Despite its ostensible importance, I’m honestly not sure if this plotline actually served any purpose other than whatever happens in the next strip. Not complaining, yet.

Nothing the gods have said has contradicted anything Shojo told the OOTS - which considering they seem to be talking mostly with each other, probably suggests most of what we learned about their dealings, at least, is true.(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized dynamic entry.)

For the past couple months-plus Homestuck has been the main thing distracting me from getting any work done on the book or other things that might actually be productive… so naturally my triumphant return to webcomics posts involves OOTS.

When Rich Burlew signaled that anyone tired of the constant internal strife between Durkon and his vampiric doppelganger “would be in for a rough 2015”, I let my reading of OOTS come to a stop. Not because that struggle was bad per se, though it certainly was dominating the early comics of the sixth book and seemed clunkily-written and cringe-inducing at times, but because of the same problem I had with Gunnerkrigg Court: I could not handle the high drama and emotional torque of the plotline. Rich seems to have made a tradition of ramping up OOTS‘ Cerebus Syndrome even more than it already was on a regular basis; when Haley and V dropped an oblique reference to it back in Book 2 it sparked surprise on Websnark, the site that gave birth to the term, because OOTS supposedly had never gone through it, but an honest accounting of the strip’s drama levels shows that it had indeed gone through it as early as the 43rd comic – which didn’t stop it from going through it “for real” at the end of the book with the revelation of the gate plotline. Book 5’s length seems to be partly Rich’s way of signalling that the plot really was getting down to business at this point in a way it hadn’t even in Book 3 (in retrospect OOTS‘ Golden Age), but the Durkula plotline seemed to mark the point at which OOTS did what once was unthinkable, the thing that once prevented Websnark from declaring it to have gone down the path of Cerebus Syndrome: the point where OOTS‘ dramatic aspects began to push out its comedic ones.

What I didn’t anticipate was that Durkon’s plot would be the very first proper plot point in Book 6, and it would only take most of 2015 to get to this point because of Rich’s excruciatingly slow update schedule of late, coupled with a side-plot tying up Haley’s loose end with the Thieves’ Guild. Now barely 50 strips into the book, Hel has achieved the goal she hijacked Durkon’s body for – and Roy has finally figured out how badly he’s been played.

Although Rich paid a lot more attention to the advent of the 1000th strip than the multiples of 100 that passed in the last book, the real impact is still to come. There is, of course, no way Rich will allow the vote to go as it stands and have the world be destroyed when he’s less than half the first book’s length into the sixth. But the main other way for the plot to be resolved – for Roy (and possibly a dramatic entrance from Belkar) to finish Durkon off – also seems like it’s happening a little early in the entire plotline of the series, let alone the book, especially when the end of Book 5 and all of Book 6 so far have given the impression Durkon’s internal struggle would be the main underlying plotline of the book (in fact, there’s not much sense so far of where the plot will go from here, assuming there’s still at least one more book after this). Moreover, you get the sense Durkon’s plot isn’t over either; he had to have some idea that by dragging Roy here he’d tip him off to what his true nature was, and that Roy wouldn’t just stand by and let them carry out their plot. If you look in the last panel, he and Hel are both smirking as Roy swoops down into the chamber, giving the sense that Roy taking on Durkon was part of their plan all along. Perhaps they figure there’s no way Roy (and maybe even Roy and Belkar together) are a match for a high-level spellcaster with vampiric powers (if V were in the room with them it might be another matter) – indeed there’s a disturbingly-good chance that now is when Belkar’s long-awaited death prophecy kicks in (which is fitting considering the last time it was teased, it ended in the resolution of Durkon‘s death prophecy that started this whole mess to begin with). Or more likely, they figure Roy’s little escapade will effectively swing the vote in their favor anyway because of some obscure violation of the rules of this little convocation.

Thinking about it, I almost think the most likely way for this to be resolved (other than Hel being wrong about how the demigods vote) is for the real Durkon to wrench control back of his body at a critical moment – perhaps spurred on by Roy realizing his plight at some point and giving him some encouraging words – and nullifying Hel’s vote by switching his allegiance back to Thor at least long enough for the result to be made official (although given what’s been hinted before I’m not sure that’s even possible). This is especially the case when one considers the Order’s divine casting situation; Durkula roped Roy into this plot to begin with by noting that the team would need more divine power than he could provide in his vampirized state, and no matter what else for them to simply lose Durkon right now would probably make them too weak at the worst possible moment. While bringing some of the assembled clerics with them to Kraagor’s Gate is an option (one Roy has already made some progress on), a more likely solution is for Roy to accomplish what he thought he was coming here for to begin with: resurrecting Durkon. Or perhaps the Durkula plotline isn’t over after all, considering the other prophecy hanging over his head from On the Origin of PCs (now available in PDF form!)

