The Greatest Wizard

"Tell us a story, grandpa!"

The four children crowded around their grandfather's chair, anxiously awaiting his answer. The old man grinned, and lifted the smallest grandchild onto his knee. With an excited scramble, the two boys flopped onto the ground, and their sister pushed herself onto the pillow between them. In a flash, they were ready for their favorite part of visiting their grandparents - story time!

"So, what do you kids want to hear about?"

The children each voiced their ideas:

"Dragons!"

"No, princesses!"

"We heard about a princess last week - I want ogres!"

"Yuck, monsters, I want a pretty story!"

The youngest popped his thumb out of his mouth and stated, solemnly, "Wizards."

There was a brief silence, followed by a chorus of consent; wizards it was. The toddler's request was unfinished, however; he continued, "Tell us about the Greatest Wizard, 'ampa," then returned his thumb to his mouth. The story teller stroked his beard for a moment, a slow smile spreading across his face, leaving no wrinkle line untouched. For a moment, his eyes stared deep into the past, but finally, he nodded, eyes twinkling. "The Greatest Wizard it is, then!"

The children wriggled excitedly, eagerly awaiting this week's spellbinding tale.

"A long, long time ago, even before I was born, there was the War. The four kings fought, back and forth, back and forth, trying to conquer the whole world. It didn't work, though; whenever one of the kings had the upper hand, the others would join up and beat him down. By the time he was pushed back to his own lands, another king would have grown strong, and the alliance would turn against him. It was a bloody time - the bloodiest in history. Warriors, wizards, and monsters alike fought and died for mere inches of land. Finally, the kings saw that they were destroying their own lands, and for naught; they met in secret to lay out a plan for peace.

But after long discussions, loud arguments, and even begging and bullying in turn, they realized they could never have peace. Their War was no longer theirs; their barons were growing fat from the spoils, and were the war to be halted, the kings would most probably be dethroned and beheaded - not necessarily in that order. On the other hand, if the War continued, they would be faced with riots from their townsfolk, and would be dethroned - and de-headed - regardless.

They brooded and thought until one of the kings - no one knows which - had an idea. The War would not end, but it could be contained: and thus, they built the Arena. The massive colosseum would host countless battles, where heroes and villains could wage war, where the toughest warriors would do battle, and where the fiercest monsters would tear each other apart. Even the destructive power of the wizards would be contained in its mighty walls. Ah, but the Arena was just the beginning. Many heroes rose and fell, but one man trumped them all - the Greatest Wizard himself."

The children stared wide-eyed, watching their grandfather with rapt attention. The old man paused to survey his audience, then continued.

"When the Arena was first opened, the wizards did battle as they had on the blood-soaked battlefields; firestorms, lightning, and even flies were the natural choice when fighting against an army. Against a fellow wizard, however, such powerful displays were not nearly as terrifying as when they were used on untrained peasants. A horse would bolt in fear at the sight of fire raining down from above, but every wizard worth his salt knew you could make fire from your fingertips as easy as making bread from flour. It wasn't scary in the slightest. Like a knife in a sheath, the wizards knew how to keep from being cut - or frozen, or burned, or melted. Protecting yourself was easy, as a wizard; the most basic spells in the world are shields for fire, or lightning, or ice. The wizards had to start using their heads, instead of just their hands. Just like a master swordsman must use his mind and sword together, so a wizard must use his magic and his mind in harmony. The wizards' battles became games of wits and cunning, rather than might. Even the strongest wizard could be bested by a newcomer.

It was like a game of chess. The youngest, newest wizards would circle, trying to bluff the other, until one made a mistake. The wizards that had survived a few rounds learned to wait until an opportunity presented itself. Even a foot placed poorly on the ground was enough to end the career of a wizard.

Ah, but the masters; they had spent countless rounds in the Arena, months or even years learning how to read their foe. Their battles were fought in the mind; as fast as they could think, they would set up blocks and walls and misdirection, searching their opponents mind for a way through. The battles would last for hours, even days, and would often result in nothing more than a slight 'pop' when one wizard winked out of existence."

The youngest child mumbled around his thumb, "Thash nop meshy. I wanna meshy shtory."

The other children shushed him; "Don't interrupt, or Grandpa won't tell any more!"

Chastised, the young one shrugged and snuggled closer to his grandfather's chest. Putting a hand on the young one's shoulder, the storyteller continued his tale. "While most wizards battles weren't mesh - er, messy - they were still exciting. I've seen lightning strike from a clear sky, and fire rain down like hail, and even a man burst like an over-ripe watermelon - all in the Arena. It wasn't just magic, though. Wizards were allowed any tools they wished, apart from another wizard; some took talismans of protection with them, or other magic items. A few wizards even brought a sword or other 'mundane' weapon into the Arena, though few survived long enough to use them. It was very entertaining when they did, however. But the best wizards knew that relying on a talisman left a hole in your protection, you see. If you were prepared for everything but fire, because you had a fire talisman, you would be left without a way to defend against it if the talisman was destroyed. And destroyed they were; the talisman trade was booming, back then.

