After dominating the tabletop actual play realm, branching out into the world of tabletop settings themselves, and now turning into a transmedia empire with an animated adventure, Critical Role is ready to enter the world of original fiction this week. A new Marieke Nijkamp novel is delving deep into the past of two of Vox Machina’s biggest stars—and we’ve got a look inside.
Nijkamp’s Kith & Kin follows Vex’ahlia and Vax’ildan, the roguish sibling characters played by Laura Bailey and Liam O’Brien in the group’s first campaign series, Vox Machina. Set well before the duo joined the hero group, Kith & Kin follows Vex and Vax’s days together from their childhood to the harsh lives they led before becoming heroes, including their time with the villainous crime organization the Clasp—testing their bonds as siblings in ways the duo have never faced before.
But before the twins have to face that, they get to deal with something even more personal: meeting their father, Syldor Vessar, and discovering that a promised high life for them in the mystical Elven city of Syngorn isn’t all that they thought it might be. Check out the excerpt below, in which Vex and Vax meet their father in the flesh for the first time, making its debut here on io9!
Inside the walls, Syngorn was as beautiful as Tharyn had promised it to be. The houses and other buildings showed a level of craftsmanship that every farmer in Byroden would eye with jealousy and, perhaps, a hint of practical suspicion as well. The grace of the buildings was that of the forest around them: ageless and unconquerable.
But it wasn’t the buildings that took Vex’s breath away. It was the vastness of it all. With the sun high overhead, the white citadel in the distance shone like a beacon and the city stretched as far as the eye could see. The sunlight also refracted on the lake in the center of the city, causing the calm waters to sparkle vibrantly. The occasionally blinding light didn’t stop elves from wandering along the lakeshore, or traversing it in small, colorful boats. A family of three—two sharply dressed, dark-skinned elves and a girl a few years younger than the twins—stepped into a narrow boat with violet flowers strung on the side, using some kind of magic spell to propel them onto the lake. Vex could hear their voices and laughter echo across the water, as though no one here had a care in the world.
Syngorn was a place of promise, and above all else that was why she and her brother had followed their father’s instructions. The promise of a better life and a future far beyond what Byroden could offer them. But with every elf they passed who looked at them with sneering contempt, that promise morphed and twisted into something far less palatable, and all she wanted to do was run home again.
“It’ll be better once we get to our father’s home,” Vax whispered, so quietly Vex doubted anyone but she could hear.
“He’ll accept us,” she said. “It’s why he invited us to come in the first place, right?”
“He said so in the letter he sent Mother. We’ll want for nothing.” Vax’s voice took on an edge of determined desperation.
But when their traveling companions guided them to the eastern side of the city, where the houses were large and imposing, meticulously crafted to mirror the proud, tall trees, their unease grew. As with every enterprising child in Byroden, there were times when they’d played the wrong prank, angered the wrong person, and were made to feel small. They felt smaller here and more vulnerable than ever before.
Especially so when Tharyn pointed out Syldor’s house to them: a mansion easily three times the size of their old home, with cracked white marble walls and a jade-shingled roof. Ivy climbed up every wall and circled the high windows, and a handful of large red trees were placed around the building like ancient sentries. Small, strawberry-colored birds darted between the branches.
“This will be your new home,” Tharyn said. “Your father will have been informed of your arrival.”
If that was the case, there was no sign of it. The door remained closed when they rode up to the building, where the twins dismounted and the three Verdant Guards remained in the saddle.
“We’ll leave you here,” the gray-haired woman said, with no hint of kindness or consideration. “The horses are the ambassador’s. He’ll see to their—and your—care.”
“We can wait until they’re inside,” Tharyn argued, with little force behind their words.
“Our duty was to see them to the ambassador’s home safely. That ends here. We have other duties to see to, Tharyn.” The last words held a note of warning.
Tharyn colored slightly and straightened. They adjusted their uniform and nodded once in the direction of the twins. “Goodbye then. I wish you well here.”
“Thank you,” Vex whispered, her throat clenched tight. Next to her, Vax had pressed his lips together in a thin line, and he turned away from the guards. She reached for him. “Let’s go.”
Vax clung to her hand. He tightened the traveling cloak their mother had made for them around his shoulders and flinched at the sound of horseshoes retreating on the road. “Let’s go back.”
It was an alluring option, and she imagined it for a moment—turning around and giving in to her inclination to sneak back past the gates and find a way home through the forest. “We can’t. We should try to stay here, right? It’ll be good for us. It’s a chance for a better life.”
It was what Tharyn had told them. It was what their father had written. It was what their mother had said, when she’d wrapped her arms around them and whispered she wanted only the very best for them.