Whatever the case, I think I’m back to reading OOTS on a regular basis, at least through the next strip and the resolution of this cliffhanger.

I have plenty more I could say about Tarquin’s recent attempts to off Roy and their impact on Elan’s character development, but I never took advantage of any opportunities to do so.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized familial farewells.)

After nearly three hundred strips – after no previous book had lasted more than 188 in-comic strips, adding up to nearly a third of all OOTS comics – and nearly four and a half years – nearly half of OOTS’ entire existence – the fifth book of The Order of the Stick is finally winding its way to a close.

Over three years ago, when the book was only just over a year old, we were introduced to another in a long line of Rich’s fascinating, multi-layered, complex supporting characters. His name is Ian Starshine.

We knew who Ian was (and we certainly knew his daughter) for some time prior to his appearance in the cast. We knew it was him that got Haley in the thieving business, we knew his capture was what was motivating Haley and led to her joining the Order of the Stick, and we certainly ladled on the speculation that his captor was in fact his daughter’s potential future father-in-law. But everything we knew about him came in snippets and flashbacks from Haley. Now, we’ve seen him in the flesh, so to speak, and we’ve gotten his story.

Ian was in the midst of trying to overthrow Tarquin’s tyranny when he got the idea to get himself locked up to recruit other dissidents, only to find that those that could understand Tarquin’s modus operandi got killed pretty quickly, and that once locked up, he couldn’t escape for good. More interesting than Ian’s story, however, is his personality. Haley has been a mess of secrets from the start of the comic because Ian taught her never to trust anyone with anything, and while Haley has been slowly but surely opening up, at least to Elan, in Ian we have the picture of someone who went through absolutely none of Haley’s character development. And once Haley gets a glimpse of that picture, she realizes that for all that she wanted to be with him again, her father’s teachings nearly completely ruined her life.

When Ian’s brother-in-law Geoff finds Elan lurking about, everything Haley says to reassure her father only serves to make him more convinced that Tarquin planted him to serve as their downfall, to the extent that he actually refuses to leave with her, convinced she and Elan would just lead him into a trap. Even though Ian’s theory makes no sense given the family history of Elan and Tarquin, it serves to illuminate just how much character development Haley has gone through, because it’s exactly the sort of thing she might have once been worried about before finally getting together with him (and even then only under the most extreme duress).

But even as it illuminates Haley’s character development, it even more so illuminates Ian’s lack of same. It may not have been terribly surprising that Ian would be suspicious of the son of his captor, but what stands out in this sequence is how much it shows his general paranoia. When Haley tells Ian of how much she’s learned to open up to people, all he sees is weakness in his daughter, weakness that allowed the son of a despot to get into her heart. Both of them reflect on the death of his wife and her mother, who urged them in her dying words to “be better than this town. Than all of this.” But they came to completely different conclusions on what she meant: Ian feels the work he’s been doing against Tarquin has been a higher cause than “looting rich folk”, but Haley sees in her mother’s words something grander, a call to get away entirely from the world of trickery and deceit she was born into, and help do something far grander than Ian could even imagine.

But if it were strictly about paranoia for Ian, I don’t think he would have been quick to insult Tarquin out of the blue when they met face-to-face. I think an even more overriding principle for Ian lies in something he tells Haley during their conversation: “You can always trust in family, for good or for ill.” Thus, the flip side of Ian’s certainty that Elan must be a spy simply because Tarquin is his father is that he is so confident in the abilities and trustworthiness of his own family that he’s equally certain that Haley is the true leader of the Order of the Stick and Roy and Belkar were there to help rescue him all along.

But ultimately, that confidence may not only be misplaced, but may be his ultimate tragic downfall. Ian was originally recruited to the Western Continent to oppose Tarquin by his sister and her husband, and Geoff has been sitting in prison with him the whole time. It’s very possible that Geoff has in fact been working against Ian the whole time, tricking him into getting locked up and making sure he never escapes for good – especially when you consider the first hint we got regarding the circumstances of Ian’s capture, when Bozzok, the former boss of both Haley and Ian that both burned bridges with, let slip in passing that he arranged for Ian’s departure when he gave word to some “friends” on the Western Continent. The only thing sadder than it turning out that the one person he most needed to be paranoid of was the one person he never suspected would be if, instead of showing him that blood isn’t the sole determinant of one’s character, it only served to make him more paranoid, even of his own daughter, if he survived it.