But this is not the story you want to hear; as interesting as the beginnings of the Arena may be, you want to know about the Greatest Wizard, and so you shall!

It was the first day of the Arena in the new year. As always, there was no ranking for the first week; every man was allowed to pick who he would fight, and though no man was forced to fight more than once a day, many tried to push themselves to the top quickly. There was no end of participants; the barons sent their own top men, and there were many foolhardy townsfolk who hoped to earn fame, fortune, or freedom. As the masses were waiting to be added to the great Books of the Arena, one young man stood out. At first, the scribes thought he had chosen the wrong line; he certainly looked out of place. While he was standing with bearded, robed men, he himself wore a simple tunic and breeches. The wizards around him wore bright colors, even enchanted garments that seemed alive; compared to that, the poor man almost looked as if he were clothed in nothing but his underwear.

Even so, he was confident, as if this were something he did every day. When he reached the head of the line, the scribe, bored as always, asked for his name.

"Eric - ah, just Eric."

The other wizards snickered; while even the lowliest wizard was known by one name, it was always something fancy, or scary. To choose a name a simple - as mundane! - as 'Eric' was like naming a great weapon 'Bob'! Swords should be named 'Dragon Cleaver' or 'Frostwraith', and wizards should be named 'Gaunt' or 'Darkmind' or 'Criss'. Even so, his name was duly entered into the book.

"Classification... wizard?" The scribe looked up, his watery eyes peering over his glasses. He blinked. "Are you sure?"

The wizards still in line began to mock him outright:

"He's a peasant, what found a magic trick, and thinks he'll impress a king, eh?"

"He's so thin, maybe he hopes the spells will miss for lack of a target!"

"I say, your robes almost look like pantaloons, old chap!"

Eric spoke to the scribe, his voice as even as if the wizards behind him were speaking about someone else. "Yes, I am sure. Enter me as a wizard."

As he collected his name token, Eric turned and nodded to the others. Without the faintest hint of even displeasure in his voice, he said, "I do hope I will meet some of you in the Arena today. It would be my... pleasure."

And with that, he turned on his heel, heading toward the wizards barracks. The others were suddenly silent.

At last, the tournament started. The four kings were seated at the four corners of the arena; as one, they raised their right hand, then let it fall. On their cue, the battles began. Warriors and monsters fought all the way around the Arena, but the wizards took the center stage. Theirs would be the most spectacular, at least on the first day of the Arena. A few wizards did battle, their fights ending quickly. Then Eric strode onto the field.

He faced a fat, overconfident wizard; a wizard remembered only as the first wizard the Greatest Wizard ever fought. The fat little man began almost immediately by firing lightning from his fingertips at the plain fellow across from him. Hardly had the lightning touched Eric's body, than the other wizard exploded in a shower of sparks; not even the stench of burnt flesh remained. Eric nodded at each king in turn, then turned and left the field. He fought six other wizards that day; each was destroyed in turn, and Eric lifted not a finger. By the end of the day, he was no longer a peasant with a magic trick, but a man both respected... and feared.

The next day, Eric faced seventeen more wizards - setting a record for the most battles fought in a day. No wizard ever faced more than perhaps two in a day; seventeen was more than even the staunchest warrior could handle! In only two days, he had moved out of the rank of amateur and into the ranks of the titled; during that week, he leaped above his peers, finishing in the highest rank of wizards: the Masters. Oh, it was marvelous; this plain, sturdy country man had bested wizards twice his age. It was unheard of! Even the stupidest warrior knew that there was something about this man - something impressive. No longer was he mocked; he was always given the best seat at a table, and servants waited on him hand and foot. He seemed uncomfortable with the decadence, though, and would often slip away to his room."

The old man shifted th boy on his knee, then went on.

"Back then,if you recall, I used to work at the Arena; nothing grand, but I still got to see my share of heroes up close."

"Did you see Mister Eric?"

The two boys on the floor nudged their sister. "Shush! You're ruining the story!"

"But I wanna know! Did you see Mister Eric, Grandpa?"

