The Feeder King often hunched by the shadowed mouth of his cave, listening to the rush of the waterfall as he waited for pilgrims to visit him. He’d see them coming from miles off. They would emerge from the shadow between the mountains before laboring up the twisted pathway, hugging shawls, cloaks and scarves to their necks and shoulders even as they sweated with the effort of the climb. It wasn’t easy to bring new lies to the Feeder. But they brought their lies all the same.
“I gave up my farm to help my sister’s boy.”
“The village watch makes sure nothing befalls us.”
“I love my old woman more than all the gold in heaven.”
“We all worship you, Feeder King.”
Almost a lie.
One of the Feeder’s acolytes once asked him plainly, “Why lies, Feeder King? There must be some more tasteful way to sate you, if you take my meaning.”
“Would you rather that I taxed you on your food instead?” the Feeder asked. “Your gold? Your women? Your handiwork? I could live off those things too, like you scrawny men do.”
The acolyte recoiled ever so slightly. “I’m only curious. I don’t presume to tell you what’s best.”
“Of course you presume. All people do, in their own ways,” the Feeder replied, smirking at the acolyte’s discomfort as he leaned his oily body closer. “I’ve tried feeding off other things before.”
He’d consumed grain and meat when he was young, light, water and fire after that, then music for a time. He’d even tried truth when he was feeling desperate. The thing was, truth didn’t change anything. It simply was. But lies? Lies tipped the balance. They transformed people. Lies made things. Infused new life where there wasn’t anything before.
“I think I’ll stick to lies for now,” the Feeder said and dismissed his acolyte with a wave of a deformed hand.
He was something like a spider when he first arrived in the mountains, a fat arachnid that gleamed from the sweat, mucus and discarded thread coating his body. It was hardly his first form, though. When he lived in the Outer Ocean he’d been like a squid—a slippery creature that could squeeze through small tunnels and hide in unlikely places but still choke an enemy’s life away in moments. Ten years before that he’d lived in a city as colorless as tar and slate, where he’d taken the form of a bloated bird. He’d watched his prey from a rotten tower top, swooping down like a feathered stormcloud when he was hungry. Now, as he watched from the waterfall, his skin was the lifeless color of a leechworm, but his shape made him almost like a human. A human whose hunger never failed.
The lies his people brought kept his appetite in check, but the Feeder still watched eagerly as new falsehoods entangled the tiny world of farmers, trappers, hunters and poachers below him. One village sent a mob to block another’s wood road, shouting out oaths, retelling stories of old rivalries and accusing the others of offense. For the Feeder, watching them lie to each other was almost as satisfying as hearing them direct their fabrications to him. A feast from afar for the Feeder King.
“You’ve started something strange,” his curious acolyte said one night. “My village—and two others nearby—have begun holding a sort of ceremonial meeting each turn of the moon.”
“What sort of meeting? And don’t blame me for what your villagers do. I keep to myself up here.”
“No blame, Feeder King. These gatherings are a lot like our meetings, though. They get together and tell lies to their leaders. That’s all.”
The Feeder frowned. He hadn’t thought lies could sustain humans. Not like they sustained him, anyway. Perhaps he’d unknowingly taught them what he’d taken decades to learn.
“Where did they get this idea?” he asked.
“No one really knows.”
“They won’t say, you mean.”
“Oh, they’ll say. Fifty different men claim to have started it, but they can’t all be telling the truth.”
That wiped away the Feeder’s frown. He was almost hungry again just thinking about it, these gatherings of vapid, greasy tale-tellers below. They only came to him one at a time, slow enough for him to savor each offering. But even a patient Feeder liked to gorge on occasion.
“My King?” the acolyte asked with a twitch. “You’re making a strange face.”
“Manners, manners. You’re fortunate I’m such a forgiving ruler.”
“You’ve never seemed to care when I’ve spoken my mind before.”
It was true. With all the bowing, groveling fools that trekked up the falls, the Feeder rarely had any real conversations anymore. It was refreshing to have a follower who’d truly converse rather than offering his lies and immediately scampering down the pass.
“What should I do about these gatherings?” the acolyte asked.
The Feeder smiled. “Do nothing. Lies are cheap enough to waste here and there. So long as my offerings remain steady, I have no reason to care if a few village men collect similar payments.”
“Doesn’t it worry you?”
“Not at all. You make it sound as if a few pigworms gathering in the dirt could hurt my feelings.”
The acolyte shrugged. “I didn’t mean to imply anything. I just can’t puzzle out why they’re doing this.”
