The Fate of Fortune

– The Fate of Fortune –

By John C. Wright

*** *** ***

Then say how hope and fear, desire and hate,
O’erspread with snares the clouded maze of fate,
Where wavering man, betrayed by venturous pride
To tread the dreary paths without a guide,
As treacherous phantoms in the mist delude,
Shuns fancied ills, or chases airy good

— Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Table of Contents so far

*** *** ***

1. Futile Wishes

“You said seven wishes. Not three. No contract in blood? I don’t need to sell my soul?”

A thing shaped like a man stood swaying in the pentagram, surrounded by the burning candles and the diagrams of drying blood. It was dressed like a television preacher, wearing a black jacket and a white high collar. Its eyes were wild with frenzied hatred, insanity, and lust; but the pale white face was frozen and controlled, and the thin lips twisted in sardonic smile.

It spoke in a voice like a man’s voice: “Indeed, Professor, seven wishes and no more shall I bestow. Three will not suffice. The wit of man has grown as ages pass: he needs more rope whereby to hang himself.”

The computer lab was dark at midnight, except for the flickering of tallow candles, and the green glow on the screens which held the diagrams and lines of text, and the thirteen Sanskrit syllables of the Forbidden Name.

Professor Manfred Fortune had dipped the candles all himself, out of boiled fat taken from the corpses stored in the medical studies building. Now, as the ancient text had promised, the entity had manifested, and the candles blew and flickered, the unwashed windows trembled in their frames. In wild circles round the lab now flew the scattered and ungraded papers from Comparative Medieval Lit.

Fortune had kept them in his old, cracked, leather briefcase, the same case from which he’d taken his thurible, and athame, his wand, and his copy of the Gospel of Thomas laboriously re-written, all by hand, from back to front in mirror-writing.

In a corner, legs still twitching, was the corpse of his wife’s lap-dog, disemboweled. From it the blood to draw the diagrams had come.

On one of the desks, Fortune had erected his apparatus. In a cleared space in the center of the room, the bloody diagrams had been drawn on the wood floor. Beyond the dog was a mop and bucket from the janitorial closet Fortune had gotten so that he might clean up afterwards.

Professor Fortune was forty, balding, overweight. A thin tie draggled down his drooping shirt. With shaking hands, now he lifted up his camera.

The creature raised a pale and slender hand.

“Professor, attend me. Three stern restrictions hem in the seven wishes, which may not for any cause ever be overstepped, no, not even by so little as the thickness of a hair.

“First, you may wish for nothing which would stand to prove to skeptics we exist. We are a hidden people; and it serves us well to so remain.

“Second, Our power cannot impose upon or overcome the human will; by ancient gift of Our Great Enemy, human will is free, and may know both evil and know good.

“Third, the wishes must serve your pleasure for yourself; you cannot wish another good, unless you benefit by it as well.”

Fortune licked his lips, reluctantly lowering the camera. “If I ask a clarifying question, does that count as a wish?”

“It does.” the creature said. “Six wishes now remain to you. You might have had all the gold of India, won the lust of every unwed maiden of the west, with that same breath you wasted.”

“That’s not fair!” Fortune stuttered.

“My dear! If fair treatment were what you craved, you would have applied to Our Great Enemy. The omnipotent tyrant of Heaven makes justice His most supreme concern; it is no concern of ours.” Fortune noticed that the thing’s teeth, which had been normal but a moment before, now seemed strangely sharp, like fangs.

Fortune was angry. But he knew the myths and fairytales, and had expected trickery; unlike the foolish people in the myths, however, Fortune had thought the matter through, not once, but many times, and written out the wording he wanted.

“Let me get my notebook.” he muttered, reaching for his back pocket. The little book slid up from his pocket, jumped up, and fell into his hand.

“Granted!” The creature said. “Darling man! Though why you ask so small a thing, I do not know, when, with the same breath, you could have been crowned the emperor of all the lands and peoples Nero and Caligula once ruled. Five wishes alone remain.” The creature made a gleeful finger-flickering gesture in the air, wiggling and waving his long digits. The fingers had elongated alarmingly, and the flesh of its fingertips grew hard and pointed.

Fortune calmed himself by taking deep, shuddering breaths. He had expected trickery, yes, but not so bald, not so obviously unjust.

