Once there was an apprentice wizard who was a prodigy. He learned everything his master could teach him, he learned everything neighboring wizards could teach him. Within months his master brought him to the greatest wizards’ academy in all the world.

Within a semester he met all graduation requirements. But he refused to graduate. He said he wasn’t ready yet.

By the end of the year he had learned everything. Every subject, every skill that was taught. The academy offered him graduation again. He still refused.

In another year he then learned all the masters’ secrets, all the knowledge and the skills they hadn’t taught. He asked, and no one dared to refuse him. Surely at last he would graduate? Not yet, he said.

He took another year. Then he announced he was ready. Have you learned all you could? they asked. No, he said. I have learned all that is possible. I know everything that magic can do or ever can have done. I understand all possible wizardry. Surely he was joking–but he said it so seriously!

But he performed no magic.  Nothing.

He said he had no reason to. His friends and teachers were flabbergasted. Women, wealth, power, beauty, the sheer joy of it, helping out the needy . . . some or all of these reasons sufficed for everyone. Why not him? He scoffed. He said it was the greatest folly in the world to spend years learning how to perform magic but no time at all on what to do with it.  Purpose was more important than technique.

Very well, they said, but the dozen-years contest to be proclaimed the Greatest Wizard in the World was just around the corner. And surely that at least was an inspiring purpose. Yes, he said, but only in part. He needed something more.

* * *

The contest came and went. He did not enter. The years passed by. He still did no magic.  People forgot him.  Twelve years had gone by.  It was time for the new contest to determine the Greatest Wizard in the World.

* * *

It was held in a stadium, closely packed with spectators in every nook and corner.  The contestants were in an arena of sand.  In the center was a small pedestal with a white crown resting on it.  The crown would go to the winner.  It was made of a pure white and indestructible metal that was found nowhere else in the world.  No one knew what it was made of”‘except maybe that guy, the one who said he knew everything about magic from around the time of the last contest, you remember him?”  At the edge of the arena sat a panel of judges.  They were former wearers of the crown.  It had left its mark on each one of them.

The preliminary rounds were over.  Only two mages were left.

There was a small commotion and a man vaulted over the wall into the arena.  He straightened his robes and joined the two mages.  “I choose to participate,” he said.  The master of ceremonies was about to rebuke him angrily and order him out, but then he recognized the man and the rebuke died on his lips.  The MC looked over at the panel of judges.  They signaled him to proceed with the contest.  The new contestant was the prodigy.  The irregularity could be overlooked.

There is strategy in these things like in all contests.  Here, the strategy was to do some  magic in the earlier rounds wondrous enough to advance to the later rounds, while making sure to save the best magic for last.  Whether the first competitor resented the prodigy skipping the earlier rounds or not he did not say.  Whatever resentment he might have had, though, it did not affect his performance.  He stood tall. He moved his hands, he spoke a word of power, and for a brief moment everything and everyone in the arena, and the entire arena itself, turned into shining liquid gold while wonderfully still remaining itself and alive.  When everything flashed back to what it had been before, the crowd grasped.  There was an indescribable scent too, a glorious scent, and it lingered on in the air for awhile.

The second contestant whistled and a noble horse ran out into the arena.  It came to him.  He whispered to it, gently rubbing its side and its head.  With each pass of his hands, the horse’s coat became lighter and lighter.  And a horn began to spiral out of the horse’s head.    Without losing any size, it somehow gave the impression of becoming fleeter and more agile.  It looked like a unicorn.

The crowd clapped but it was the judges who rose to their feet in astonishment.  For they could sense what the crowd could not.  This was not a seeming or an illusion.  It was truly now a unicorn.  And the change was not temporary.  It was truly a unicorn in its very being.

The prodigy then took his turn.  “I have come because I know my purpose now,” he said, and bowed to heaven.  He thanked his opponents for their splendors.  To the second, he said, “I express my appreciation in this way.  Your unicorn can now breed with ordinary horses, and their lines will inherit something of its strength and glory.”  To the first he said to wait and see.

Then he knelt and scrabbled in the dirt.  After a bit a little pebble rose a foot or two from the ground and hovered.  It was made of the shining liquid gold of the first contestant’s effort.  The prodigy said to the first contestant, “I have made it of your substance in tribute to you.”  Then he turned to the judges and smiled.  “Does it do anything?”  they asked.  “No,” he said, “it just hovers.”  “Is there anything else or are you done?”  “I won’t be done for a lifetime,” he said, “but there is one more thing to do now.”  And he turned to a young woman high in the stands, a daughter from some genteel family, and asked her to speak to him after the contest was over.  Then he bowed to the judges and said that was all.

The judges took very little time before announcing that the second contestant was the winner.  But the prodigy suddenly spoke up.  “You have disappointed me,” he said.  “I declare myself to be the winner.  I am the greatest wizard in the world, that ever was or that will ever be.”  And without any action on his part, the crown of its own volition lifted up and floated over to rest on his head.

* * *

He spoke with the girl.  He married her.  She was a woman in a million.  In after years he said that no one had any idea how great the wonder he was performing really was, and how much of it he owed to her.  They settled.  They created a home of beauty.  He reached out to others, taught them better ways to live, formed communities and neighborhoods.  So did she.  They had many fine sons and many fine daughters.  They taught them how to live, and how to teach others how to live.  When the two died, their influence did not end.  Their ways and teachings spread.  The world did not become perfect.  There were sins and tragedies and wars.  Time cycled on.  But that world became, perhaps, the best that a mortal world can be.  It grew in wealth and in understanding.  It learned to make machines, it built high airy buildings more solid than the earth, it throve.

And the little golden pebble still floated.

* * *

Ages rose and fell.  One thousand years passed.  It was an age of science, but subordinated to the good of Man.  And the little golden pebble still floated.

As the prodigy had foreseen, another prodigy arose among his descendants.

The boy was obsessed with the golden pebble.  Many over the centuries had tried to move it or destroy it.  None succeeded.  The boy tried also.  It drove him.  He learned ever more techniques and more science in an effort to understand and move it.  Nothing worked.

He grew up.  In a haphazard, nearly meaningless way–as the wizard prodigy had foreseen–the boy’s efforts to shake the pebble became the man’s efforts to move out into the cosmos.  He invented a practical space drive, and the technology to use it.  He himself saw the dawn rise on more than one strange and alien world where no one before had ever stood.

Following him, the world settled the universe.  And everywhere they went they brought their ways and their goodness with them.  Every star had its local hymns sung to the praises of God.  There were men in their quadrillions who were clean-limbed, bold, ferociously capable, paternal, and as holy as saints.  Women in their quadrillions were pure, delightful, loving, wise, and shining with inner spiritual light.  These people and their billions of civilizations created wonders without number, millennia without end.

All because of a little golden pebble.

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