“I don’t want a better life. I want our life,” Vax said. He pulled away, and lines of tension still crawled along his shoulders and spine.
“We’ll have to make this ours. At least for now.” Vex breathed in deeply, the air as potent and powerful as everything around them, and stepped up to the door.
Before she could knock—or before her brother could stop her—the door swung open and a young man stepped aside to reveal the same elven traveler they’d seen in Byroden so many months ago.
Syldor Vessar looked different here. He’d traded in his practical traveling gear for heavy brown robes with golden embroidery. The long sleeves were cut open to show fine gold silk underneath, and the garment’s high neck made him appear taller. Sterner too, if that was at all possible, for the way he looked at his children was nothing like the way he’d looked at Elaina. He regarded their travel-worn appearance with distaste and snapped his fingers to the other elf—who appeared to be a servant of some sort. “See to their horses and whatever belongings they carry. Discard their clothes and find them something more suitable. Son, daughter, come in.”
It wasn’t so much a request as an order, and Syldor turned, clearly expecting it to be followed. The servant took the horses from the pair of them and led the mounts away. The door stayed open, reminding the twins to follow their father.
Vex swallowed her hurt, even as she felt her brother’s anger radiate. She took a step back, purposefully aiming to land on top of her brother’s foot, and she hissed, “We have to try to make this life ours. Mother expects it of us.”
“I hate him already,” he bristled.
“Maybe he’s just not used to us yet. He didn’t even know we existed. Give him time.”
“He’s had six months. He could’ve chosen to keep out of our lives.”
She reached for his sleeve and tugged him in the direction of the building. “It’ll be fine.”
“You don’t know that,” he threw back.
She didn’t answer. She didn’t know that. But it had to be, because it was the only reason this trip and leaving everything behind was worth it. Besides which, he was family. Did that not count for something? This wasn’t supposed to take them away from their home, but be a home too.
But when they walked through the wide hallway, with light filtering in through the overhead windows, the walls paneled with wood, and the comforting smell of cedar wrapping around them, it felt like they were trespassing.
At the end of the hallway, past a number of closed doors, Syldor stood in the opening to a large office. With his arms folded and his eyebrows quirked, his impatience was palpable. “Get in. Sit down.”
He closed the door behind him and took his place behind a large wooden desk. It was as artfully made as any of the buildings they passed, with the legs carved like branches and the handles to the countless small drawers like leaves inlaid with emeralds. Two of the walls were covered in bookshelves, with tomes and scrolls from ceiling to floor. The wall perpendicular to the door boasted a long and narrow window, equally as tall as the shelves, with stained decorations along the edges and a view of a forgotten herb garden, while the last wall had a large painting of a beautiful lake, shimmering in the pale light of the moons. On one of the shelves, in front of a row of books bound in red leather, stood two charcoal drawings of elves, without any markings or names to identify them.
Everything about this house could be beautiful, Vex realized. Instead it was as cold as the reception they got.
Syldor rested his hands on the desk and leaned in their direction. “I appreciate that your mother chose the wiser path in sending you here. Your existence came as a surprise to me, or I would’ve acted sooner, but you are still young enough that all hope is not lost.”
Vax cleared his throat, his expression defiant. “What does that mean?”
“Your education is abysmal, even for ones such as yourself,” Syldor continued, as if Vax hadn’t spoken at all. “I’ve already seen to it that you will be given the finest tutoring and schooling in the land, until such time that you can learn among others your age and not bring shame upon my name.”
“Wouldn’t that be our name?” Vax pressed. He’d raised his chin, and only Vex could see how hard his hands were trembling. Although neither of them had known what to expect from this meeting, they’d surely not expected this.
Syldor’s mouth thinned. “Of course. Our name.”
He twisted the bracelet around his wrist and stared past his children. “Once Alin has seen to your horses, he will show you to your rooms. Your tutor will arrive in the morning. You will not leave the house unless you have my express permission. You will not dress in those peasant clothes anymore. You will not disturb me during my meetings or my work.” His gaze snapped to Vex, and she could only imagine how she must look to him. Dirty, unworthy, and on the verge of tears. All her thoughts were tangled together with hurt and confusion and contempt at the small part of her that had been cautiously excited about meeting her father. She’d wanted him to be pleased to meet them, to realize how much he could care for them, and what a wondrous thing it could be to become a family together.
She pressed her fingernails in the palms of her hands and did the only thing she could do: tilt her head like her brother and refuse to blink.
He sniffed and took a scroll from the case next to him. “You are welcome here. Now leave me.”
Vox Machina: Kith & Kin hits shelves tomorrow, November 30.
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