He said nothing more, but leafed through the notebook. Now he read; “I wish for happiness, according to my definition of happiness, including, but not limited to, freedom from turbulence, emotional turmoil, despair, boredom, exhaustion, or ennui, either for myself or any I others I choose to include, with a life abundant with those things productive of happiness, such as, but not limited to, long life, wealth, freedom from accidents or calamities…”

“Stop.” The creature said. “Alas, my poppet, my prize! The wish is wasted. You have wished for happiness: that is a matter falling within the scope of human will. Whether you are happy or unhappy with your lot is your doing, and not granted nor removed by powers such as mine. And I have said seven wishes only shall be yours; you shall not have more by wishing for more wishes, nor by asking many wishes phrased as one. Your words are worthless air. Four wishes remain, and, you have, as yet, gained nothing whatsoever.” The eyes of the creature now gleamed like blind black pearls. Every part of its hideous eyes were black, with no white and no color to be seen in them.

Fortune carefully studied his notebook. He took out a pen, and wrote several versions and variations of the wording of his next wish.

He knew, he was sure, he could outsmart the system. There had to be a way…

Many minutes went by. The creature watched him through black, beastlike eyes, making no sound or motion.

Finally Fortune read: “I wish that all wishes, including this one, be granted fairly, openly, and honestly, in good faith, with prior full disclosure of any hidden prices, hidden traps, catches, conditions, side effects, or anything else whatsoever, which would tend to thwart what I imagine to be the spirit, intent, and purpose of the wish, including, but not limited to, ambiguities of wording (which in all cases must be resolved in my favor), or contradictions of one of the three strictures you have identified; such that, if anything arises beforehand which may tend to thwart the wish, I be clearly warned, and the wish be, at my option, altered, modified, re-worded, or revoked, in whole or in part, so as to allow my revised interpretation of the intent and spirit of the wish to be given effect without said side- effect, catch, ambiguity, hidden cost, et cetera, obtaining. This full disclosure and good faith rule shall be interpreted so as to prohibit the deliberate thwarting of my wish after the fact, by any action under your control, either immediately or by proxy, directly or indirectly.” He said this all in one breath, and afterwards, stood panting, watching the creature narrowly.

“Granted.” said the creature. “Very good. Well done.”

*** *** ***

2. First Wishes

Professor Fortune had been half-expecting some sign to mark that the magic wish had truly taken hold and gone into effect.

What happened was this: The creature spoke, granted the wish, and then slowly twisted its head around like an owl, in a complete circle, to the sound of snapping cartilage and bone. Now the head lolled forward at an impossible angle, neck broken, but the mouth continued to writhe and smile.

“You have to tell me the catch.” Said Fortune nervously, eagerly. “You have to tell me the hidden price of that last wish, and without counting it as another wish!”

“Oh, my adorable tidbit, my treasure, my treat! Must you ask? Our Great Master is the prince of all lawyers; language which seeks proudly to outwit him, matching mortal wit against immortal cunning, is most pleasing to him. Hidden cost there is none, except, perhaps, that your success might bloat your pride to vainglory. Three wishes lurk yet unfulfilled; ask on.”

“And if I wish for world peace, you won’t cause a plague to destroy mankind, or have the Martians invade to make the countries unite, or anything stupid like that? Don’t answer this if it counts as another wish; I’m merely asking for a clarification of the last wish, as allowed by its ‘full disclosure’ clause.”

“We do not grant these wishes to thwart them, but to have them succeed. You could not ask for world peace, under our laws, unless you intended it for selfish and self-serving reasons: our third stipulation so decrees. And if you asked for it for sake of vanity, not love, you would not want it when you had it. But we could not grant world peace in any case; it is a thing to be made by human will, which ancient and satanic law asserts we cannot meddle with. No, should you to wish for that, we could bestow you power enough to conquer all the earth, irresistible weaponry, invulnerability, loyal demon janissaries for soldiers, render you proof against conspiracy and surprise, and leave it in your hands to impose what peace you would on your unwilling slaves. But you will not wish for world peace; those who call on such as we never ask for that.”

“What if I ask for money? A million dollars, tax-free, in small, unmarked, non-consecutive bills, brought to me in such as way as no one will find out how or where I got them?”

