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The Didact Returns | Halo: Epitaph Preview

Cover art of Halo: Epitaph by Chris McGrath depicting the hooded figure of the Didact with half a broken helmet in a desert environment, the tower of Halo 3's map Epitaph in the background
Photo of Alex
  -  2 months ago

The story of the Didact is one of deep tragedy, spanning countless millennia in the Halo universe—from the apex of the Forerunners' civilization where he served as its protector, to his descent into madness as the Flood's ancient game of vengeance culminated in the firing of Halo.

Following his defeat by the Master Chief, the Didact's physical form was burned away by the Composer, casting his consciousness into a vast desert. It is here that Kelly Gay's latest novel, Halo: Epitaph, begins—and in this preview, we will see the beginning of his great journey...

Stripped of armor, might, and memory, the Forerunner warrior known as the Didact was torn from the physical world following his destructive confrontation with the Master Chief and sent reeling into the mysterious depths of a seemingly endless desert wasteland. This once powerful and terrifying figure is now a shadow of his former self—gaunt, broken, desiccated, and alone. But this wasteland is not as barren as it seems. A blue light glints from a thin spire in the far distance…

Thus begins the Didact’s great journey—the final fate of one of the galaxy’s most enigmatic and pivotal figures.

Halo: Epitaph releases on February 27 and is available in trade paperback, ebook, and unabridged audiobook formats.

And you're definitely going to want that audiobook, as the entirety of Halo: Epitaph is narrated by Keith Szarabajka—the voice and motion capture actor for the Didact himself!

Looking to catch up on the story thus far for the Didact? We've got you covered with a recap of this character's journey through the Halo universe in The Story So Far: The Didact.

Whether the warrior succeeds or fails, chooses rightly or wrongly, at least he dared act at all.

—The Mantle, Eleventh Permutation of the Didact’s Number

He was rage and fire. Cinder and storm. Burning remnants and echoes tearing madly over a barren landscape.

Star by star, world by world
Never peace, never solace, never rest

Disjointed, wailing voices darted and dove, amplified in the vast desert echo chamber of dust and sand. Embers and fragments churned and seethed, united into a molten core by a thousand centuries of wrath and resentment.

A deep shadow has fallen
The light shuns us
Stop this! Stop the pain!

Unable to contain the sweltering maelstrom, the molten core bloated and suddenly burst, flinging heat and light outward into the shape of a fiery figure.

The heat dissipated. Black smoke replaced flame, floating and curling and swaying around the figure’s outline, gradually settling like a living cloak over the wide shoulders of a tall, gaunt form, a few stubborn embers still clinging to life at its tattered edges.

His rage spent for now, the figure rolled his shoulders, straightened his spine, and then tipped his head from side to side, feeling the pull of thick neck muscles and the satisfying snap of tendons. Pressure in his legs and joints manifested as his weight eased down into his body.

No—not quite a body. . .

The remnant of one, perhaps. A shade. A memory. A poor imitation.

One with enough composition, however, to cause his bare feet to sink into the sand and anchor him to whatever reality this was.

Weariness came with the physical weight, burrowing deeply into sinew and bone and wasted muscle. With effort, he lifted an arm, the cloak sliding back to reveal shriveled skin and a large,

almost skeletal hand tipped with brittle, sallow claws.

Denial and disgust rose with a sharp bite, some vague recollection telling him the view should be much different. He turned his hand and arm, seeing in his mind’s eye a more powerful and muscular physique, healthier gray skin endowed with fleshy-pink variation. . . .

Despite his initial reaction, the withered skin and desiccated muscle did not trouble him much. In fact, it felt . . . familiar, as though he had experienced the similarity before and all that was required to remedy the situation was to initiate—

Initiate . . . what?

Aya. He knew it. Could almost reach it . . .

The lost knowledge seemed to teeter on the precipice of revelation before it evaporated, leaving him unsteady, as if the sandy ground weakened beneath him. He rubbed at the vague ache in his right eye, a faint tease of identity skipping through his mind, but that too faded.

Try as he might, he could not mentally grasp a single important thing. Who he was, what he was, or how he came to be here, all seemed equally out of reach.

His cloak flapped as a line of tepid wind blew over his position, drawing attention to the dust and sand caught up in the current. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but low sand dunes watched over by a dirty dull-blue sky and the bright flare of a sun hidden behind muddled clouds.

An arrogant snort flared softly through his nostrils, indicating a strong, ingrained confidence, one that told him not all was lost. Memory might escape him, but instinct and basic knowledge did not. His senses were intact, and his traits and emotions felt strong within him, some still gnawing and churning in his gut—indignation, contempt, bitterness, fury, obsession. But these he left alone for the time being.

No need to stir the serpent’s nest just yet . . .

He stared across the desolate landscape, contemplating his current situation. Had he been brought here? Forced here? Or had he fled here? Was his presence by chance or deliberate?

When weighed against the consuming rage he’d experienced earlier, one surety stood out above all others. It was certainly not by choice.