These last two strips, though, have raised the possibility that, in some way, Ian has become more trusting while we weren’t looking – or at least that his real blind spot is simply his fanatical opposition to and desperate desire to overthrow Tarquin. Most obviously, when Ian asks his new boss, a former opponent of one of Tarquin’s secret allies who was betrayed after asking him for help, whether or not he can trust her, she replies, “You don’t, and you shouldn’t,” and Ian responds, “Just the way I like it. I’m in.” But what may be more telling is something in this strip Rich may not have even intended. Elan hands Ian his own plan for overthrowing Tarquin, and Ian is pleasantly surprised at its plausibility, affording himself the possibility that Elan might in fact be on the up and up after all – despite very little having changed regarding what Ian knows about Elan. The Ian of earlier in the book might well have decided that the plan’s very plausibility was a way to attempt to lure him into a trap. The only thing sadder than his betrayal by his own brother-in-law leaving Ian untrusting of literally anyone and everyone would be Ian misdiagnosing his betrayal by his own brother-in-law as his betrayal by his potential future son-in-law, reinforcing his misguided blind faith in family above all else rather than exposing it.

It may well be that in this, Ian is a rather fitting mirror image of Tarquin – knowing what we know of Elan and Tarquin, for Ian to find Elan’s plan plausible would probably imply at least some familiarity with the tropes of story Elan and Tarquin are (or, in Elan’s case, were) so devoted to. Tarquin is so desperate to be a villain going out in a blaze of glory at the hands of his own son he spends several strips trying to kill Roy in hopes of making Elan into the hero he so desperately wants him to be; Ian is so desperate to be a hero he’s willing to sacrifice his own principles to go along with anyone who claims to be out for the same goal he is, even if his ultimate goal may well be to usurp power away from them and take control of the resistance, even if in a rather Tarquin-like behind-the-scenes way. (In this, perhaps this isn’t so inconsistent with his prior portrayal; Geoff did, after all, marry into the “family” much like Elan might eventually do.) Either could prove to be their undoing; one would hope that, if Ian is ultimately responsible for Tarquin’s downfall, Tarquin could at least appreciate Ian’s credentials for the job.

Apparently, blood isn’t always thicker than water.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized casual filicidal vengeance.)

I think we can pretty much declare the Linear Guild’s relevance in this comic to be at an end.

I had thought Malack was too noble to continue following the orders of Tarquin and Nale for very long, although his long-term planning probably put the lie to that. But then, out of nowhere, Nale turned on Malack, throwing his staff into the distance and having Zz’dtri dispel his protection spell, allowing him to kill Malack by simply waiting out the time it took for him to burn to ash. This might be considered rather short-sighted, as it allowed Durkon to get his free will back, which he promptly used to kill Zz’dtri and rejoin the OOTS, but Nale letting slip that he had been planning Malack’s demise since he was nine years old hints at a far bigger picture that allowed him to consider the possibility of Durkon rejoining the OOTS an acceptable sacrifice for an opportunity that might never present itself again, especially given his worrying about Tarquin and Malack turning on him first. Many forumites are rather curious as to what it was happened when Nale was nine that led him to vow vengeance on Malack, and that was part of the reason I didn’t post on it at the time.

So after Durkon helps the OOTS take care of the sand monster, Tarquin shows up, having picked up Nale along the way, and takes the destruction of the gate surprisingly well, admitting that “I was probably going to destroy it myself anyway”. I’m a bit surprised Elan informs Tarquin of the existence of one more gate and appeals to his desire to preserve his empire, especially since he and Haley then do an about-face in this comic and resist Tarquin’s offer to teleport them to Kraagor’s Gate. (As an aside, given that Team Evil teleported to what’s probably the exact location of Kraagor’s Gate and that the OOTS don’t have much in the way of other options but to accept Tarquin’s offer, I’m starting to wonder if we’re set for just one more book, with the last two books having enough material for three.)

Incensed at Tarquin’s lassiez-faire attitude at the destruction of the Gate, Nale calls out his father for falling into a rut, and then starts gloating over killing Malack. At that point, Tarquin reveals how he was actually using Malack, that Tarquin had no intention of letting him kill Nale but instead hoped to convince their friends Nale was too valuable an asset (after Nale succeeded in capturing the Gate) and so put pressure on Malack to let him live. Rather than kill him when he had the chance, Tarquin was still loyal to his son and hoped to welcome him back into the family.

Nale, however, has none of it. Tarquin had hoped Nale had come crawling back and willing to accept his place at Tarquin’s side, but Nale is still the same man who clashed with Tarquin lo those many years ago. He had no intention of joining with Tarquin for good, only sticking with him in hopes of capturing the Gate and for long enough to not get killed. He still saw himself as his own man, wanting to build his own place in the world, one far bigger than what Tarquin had settled for, and this, coupled with his continued shortsightedness, proves his undoing, as Tarquin’s hopes that Nale would get his rebellion out of his system were the only reason he had let Nale survive to this point, and once those hopes are dashed, he has no reason to allow Nale to live any longer.