“I might be able to enlighten you. They worship me, don’t they?” the Feeder asked. “Perhaps they’re measuring their lies before they bring them to me, trying them out. Or maybe they’ve learned the value of reshaping the truth to sustain themselves. And I suppose they also feed, in their own way.”
The acolyte shivered involuntarily. Still looking unnerved, he bowed, told a few of his own lies and retreated down the mountain.
The Feeder watched him go. Despite his outward calm, he thought hard on what he’d heard. Though he’d smiled to his acolyte, he didn’t smile to himself.
It was almost a year before he visited one of the meetings for himself. He washed his body first, wiping away the sticky sweat that coated him even on sunless days in the dead of winter. He garbed himself in a cloak, a tabard, even a pair of breeches, though he couldn’t find any shoes to wear. His feet looked frostbitten, scarred and gray, but the snow was deep enough that no one would likely notice. Leaving them bare, he climbed down beside the waterfall and slipped into Talonshade Village to find the meeting.
It was just as his acolyte friend had said. Perhaps thirty people gathered in a wealthy woodworker’s home, each offering an outlandish lie in turn. It sent a shiver of pleasure up the Feeder’s spine as he listened and fed from the cool of a snowdrift outside the window. So much to absorb. So much on which to feed.
“Old Hullom killed my best goat and fed it to his dogs.”
“My father once introduced me to the angel spirit of Toril the Blessed.”
“I found someone’s silver stash buried near my house. It’s worth more than I’d make if I sold my whole farm.”
Although most statements were indeed lies, some were true. The fools inside just didn’t know the difference. The true assertions made the Feeder laugh at his subjects’ ignorance. The false ones flooded his ragged body with strength.
They went on for half an hour. Lie. Lie. Lie. Lie. Lie. Liars all, of some sort or another. Then a short man with hair the color of straw said, “Rals set fire to my outside woodpile last night. He burned down a year’s worth of work and could have killed my children if I hadn’t been handy to put it out.”
The man called Rals shot to his feet. He was a stocky man, with pale lips that protruded like mushroom caps. His face twisted with anger as he shouted, “I’d rather be a dog than listen to any more of this nonsense. Take your words back.”
The straw-haired man turned on him. “No. I’ve said my piece, and everyone heard it. I can’t take that back.”
Rals shot forward, fast as a hawk, and struck the other man in the jaw. The straw-haired man stumbled back and upended a chair. His fist smashed into a glass window as he fell. Before he could rise to his feet, one of his friends snarled and pushed Rals aside, while another tried to tug Rals’s arms behind his back, both men’s faces turning red with effort.
“Throw Rals out, if he can’t behave himself,” someone called.
Another man threw his own punch at the mushroom-lipped Rals, catching him in the temple. Recoiling from the punch, Rals broke free of his captor and knocked the other attacker back with a kick before bolting toward the door. A second later they were all after him, all shouting, all cursing him and his land.
The Feeder almost stepped away to hide himself from sight, but he felt paralyzed. Not by fear, though, or even fascination. It was something else altogether. He couldn’t decipher the emotion, but he felt—if anything—a greater influx of strength now than he had as the villagers lied to one another, some strange well of power building up around him. It filled the woodworker’s home like a blizzard. Like an avalanche.
Rals tried to run, but a dozen grasping hands, kicking feet and striking belts intercepted him by the doorway. He stumbled through the snow after that and left a red trail where he crawled. Voices shouted in fury behind him. No one noticed the Feeder, entranced by the front window. After jeering at Rals for a moment, the villagers returned to the warmth inside, still seething and raging enough that they left their original game of lies forgotten. Rals cursed back at them through a mouth full of spit and blood. Then he staggered away into the blue darkness of the night.
The Feeder stayed rooted in place for a long time. When at last he felt able to move, he walked briskly back to his cave, mind racing. Perhaps it was time to feed on something new. Lies were satisfying, but nothing like what the Feeder had enjoyed just now. If his villagers posed any measuring stick, they’d enjoyed it too.
Before living in the Outer Ocean or the mountains, before the forms and the feeding, he’d been a wizard. He’d honed his ability to shape and unshape everything around him, to weave patterns into the world, to master things that defied control—storms, waves, wind, shadows and fire. He’d been able to bind the world’s resting forces together. Even to untie little strings keeping the world whole.
Now his power was exhausted, his body fragile and clumsy. It took him weeks to reshape even himself. It felt as if he’d forgotten how to control his other abilities, or perhaps just imagined he’d had them in the first place. Still, he pined for his wizardry more than he’d ever longed for anything. So he fed however he could in search of it.