“Why not a trillion? No?”

“I know those storybook characters. It’s their greed that trips them up. Well. OK. Five million.”

“Granted!” The creature pointed. A stack of neatly piled greenbacks had filled his suitcase. Some bills were fresh, others were worn. They were tied in neat bundles of tens, twenties, and fifties.

Fortune carefully inspected the treasure. He kept blinking and gaping. The money seemed to tremble in his hands. The bills seemed authentic, as best he could tell.

“They’re not impregnated with a deadly virus? Or the pictures of George Washington aren’t going to turn into Groucho Marx when I go to spend them? What the catch?”

“No catch.” the creature hissed, smiling.

He put down the money slowly. “There’s got to be a catch.”

“How can you be so blind, my grog, my toddy, my flip, my purl, my punch? It is as it is.”

“And how is it? By the terms of my wish, you must tell!”

“The money has been silently and softly whisked out from banks and vaults and women’s pocketbooks and carried through the darkness, instantly and without a sound, to be given to you, here. The only catch is that, although no human police will ever apprehend you for the crime, nor any human judge pass sentence on you, the moment you claim a penny of it, you are a thief.”

“A thief? You stole, not me.”

“Come now, Professor.”

“Okay, so its stolen. But so what? You know what this money means to me.”

“I do indeed. You are a failure, professor. A fat and aging failure at as young an age as forty-one. This money will mean your mortgage and your car paid off. Lavish holidays. Your wife can go to a proper dentist, and have her teeth finally correctly fixed, so that you need never hear that tiresome complaint again. You can hire round-bosomed prostitutes to pretend to love your flabby flesh; and you may have all the surface things in life, without the substance. Yes, professor; but the money is still stolen, taken from the hands of hardworking men and women, who slaved and worked and sacrificed. That money is the substance of their dreams, the effort of their weary years. And now they have lost it all to you, who neither earned nor merited it.”

“I didn’t tell you to steal it! Why didn’t you just make it out of pulp paper?”

“Then you would be a counterfeiter. The result would be the same.”

He held up a wad of bills and shook it at the creature. “This will make me happy!”

“For a time, yes.”

“I won’t let you spoil it by making me feel guilty!”

“No concern have we, mortal, with making you feel and know your guilt. All the better if you never do. You will never meet a single person from whom that money was taken; you will never know if it was the vacation money of a wealthy, untiring businessman, or the last savings of a retired widow, who can now afford no medicine. Never seeing this crime’s effect, you will never feel a pang of guilt; the guilt is, nonetheless, quite real.” The creature smiled horribly and licked his lips. “Yes, my dear, quite real indeed.”

“I don’t care.”

“It pleases us that you should not. Proceed. Two wishes now remain.” The creature’s mouth now was clotted with squirming darkness, webs and ropes of rooting flesh, and spittle black as tar oozed down the quivering chin.

Fortune said slowly, “I want to be famous. I want to win a Nobel Prize for science. Specifically, I wish to know, and understand, and publish, and get credit for, a great scientific achievement. Something like the universal field theory. Yeah. That’s it. The scientific achievement of the age! And I don’t want anything to happen afterwards to eclipse or negate my achievement; I don’t want to be suddenly proved wrong by someone else, or anything like that. Well?”

“Granted!” The creature pointed. On the computer screen across the room, three small equations appeared, and below them, numbered mathematical proofs to demonstrate them. The screen scrolled, and showed paragraph after paragraph of text, clearly written, all in English, clarifying and explaining each equation in thorough detail.

Fortune looked over the information with growing excitement. He punched the keys on the computer, going back and forth through the file again and again, watching the small crawling numbers and letters with hungry eyes.

The creature spoke: “The understanding for which you have asked is a matter of the human will; you must trouble yourself to take the time to learn what is written there. If you publish this, and claim the credit as your own, you will receive applause, acclaim, and win the Nobel prize, and be awarded all the honors due a man of genius, a Newton or an Einstein.”

He backed up. “What’s the catch? Do I suddenly forget how to read and speak? Do I get brain-damage? Is it impossible for me to understand?”