It’s a bit of a shame Tarquin was kept unrevealed for so long and the backstory of the Linear Guild so far out of focus, because it’s apparent that that backstory may be another of Rich’s great literary achievements, an almost Shakespearean tale of the often-tenuous ties of family and the hubris of youth, a story we just saw the climax of while only getting secondhand bits and pieces of the play leading up to it. I almost wanted to delay this post for another strip in hopes of getting more of that backstory, with the underlying motivation of Nale’s killing of Malack still out there. I can’t help but imagine Rich intended for a third prequel book centering on the Linear Guild and Nale’s original split with Tarquin, which may have been intended to be released in the middle of this book but which may yet see the light of day.

On the flip side, in less than ten strips we’ve seen the death of three members of this version of the Linear Guild; Sabine remains banished and Tarquin and Kilkil were only members as part of the ongoing marriage of convenience, not to mention how Thog remains MIA. Another reason I considered delaying this post by a strip was to gauge Nale’s chances of being raised, by Durkon (in either fashion) or someone else, and if he doesn’t it’d be interesting to see what might happen if he joins Sabine in the infernal realms. Tarquin actually seems to have outmaneuvered the IFCC here; it’s unclear whether they knew Nale’s plans for Malack (Qarr’s reaction to Malack’s death may or may not say anything about what the IFCC knows, especially given Sabine’s admission that even she doesn’t quite know what they have cooked up sometimes) or about Tarquin’s attitude towards his son, but if they knew about both you have to imagine they figure the Linear Guild has outlived its usefulness; a third reason I considered delaying this post was in hopes of seeing their reaction. Do they intend to bring the Guild back somehow, or is Sabine now going to be working on a different plan of theirs, existing primarily as part of their side and not the Guild?

I haven’t said anything about Elan and his place in this drama, although there’s not much to say about his pained reaction to Nale’s death, since we know he’s wanted to have a real family for a long time, was so excited about meeting his twin he ignored all evidence of his evilness until it couldn’t be ignored any longer, and had his suspension of disbelief in the world created by Girard’s illusion broken by Nale being perfectly fine with the re-marriage of Tarquin and Elan’s mother. We’d already known that despite everything, he was still conflicted about his family… and had some sort of plan involving Durkon, his father, and “finding a sense of good inside [his] family”. Was Nale also important to that plan? Did seeing Tarquin kill Nale change the way he viewed his father in some way, to say nothing of his experiences inside the illusion? I’m very interested in seeing how he reacts to his father after seeing this much conflict inside the family he sought so much. Family – both Elan’s and Haley’s (I have a post sitting mostly-written about Haley’s father and his paranoia) – has been a key theme of this book, and it’s perhaps fitting that this peak of drama would occur right as the book appears to be winding down.

Multiples of 100 have become so meaningless in this comic that I decided not to post on the 900th comic so I could post on the one immediately following.

Should I take "Sir Not Appearing in This Book" as a sign that this book is in fact going to be split in two?(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized loyalty roulette.)

Remember my Gunnerkrigg Court review, when I mentioned my inability to handle intensely dramatic scenes? Well, The Order of the Stick triggered it twice a few months back.

The first came when Belkar delivered the news of Durkon’s death to the rest of the group and Roy, to put it lightly, did not take it well. I was all set to write a lengthy post examining how Roy’s extreme denial, to the point of threatening to kill Belkar himself, was incomprehensible to those who hadn’t seen the deeper context to Roy and Durkon’s relationship in On the Origin of PCs… but I couldn’t bring myself to reread the comic, certainly not the sort of close, in-depth reading required to write a post, when I had already only skimmed it on first reading to avoid having to go through the intense emotional swings that were the very reason I felt the need to post. I could have just as easily posted on the following comic, where Roy is just about ready to give up on the entire quest before Belkar of all people snaps him out of it, but it also didn’t help with the emotional torque problem.

Then as the Order are walking down a corridor, they happen to bump into Xykon and company and engage in a battle involving the anti-climactic death of Belkar and Roy using his anti-magic-user trick he learned from his grandfather in the last book to ultimately put away Xykon… just in time for it to be revealed to all be an illusion caused by one of Girard’s traps. By itself, I could handle this, though it’s another painful strip to re-read… but the illusion keeps going, showing all sorts of events happening in the aftermath of the story, all of which only served to convince me that none of it would actually happen by virtue of its depiction in the illusion, all the way to the anti-magic-user trick I was convinced Roy would never get to use for real, and which left me and many of the fans wondering just how long the Order was standing there, struck dumb by the illusion. When it got to the point of a comic depicting the reunion and re-marriage of Tarquin and Elan’s mother, I didn’t even bother to zoom in to the strip on my iPhone. And I hadn’t read a single comic since.

