Apparently the ball’s in my court now. But I wonder if it ruined the original plan.

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

If you’re here for Sandsday’s Global Warming series this post will make no sense.

So I finally got around to coming up with an idea for an OOTS post that didn’t require me to constantly put out updates on the current state of the strip, especially important with how slow the strip has updated over the past month-plus. (About two strips a week by my calculations.) And I get completely distracted with research for the activities going on in Sandsday now, so I only get around to actually writing it when I’m more than a week behind schedule. I may lay off on the webcomic posts for the rest of the month and return only for OOTS towards the end.

So let’s go back, back in time, before any of the events covered in the strip itself, before even the events (well, most of them; again, I don’t actually have either of them) in the prequel books.

To the beginning of the OOTS-verse? Hardly. To the end of the group generally known (but in-strip only by a strip title) as the Order of the Scribble, when the gates were freshly sealed and all that was left was to decide how to protect them.

Each of the five surviving members of the group has their own ideas for how to protect the gates, and the disagreement becomes so acrimonious that it’s a couple seconds away from bloodshed when Serini proposes a compromise. Each member retires to the site of one of the gates and protects that gate in their own way. Soon protects his gate with the honor of his paladins, Girard with his illusions, and so on. That’s pretty much familiar to OOTS fans, and important for understanding the entire plot, including events still to come.

Serini also proposes a non-interference clause, that her soon-to-be-former teammates agree not to interfere in each other’s gates. “We’ll set up some kind of monitoring divination to tell if someone else’s gate is broken, but that’s it. No spying, no ‘just checking in’ visits, no nothing.” The clear fear is that someone might visit someone else’s gate and pick up with the fighting to impose their method of protection on the gate, or at least tell them how to run it.

Much as it tries, I don’t think strip #277 does a good job dramatizing the conflict between the Scribblers at this point, devoting only two and a half panels to it; Shojo’s narration almost seems to glide right past it, but it contains clues that the former teammates are almost downright enemies at this point, intending to impose their will on the others by any means necessary and burning with hatred, which is why I’d be shocked not to see one of the remaining prequels devoted to the Scribblers. So Serini’s non-interference clause is an enforced cease-fire: each member gets their own domain. Any member entering the borders of that domain is effectively invading, possibly even declaring war. This is a protection against anyone destroying a gate’s protection out of spite or at least interfering in how it’s run. Because the members vow not even to contact each other, they have no way of knowing whether or not another member is coming in peace – repeated subsequent mutual violations of the oath by Dorukan and Lirian aside.

I explain all this because understanding it is especially important for understanding subsequent events – especially when it comes to judging Shojo, and whether the ends really did justify the means.

First, we have to ask the question: does Serini’s non-interference clause hinder the effort to protect the gates against a threat that might attempt to unlock one gate, then another, then another? In theory, no. That’s why Serini slipped in the “monitoring divination” to alert the others if one of the gates gets cracked: so that the remaining members could potentially buttress their own defenses, or possibly even send in their own protection.

The problem in hindsight is that the divination doesn’t appear to provide details. Shojo had to send paladins to investigate the destruction of Lirian’s Gate, and scried to take a look at the ruins of Dorukan’s dungeon, and neither told him anything useful – certainly not as much as an unplanned visit from Eugene Greenhilt did. Shojo couldn’t publicly use the information he picked up from Eugene, as it was basically hearsay, but he could bring the Order of the Stick in on trumped-up charges to talk things over, and establish the threat to the other gates more clearly.

What the Order of the Stick can do that the Sapphire Guard can’t is check on the status of the other two gates, so the next question we need to ask to understand what’s going on is: Why does Shojo feel the need to do that? What, exactly, does Shojo hope to gain from it?

Shojo tells Roy that “Without concrete evidence of a threat to all the gates, [the paladins] wouldn’t consider checking on the other two.” Because the first they hear of Xykon and Redcloak is from the OOTS themselves, and that only establishes that they were responsible for what happened at Dorukan’s Gate (not necessarily Lirian’s), and the only way Shojo knows that Xykon is still out there and still a threat is because Eugene told him, for all they know the destruction of the two gates were isolated incidents and have no bearing on the other three.