“Nothing so crass, my dearest professor, my nonny, my noddy, my noodle, my numps! The theory is clear, and plain, and obvious, like all great secrets.”

“I’m not stealing this! There’s no hardworking grandmother out there toddling along with the universal field theory in her purse! This is pure knowledge! It will benefit mankind tremendously! It’s understanding! Pure knowledge! There’s no way you can pervert this, or make me out to be a bad guy! I deserve these things. I’ve lived all my life, stuck with a dead end job, an ugly wife. Why does everyone else get all the breaks? I deserve this. I deserve this.” Fortune was silent for a time, clutching at the edge of his desk. Then he muttered slowly, “OK. Tell me. What’s the catch?”

“That you do not deserve it, not at all.” The creature breathed softly, wiggling his spineless head back and forth across his shoulders, giggling. Some of the black drool now stirred, and rose up, wriggling like bloated, liquid worms.

“What do you mean?”

“Each time you accept applause, or any congratulation, or honorarium, and you fail to tell your worshipful listeners that the ideas are not your own, then you shall be a liar and a plagiarist.”

“What wrong with that? I didn’t steal the idea! Its not like a real lie. It won’t hurt anyone. Not anyone at all. You’ve failed this time. I’ve asked for something that doesn’t hurt anyone.”

“My dread Master is the most ancient, most glorious, most wise of all created beings. His purpose does not concern itself with whether anyone is ‘hurt’. He seeks a vengeance much more terrible than merely ‘hurting someone’. Souls can recover from being ‘hurt’.”

“What does he want?”

“Is it your last wish that I answer that inquiry?”

“No! I took the universal field theory. I still have one wish coming.”

“It is so.” A tongue of grisly leather lashed out from the ghastly mouth, a foot or more in length, and writhed and swarmed across the pool of surging black worms which grew up from the creature’s chin and shoulders. “You shall have what is coming to you! One final wish yet remains. Your last.”

*** *** ***

3. Final Wish

“Wait a minute.” Fortune tried to speak calmly. “You said your master was up to something, trying to get something out of this. If that’s part of the hidden price, here, well, you’ve got to tell me. I’m no fool. There’s got to be a catch to all this. I didn’t even sign a contract to sell my soul. What’s in this for you? What’s your game?”

“Our foe, the Tyrant of Heaven, is infinite in strength; none can overcome the infinite, not with all our majesty and power, nor with all our gathered force, legions of cacodemons, leviathans, monstrous things, our armadas of indomitable kragen, or our cloud on cloud and rank and rank of winged and deadly angels, can do our foe the littlest harm or work his tiniest discomfort. But the things he loves are weak, and frail, and foolish.

“We seek to torment and to terrorize mankind, for we have His leave, for a season, to do so. And our ceaseless hatred gains delight to contemplate the misery of you, our fellow prisoners deep in hell. We cannot escape our chains, perhaps, but we can lean to gnaw the chained and screaming things like you trapped in the fiery lake beside us, things so much weaker than ourselves.”

“What? What’s this all for, then? Seven wishes?”

“Think of some murderous and cannibal felon, smiling through the bars of his cell window, out into a garden where an innocent girl plucks flowers and plays. With kindly smile and outstretched hand the felon calls the little girl to come to play with him. Once he has her in his hands, he will pull her through the bars, and there will have his way with her, either to molest the child, or pull her eyelids off, or dash her brains against the wall and scoop the streaming mass into his mouth. It will not release him from prison, no. Indeed, it will make his punishments the worse; but he will smile through his bloodstained teeth, having vexed his jailor.”

“What has this to do with me?”

“We are such felons as I say. These wishes are the candy drops we toss out through the bars to draw you nearer to our grasp.”


“The wishes are real, as the candy-drops are real. They mean nothing to us. Eat your fill.”

“So you’ve made me a thief and a liar. Big deal. It cost you five million bucks and the secret of the ages! Seems to me I’ve got the better of the deal. What’s so bad about being a thief and a liar? Lot of people are a lot worse. A lot worse!”

“When you die, One will judge you on the Day of Judgement who will not be so generous in his assessment of how light a penalty your petty little crimes deserve.”

“People can wish for good things, too!”

“No. They only wish for what they do not deserve, have not earned, and do not merit. That is the nature of such wishes. Those who deserve, accomplish, and need not wait for others to bestow.”

