Critical Role, the Dungeons & Dragons actual play troupe led by Dungeon Master Matt Mercer, is poised to flash over into mainstream popularity. The team’s third full campaign is in full swing, its Amazon Prime Streaming animated series premieres in February, and its first published adventure is on the way from Wizards of the Coast. Now comes its first official novel, a prequel titled Critical Role: Vox Machina — Kith & Kin. Polygon has an exclusive excerpt from the finished book, which goes on sale Nov. 30.
Written by New York Times bestselling author Marieke Nijkamp (This Is Where It Ends, Before I Let Go, The Oracle Code), Kith & Kin predates the events of the troupe’s first campaign, which kicked off in 2014. It tells the origin story of Vox Machina’s half-elf twins, Vex’ahlia and Vax’ildan. Played by voice actors Laura Bailey (Gears 5, The Last of Us: Part 2) and Liam O’Brien (Star Wars Rebels, League of Legends), respectively, the pair survived a rough childhood in the city of Syngorn where they learned to trust no one but themselves. Robbie Daymond, who is part of Critical Role’s Campaign 3, narrates the audiobook.
From the novel’s official description:
The twins have traveled far and experienced great hardship. But with the help of Vex’s quick wit and Vax’s quicker dagger, they’ve always kept ahead of trouble. Now, unknown perils await them in the bustling city of Westruun, where the twins become entangled in a web spun by the thieves’ guild known to many as the Clasp. Trapped by a hasty deal, Vex and Vax (along with Vex’s faithful bear companion, Trinket) set out into the wilds to fulfill their dept to the infamous crime syndicate. As the situation grows more complicated than they ever could have imagined, for the first time Vex and Vax find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict that threatens the home they have carried with each other for years.
“I was scared when I first met Trinket,” Vex said, leaning back on her heels, and reaching out to scratch Trinket’s ear. Trinket curled up next to her, his chin resting on Aswin’s blankets and his soulful eyes focused on the girl. She sniffed and smiled and placed her free hand over his nose.
“I was scared,” Vex said, “but it wasn’t because of Trinket. He was only a cub, smaller than you are now.”
Aswin giggled at that.
“Once upon a time, my brother and I were traveling through the woods. We found a lovely place to stay, and while my brother went into the city for supplies, I stayed behind and I met other travelers, who told me they were passing through on their way to the city too. They came by our camp and they offered to share their food with me.” She should have known better. If life in Syngorn had taught her anything, it was to not take kindness at face value, because it inevitably became cruelty.
“I thought they were being nice and helpful, but what I didn’t know is that they were actually terrifying monsters in disguise.” She lowered her voice and Aswin pulled her blanket up higher, shivering in delight. “So when one of them crouched down by our fire and pretended to prepare a meal, the other walked around me and grabbed my arms.”
Vex shifted, and Aswin squealed. Trinket immediately pushed his snout closer toward her and nuzzled her hand.
“They took me to their camp, which wasn’t all that far from ours, and they locked me in a cage on top of a wagon. And I could see that I wasn’t the only one they kept there. They had animals in cages too. They’d captured birds and two young griffins and this good boy over here.” She ran her hand over Trinket’s head. “That’s when I realized that they weren’t actually travelers, they just pretended to be. It was as if they’d been hiding a second set of sharp teeth behind their friendly smiles.”
In reality, they hadn’t looked different at all, but Vex wasn’t about to tell Aswin that evil could look so mundane when she already had monsters to worry about. The poachers had been laughing and joking around once they’d captured Vex, and they’d happily eaten the food they’d promised to share. One of them hummed a cheerful tune and tossed an apple onto the wagon that held Vex’s cage.
“Were they just as scary as the ash walkers?” Aswin whispered.
Vex considered that. “When I was there, I thought they were the scariest lot I’d ever seen.”
“What happened next?”
“I cried,” Vex said. “And I tried to escape. I tried to pick the lock, but because I was so frightened my hands were trembling.” She hesitated briefly, not wanting to burden the little girl with her despair of being trapped there. Instead, she said: “Then I realized Trinket was trapped in one of the other cages, and he looked so scared. I knew I had to break myself out, and I would have to break him out, too.”
Trinket looked at Aswin with his large, brown eyes, and the little girl nodded with equally large eyes. “You had to escape together!”
Vex nodded. It wasn’t a complete lie. Trinket had been in the cage opposite hers, she just hadn’t known he was there. He’d been curled up and hidden, protected by an adult brown bear with scars around her snout and a bloody gash along her ribs. The mother bear’s breathing had been labored and thin, her life fading before Vex’s eyes.
Vex ran her fingers through Trinket’s fur. “I waited until the monsters were asleep, and I told myself I would be brave. I breathed very slowly and I kept my hands as still as I could, until they stopped shaking. And then I tried to pick the lock. And do you know what happened then?” Vex leaned forward with a conspiratorial smile. “Out of nowhere, my brother showed up. He’d come back to our camp and found me missing, so he tracked me down. He helped me get out of the cage, and when the monsters woke up, we fought them together.”
“Did you win?” Aswin breathed.
The fight had been wild and chaotic, and she only remembered fragments of it. Her anger. Her despair. She’d woken up in a cold sweat every night for a week after, seeing herself standing in the camp with blood streaks all over her face and clothes, a knife in her hand, and a body at her feet. “Of course we did. Because we’d decided to be brave and we were together, and that was all we needed. If you keep fighting, no matter how scary they are, the monsters can never win.”
Aswin yawned and snuggled deeper under the blankets. “And that’s when you found Trinket.” The words slurred with fatigue.
“We opened up all the cages in the camp and all of the animals had somewhere to go. The birds flew off. The griffins disappeared into the forest around us. Only Trinket remained. So I picked him up and held him close, and I promised to take care of him.”
She couldn’t have done anything else either. Trinket’s mother had been maimed and bloodied, but in her weakened state she’d still tried to keep her cub safe from the cruelty of the poachers. Her wounds had smelled of death and decay, like she’d been left to rot from the inside, and her cries had torn through Vex. So Vex had done the only thing she could. She’d taken a knife and put the bear out of her misery. She couldn’t abandon Trinket after that.
“He came with us to the camp and he grew into the biggest, bravest, best bear you ever saw. And the cuddliest one too.” Vex leaned against Trinket, and Trinket hummed contently.
Aswin, who was on the verge of sleep again, murmured something incoherent. She petted Trinket’s nose and she smiled.
“We lived happily ever after,” Vex whispered. And she desperately wanted the words to be true.