The Shroud

Surely he reflected and guessed; but may he be cursed how he plotted.
—The Quran, Chapter 74

Ord Castro, better known by the mantle he assumed later in life—The Prophet of Truth—could be described as many things. Duplicitous. Traitorous. Power-hungry. Mad. His life’s end at the Ark in December 2552 could be dismissed as simply the end of a tyrant obsessed with godhood. But perhaps a more contentious label could also be applied to Truth: that of tragic hero. For Truth was ultimately an ambitious yet idealistic San’Shyuum, whose belief in the Covenant was ultimately what doomed it—and himself—to be destroyed.

We know next to nothing about Ord’s upbringing and early years, his family or his friends. But in 2462, well over sixty years into his life, Ord was a junior staffer tasked with a seemingly trivial matter of investigating the source of tainted narcotics favored by the Unggoy. Ord found that this seemingly accidental mishap was actually a radical Kig-Yar plot to poison and sterilize Unggoy, who were in the midst of a population boom that threatened Kig-Yar infants. Though Ord recommended stiff punishments for those involved, the Minister of Concert only fined the Kig-Yar. This weak action infuriated the Unggoy and led to the bloody Grunt Rebellion, a conflict that required the commissioning of a Sangheili Arbiter and the glassing of parts of the Unggoy home world.

Ord’s conduct in the Infusion incident would indicate that whatever duplicitous nature he fostered as a High Prophet, it was not the only facet to his character. Indeed, his strong moral stance would have saved the Covenant from a massive conflict. By 2525 he had risen to become the Minister of Fortitude. Even here, however, Truth’s overarching concern remained the wellbeing of the Covenant. He made sure that Forerunner relics were evenly distributed among the Covenant member races, fostering peace.

Still, Ord was a politician—you don’t get to any high office without being savvy to some degree, and in the fractious world of the Covenant, there were always costs to ambition. The delicate nature of Ord’s responsibilities meant he had to be wary of assassination attempts from even innocuous herbalists. More than anything else, it appears that Ord was a deeply pragmatic individual—he certainly believed in the Forerunner’s divinity, but was preoccupied with more pressing and profoundly less transcendent matters. The infusion incident taught Ord an important lesson about the frailty of the Covenant: “how easy it was to grow complacent about various species’ petty squabbles, and how quickly this complacency might lead to disaster.”1

Ord found himself at the precipice of another seismic shift in the Covenant when he was approached by a junior colleague, the Vice Minister of Tranquility. Tranquility had received word from a far-flung Covenant vessel that its Luminary had detected thousands of Forerunner relics. Rather than immediately reveal the relics to the rest of the Covenant leadership, Tranquility had a different goal—his ambitious nature led him to conspire to unseat the current Covenant High Prophets, and assume their place as the Hierarchs that led the Covenant.

In proposing his scheme to Ord, the Vice Minister took a huge risk. Replacing the current leadership of the Covenant would be politically difficult and quite possibly dangerous. But whereas Tranquility seemed blinded by pure ambition, his choice of Ord as a co-conspirator was canny. Though he flattered Ord, Tranquility rightly pointed out that much of the reduced tensions in the Covenant were due to Tranquility’s hard work, not that of the Hierarchs. And for Tranquility’s part, his ultimate agreement with the plan seemed to have less to do with power than with control—the ability to make sure that the massive Forerunner reliquary they had found would not upset the balance of power and stability he had worked hard to maintain. How much easier would his task be if he was not encumbered by the same concerns and squabbles he had as minister?

“A reliquary such as this has not been seen in our lifetimes,” Tranquility said. “Each of its holy objects is a blessing for true believers!”
Fortitude sank deep into the crimson cushions of his chair. A blessing? He wasn’t so sure. As Minister, he looked with dread on the nightmarish negotiations required to distribute thousands of new relics. But as Hierarch, he could distribute the relics however he thought would best benefit the Covenant. […] And none would have the power to alter his decisions.”
—Halo: Contact Harvest S02C09

Agreeing to Tranquility’s plan to unseat the Hierarchs was bold, but in the grand scheme of the Covenant it was little more than political maneuvering. However the nature—and urgency—of their plan changed suddenly when they approached the Forerunner Oracle that lay supposedly dormant in the heart of High Charity. Supposedly.

Suddenly, the Oracle’s circuits blazed.

< FOR EONS I HAVE WATCHED > The Oracle’s deep voice reverberated inside its casing. Its eye-beam flickered with the cadence of its words as it pronounced in the San’Shyuum tongue. < LISTENED TO YOU MISINTERPRET >

The Oracle’s eye dimmed. For a moment it looked as though it might resume its long silence. But then it blazed anew, projecting a hologram of the reclamation glyph recorded by Rapid Conversion’s Luminary.

