(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized metaplanets. Despite the title, this is part of the “monthly” OOTS post series.)
I already had only a vague idea where OOTS would go entering the next book.
The one thing that seemed certain was that the OOTS was headed for its next showdown with Team Evil at Girard’s Gate, and the OOTS is certainly headed there. Team Evil is busy at the moment tracking down Xykon’s phylactery, and opinions are divided as to whether it’s to hasten their departure (as suggested by Xykon’s “as soon as we find it we’re leaving!” rhetoric), or delay it (as suggested by the fact that from Team Evil’s perspective, the phylactery could be “who the hell knows where!”). I’m in the “hasten” camp (though I don’t have that many allies on the forums), especially since the OOTS is already ahead of Team Evil on the road to Girard’s Gate by a good margin, and would only get further ahead by any delays to Team Evil. For Team Evil to need to be delayed, we’d need the OOTS to be delayed as well.
If anything delays the OOTS it’s dramatic considerations: it makes the most sense for the showdown for Girard’s Gate to be the big climactic showdown at the end of the book. That means any other adventures the OOTS might have on the Western continent – presumably, ones performed en route to Girard’s Gate – must in any case occur before reaching the gate (unless getting off the Western continent in the book after next is an issue… more on that later). Clearly something is likely to happen to delay the OOTS, and even if they spend some siesta time in Sandsedge (and Books 2 and 3 have both opened with slow periods in towns, and Book 4 opened with a slow period in Heaven) that’s not likely to actually be very long in in-comic time. That means one of two things: something happens to them in the desert that delays them, probably substantially, like more bandits, or something happens to sidetrack them entirely, something that at least seems more important than outracing Team Evil to Girard’s Gate.
What would be more important than making it to Girard’s Gate as fast as possible? A visit to the Western continent means a potential trek through Elven lands, so Vaarsuvius might want to catch back up with his people, but there is no evidence that V wants to return there, that she’d be accepted there, or that the plot would have any reason for her to return there. (Unless Pompey is waiting there…) If anything of that sort happens, it might be during the march off the continent in the next book.
More likely would be Haley’s quest to free her father, floating in the background of her character since we first learned of his capture (134?) This book has seen confirmation of the fact that Ian Starshine’s captor is indeed on the Western continent, and while the greedy side of Haley’s character had already been weakened by her Resistance experience, Celia’s “deal” with the Thieves Guild would completely ruin any hope she might normally have of collecting enough money to free her father. What’s more, Haley just told Elan the whole story. Plots for one book are usually well-laid-down in the background of the previous book; even in Book 3, which mostly tied up most of the plots from all the previous books, there was still plenty of foreshadowing of the Kubota subplot, if not for its larger irrelevance. Haley terminated Celia’s deal on her way out of the Thieves Guild HQ, but as it had paid off absolutely zilch at that point, if you don’t think it’s coming back to haunt her later you haven’t been reading stories very long (or at least you don’t visit TV Tropes). A likely scenario would involve the Thieves Guild tracking down Haley in the desert and battling the OOTS, which could leave Haley with a problem only she and Elan can solve.
That problem, though, could really stress-test their relationship (and not just their joint one with the OOTS). It’s almost taken as given on the OOTS forums that “Lord Tyrinar”, the man holding Haley’s father captive, is in fact himself the tyrannical father of Elan and Nale (watch that crest!). What sorts of hilarity might ensue from the complex interplay between Haley, Ian, Tyrinar, Elan, and Nale? One suggestion comes in this comic, which seems to imply that Elan did not exactly tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about Therkla to Haley. We do know Haley knows that there was a “ninja chick who had a crush on him, then died”, but it’s clear that Elan didn’t entirely hold to his commitment to honesty he gives in flashback in the same strip. Did Haley not quite succeed in making sure Elan didn’t “hate” her for her secret backstory (parts of which are, it’s clear to me, being hidden from us for a reason), or had Elan already decided to go ahead and set up future “entertaining dramatic conflict”, only in a sneaky way? (These two are perfect for each other!)
(It’s only on later re-reading that I realize Elan could have just as easily been referring to Crystal, not Therkla. That could STILL lead to dramatic tension later, though, as it’s not clear exactly how relevant Haley found the personal aspect of her rivalry with Crystal, meaning it could be Elan’s turn to learn an incomplete version for dramatic purposes.)