Before starting work on this post, I would have figured the wedding being depicted was that of Elan and Haley, because that would have made sense (Malack’s presiding over the proceedings notwithstanding). As it turned out, the rather unconventional choice, which solely reflected Elan’s own wild fantasies, had a method to the madness, as Elan became tipped off to the nature of the illusion by the fact that his own self-admitted “childish ideas that should never have happened” still ended up happening. This by itself could have inspired another post about Elan’s own self-awareness and whether or not it might serve as the catalyst for further character growth, but I never would have been able to write that post either; fortunately, Robert A. “Tangents” Howard did (though I personally think it’s just as easy to see this as yet another point towards Elan’s Mary-Sue-dom).

(I also might have had plenty to say about Belkar’s own fantasy, but that’s another story.)

So what else did I miss? Well, the Linear Guild shows up again only to discover Girard left a Mario reference behind, but the OOTS doesn’t over-rely on spells to determine the situation and uncovers how it really hid the gate – which prompts Roy to unveil his plan to destroy it, on purpose this time. Vaarsuvius, having now travelled to directly underneath them, attempts to warn them not to do it – but it’s at that moment that the IFCC call in their little “favor”, bringing us to another point I might have posted on. Despite much speculation that the fiends would use it to control V for their own ends, they don’t really need to; all they really need is to stop him/her from warning the rest of the group.

So yeah, just like that, Girard’s Gate is destroyed just after Xykon and company arrive, the other four members of the OOTS get their look inside the rift, and we finally get to what it is that did prompt me to post: a look at the ongoing internal dynamics within Team Evil. Redcloak and Xykon are all set to begin Round 3 with the OOTS when the Monster in the Dark intervenes, not wanting them to attack a group he recognizes as allied with O-Chul. I don’t believe I’ve said anything about the MitD’s character development in the last two books, even though, as this comic proves, it has as much to do with the future direction of Team Evil as anything involving the relationship between Redcloak and Xykon themselves. The MitD has always tended to come off as more amoral than evil, and I wouldn’t say O-Chul’s influence has exactly turned him good, but it has given him a connection and loyalty to someone outside Team Evil, a connection and loyalty with the potential, and in fact the actuality, to clash with his loyalties to Xykon and Redcloak.

Despite stumbling to come up with a good justification why they shouldn’t attack the Order, the MitD actually manages to convince Xykon that O-Chul is the real hero of the story, and that the Order’s presence without O-Chul is a sign that this is just a diversion to weaken the team, despite the fact they just blew up the gate right in front of them. It’s apparent that Xykon’s willingness to listen to the MitD is influenced by how pissed off he is at what happened when he stayed at Azure City so long, and his willingness to listen to Redcloak’s more sensible thinking is compromised by his role in that and ulterior motives for taking that role. Whereas before Rich used that relationship to keep them in Azure City as long as possible, now he’s using it for the opposite effect, getting them to the next gate as quickly as possible. Although Redcloak’s increasing spine-growth isn’t directly a factor here, one wonders if Xykon’s own increasing resistance to Redcloak’s advice, even his good advice, may provide fuel to that growth and accelerate any eventual breakup of Team Evil, regardless of who triggers it. In any case, Redcloak does manage to leave one last parting shot, summoning a sand monster to take out the OOTS in their absence.

Some of the recent strips have given me an impression of Rich trying too hard to accelerate the end of the book, which has lasted well over two hundred comics (the last book was the longest to that point at 168, this book is already over 225) and close to four years, meaning we’ve spent as long in real time in this book as we had in the previous two and a half books (admittedly not helped by the Kickstarter and Rich’s thumb injury), slowed down immensely by just how much of the 700s we spent in the Empire of Blood, but even in the 800s it seemed like Rich was too eager to take his time to get everyone set up at Girard’s Gate for a confrontation that basically amounted to nothing, a brief clash between the Linear Guild and OOTS notwithstanding. Regardless, we appear to finally be reaching the end of this book and setting up the pieces for the next one… which may well be the last one, if Team Evil are already zipping off to Kraagor’s Gate.

Also, I could have made an obvious Monty Python reference instead of a forced comic book reference.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized Black Lantern creation.)

After teasing us with the resolution of one death prophecy, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising to see Rich actually resolve the other one.

While it’s a bit earlier than when I thought it might happen, I have less of a problem with Durkon’s death coming here than with Belkar’s. As I mentioned in my last post, what really hammers this home is the fact that Durkon and Malack were so chummy earlier, only to see them turned against one another and for Malack to ultimately be responsible for Durkon’s demise – as well as the fact that this sequence represents Durkon’s biggest time in the spotlight in the entire comic. (On the other hand, it loses some impact because we don’t really know what caused Durkon to leave the rest of the group, considering he was still with them when last we saw them… and rereading that strip now could cause you to tear up all over again.)