Now it was Fortitude’s turn to feel weak in the knees. He grasped the arms of his throne and tried to come to terms with an impossible revelation: each glyph represented a Reclaimer, not a relic, and each Reclaimer was one of the planet’s aliens—which could only mean one thing.
“The Forerunners,” the Minister whispered. “Some were left behind.”
—Halo: Contact Harvest S02C16

Suddenly Ord, Tranquility, and the only other witness to this testimony from a Forerunner construct—the ascetic Philologist—had stumbled upon a truth that sundered the very foundations of the Covenant. The dissolution of the Covenant would not just be an upheaval and a loss of position for Ord—it could mean the very destruction of his entire species, for the San’Shyuum were heavily dependent on the Covenant for security, and all he had spent his life accomplishing.

This left Ord with only one sensible path forward—the humans that the Forerunner Oracle had revealed to be the inheritors of the Forerunner legacy had to be silenced. Tranquility and the Philologist would join him as the three Prophet Hierarchs and direct the complete destruction of humanity. It was an act of desperation, rather than malice, but Ord did it willingly, hoping to save the Covenant.

Instead, he merely delayed its death.

Crumbling foundations

From the outset, Ord was a politician who had to make many deals to secure their new position. Tranquility was interested in power, and the Philologist in some ways reticent to embrace his new role. The lion’s share of the burden to lead the Covenant forward together would be his. It was a self-conscious decision that Ord took the name “Truth” alongside his colleague’s names of “Mercy” and “Regret” as he ascended to the position of Hierarch:

According to tradition, he could have picked any name he wished from a long list of former Hierarchs’. Most of the names would have been quite flattering. But ultimately the name he chose was the one that carried the greatest burden—the one that would always remind him of the lies he must tell for the good of the Covenant and the truths he must never speak.
—Halo: Contact Harvest Epilogue

Truth knew that the best-case scenario was a quick and decisive war against the alien humans. This would prevent the truth of reasons for the war from coming to light. And yet this did not happen. Though the Covenant destroyed hundreds of ships and turned dozens of human colonies to ash, the humans persisted.

Throughout it all, Truth was saddled with less-than-ideal companions. Regret’s risky, aggressive behaviors and Mercy’s religious fervor were both unstable variables. As such, he began developing his own plans independent of the other Prophets. His reticence could be proven justified by the actions of Regret in 2531 and 2535. On the first occasion, Regret’s actions resulted in the destruction of a Forerunner fleet that could have sped up the war against the humans. On the second occasion, Regret commissioned the Sangheili Thel ‘Vadamee to root out Kig-Yar pirates who were trading with humans. In actuality this scheme was sanctioned by Truth, who came very close to using the situation to track the humans to their ever-elusive homeworld. In the end the chance was lost. Cheated from his opportunity to crush humanity with a decisive blow, Regret and Truth made amends. But it was clear that the longer Regret remained a Hierarch, the more dangerous he became.

Regret also had to contend with growing fractures in the traditional Sangheili-San’Shyuum alliance. Truth believed that the Sangheili had become splintered by doubt and a lack of faith in the Great Journey—at the exact time that Truth most needed the belief in the Great Journey to bind the Covenant together. To preserve the delicate balance of power when first learning of the Forerunner “relics”, Truth and Regret had relied on the Jiralhanae, brutish newcomers to the Covenant. Their blind devotion and religious fervor made them excellent pawns, and unlike the Sangheili they didn’t ask too many questions. The Jiralhanae thus made excellent agents for Truth, but the feuds between the Sangheili and the Jiralhanae in turn caused further divisions in the Covenant. Truth was trapped into a no-win scenario: to favor the Jiralhanae meant angering the Sangheili, and possibly causing open conflict in the Covenant. To continue to utilize the Sangheili meant the greater threat that Truth’s lies would be exposed.

Despite his concern and mistrust of the Sangheili, however, Truth still saw their use. Looking for allies he could trust, Truth seemed to have found one in Thel ‘Vadamee, who struck down his own friend rather than let him attack the Hierarchs.2 ‘Vadamee would be elevated to the rank of Supreme Commander and given command of one of the Covenant’s premier fleets. ‘Vadamee’s loyalty was a major asset and it seems that Truth thought highly of the warrior.