He couldn’t shake his memories of the day his power failed him. It had happened in a duel with a wizard called Helix, after earlier victories had made him brazen. He’d gone into this contest sure he’d win, unprepared even to be hurt, let alone destroyed. But Helix had¬- destroyed Entesi, as the Feeder had been called then. He wrenched Entesi’s body apart. Helix then left him as little more than a pile of skin and bone sweating the last of his blood across the burnt top of a sand dune.
Helix scowled down at what was left of him, looking somehow unsettled at what he’d done. “This was all a waste,” he said, as if to himself.
“You’ve killed me,” was all Entesi could think to reply. “You’ve killed me five times over.”
“You’ll probably live. They say only a final touch of magic can kill a wizard completely. And I didn’t come all this way to kill you, anyway.”
Entesi reached for his heart. It still beat, somehow, beneath a layer of muscle and a cage of twisted bones. Entesi was too shocked to feel much, too hurt to make sense of his own pain. “Then…why?” he asked.
“I wanted to learn what you’d discovered, damn you! They all said you were the greatest wizard alive, Entesi. They said you’d found new ways to draw power.” Helix stiffened. He kicked a rock past Entesi’s head. “It seems they were mistaken.”
With that, he left Entesi there on the top of the dune, the sun searing his spilled blood into the ground. Entesi tried to watch him go. He called out to ask what Helix meant or what he truly wanted. He almost thought to beg for Helix’s help. But he was too confused, too afraid of what was happening even to think of anything else.
His arms wouldn’t lift anymore. His fingers were locked stiff. He needed water, medicine, rest, food, shelter. But all he could think of was Helix’s puzzled expression as he’d left.
A moment later, sand vultures started to descend.
The winter after the men beat mushroom-lipped Rals, blue fire consumed two nearby villages. The Feeder questioned his subjects when they came to offer lies. He fed on their rage as they described why they’d helped destroy their neighbors, or as they lied about having nothing to do with it.
“This has to stop,” his acolyte said, running a hand through his hair while he paced back and forth through the cave. “Half of my kin are at each others’ throats, and the other half are frozen belly-down in the lake!”
The Feeder frowned at him. “You confuse me, friend. One moment you’re so morbidly curious and the next you’re blaming me for one village’s feud with another. You must completely despise our conversations.”
A savage look crossed the acolyte’s face. “I don’t know what you mean, Feeder.”
“Deny it, then. You obviously feel some sense of power talking to a demonic glutton like me. Your skin must tingle as we mock the wretches with whom you live.”
The acolyte flinched.
“Go on,” the Feeder said with a wave of his hand. “I can see right through you. Explain your problem.”
“There’s nothing more to explain! The entire valley will be dead by spring at this rate.”
“Blood’s a higher price than lies, I’ll admit. But I’m not the only one it nourishes. Surely even you can see the good at work here. I’m growing stronger than I’ve ever been, thanks to your people’s anger, envy, whatever it is.”
“There’s nothing good about an entire village getting burned or butchered!”
The Feeder frowned again. “You still talk as if this is my doing, not theirs.”
“It’s all your doing! It has always been you, you and your lies!” The acolyte stepped closer, sweat coating his face almost as much as it coated the Feeder’s exposed body. “You’ve crossed a bridge we can’t cross back, and I’ve had enough with it.”
The Feeder looked long and hard at his acolyte. Perhaps the man was simply afraid, maybe overworked. But he seemed courageously sure of himself. After a moment the Feeder said, “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you’re the first to turn on me. You know me better than anyone else, after all. If you’d been wiser, you would have fed me to the wolves the day I came to your mountain range.”
“It’s not too late for that, Feeder,” the acolyte growled. “You’ve ruined us, and we all know it.”
The Feeder laughed. He must have sounded like a cawing crow, perhaps a yowling cat, but he laughed from his abdomen until his follower flushed with annoyance or shame. “I’ve ruined you?”
“If you don’t step in and stop this killing, we won’t come up here again! No more lie offerings. No more anything. You’ll starve like a baby bird alone in its nest.”
“Spiteful but amusing. What if I throw you over the waterfall right now? That would teach you some reverence for your King.”
“You couldn’t throw a bone across the cave without our help,” the acolyte spat. He turned to leave. “I’ll give you five days to do something about the fighting below, or else I’ll see to it that our little pilgrimages up the mountainside are over.”
“Maybe I don’t need your visits anymore.”
These mountain people had made him strong again. The hungry enmity their own lie-mongering had started was now so potent the Feeder could drink it in from the top of the waterfall. No need to go down. No need to have them come to him. Bitter fury enlivened the air for miles.