He laughed. "No, dear one, at least not up close. I saw him in the ring many times, at least that first week. After that, his matches slowed to a crawl; no wizard was forced to battle more than once a month, and no wizard wanted to fight him, for fear of losing. They would rather fight each other; at least then, they had an even chance. He kept to himself; the only creatures he would speak with were the horses, and even a wizard can't understand the language they speak. It was fully six months before he fought again; but oh, what a battle that was. He had, by special request made to the kings themselves, matched himself against the champion of wizards, Grand Master N'Toch. The battle began; for hours, both men stood, unmoving, watching their adversary. N'Toch paced slowly and carefully, watching how Eric stood, how he held his hands, how he breathed. The old wizard knew every magical device under the sun; he could recite even the most powerful spells forward and backward (remind me to tell you about his parlor tricks!). The most complicated gesture spells and the longest Words of Power were not hidden from him. He had even learned more than twenty languages, so that the thoughts of other wizards were transparent, even if their thoughts were in another language. There has not been a wizard his equal in knowledge in the history of history. Even so, he never underestimated his opponent, and Eric least of all. The very reason he was the Grand Master at all was because he had created a spell; his opponent had not known to look for it, and it destroyed him before he even realized it had been cast. Perhaps that was what Eric had done, as well. N'Toch send out the faintest tendrils of thought to Eric, but all that the Grand Master could sense was his own thoughts, echoing around the arena. Four times, he prepared a spell in his mind, just to see how Eric would react, and four times, he let it disperse into the air. He even began a Word of Power, but stopped before he was through. Hours, they stood; the sun went down, and still, they stood. By morning, the Grand Master was stiff in the knees, and still not a smidge closer to understanding even a single thought in Eric's head.

When the sun stood high in the sky, Eric straightened, stretched, and began walking toward the wizard. Everyone tensed; this was it! The final confrontation! Would there be a quiet pop, or a raging explosion? Would fireworks mask the losing wizards last breath, or would he be turned to stone forever?

Eric stopped a few feet from N'Toch and began to speak. Though it was deathly silent in the Arena, his words did not carry; only the Grand Master heard them. The wizard replied, and they spoke for a few minutes. Finally, Eric stepped towards the wizard, raising his hand. The elderly wizard stiffened, then blinked in surprise - and as everyone watched in awe, he knelt on one knee, bowed his head, and shook the offered hand.

It was the signal of truce; the Grand Master had surrendered! The spectators were silent for a moment, then the whispers began, turning into a roar. Eric had beaten the greatest wizard of them all - without a single spell! It was unheard of!"

The old man leaned forward, lowering his voice almost to a whisper. His grandchildren, almost without thinking, leaned in as well. "What I'm going to tell you now is something I've never told anyone, dear ones - can you keep a secret?"

As one, the four children nodded, mouths open; their grandfather gazed at each one on turn, as if making sure he could trust them. "While I never met Eric when I worked at the Arena, I did meet Grand Master N'Toch; it was after that great battle. I was asked to assist the Grand Master. I brought him food and drink, and helped make sure he was comfortable - standing in the Arena for a day and a half is hard work, especially if your mind is running this way and that, as his was! As he ate, he told me - me, your grandfather! - about what had happened. He tried every single thing he knew, he said; at the end, he was even trying the tiniest, most insignificant spells he knew. A tickle spell, or a sweating spell; everything he could think of seemed to bounce right off of Eric and onto himself. When he tried to read Eric's mind, it was like reaching for a book and finding empty air - it wasn't that he couldn't understand Eric's thoughts, but that he couldn't even find them! All day and all night he worked, right up until the end. Finally, Eric just walked up to him. He said, "You are tired, sir; would you like to call this match a draw?"

The Grand Master was too proud, though; he answered, "Hardly! Until you can prove that your magic is stronger than mine, I will stand here until doomsday!"

But then he thought about it, and a plan began to form in his head. He may not have known Eric's thoughts, but he was cunning. He hoped Eric would tell him his secret, and then he could use that to beat him - and in knowing that secret, of course, be able to still beat his rivals. So he added, "But... perhaps if you tell me your secret, we can call this match a draw?"

Eric merely nodded in agreement. When he stepped forward, the wizard felt the last thing he had ever expected to feel - every last bit of magic drained out of him, like water from a sieve! Eric held out his hand. "If I am to tell you my secret, sir, then I will need your word as a wizard that you will never tell a soul. My life depends on it, and I think yours, as well."

The Grand Master swore that he would never speak of it; how could he not? Without his magic, he was nothing but a frail old man. A child could have knocked him over. He bowed his head and clasped Eric's hand, signaling his defeat. As Eric helped him up, he whispered two words into the old Grand Master's ear.

The master story teller paused, a faint smile playing about his lips. Eventually, almost nervously, the eldest grandson spoke up. In a hushed whisper, he asked, "Did... did the Grand Master tell you what he said?"

With a chuckle, the boy's grandfather nodded. "Oh, yes. He told me all right, and swore me to secrecy - but I'll tell you - the words Eric whispered were these: 'anti-magic talisman.' Just that, and nothing more."

The grandchildren looked at each other, unsure of what their grandfather's statement meant. "But... why would a wizard want an anti-magic talisman?"

"Ah, now there's the rub!" The old man couldn't help the grin spreading across his face. "Eric was - is! - the Greatest Wizard, the champion of the Arena; he never lost a single fight. Even afterwards, when other great wizards would challenge him, he always won. When he spoke, the kings listened; it was his words that eventually closed the Arena forever, and united the four kingdoms. It's the greatest joke in the universe! You see, dear children" - the old man stopped to wipe the tears of mirth from his eyes - "The Greatest Wizard was never a wizard at all!"