With nothing in any direction but the endless waste, his options were decidedly simplistic. Stay put or move on.

Without hesitation, he chose the latter, the sand folding over his feet as he started off in no particular direction.

The going was tedious and slow, his corporeal form stiff and uncooperative, though his bare skin on earth and the tiny grains pushing between his toes were oddly satisfying, the basic physical connection to the environment feeling very much like a novelty.

After trekking across several dunes, he paused to rest at a high point, revising his previous opinion. The sand was far from satisfying. His soles and toes were now raw, his body ached all over, and his mouth felt like tinder picked from the loose bark of the rataa trees that had once lined his family estate on Nomdagro.

The clarity of the vision struck harsh and quick. The force of it had him by the throat, stealing his breath.

Tree line. Children picking bark. A fire already smoking in the clearing by the white, chalky banks of the River Dweha . . .

The entire moment lay suspended.

His legs trembled and he dropped to one knee, gasping, struggling to keep hold of the vision, to place it in the context of his life, but it dodged just out of reach.

Disappeared. Gone. As though it had never existed.

Defeated, he collapsed with an angry growl, sitting in the sand and shaking his head, appalled at his own wretched incompetence. Heat crept up the back of his neck. Absently he rubbed the warm skin as his brow drew into a deep frown. His inability to capture the memory was discouraging, but there was also hope. It meant that his past was not completely lost. It was still there, under the surface.

More will come, he told himself, eyeing the next sand dune in his path—the tallest yet.

While exhaustion threatened to immobilize him, he was apparently nothing if not stubborn. Rousing his dwindling reserves, he got up and let gravity carry him in big strides down the dune’s long slope.

Once he made it to the next pile of sand, his head tipped back at its height. Such a menial, unnecessary, and time-consuming task when he could simply . . .

What? Wish himself to the top?

He braced against the now endless aches and pains plaguing his frail body, and with no small amount of grumbling began yet another climb—one sore foot in front of the other—until he finally reached the summit, out of breath, but rewarded for his efforts. A dark and dirty horizon stretched in the far distance, and within it or perhaps preceding it—it was too far to tell—a mote of blue glowed.

Finally, something out there in the sea of sand. Relief flooded him and he slumped to the ground.

Once down, he did not attempt to get back up. No matter what might lie beckoning ahead, it felt too good to stop and rest. Something told him that this too felt like a novelty. He pulled a foot closer to his body to knead the aching heel and arch, then cleared the sand between his toes. As he tended to the other foot, small dark specks appeared in the sky.

Instantly, there it was again, the precipice of knowledge. Along with an urge to assess the threat, to meet it with swift and decisive action. All he had to do was—

And . . . it was gone. Again.

Aya,” he grunted in frustration as the specks drew close enough to see in detail. There were five creatures of flight with crested heads and long, imposing beaks. They were larger than him in both body and wingspan, and their dirty-brown color blended in well with the desert landscape. Double sets of large leathery wings protruded from each narrow torso and flapped rather slowly. As they glided overhead, the length of their tails was displayed and the—


The word whispered with sudden clarity. He turned and watched their diminishing passage. Just as they faded from view, they suddenly dispersed into dust. Like a mirage. A dream.

He closed his eyes tightly, giving his head a hard shake, before looking again. But the avian creatures were indeed gone.

An unsettling sensation bloomed in the pit of his stomach. While he did not want to admit it, he knew. He’d known all along.

Wherever this was could not be based in the physical world. The landscape was not quite right, and neither was he—formed as he’d been from embers and emotion. His arms were wizened and old. His garb was wholly unfamiliar. Even his face, which he mapped with his fingers, felt bony and unrecognizable. He pinched his sallow cheeks and tugged at the tuft of hair on his head. The pain was real, at least. He studied his hands. All six fingers accounted for . . .

It was right, and yet not right. He felt solid, and yet . . . he was not whole.

Questions assailed him. None of which he could definitively answer. He must have had a past life, but there was nothing to prove his brief recollections were real or that they even belonged to him.

The mote of blue lingering far on the horizon was the only point of significance so far. If he had indeed been brought here, sent here, forced here—whatever the case might be—there must be a reason.

He stayed on the dune for a time, mildly contemplating his predicament while tending to his other aching foot. After his fingers grew tired, he lay back and put a hand behind his head, wondering if there had ever existed such a lackluster, dirty blue sky before.

Aya. But it was quiet here. Perhaps he should simply accept his fate, enjoy the peace, and wait for something to happen. Amusement tugged a corner of his mouth. If he did have a past life, he was certain such an inane and useless thought had never crossed his mind.

Gradually, his mind drifted. As sleep took over, he wondered in what reality he might awaken.


He dreamed of fire.

From flesh to bone, it ate away at him, ripping him apart one layer at a time, tearing and burning.

Stripped, pulled asunder, until even his consciousness peeled free, and he was nothing but writhing, screaming embers.