“You say I’ve ruined you,” the Feeder went on. “But I think the opposite is true. You’ve ruined me, you and your piss-sweating villages of goatherds. I came here defenseless. Weak as a fledgling bird, to use your own words. You’ve fed me. You’ve made me what I am.”
“I’ve heard enough from you.”
The acolyte walked away. As he crossed from the darkness of the cave into snowy sunlight, the Feeder lashed out with a wave of disrupting magic like he’d once wielded every day. It made the man’s legs go weak, his back buckle, his sight dim and his shoulders shake. The acolyte dropped into a snowbank, eyes rolling upward. He struggled for a full minute before he could turn to face the Feeder, open-mouthed.
“Wh-what did you do to me?”
“Cursed you,” the Feeder said simply.
Then he struck again, sending a black ripple through the air as fast as a bolt from a crossbow. The spell knocked the acolyte over and left him quivering as his body began to roll down the steep slope of the mountain.
The Feeder inched forward to watch him tumble. The man’s limbs were too weak to stop himself. His mind was too weakened to think of calling for help or begging for mercy. His descent was a long ordeal, but not even the glare of snow and sunlight could bother the Feeder now. Not now that he had a new source of power.
For the next three moons, he had the mountain people bring him word of the wrongs others had done. He had to coax them out at first, soothe them into explaining who’d done what against them. “Not just the others down there, either,” he explained after several fruitless visits. “You can tell me what I’ve done wrong as well. I’ll listen.”
No one dared speak freely to him, of course. Half of them had seen his acolyte’s body at the bottom of the falls, crushed and lacerated by rocks and trees along the twisted pathway. The same fate could take any of them, and they knew it. But the Feeder didn’t need so much as a statement of their wrongs now. He could feel their resentment bubbling up like oil in a cooking pot. It steamed off their skin and burned in their tight-lipped mouths. The stronger their fear or their fury, the more he had on which to feed.
Their visits became less and less frequent as winter deepened. Soon enough, no one ascended the Feeder’s pass at all. The silence of his cave gave him a twinge of what he could only call loneliness. Maybe even that could strengthen him now.
Sometimes he’d go down, walking among the villages in the guise of a trapper or a trader. He’d listen to their angry talk and watch them jealously guard their food and fuel, tasting the foul anger at work between them.
He was walking through Talonshade Village like that when Helix appeared.
The wizard still wore the form he’d used decades ago, when he left the Feeder bleeding out on the sand—an unremarkable man-shape with a pointed nose and thin hair. Their eyes met, and Helix walked closer. The Feeder dug his heels into the snow. He’d never expected to see Helix again. But he was also ready this time.
“How long have you been holed away up here, Entesi?” Helix asked with a scowl. He walked slowly, casually even.
“I wasn’t hiding, if that’s what you mean,” the Feeder said. “In fact, I’m surprised it took you so long to make your way here. I thought you’d come to straighten me out as soon as you heard about my little kingdom.”
“Kingdom? Your ‘kingdom’ is a dung-heap filled with bloodthirsty sops.” Helix stepped up to barely an arm’s length, leering over his pointed nose. “They say you call yourself the Feeder now—like a starved maggot. Perhaps you haven’t made much of a king.”
“I’ve taught my subjects all I know. So what brings you to my ‘dung-heap’ lands?”
Something hardened in Helix’s eyes. “I’m here for the same reason I found you last time.”
“It was never about the duel, Entesi.”
The Feeder found himself grimacing. “Is that why you spared me, then? Left me as food for the buzzards?”
Quick as lightning, Helix’s hands shot upward. The snow around the Feeder erupted like a bursting pustule. He flew back ten paces, heat searing his skin, rivers of liquidy silver clawing at him. He landed in a snow drift and had to fight to keep his head in the open air. His adopted form trembled with pain.
A woman screamed up the road, and two men darted away as if they’d seen a spirit. Helix spat after them. “Your subjects run the moment you’re in danger. So much for your kingdom.”
Ignoring the pain from Helix’s spell, the Feeder stood. He tried not to follow his subjects with his eyes. They’d come back, though. They had to come back. “It’ll take more than last time to fell me, Helix.”
“I don’t want to fell you!” Helix shouted. “I came here looking for a new power, something strong enough to bring back everything I’ve lost! That was the only reason I sought you out years ago. Obviously, you didn’t have any power to offer me then.” He spat again, eyes darkening above his pointed nose. “You were my only hope. The strongest wizard in the known world, as people told me. Yet even now, with years to come up with something, your power looks as meaningless as mine is.”