Presumably the other two gates, having their own divinations, are aware of what happened to those first two gates and made their own investigations – though given Girard’s age and race it’s unlikely he’s still alive to stand guard at his Gate to respond to them, and therefore unclear whether anyone is – but it’s impossible to know that for certain, or what they found out, or what preparations they might be making, or whether that’s sufficient. So the first part of what Shojo wants the Order of the Stick to do upon reaching one of the gates is to find out if they can corroborate that there’s still a standing threat out there, to tell them what Shojo and the OOTS already know but can’t tell the paladins.

But Shojo wasn’t around when the Order of the Scribble broke up. He doesn’t see why the proprietors of each gate can’t support each other. If for whatever reason, say, Girard’s Gate isn’t set up to defend itself from Xykon and his minions, why shouldn’t Shojo send support? After all, the fate of the world is at stake, right? So the second, more implicit, part of sending the OOTS is to stall for time: make sure that Xykon doesn’t achieve his goal before Shojo can learn a damned thing about him. (Besides, what better way to corroborate that Xykon’s still a threat than a second round of first-hand evidence?) In fact, one gets the impression that – at least from Roy’s perspective (“the week AFTER we finish off Xykon“) – the real purpose of the investigation is not really “investigation” but nipping the problem in the bud. That’s why Roy goes to the Oracle first to make sure the OOTS go to the right gate, not just pick one of the gates at random.
All that means that when Roy subsequently accidentially rules out Soon’s Gate as a choice when asking the Oracle which gate Xykon will attack? It’s not really his fault. If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s Shojo’s.

The Order of the Stick wasn’t hired to defend Soon’s Gate, yet – even if Shojo isn’t confident in the ability of his paladins to handle the situation, he doesn’t have enough concrete evidence to make any preparations for battle. Shojo hired them to go out to another gate, come back, inform Shojo of the situation, and then Shojo could use that evidence to make sure the Sapphire Guard was ready. Shojo doesn’t really have a quicker path, so whether or not he’d considered the possibility that Xykon might attack his own gate while the OOTS were investigating another was kind of irrelevant, unless the kind of evidence he had in mind was the aforementioned first-hand evidence. In any case, he has an early-warning system, right?

In that sense, even before her attempt at redemption, Miko is really the savior of Azure City and perhaps the world, because she, not the OOTS, meets Xykon first-hand and warns of the coming invasion, even if it was in Xykon’s plans all along. In fact, if Shojo was confident in his paladins’ ability to handle the situation, it was well founded, because ultimately, the Order of the Stick has no impact on the operative part of the battle, for the gate, and if they have any it’s negative, by giving Hinjo someone to talk to about the gate’s location and be accidentially overheard by Xykon and Redcloak making their battle plans. Here’s a summary of how that part goes down:

Yes, Xykon does get decloaked because of Haley’s quick thinking, and slowed down by Roy, but Xykon just kills him and makes for the tower anyway. (Incidentially, re-reading the former strip for this post was the first time I ever really realized that “Team Evil” is in fact used in-strip.) I doubt the Sapphire Guard really needed Roy, or even Xykon’s decloaking, to help them stall for time and get set up – they were likely ready before the battle started, and it doesn’t do them much good anyway. So the gate is effectively saved by the ghosts of paladins past attacking Xykon, and Xykon struggling to hold them off until Redcloak shows up – and Redcloak, incidentially, shows up because a catapult shot, not one of the OOTS, killed a hobgoblin, and despite an attempt at a diversion from Haley, he runs basically unopposed into the castle.