I kind of wish I’d been able to post on the previous comic, the one with Durkon’s actual death, which I could have done if I’d started writing just a few hours before – not just because that’s the important moment in the sequence, but Durkon’s eventual resignation and ultimate acceptance effectively harkens back not only to Durkon’s initial reaction to the prophecy, but also the death of the previous most important character to remain dead at the moment (not counting Xykon), Miko. Malack isn’t really much of a threat to the gates, and things still aren’t looking up for Belkar, but it’s still, all things considered, a rather fitting way for Durkon to go out.

At least, temporarily. Because the comic I’m actually posting on completes the other half of what I thought might happen to Belkar, with Malack raising Durkon as a vampire, and suggesting a rather disturbing origin for Malack’s former “children”. While Malack clearly has some respect for Durkon that goes above and beyond what he had for almost anyone else, and we’ve already seen an image of a vampified OOTS member, even in black, that keeps some semblance of their former personality, the consensus on the forums seems to be that the Durkon we knew isn’t there anymore, and given his initial reaction to being raised it’s hard to disagree… not to mention the other prophecy surrounding Durkon from one of the prequel books.

It’s hard for me to take this as the fulfillment of that prophecy, though; this would seem to be a short-term threat for the OOTS to have to deal with, and it’s hard for me to see Durkon going very far in his current state. At the very least I would have to imagine we’d end up at the next gate as soon as the next book for this to tie in. Regardless, the OOTS is now finding itself in very dangerous territory… and given the circumstances, Xykon and company would seem to be overdue to show up.

Now THAT’S what I call Lawful Evil.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized planning ahead.)

Well, this is hardly the first time I’ve jumped the gun on a comic – after Rich teased us with the prospect of Belkar’s death, along came Durkon to save the day, at least temporarily (and potentially setting up his own demise). The result has perhaps been Durkon’s biggest spotlight moment in the entire comic; he had enough of a story arc in the first prequel book to get the cover, had a side-plot in the first book, and had a chance to shine in battle in the third, but none of those have been as effective at pulling Durkon out of his status as the OOTS’ “forgotten” member as this sequence.

To be fair, the groundwork for this was laid much earlier in the book, with how chummy Durkon and Malack were earlier, but I may have missed the other important development, and ultimately the only one, from the last comic I posted on: Malack’s status as a vampire. After Durkon saves Belkar, the two of them have a heart-to-heart discussion on how this revelation changes their relationship and Durkon’s feelings of betrayal as a result, in a brief sequence more than a little reminiscent of Enor and Gannji, before ultimately deciding their differences are now irreconcilable and turning their spells on each other.

This allows Durkon to show off his combat skills for an extended period against a real threat in a sense we’ve rarely if ever seen in the comic before, forcing Malack to retreat and use more stealthy tactics. That leads to this strip, where Durkon, low on options, begins taunting Malack verbally in an attempt to sniff out where he is, at which point Malack starts going on about his long-term plan to outlive his former adventuring cohorts, hoping to inherit a unified empire from the three empires they control.

Ultimately, it stands as a marked contrast to Redcloak’s stance on the status of undead. 45 comics ago, Redcloak told Tsukiko that all undead, no matter how powerful or seemingly free-willed, are ultimately tools for the living, claiming that as much as Xykon may appear to control Redcloak, it is really Redcloak who controls Xykon, however subtly. If this were the case Durkon would be more spot-on with his original query than he thinks, but instead when he hears Malack’s plan he sees it as, effectively, the relationship between Redcloak and Xykon, only with the roles of undead and living reversed, and Malack would then stand as a towering counterargument to Redcloak’s conviction. Instead, Malack and Tarquin’s relationship is contrasted with Redcloak and Xykon only for the genuine friendship between them and how open they are with their planning – miscellaneous disputes on tactics (or Tarquin’s own vision for the end of his reign) aside.

But Malack’s final answer is ultimately a somewhat sublime response to Redcloak’s position: “Living or dead, we are all of us marching to our orders – you no less than I, Durkon. It does not matter whence these orders come, be it man or god. Our place is an obedient slave to those who command us. Through service, we are rewarded. That is the true natural order.” Considering Redcloak’s own personal story arc of loyalty to the Dark One, those words must hit especially hard for him were he to hear them. Of course, they take on a different meaning in a comic where the gods are known quantities that interfere directly in the lives of mortals, but even then Malack’s words are an interesting lens to view the whole comic through.

