(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized crushing.)
Warning: This post will contain spoilers for the Order of the Stick prequel Start of Darkness. As such, we’re hiding it behind a jump break. This means the comic image will overflow past the post itself on the main blog page; I can only hope that the miscellaneous stuff at the bottom will keep it from screwing up the page layout too much (although I admit I forgot how huge the comic image can be compared to the text).
I wanted to hold off on saying anything about this sequence until I had some sense of whether Rich would even acknowledge the direction I thought he might be going with it, but I eventually decided to stop waiting. Because it looks for all the world like Redcloak might be finally growing a spine.
I mentioned once that Redcloak’s tragedy “reaches its nadir at the end of [SoD] but isn’t over yet.” Over the course of the events in the online comic, Redcloak has risen from being Xykon’s complete patsy to a hero and leader of goblinkind unseen since the Dark One walked the earth. But he still suffers under Xykon’s thumb, and his rebirth won’t be complete until he works to change that. And we may be seeing the groundwork being laid for just that, because Redcloak may be the only one alive (aside from Niu) who even knows that the phylactery has been recovered.
Let’s step back for a moment, and consider how Redcloak utterly used the Resistance to get to this point. The Resistance learns of the phylactery’s recovery from a spy they have polymorphed into a hobgoblin, and promptly slaughter everyone guarding the phylactery and the goblin who recovered it. They promptly take the phylactery back to their base… where they find Redcloak waiting for them with various assorted nasties, and learn that he had a polymorphed spy of his own in their midst. The Resistance is wiped out, and Redcloak destroys their base and makes off with the phylactery.
So, if we take the implication by Redcloak’s spy that he floated the idea of polymorphing someone into a hobgoblin at face value, that means that Redcloak arranged it so that the Resistance would intercept the phylactery from whoever recovered it so that he could intercept it from them. That’s a level of devious cunning we haven’t seen much of from Redcloak in the online comic, and a sign that he’s coming into his own as a villain in his own right, especially for people who haven’t read SoD. He must have had a reason for arranging such a scheme, and it wasn’t simply to recover the phylactery, because he could have done that by letting things play out as they would (although the phylactery might have wound up on Xykon’s person as a result). No, it seems far more likely that he’s intent on recovering the original purpose of making the phylactery his holy symbol in the first place.
To convince his brother to go along with the plan to turn Xykon into a lich in SoD, Redcloak suggests that if they make his phylactery something they’ll always have access to and Xykon won’t, it’ll give them some measure of control over him. It doesn’t exactly work that way – Xykon is completely nonplussed when Redcloak threatens to destroy the phylactery, only threatening to destroy him in response – but it may be on the cusp of doing so. Xykon has shown every sign that he considers the phylactery to be more precious now than he did in SoD, and more importantly, Redcloak now knows the phylactery’s location, and Xykon doesn’t. And it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he was determined to keep it that way.
What gives me pause is that Redcloak doesn’t have many options for keeping it that way. The most logical course of action is to keep from Xykon that the phylactery has been found, but Redcloak has already arranged his affairs for his departure, going so far as to officially transfer power over to Jirix. Redcloak seems to be okay with leaving, and he’d probably much rather his people continue building their new nation than keep looking for a MacGuffin. Redcloak could inform Xykon that he alone knows of the phylactery’s whereabouts, but the problem with any of these is that Xykon is not likely to take kindly to Redcloak standing up to him – he already has a standing threat to kill him and replace him with Jirix if he gets too uppity. Considering that freaking Tsukiko was putting Redcloak to shame earlier in the book, I don’t think he’s that much over his brother’s death yet.
But Redcloak spinning the hiding of the phylactery as a positive in the short term… that may be an intriguing proposal, considering Xykon may be at the point where he’d stow away the phylactery in a safe place himself before doing anything risky. That might also open the door for the OOTS to actually defeat Xykon in similar fashion to what happened at the Dungeon of Dorukan, though that would defang Xykon considerably as a threat and render the final battle rather anticlimactic when the only real problem facing the OOTS is finding a MacGuffin that’s not a Gate.
The destruction of the Resistance, meanwhile, puts Hinjo in a bad position. The good news is that, as far as he knows, Xykon and Redcloak will be leaving soon, taking out at least the two most powerful foes he’d have to face upon trying to retake the city. The bad news is that there won’t be a Resistance waiting for him when he gets there (or, possibly, any elven allies either), and even if Niu were to try to rebuild it it probably would never reach anywhere near the level the previous one did. Combine that with how much Redcloak has been able to build on the ashes of Azure City, and it’s clear that retaking it will hardly be a trivial proposition, or even as popular among the other nations of the world as might otherwise be thought. Redcloak will be leaving Jirix a nation without as much in the way of threats as one might think.