His hands shook with rage. He turned away.
The Feeder stepped toward Helix. “What have you lost, then?”
“What does it matter? People. Memories. Nothing you can replace. You never had any power like they said you would.”
Without turning back, Helix struck again, hitting the Feeder with another silvery spell. The Feeder was too surprised to consider countering it. He tumbled through the snow once more, only halting when his body slammed into a buried tree stump.
“I cursed you then and I curse you now, Entesi. Hearing of your ‘kingdom’ here made me hope again—for a moment—that you’d discovered something. It seems my hope was wasted.”
Another spell pounded into the Feeder’s side, but he resisted this time, redirecting the attack into the open air where it faded like a man’s breath in the cold.
“I did discover something, Helix.”
Helix’s eyes widened ever so slightly. He turned in distraction, though, as a chorus of voices rang over the hard, frozen road behind him. The Feeder turned to see a throng of mountain people approaching. There must have been two hundred of them, some carrying torches, some axes, canes, hoes, hammers and fishing spears.
“It’s the Feeder King!” a woman shouted. The woman who’d run before. “He’s still there!”
A feeling of pure wrath welled up inside the Feeder, and it was life-giving air after drowning, soothing coolness after falling in a firepit. It thrilled through him like nothing he’d ever felt.
“They want to kill you, don’t they?” Helix asked, finally smiling.
“Not me,” the Feeder said, holding his ground as the crowd rushed closer. “I’m just a harmless trapper. You’re the one magicking villagers in broad daylight.”
Helix had just enough time to look shocked. Then the stones began to hit him. Axes next. Knives and arrows. Crates, lit lanterns still cased in precious glass, bars of misshaped iron, chunks of ice. He went down before the throng reached him, but they didn’t stop when he fell.
“You’ve attacked us for the last time!” the woman screeched as she kicked at him.
“You made a mistake, showing your blood-sucked face down here!” an old man called. He swung an adze at Helix’s shoulder.
The torrent of bodies pushed Helix into the snow, clubbing, cutting, smashing, kicking, even scratching at Helix, who thrashed to break free and roared in pain. He managed to fire a few spells into the fast-formed throng, but other villagers replaced the ones who fell. They didn’t care. They’d suffered too long to care. They pressed him down into the snow as they dragged and tore at him, shouted curses or spat at his face and hands.
“Entesi!” Helix shouted.
The Feeder, bruised and cut from Helix’s spells, stood near the back of the gathering. He shook his fist for show and watched in fascination as his fellow wizard was torn apart. And all the while, he fed with his people.
It was almost dusk before the villagers dispersed. They left Helix’s remains for the bears, a series of red splashes across the middle of the road to where they dumped him down a gulch. Even then, the Feeder knew Helix wasn’t dead. Only magic could really kill a wizard after all.
In the shelter of darkness, the Feeder reshaped himself. For his own amusement he kept his shape human, thinning his hair, pointing his nose slightly, until he was the mirror image of his once-rival. He’d just finished his new form when he reached the spot where Helix had been dumped.
Helix shook all over. His skull had been crushed, his ribcage too, and his skin was half-flayed behind him like a cape. He had nothing left to bleed, it seemed, but his body still thrummed with whimpering life. The Feeder plucked a wild snowflower and dropped it over Helix’s ruined frame.
He leaned close to the gasping thing that was his rival, whispering, “You were right to leave me alive, make me go searching. I think I found just the sort of power you’ve been looking for.”
“R-rage?” Helix somehow managed to stammer. “Revenge? Bloodlust? W-what did you find?”
“Those are beginnings, nothing more,” the Feeder said dismissively. “I could glut on these villagers’ bitterness forever and still be just a Feeder King. But get themthousand Feeders.”
It was funny, really. He might never have realized it without Helix’s timely arrival or foolish attack. Now it was clear as winter sunlight. All this time he’d thought the strongest wizardry was his own, when the greatest power was truly to replicate it, multiply it outward like a fistful of grass seed.
A hissing sound came out through a tear in Helix’s knobby gray throat. “Y-you’ll leave me, won’t you? Like I left you all those years back.”
“I could.” The Feeder leaned yet closer, close enough to lick the broken skull if he wished. “But I won’t.”
He unleashed his magic as a wave of icy needles, blasting himself upward while the jet of cold, cutting spells severed Helix from his last hold on life. Then he shaped himself into a snow eagle and winged away from the mountain villages. He’d done enough there.
It didn’t matter where he went next or whom he found there. Whoever they were, he’d make feeders of them too.