(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.