The Hook: Xan and Ink by Zak Zyz


The Hook:

The white tower of Joymont had seven bronze bells, imported all the way from the foundries of Aran. It took a team of oxen and twenty men a week to raise them into the high tower and mount each on its beam. The work was pure murder, a labor like none of the men had ever done, but when it was all through, how fine the tower looked! A fluted shaft of white stone capped in a cone of gleaming copper, seven levels, seven bells engraved with glorious scenes from the epics. Atop it all they raised the flag of Joymont, a seven-pointed green star rising over white-capped mountains on a field of indigo.

For years the laborers had worked on this keep, hauling stones and timber, swinging hammers until their bones rang, and now they looked out across the tall ramparts they’d built, the thick walls and the fine white bell tower, and beamed with pride. Here was something for the ages!

Even the King seemed moved. A few workmen thought they saw a tear gleam in the corner of his eye as he gazed up at the grand tower. His own flag flew above the tower he’d designed, crowning a keep that would repel slavers and bandits. More than that, he’d built Joymont from nothing, he hadn’t simply inherited it by accident of birth. He was a conqueror, he’d seen a kingdom where others had seen naught but wilderness.

Joymont’s cronies were flopping over themselves, each trying to find their own angle to praise. How stately it looked, how clever the design! What a fine choice he’d made selecting the scenes! Wasn’t it just perfect to have the Calamity of Rapaxoris beneath the Beheading of the Limitless Light? And if you were going to choose a battle of Grimbalgon to depict, what better than the final one? Didn’t the figure of Harlan remind you of a certain King in his youth? On and on they went until his stomach nearly turned.

When at last it was time to sound the bells, each rang more pure than the last, resonant tones that you could hear from any corner of the keep, and far out into the fields. Every man, woman, and child in Joymont was looking up at those bells as they rang, one, two, three, four, five, six…


They rang the seventh bell, and all winced. As sour as the others had been sweet, a bitter, jarring note that made teeth ache and bones lurch. At once they knew the bell had cracked, and their eyes were on King Joymont, their breath caught in their throats. The head stonemason took off his hat and wrung it, his mouth working like mad with little half-spoken excuses.

For a moment, Joymont’s eyes twitched with fury, but he swallowed it. He could feel the weight of the years to come balanced on this moment. It had to be salvaged at all costs.

“We’ll save that one for the hangings!” Joymont roared at last, winking at the head mason. There was a titter of nervous laughter. Relief rippled through the crowd, and the stonemason looked as if he’d been pardoned at the gallows. He was as pale as the white stone he worked.

“Still the traitor bell! Let the rest ring!” Joymont shouted, and they rang the other six bells until everyone’s ears ached.

As the years went on, there were few hangings worthy of ringing a cursed bell. The seventh bell grew quite dusty and forgotten at the top of the tower while the others sang out for weddings and feasts, holidays, and all other occasions for joy.

Today they rang the seventh bell.

Zak Zyz writes:

This is not the hook I had in mind!

Originally, Xan and Ink began thirty-six pages later, in a bar fight where the four adventurers get their asses handed to them. Structurally, the four archetypal characters were never meant to be more than a pack of fools, in way over their heads. In video game terms, they’ve blundered into a zone that’s way too high level for them, everything can kill them, and their save is corrupted. The book is meant to open at the point where they’re realizing just how screwed they are, as a single diminutive drunk mops the floor with the whole party.

Beta readers did not go for this! Introducing characters, and making readers care about them, is somewhat difficult to accomplish in a scene where a crazed dwarf is beating the everliving piss out of them. On top of that, this is the scene where readers first meet the titular character, Xan, a cantankerous masked scholar who has somehow managed to survive for decades in a malignant jungle teeming with hostile, intelligent insects.

I’m a strong believer in beta readers, and we had some great ones for Xan and Ink. I was really surprised to find that people cared more about the plight of our four hapless fools than I ever would have guessed. People loved the intense cat-and-mouse between Xan and Ink, they loved the weird, sinister denizens of the Kalparcimex, but they wanted to know more about the losers who, in my mind, were simply there to struggle, fail, and potentially get eaten.

Armed with that feedback, I set about to explain more about Gregary, the oaf knight, Sandros the haughty magician, Osolin, the illiterate thief, and Brakkar, the wrathful zealot imbecile.  It wound up being incredibly fun! Because the characters were originally written as walking flaws, as I explored them and wrote stronger backstories for them, I  began to discover why they were that way, and what it might mean for their arcs.

Now when you read Xan and Ink, you don’t simply peer through the door of a tavern to see an ass-kicking, you march through a screaming mob alongside four disgraced adventurers and see them banished from the very kingdom they’ve sworn to save. The introduction stands you in the streets of the backward kingdom of Joymont and you hear the story of the Traitor’s Bell, a cracked and discordant bell that hangs disused at the top of an ivory tower, to be rung only for executions. The reader learns that this cursed bell is ringing again today, and I hope they will want to know why!

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