To take some of the candidates for the “nine sides” I haven’t covered already: The OOTS marches to the beat of Roy’s drum, who initially put together an adventuring party to fulfill his father’s Blood Oath, which Eugene put him up to because the powers that be won’t let him into his ultimate reward. Malack cites Nale as a “fool” who “resists” this “natural order”, but he might not even be successful at it, ultimately controlled without his suspicion by Sabine as the IFCC’s representative. There’s quite a bit of evidence that the Order of the Scribble were duped, willingly or unwillingly, into doing the gods’ bidding, and the Sapphire Guard was so hamstrung by their oath that it ultimately hindered the planet’s fate (though Shojo’s attempt to “resist” ended with Miko’s sword through his body, as Rich points out in the commentary for that book). The whole comic could be seen as a great drama staged by the gods through their creation of the rifts (and possibly other interference in the lives of mortals); indeed, Malack’s words might hint at future comic developments, such as the real reason the Order of the Scribble broke up and the nature of the “planet within a planet“. (Considering the comic seems most sympathetic to its Chaotic Good characters, I doubt Rich actually agrees with Malack, but whatever.)

Ultimately, that one penultimate panel may be one of the more critical ones in the comic. I’ve spoken before about OOTS‘ literary merit, and it’s possible that this comic may be critical to a literary appreciation of it, at a time when I’ve doubted Rich’s continuing storytelling ability given the ups and downs of this book. (And how long it’s running; do you realize that previous books were 120, 180, 184, and 188 online pages long… and this one has crossed the 200 mark without the end in sight?) That it would come between two clerics, whose entire job revolves around service to their god, and would serve as such a strong contrast to the position of another cleric, only makes it all the more fitting.

Because my dad told my mom he feels disconnected from me when I don’t post on here, an Eric Burns(-White)-esque comeback.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized rebirth.)

Despite what some forumites have thought, I never believed Belkar’s little encounter with Malack was in any way leading to the former’s death; it seemed like it would be too anticlimactic for me. The sequence itself hasn’t been particularly well-done; I feel like Rich has been a bit rusty since his return from thumb-injury-forced break (the first strip back from it was at least the second time in recent memory OOTS‘ penchant for metahumor worked against it), and while I’m normally willing to put up with Rich’s nonexistent update schedule these comics have been too mediocre for me to put up with just one or two a week. Belkar’s vow in the previous comic seemed overwrought and irrelevant, and Malack’s realization in this one similarly seems to come from out of nowhere (even if it might be a reference to a previous comic I’ve forgotten).

I think most people felt – certainly I did – that whenever it happened, Belkar’s death would be the climax of a thread of character development stretching back throughout the book and ultimately reaching back to his conversation with Lord Shojo. But while Belkar has gone through some character development, it hasn’t been much more than what’s described in that post, and that may have been intentional; after all, having “something to fight for” may have only had the effect of changing the nature of Belkar’s assholery. As such, I think I wouldn’t have had as much of a problem with this sequence if Malack had actually been a threat to Mr. Scruffy, yet it seems like it’s a big part of the point of the sequence, and of Malack’s character, that he doesn’t really have a beef with Mr. Scruffy or Belkar. If anything, this is more a result of Belkar being too quick to jump into a fight he can’t win, especially when neither of them really has a reason to fight the other.

I also continue my exasperation regarding Rich’s penchant for confirming wild forum theories, and the notion that Belkar would become some sort of undead was the ultimate wild forum theory, one that was extant in various forms as far back as the oracle’s “last breath” prophecy. Yet here we are, and I’ll admit it will be interesting to see whether Belkar becomes a full-on servant of Malack’s, or will remain free-willed enough, and retain enough of his previous personality, to continue adventuring with the OOTS in undead form. (Given Malack’s thought process in the previous comic, it may well be both, at least in the short term.)

Of course, if Belkar does continue adventuring with the OOTS, we do still have one more death prophecy to potentially permanently reduce the OOTS’ numbers…

Wha… what’s this? It’s… could it be? …an ORDER OF THE STICK post! Oh, joy!

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized light amongst the darkness.)

Rich Burlew’s time has been somewhat monopolized by fulfillment from the Kickstarter, so the comic itself has actually slowed down considerably since the Kickstarter wrapped up back in February.

That’s not to say that things haven’t happened in that time. In fact, we got a whole fight scene between the OOTS and the new Linear Guild, with Tarquin trying and failing to pretend to be Thog. We even got at least one funny moment when Roy caught on to the ruse and removed “Thog”‘s helmet – only to reveal a mask with “Nope!” written on it. But there hasn’t been anything that I’ve actually felt the need to post on.

So why am I posting about it now? Only to note the change of pace we’re seeing with the focus on the Linear Guild, with the trap the Order has laid for them revealed from their eyes. I don’t think there has ever been a point when we’ve been at this level of remove from the OOTS, with another group of characters (let alone the group they’re fighting) becoming the viewpoint characters and the OOTS becoming the “other”. Rich has always had very well fleshed out villains, but the Guild is basically serving as shadow protagonists at the moment.