Despite Truth’s efforts, the war still dragged on for decades. Humanity was beaten time and time again—and yet still persisted in existing—and each moment they remained alive threatened him and his people. His doubts about the Sangheili continued to grow, as some questioned why the Hierarchs would not admit the humans into the fold of the Covenant rather than slaughter them wholesale. After all, even if the humans had destroyed Forerunner relics—so too had the Lekgolo, who were now a part of their collective.

All of these schemes and counter-schemes, the weight of responsibility and years of war, would take a toll on any person. One only needs to look at how a mere eight years can age a politician entrusted with the weight of a country to imagine how the fate of billions might have eventually warped Truth to his very core. Before the Human-Covenant War Truth was a trusted and diplomatic politician—Regret had come to him with his scheme to usurp the Hierarchs precisely because Truth was the legitimate and respected statesman that would lend Regret’s power-grabbing legitimacy. But by more than twenty years later, Truth’s own underlings considered him openly ruthless. 3

In 2552, the status quo suddenly shifted in ways not seen since Truth’s ascension. Following a human vessel, ‘Vadamee’s fleet discovered one of the most holy Forerunner objects—a Halo, believed to be the path to assuring believers’ divine ascension. At long last, the Great Journey was at hand, and perhaps Truth believed for a moment that further machinations might not be necessary—that his scheming and machinations had succeeded and he would attain godhood as his reward. But almost as soon as the Halo was found, it was destroyed by the humans. Not only was transcendence and relief yanked away from Truth, but the failure was the result of his “loyal” Supreme Commander Thel ‘Vadamee. The destruction of Halo followed the near-total destruction of a secret fleet Truth had amassed with the station Unyielding Hierophant to attack Earth, and was soon followed by the Sangheili Sesa ‘Refumee’s declaration that the Prophets had lied, and the Great Journey was false. To get so close to transcendence and the lifting of his burden, only to see the Covenant more weakened than ever, may well have pushed Truth beyond his previous limits to the point of a breakdown. With his options dwindling and control of the Covenant possibly slipping away from him, he proceeded with his ultimate contingency plans—the Jiralhanae would replace the Sangheili within the Covenant power structure. His favored Sangheili, Thel ‘Vadamee, meanwhile, was ultimately to be discarded on a final mission to try and kill the heretic ‘Refumee. It’s easy to see Truth’s words to ‘Vadamee at his sentencing to be a particular judgment of not only him, but his entire race: “Soon the Great Journey shall begin. But when it does, the weight of your heresy will stay your feet, and you shall be left behind.”

Having discovered the location of a portal to the Ark, the forge of the Halos, Regret once again proved a liability. The portal to access the Ark turned out to be the humanity’s homeworld, Earth, and Regret’s forces were ill-equipped for such a battle. Regret fled to Delta Halo. Now capitalizing on Regret’s hastiness, Truth launched into his conspiracy with the Jiralhanae and at least a select few San’Shyuum. He proceeded to replace the Sangheili-led forces on Earth with Jiralhanae leaders loyal to him. Though ‘Vadamee, now styled as the Arbiter, killed ‘Refumee and recovered a Holy Oracle, he remained alive—and thus a serious threat if Sangheili rallied to him in the coming unrest. When Regret was attacked by the human Master Chief on Delta Halo, Truth was more than happy to stall any assistance from reaching him, letting the humans remove one obstacle that had threatened his plans too many times over the years. But Regret’s death also moved up the timetable for action: the High Council would have the ability to appoint a replacement Hierarch, and one that could upset Truth’s de facto control.4 There would be no way to keep the Hierarchs’ dangerous secret. Truth had to move quickly. He began equipping the Jiralhanae with their traditional weapons from High Charity‘s armory, and put the San’Shyuum, including the warrior Prelates, on notice.5 Once the Sacred Icon needed to activate Halo was secured, he initiated his plan—Tartarus was to kill the Arbiter, the Sangheili Councillors were massacred, and Jiralhanae were to replace the leaders of ships in High Charity‘s fleet. Truth hoped that in the resulting battle, the San’Shyuum and Jiralhanae would emerge victorious. He hoped for a quick victory to preserve the Covenant. Again, he would be disappointed.

Truth and Tartarus

At the same time as Truth launched the Schism, he sent his prized Jiralhanae Chieftain Tartarus to the surface of Delta Halo, instructing him to activate the ring. This begs two questions: did Truth know the truth about the Halos—that it was in fact a Forerunner weapon to destroy the parasitic Flood that annihilated sentient life in turn? And why did he abandon High Charity at the moment of his possible salvation and ascension to godhood?

