I had every intention of looking up a fic that had some of that holiday spirit in it, but then something surprising came and slapped me right in the face. There are few things that grab my attention more than Gothic horror romances, so when I found a fic that was both a Gothic Victorian AU and for a series that I’ve come to truly love and appreciate within the realms of fiction and in a more meta context, whatever plans I may have had for this article promptly died where they stood.
Over this year Critical Role has become a show that’s affected me deeply, and its several-year run has helped induce a tabletop roleplaying boom across the web. The show features seven voice actors and actresses—Marisha Ray, Sam Riegel, Laura Bailey, Taliesin Jaffe, Liam O’Brian, Ashley Johnson, and Travis Willingham—along with fellow voice actor Matthew Mercer taking the role of DM, as they play through their D&D campaign. While some may not see the appeal of watching a bunch of people play D&D on camera, for many (myself included) it’s a new, vibrant way of experiencing a story that has just as much impact as a comic or a television show, with the added fun of OOC japes and fan content thrown in. While it’s on its 78th episode, with each episode being roughly three or four hours long, I still highly recommend experiencing the story for yourself. But, without further ado, let’s dive into today’s AU fanfic of Critical Role.
…I have a better idea. I shall tell you one thing about myself, and you shall agree to believe it implicitly and without question. I shall do the same for you, and we will then say no more on either topic.”
“Interesting,” he said, the leaves crunching under his steps. The metal lantern swayed, creaking quietly as it did, providing their words with a constant undercurrent of metallic noise. “And what, pray tell, inspired this curious exchange?”
“I imagine you want someone in Emon to trust your word. It would be a terribly lonely visit for you otherwise.”
He frowned. They turned down a slight incline, bracing their feet against the sloping dirt. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he admitted, over a slight sigh over exertion.
Vex considered, her eyes fixed on the darkening trail. She thought of everything that had occurred that day, and the wound that cut closer to her heart than any other. It was obvious, but painful to speak aloud – and yet surely a recluse of five years (such as Lord de Rolo) had no context for her statement. He could not possibly know the person on her mind. Very slowly, she said, “My mother, rest her soul, was a good woman, who deserved neither her fate nor her reputation.”
He stalled, somewhat taken aback. “That isn’t a statement about yourself,” he protested.
Vex shook her head. “Oh, no, it is.”
“Very well,” he said. “Without question, as you said, implicitly – I believe you.”
Strange silence took them for a minute, while Lord de Rolo thought. The sun continued to sink, glittering between the trees ahead of them. The path avoided its glare, dipping down into a ravine below the horizon. Vex skirted around a rock, directing them to the wildest portion of their route. The path grew narrow: Lord de Rolo fell behind her, by necessity. When he began to speak, she turned towards him to hear his answer.
He said, “I did not kill my family.”
She stared at him. He looked utterly serious, but for his eyes; deep within them, she could see that same imploring look, the one that had wordlessly cued her to guide him through the trees. Other than that look, and those words, he offered her nothing; he was quite unreadable. Vex wondered if anyone had the gall to actually ask him such a question, and then realized it did not matter. No one would have dared ask her about her mother. That was not the point.
“You did not kill your family,” she repeated. She turned, and she heard his slow footsteps in pursuit.
—The Wise Man’s Tree, Chapter 5
In the Critical Role canon universe, the city of Whitestone may simply be a town struggling to recover from an incredible tragedy, the last bastion in a land ravaged by dragons and only kept alive by the tenacity of its cityfolk. In The Wise Man’s Tree, however, Whitestone is much more mundane, and perhaps that makes it all the more terrifying. Author CurrieBelle re-imagines Whitestone not as a city torn asunder literally, but a city whose only surviving leader, Percival de Rolo, is so connected with his city that his inner turmoil could possibly bring the city to its knees. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
For all his importance in the city, our main character is not Mister de Rolo, but instead the half-elf twins from Syngorn, Vax’ildan and Vex’ahlia, who received a letter from Percival himself inviting them to stay at his estate and help him find a hidden vault that belonged to his family. Vax is understandably wary: Percy doesn’t have a great reputation, and the fact that all other members of his family died undet mysterious circumstances five years earlier does little to help that. Vex, on the other hand, is practically chomping at the bit to solve this mystery for herself, in addition to getting a little treasure on the side. The two of them arrive and make the quick acquaintance of three others who have been invited for the same purpose–Sean Gilmore the mage, Mr. Scanlan Shorthalt, and Ambassador Tiberius Stormwind–and Percy’s caretaker Keyleth, but no one seems to be making much headway in solving the mysteries. However, as Vex and Percy begin rekindling their friendship and she starts uncovering the cryptic words left behind by Percy’s ancestors, she discovers that something may be trying to force them from Whitestone and from their reclusive host, and that something may not be of this world.
The Wise Man’s Tree is full of things to praise, the writing of the characters being but one of them, but what I found myself enjoying the most was the different takes on their relationships. Without their D&D-inspired backstories, CurrieBelle instead crafted some subtle changes that make a re-imagining like this worth it. For example, Vex and Vax absolutely still rely on each other as close siblings do, especially siblings who suffer at the hands of their racist father. As the “final blow” brought down by their father has happened more immediately—rather than being outcast as children to live with their human mother, they were recently (see: just months before) removed from their father’s will and essentially stripped of their family name—there’s much more opportunity for misunderstandings between them and room for their unwavering love for each other to shine through that much more. However, these differences really take hold in the relationship between Vax and Gilmore. In canon, the two have a flirtatious relationship, but ultimately a romance isn’t pursued (probably mostly due to Gilmore being an NPC). Here, the two of them have such a deep love for each other, but due to an act of perceived cruelty from Gilmore and Vax’s unwillingness to listen to what Gilmore has to say, the two struggle to maintain the relationship they both so desperately want to have with the other. I wouldn’t dare ruin it for you, but the resolution to this subplot is so cathartic and will have you reaching for the tissues.
Ultimately, this is a ship fic between Percy and Vex, but the power of the women in the story, and their friendships, take center stage. Vex and Keyleth form a fast, adorable friendship, and between them they manage to uncover a vital clue to solving the mystery of the de Rolo vault. Moreover, while the Victorian era was not exactly the best time for female empowerment, The Wise Man’s Tree shoves all “historically accurate” accounts of sexism to the side, only keeping those good, romanticized parts. Vex is shown as being resourceful, cunning, brave, witty, and a bit of a brat at times, but is never told to stop doing something because it is unladylike. However, even if she was, she’s the type of heroine that would tell them to mind their own business and keep doing what she’s doing–she’s the perfect kind of Gothic romance heroine.
If you haven’t gotten the gist yet, you need to read this fic right now. Currently there are just under 81k words and eleven chapters out of a planned twenty-four, and since the fic was recently updated I feel there’s little worry of it being abandoned. The Wise Man’s Tree is written in such a way that even with no prior knowledge of Critical Role or its canon, readers will still be able to easily follow along, while fans of the show will find each cameo like a sprinkle on an ice cream sundae. Make sure to check it out here at AO3!