Part of this reflects the interesting interpersonal dynamic amongst the marriage of convenience that makes up this version of the Linear Guild, especially the surprising conflict between Tarquin and Malack, which has overshadowed any question of the chain of command. The two of them have been together since their adventuring days before Nale was even born, but Malack was never particularly willing to team up with the murderer of his kids for any reason, and he’s started to clash with Tarquin over his disregard for efficiency in favor of drama, stretching out the first round with the OOTS and disregarding the loss of some of the reanimated former minions of Girard to the same trap Vaarsuvius fell into. Malack has always seemed more noble than Tarquin or the rest of the Guild, but now I seriously have to wonder if he’ll eventually turn on the group.

A bigger part of the perspective flip, of course, is to allow the OOTS to look halfway competent for once…

Who called it in the title of his post on the previous comic?

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized karma.)

As much as I’ve complained about the OOTS comics that I’ve read in real time since I started reading it as such, I’d have to say Vaarsuvius has probably been the best part of the comic in that span, for the ongoing tragedy of her moment of weakness.

V may well have regretted signing her deal-with-the-devil before, but until now she could at least claim the problems with it related entirely to her and her own hubris. She accepted a deal from fiends that was, in fact, successful at saving her family, but then destroyed her relationship with that family so she could use the same power for whatever plot-furthering purposes she could, except she never could. She accepted it because she was desperate to prove that arcane magic could solve all her problems, and she came out of it learning of the value of other people’s contributions, as well as knowing what her own role is.

But she also accomplished one major, though entirely unnecessary, thing, and curiously, despite it being the pinnacle of her time under the Splice, she never seemed to be too broken up about it until now. She regretted the Soul Splice, not the Familicide. The forumites knew what it said about her, the fiends knew what it said about her, but curiously enough, V himself doesn’t seem to have grasped the enormity of what he’d done until he realizes that humans were killed. One-quarter of the black dragon population? Their scales aren’t all shiny, so their destruction was just and necessary. For all the lessons she’s learned, V hasn’t yet learned the lesson she hasn’t had reason to, but that lies at the heart of the entire comic, regarding the arbitrary nature of the alignment system.

Regardless, now we can continue the story of her time under the Splice I started when she accepted it. The Splice may have started as a typical Faustian deal, though for unusual reasons, but Rich managed to turn it into something entirely his own. V almost lost sight of why she accepted the deal in the first place, becoming drunk with power and heedless of the consequences of his actions, manipulated by the spliced souls to be sure, but still entirely in control. Everything that happened in the second paragraph happened, but V is now learning the flip side of those lessons: that ultimate arcane power, wielded without caution, can have unintended consequences. Immeasurable innocent blood is now on his hands, and she may never be able to repay the debt from that moment of weakness.

On the other hand, the bill may soon be coming due on the debt from the Splice itself…

Would it be too much of a stretch to connect this to Penelope’s death?

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized fatal family tree.)

The chickens, they are coming home to roost.

Much to my chagrin, Rich has once again confirmed a wild forum theory, though this one at least seemed vaguely plausible at the time. Because as it turns out, V’s pride and shortsightedness has completely screwed over the Order of the Stick, or at least the world. (For the record, it’s doubtful that the IFCC planned on this in any way.) Funnily enough, in my last OOTS post I scratched my head at V’s willingness to allow Belkar to use Yukyuk for his own purposes; perhaps this is the universe’s way of reminding her where that path leads.

If the primary theme of this book has been “family”, a secondary one might be “secrets”, namely those of Haley and her father (the latter of which I’ll talk about if and when he turns up again). Up to this point, V was probably willing to try to forget about that whole episode, and had no reason to divulge anything about it to anyone. Now, does he decide to fess up to her culpability in this matter? Doing so could sow distrust, but not doing so will cause this to haunt her for the entire battle, maybe the entire rest of the comic.

This also keeps us from meeting any former Scribblers “in the flesh” at this gate, and thus from getting any further insight into that group’s breakup, and it suggests that the reason Rich seemed to float the possibility of Girard still being alive, as unlikely as it would ordinarily seem, was to make the point hit that much harder here, the guilt weigh that much more heavily on V’s shoulders. (On the plus side, at least the illusion the Order triggered a while back turned out not to lead to any confrontation with anybody!)

Ultimately, the end result of this is to clear the battlefield, wiping out the forces that were already set up to guard the Gate, as well as most of the magical defenses surrounding it. The Gate is more vulnerable than it was ever intended to be, its only defense now consisting of the Order of the Stick themselves. The stage has been set for the showdown for the Gate, and I fully expect the first shots to be fired imminently.