The answer to the first question is most likely no—Truth had no idea what power the rings truly wrought. Despite having access to a Holy Oracle (343 Guilty Spark) that would gladly have told him the truth of the “Sacred Rings” had he or Mercy asked, it is likely that Truth kept their exchanges to information about how to activate Delta Halo (information that Guilty Spark would no doubt happily provide to eradicate a Flood threat.) Truth did not need the Oracle revealing any more potentially destructive details like its predecessor at the heart of High Charity. If Truth did in fact know of the ring’s power, then he could not have hoped to escape its devastating blast via the Forerunner Keyship at the center of High Charity, nor via any other vessel.

Rather, Truth’s abrupt exit of High Charity was one more act of prudence and shrewd thought. Though the initial offensive against the Sangheili proved successful, the arrival of the Flood in High Charity threw the battle plans into disarray; Prelate-led ships fell back to evacuate the San’Shyuum and the Sangheili gained the upper hand. On Delta Halo the Arbiter, who had stubbornly refused to die, allied with the humans he once hunted to kill and stopped Tartarus from activating the ring, revealing in the process to his Sangheili brethren that the Great Journey was a lie. For a San’Shyuum, anywhere near the Sangheili was no longer a safe position. And Truth was still one for contingencies; if Tartarus failed to activate the rings, then Truth already knew from Regret where to go to find a portal to the Ark, believed to be the last refuge of the Forerunners and the foundry of the Halo Array. And so Truth escaped with those still loyal to him in tow to Earth, where they excavated the Forerunner Portal to the Ark and fled through it.

It seems by this point that Truth may have simply been broken by recent events. With High Charity consumed by the Flood, the very survival of his species was in question. Though he had a sizable force of Loyalists to command, the treacherous Arbiter, the Sangheili and the humans now united to chase him across the stars, and were burning their way through his dwindling resources. At this point, Truth was alone: he had abandoned Mercy to the Flood while fleeing High Charity. While it might have been liberating to finally be rid of the vexatious High Prophets who had confounded his plans, losing Mercy also meant the loss of Truth’s only potential confidant, and a counsel who had advocated restraint. He was now alone with his secret for the first time. With everything he had spent his life building up having been destroyed, Truth focused on the only path left to him—the promise of salvation from the rings.6

Truth and Johnson

Using a captured human, Sergeant Johnson, Truth finally managed to activate all seven rings. A stray exchange to Johnson has been interpreted to mean that Truth knows the rings will kill everyone:

Johnson: What’s the matter, big shot? Can’t start your own party?
Truth: I admit, I need your help. But that secret dies with all the rest.

It’s easy to read “dies with all the rest” as referring to the persons obliterated by the firing of the Halo Array. But knowing that this last-ditch attempt at godhood is the culmination and release of years of duplicity that Truth has carried, it makes the meaning clearer—it’s the secret of the human’s relation to the Forerunners that dies with all the other secrets Truth has kept. Deluded, perhaps, but also pitiable—someone who only started out with the best of intentions for his charges, and had instead damned them to death or worse. Truth castigates Johnson and rebukes humanity’s relation to the Forerunners; they were simply those who were not worthy to ascend. “Your forefathers wisely set aside their compassion…steeled themselves for what needed to be done,” he says to Johnson, although he really seems to be convincing himself of why what he did was necessary. “I see now why they left you behind. You were weak. And gods must be strong.”7

But even as Truth activates the Halo Array, the humans and the Flood and the Sangheili—and the Arbiter!—cut through the last of his forces. For Truth, this was a final confirmation that the Arbiter and his brethren were disloyal from the start. Infected by the Flood and with possibly all of his followers dead, Truth could only watch helplessly as the Master Chief deactivated the Halo Array. So close he had come to his promised godhood—salvation to trade for a lifetime of deceit that he believed was for the good of the Covenant.

To be sure, it’s hard to argue Truth is a morally good individual: his actions caused the deaths of billions of humans and Covenant alike. But it is also hard to argue that Truth believed what he was doing was wrong. He was willing to damn himself and billions of others for the sake of his people. In his own actions proving to be his undoing, he’s a surprisingly tragic figure in the Halo universe, and one whose actions continue to reverberate in the political reality of the stars long after he has exited the stage.

  1. Contact Harvest Section 2 Chapter 9
  2. Halo: The Cole Protocol
  3. Halo: Broken Circle S02C15.
  4. Halo Waypoint Species Entry: “Jiralhanae”.
  5. Halo: Broken Circle S02C16, Shadow of Intent
  7. Halo 3, “The Covenant”.

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