Team Evil is more likely to be delayed by Hinjo’s elven allies than by Xykon’s phylactery. Xykon and Redcloak are under attack seemingly on all fronts: there’s the unified Resistance Haley left behind, there’s the elves that are meeting with them, and there’s the prisoners O-Chul inspired. Between that and Xykon’s demand to leave the instant his phylactery is recovered, Redcloak’s planned goblin state is teetering on the edge of the abyss. And yet there’s also plenty of potential for conflict between these various groups and with the Sapphire Guard once they make their return. In the absence of Team Evil there may only be a power vacuum and civil war in Azure City. And what if Xykon, kept in town by the phylactery, is forced to leave prematurely by the forces allied against him, meaning the elves made the situation worse instead of better?
Which brings us to what will happen at the gate itself. Roy is doing a lot of on-panel plotting here of exactly how the battle is going to go, and anyone with an understanding of dramatic conventions must realize those plans are almost bound to get thrown out the window the instant the battle begins. Xykon will already be at the gate, or something else will happen to muck up the waterworks in a way that renders Roy’s planning almost null and void. Not that we won’t see his disrupting attack he learned from his grandfather, but we probably won’t even see much of an opportunity for pre-battle preparations, and Belkar’s much-prophesied demise will happen in a much different way than Roy envisions.
The most likely candidate for that to happen would come from the IFCC, and their various designs on the gate. Although it’s intentionally vague, the IFCC seem to be setting the Linear Guild in position ahead of everyone else at the gate itself, beating both the OOTS and Team Evil there in the process. That seems to jive with Nale’s original plan, but that would mean Nale would miss out on the whole Tyrinar business, implying maybe there’s not a familial relation involved there after all. Unless the Tyrinar business comes after the battle for Girard’s Gate, in the sixth book before the OOTS leaves the Western continent… But the IFCC also want “conflict. Destructive unnecessary conflict”, and they could decide that “moving their pawns into position” means creating conflict that prevents the OOTS from reaching Girard’s Gate too soon, and that could mean an alliance with Nale’s father. Besides, the IFCC’s real focal point for their plotting as far as the gate is concerned, it’s fairly heavily implied, centers on V, and the 45 minutes of V’s soul they have.
Which brings us to the absolute bombshell towards the end of this strip that pretty much completely destroys any ideas the people on the forum had regarding the future course of the entire rest of the strip. It turns out that no one – not Redcloak, not Xykon, not the IFCC, not the Linear Guild, not the OOTS, not the Sapphire Guard – may have any idea what the gates are really protecting, that there are some things that the gods may have held back even from the Order of the Scribble (or, alternately, that they held back), things that, at this point, only Vaarsuvius knows. Once again, I preface this by saying I haven’t read the prequel books and whatever implications they may have on all this, but it’s possible that, if the whole notion of the Snarl is so completely different from what we have been led to believe, Redcloak’s plan is horribly flawed at its core (and it’s entirely possible for it to be a complete success as far as what he and the Dark One need to do, and still totally backfire) and virtually the entirety of the main plot of OOTS is, as the IFCC would put it, “destructive unnecessary conflict”, this time semi-unintentionally engineered by the gods. And what is this planet within the planet, anyway? Please don’t spring a Planet of the Apes ending on us and tell us “it’s our earth!”
(It’s doubtful the Order of the Scribble didn’t know this, incidentally, because they would have had at least as much contact with the rifts as Blackwing did, and at the very least, if they never did know it leaves open the question of what exactly happened to Mijung. In fact this could be fodder for another entire OOTS post in itself, reinterpreting the Crayons of Time series and pretty much everything I wrote in my post on the non-interference clause, which may have been adopted for very different reasons than we’d been led to believe. And suddenly the “MitD is an aspect of the Snarl” theory becomes a lot more plausible… because it doesn’t become incompatible with any other theories. Also note that I’ve only offered one theory; others include the notion that the Snarl has somehow “de-snarled”, that the Snarl didn’t destroy everything it touched as suggested but instead incorporated it into this new world, that the gates actually changed the Snarl’s nature, and even that the world Blackwing saw was the OOTS world itself. Considering the popularity of these, not even V may fully grasp the implications, but what will it mean when the IFCC cashes in?)
Congratulations, Rich Burlew. You’ve done what, when it came to your strip, might have seemed impossible. You’ve rendered us totally clueless. We may need this three-week break between books as much as you do. And given how many other groups are in different situations at the end of this book, it’s either telling of how tight-lipped you’re getting about future plot turns, or just surprising, that you didn’t end this book with a full-scale montage like the others.