(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized puppet strings.)
This comic would have warranted a post even considering all the knowledge already out there. For someone who hadn’t read the Start of Darkness prequel or any synopses of its events (a group that apparently includes Gary “Fleen” Tyrell)? I’d have to imagine they’d be in a stupor for days.
(There will be more minor SoD spoilers in this post, but I’m dispensing with the jump break because a good number of them are unspoilered in this comic, allowing me to talk around any details that are too spoilery.)
Let’s start with the fact that those who did read SoD might be confused at Redcloak’s effective claim to have always had a spine, which would render my last OOTS post moot. At the end of the previous comic, Tsukiko calls Redcloak “Wrong-Eye”, which is Xykon’s way of reminding him of his great failure at the end of that book that, he believes, effectively keeps him in line and subservient to him in perpetuity, and it seemed to work quite well earlier in this book. But here, Redcloak claims that he only ever allowed Tsukiko to get her way to avoid “upsetting the delicate balance between myself and Xykon”, implying that he has always been in complete control of the situation throughout the online comic. Which raises the question: do we need to reinterpret what happens at the end of SoD?
On one level, Redcloak doesn’t admit to any specific manipulation of Xykon here that wasn’t already covered in SoD, and which dates to the very beginning of their relationship. Not informing Xykon of the ritual’s true purpose has been a sort of passive manipulation; Redcloak could be a complete patsy of Xykon in the here and now, and Xykon’s actions would still be manipulated by Redcloak’s misinformation in the past. The “delicate puppet strings on which ‘Lord Xykon’ unknowingly dances” may well be as simple as Xykon continuing to go after the gates, convinced they will allow him to take over the world, in the first place.
On the other hand, Redcloak implies that it was never the “Wrong-Eye” comment that caused him to acquiesce to Tsukiko’s wishes, but merely maintaining his control over Xykon, letting Tsukiko control him rather than gain too much influence over Xykon. Although he may just be showing some bravado for Tsukiko’s benefit, it still suggests he’s not as broken up over the end of SoD as that ending makes us think.
The thing is, though, while the tragedy presented to us in Start of Darkness may not be the whole story, Redcloak may well still be mired deep within a tragedy of a different sort, one he may never escape from, one of loyalty not to Xykon, but to the Dark One. The Dark One has his plan to better the lives of goblinkind, divulged to non-SoD readers in this comic, but Redcloak has come up with an alternative, one that doesn’t involve the risk of the entire world being destroyed, and one that SoD readers may recognize as an improved version of what the Dark One himself engaged in in his former life, one of goblins seizing a piece of the world for themselves.
Tsukiko essentially warns Redcloak that killing her would lead Xykon to completely obliterate the fruits of that plan (and Redcloak’s life), and Redcloak seems resigned to that eventuality, noting that Xykon’s reaction would likely be the same to Tsukiko tattling on him. At least theoretically, there is an alternative, albeit a difficult one, one of all-out resistance to any attempt of Xykon to commit genocide on Gobbotopia, admittedly difficult considering Xykon’s epic-level status. On one level, that’s not going to happen because it would end the comic or at least Xykon’s (and Redcloak’s) status as its main villain. But on another level, for all that Redcloak may have doubts about the Dark One’s plan, he’s still willing to sacrifice everything for it. It’s especially tragic considering that the forums have speculated in the past that the Dark One hasn’t been completely honest even to his own high priest about the true goal of the Plan.
Perhaps it’s here that Redcloak is still affected by the end of SoD, rendering him unwilling to abandon the Plan under any circumstances lest his guilt for that ending overwhelm him, but unbeknownst to Xykon, still seeing him merely as a means to that end, one that can be replaced if he can find a powerful enough arcane spellcaster that he can control easier. Without getting too spoilery, there’s a bit towards the end of SoD where Redcloak’s brother voices his own concerns over the Dark One’s motives, and whether he really has the best interests of goblinkind at heart. Gobbotopia suggests those words have been nagging at Redcloak; his willingness to throw it away suggests they haven’t been enough to dissuade him.
On the other hand, perhaps it’s here that Redcloak’s recovery of the phylactery really comes into play. If Redcloak can save his life and that of the people of Gobbotopia with the threat of destroying or re-losing the phylactery, he might just be able to continue to have his cake and eat it too. Certainly if Redcloak still sees Xykon as a means to an end, he can at least bluff Xykon into staying in line as a last resort, and certainly it seems unlikely that Xykon would follow through with such a threat, if only because of how integral Redcloak himself is to the strip, although it would make it far easier for Hinjo and company to retake the city. One wonders if it was the recovery of the phylactery, as much as Tsukiko’s threat to unravel (no pun intended) the Plan, that allowed Redcloak to finally take matters into his own hands regarding Tsukiko (sort of).
I’d be remiss if I didn’t cover the end of Tsukiko’s story, as relatively bare-bones as that story was. For someone so delusional about the undead, it’s somewhat fitting for her to meet her end at the hands of the creatures she so adored. I might have preferred for her to become an undead herself, to find out how the other half lives, but Redcloak clearly couldn’t take that risk, as evident in his order for Tsukiko’s former “children” to devour each other. And while Rich presents us with four panels of Redcloak’s expressionless stare while Tsukiko gets slowly drained away, her vain, delusional attempts to appeal to those “children” as her worldview crumbles along with her are far more chilling than any actual depiction of her draining and dismemberment would be. (Although one wonders if having the wights kill her entirely, as opposed to, say, throwing her into the rift, may come back to bite Redcloak in the end if her spirit is still around to blab to any other interested parties…)