“But a lie is such a small thing!”

“Not so small that all-seeing eyes will overlook it when the Day of Judgement comes, when you pass out of earthly existence, and die.”

Fortune now smiled cleverly. “Then I’ll postpone that day, forever!”

The creature tilted its marred and blackened head, as if cocking an ear to hear, waiting patiently.

“I hereby make my final wish: I wish to be immortal! To endure forever, never growing old, or weak, or senile! I wish never to perish! Never to pass out of existence!”

“Granted! That is easily done, oh, most easily done of all.”

The creature’s skin erupted into rotten pus and swelling boils. In a moment, the whole surface of the mewling thing was a solid mass of rottenness, from which a seething tangle of black worms dripped forth. Blind and trembling maggots crawled every way across the putrefying skin, and the black eyes, the black pit of the mouth, the writhing lash of the hideous tongue, stood out from amid the bulk of sores and sagging corruption.

“What’s the catch? What’s the catch? Talk!” coughed Fortune. The back of his throat was burning from the stink of the fetid creature; his eyes watered. His mind was filled with horrid images, of growing ever older and never ever dying, or of being buried, a rotted corpse, but still horribly alive.

“No catch. You shall be given a body that is imperishable, incorruptible, and endless; it shall not die or wither. You cannot be harmed. You are immortal. Fool. Fool.” The horrid mass of slime gargled, laughing and squealing.

“What’s the catch?”

“Aha! Ah, my wee dear morsel and gobbet! My bolus and kickshaw, my sippet and sop, my tiffin! How I crave you!”


“How shall you know whether you have been deceived, unless you put it to the test?” The dagger Fortune had used to trace his pentagram now floated up into air. “Allow me to scratch you. I will draw only one drop of blood. You will see that you are immortal.”

Fortune stared at the hovering dagger. He looked at the piles of money, at the glowing computer screen flashing with tremendous knowledge. He felt good. He felt exalted; he had won. He was immortal. And, who cared anyway? For his little, tiny sins, his lies, his theft? He could always repent some later time, before he died. If he ever did.

But was he truly immortal? He did not feel any different.

He held out his pinky. “OK, draw one drop of blood. But remember, you promised to grant my wishes honesty. No tricks.”

“But this is not one of your wishes. It is one of mine. The one drop of blood I want is from your heart.”

The dagger plunged into his chest.

He saw his dead body slowly topple, smashing the computer and tossing the money in a scattered paper avalanche into the toppled candles, which fell among the cleaning supplies. In a moment the whole room was ablaze. The computer screen flickered and went dark; the money turned to smoke. Fortune seemed to be floating, weightless, staring down at horror at his own smoldering, stabbed corpse.

“You said I was immortal! A body imperishable, you said!”

The creature now was a creature of light, beautiful, deadly, crowned with rays. It lifted up its wide angelic, pearly-colored wings, threw back its flame-crowned head, and laughed with steady hate. When the glorious head tilted forward, and it open up its eyes of fire, Fortune could not endure that gaze, but quailed, the way a dog might quail before the gaze of a man.

“And so you are, immortal, and always have been, even though, till now, you have been coped in mortal clay. And, yes, your body is incorruptible, and cannot be unmade, for it is a spiritual body, made in the image and likeness of Our Great Enemy. It is our delight when men beg Hell for treasures Heaven has already abundantly granted.

“Yes! Mortals are all immortal! The torments of my home swiftly would destroy a body of weaker constitution, or one made of perishable stuff. Only eternal flesh can endure eternal pain.

“They say as well, that only eternal flesh never wearies of eternal joy, but this, I fear, you shall not know.

“Now hear the baying cry of those that come for you, poor imperishable ghost! The hounds of hell are pale of pelt and red of ear and maw, and they require their sport! And it is better seeming if you are dragged shrieking down and through the brazen door which open into the hopeless Pit, our realm of woe!

“But not for an hour yet. It pleases us to let you hope escape, and to toss upon this world’s winds for a time, that you may see with fleshless eyes the life which you have lost.  Can you outpace pursuit?

“Wee spirit! Run and flee! For see! Now come the hounds!”

*** *** ***


*** *** ***