upon you more favorably in this form.”
Red 7 looked down at himself–and saw that he was Red 7 no longer. The Wild One had changed him, and his skin was now a verdant shade of green. His number was changed as well, from 7 to 5. He was shocked…but also a twinge relieved. Greens were much more common in the desert, and he had met many fives on his journey. “Thank you,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” said The Wild One, grinning wickedly at him. “But as I said, there is always a price.”
Red 7–now Green 5–felt the burden on his back shift. The weight seemed to grow, and his sandaled feet sunk deeper into the sand.
“I have changed you,” said the Wild One, “But in drawing forth the power, I have also multiplied your burden fourfold.” She laughed as her form dissembled into vapor. “Best of luck on your travels.”
“No! Come back!” The weight grew, forcing him down with each step. The sand covered his ankle…then his knees…then his hips. “You can’t do this! Help!”
“What troubles you, stranger?”
With effort, he turned to see who now spoke. Another wandered had come across, and thank the Dealer, he was red! “Please! You must help me!”
“And why should I do that?”
“I call upon your honor and duty as a fellow red!” The sand was up to his chest now.
The red wanderer laughed. “The sun has stolen your mind,” he said. “Although, as you are a green, I imagine you had little enough to lose.” And without further ceremony, he strode away.
“No! I’m not green!” He was buried up to his neck, the desert devouring him inch by inch. “The Wild One, she tricked me! I was red, like you! I’m just like you!” He no longer cried out in speech, only in desperate, wordless pleading, struggling helplessly under his growing burden as the endless desert sands gently silenced his screams.