Redcloak comes up with a plan that mostly succeeds in taking out the ghosts with the exception of Soon himself, who has Xykon and Redcloak on the ropes when Miko shows up and blows the gate – and how does Miko break out of prison? Tsukiko (who has zero interaction with any of the OOTS except irrelevant interaction with Belkar until the current book) causes enough damage to the prison for Nale to break the Linear Guild out and leave Miko alone, which also happens to be enough damage for Miko to make her own escape – again, zero OOTS involvement. Unless you want to count what Miko overheard that led her to lump Shojo in with the alleged OOTS-Xykon conspiracy and resulted in Shojo’s death – again, making matters worse from the outset, but if Miko doesn’t end up in prison, skip the first phase of the battle for the tower, and end up blowing the gate, and instead gets afflicted by the Symbol of Insanity or maybe joins O-Chul in the first attempt to blow the gate, then Soon’s plan works, Xykon and Redcloak are destroyed, and the plot cuts short right then and there.

As for the rest of the battle, Team Evil wins pretty handily there, with the effect that the non-Roy OOTS contingent is pretty much lucky to be alive, so the OOTS weren’t much help there either. The OOTS, effectively, were spectators for most of the battle. The OOTS take out the first-round elementals but not without them blowing a hole in the wall (so the goblinoids would have won the battle that much quicker), Roy slowed down Xykon, Vaarsuvius put up a defense at the breach (which kills hobgoblins but ultimately just plays into Team Evil’s hands), Belkar saves Hinjo from an assassination attempt, Roy saves Vaarsuvius from one of the Xykon-decoys, Belkar takes out another decoy and uses it to take out more hobgoblins, V is helpless when everyone files into the breach (and V ultimately causes more deaths on the Azure side), Durkon saves Hinjo from another assassination attempt, and Elan saves their butts by convincing the hobgoblins they’re all dead. So the OOTS cause more damage to Team Evil’s side and save Hinjo’s life multiple times, but ultimately have next to no real effect on Team Evil’s plans until Haley starts resisting, and even then it’s minimal until whatever point that the city is retaken. What effect they do have, as outlined above, is negative.

Shojo didn’t need the OOTS to defend Soon’s Gate (if anything he would have been better off with them elsewhere), and they weren’t of any use in defending the city, except that the Sapphire Guard’s situation would have been far worse if Hinjo had followed Shojo to the grave. Likely the city would have been left in the hands of someone like Kubota even after whatever point the city got retaken, but that assumes both Shojo and Hinjo were taken out in the middle of battle, hardly a sure thing especially with Shojo’s deception and age requiring him to take a passive role.

There’s one other thing we need to consider, and that’s the fact the Sapphire Guard doesn’t disseminate any information about how the other gates are defended to its paladins, something that makes no sense to Redcloak. That, it’s made clear, is the non-interference clause rearing its ugly head again, because if each gate defense group knew the details of the other gate defenses they could exploit any weaknesses in them. Since they’re not going to be contacting each other, they have no need to know each other’s defenses anyway. And although it might appear from this post that the non-interference clause hindered the goal of protecting the gates from threat in the long run (ie, now), it’s here that it provides one advantage: keeping important information from falling into the wrong hands. Redcloak attempts to interrogate O-Chul into learning the secrets of Girard’s Gate, but it ain’t gonna work.

(This also makes clear that although Redcloak has extensively read Serini’s diary, it hasn’t provided him with this end of the story, the exact reason why the Scribblers took one gate per member and defended them so differently, and why they haven’t come out in force to crush him already. He’s just been an unwilling beneficiary – and victim – of it.)

Serini’s compromise is arguably one of the major driving forces of the entire plot of OOTS, at least following the destruction of Dorukan’s Gate, and it’s interesting that both Shojo and Redcloak have essentially discounted it out of a lack of knowledge and appreciation for the exact circumstances (or in Redcloak’s case, knowledge of the compromise at all). That suggests that if and when we do get a prequel book on the Order of the Scribble, we should take it as a sign that someone that does have such an appreciation is coming soon. In any case, there’s a pretty good chance we can expect it to rear its ugly head again at the remaining two gates and send the plot off in directions currently unexpected.

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