Winding Path

Hello, everyone! I have a new story, which is gonna be a pretty long one, and I really hope you enjoy it.

Chapter 1: Mindoir

Because love is a winding path
It is a long journey
Many rises and falls and twists and turns
Those who walk it alone often lose their way
Those who walk it together will always be stronger
For those who walk together are strong

April 11, 2170…

She knew it was her birthday when she woke to the sounds of her mother's "Call of the Starbird" on the piano and the scent of her father's apple cinnamon pancakes cooking. It was enough to draw a smile before she even opened her eyes. When she did open her eyes and saw out her window that the sun was just barely on the rise, she took a moment to enjoy the sensations and the fact that she was newly 16.

That moment only ended when her mother's recital came to an end and her voice instead called up the stairs. "Terra! Are you coming down or not?"

So with a smirk and a roll of her eyes, she tossed aside the covers and stood up to get dressed.

Terra Luna Shepard was the middle child of a family of farmers, but their family had always been more artistically inclined. Her father was a chef and skilled with crafting and repairing instruments. Her mother was a composer and could play most human instruments. They had met when she found him restoring a piano and she tested it with a song she had written—"love at first note," as they put it. After they married, they joined the colonization effort for the planet of Mindoir and started a family. Their firstborn, Nathan, was now 17 and a talented writer. Their youngest, Violet, was 14 and was also an amazing singer, pianist, flutist, and violinist. In between the two, Terra was a true artist, always drawing in her sketchbook and occasionally "trying her hand" at painting or poetry. The walls of her room were littered with drawings and paintings, some of which coincided with her mother's songs or her brother's stories, and it was a running joke in the family that taking her anywhere would lead to her stopping them all in their tracks for up to an hour to "quickly" capture the landscape. She didn't mind any of it, though. She couldn't imagine living any other way.

When she came downstairs, her mother came over from the piano to hug her. "Happy birthday, Terra."

"Thanks, Mom," Terra smiled. She leaned back to look at her. "I don't suppose Dad's finished making breakfast yet."

"I know better than to keep the birthday girl waiting," her father smirked as he came out of the kitchen to set the food in question on the table.

"Clearly," Terra shook her head as she went over to hug him.

Her father gestured for her to sit down then turned to the rest of the house. "Nathan, Violet! You ready yet or not?"

Nathan Shepard quickly came out from his room. "I know, I'm coming." He held up a wrapped box. "Forgot where I hid the present."

"Oh," Terra said, "well, if you're worried you might misplace it again, I could just take it now—"

"Not so fast!" Violet Shepard rushed in, placing her own box on top of their brother's, "Rules are rules—food first, then presents. Plus, I want you to open mine first."

Terra smirked. "OK. You know I can't say 'no' to my baby sister."

"Sometimes, I wish you would," Nathan commented as Violet sat down next to him.

"Enough of that, Nate," their mother quickly stepped in as she took her seat.

"What? I'm her older brother. It's my job to pick on her."

Terra simply rolled her eyes. This was the family dynamic she was used to, after all, and she was perfectly happy with it. As the calming scent of cinnamon permeated the air, she could only bring to mind good memories and the thought that more were about to be made.

April 24, 2170…

This was the scent of nightmares: blood, smoke, burning vegetables, dust, and metal.

Terra was running, ignoring the sounds of screams and gunfire and flame behind her. She ignored them…but she couldn't drown them out.

Her home was on fire. The entire village had been besieged by an alien force, so completely blindsided that the Alliance forces stationed there to protect them were quickly either wiped out or disabled. The Shepard family ran for it, searching for some place to hide.

As they came to an alley, their parents stopped.

"They're gaining on us," their mother stated breathlessly.

"We can move faster if we split up," her husband responded, turning to Nathan, "Get the girls to the hills, find a place to hide. Don't look back."

Nathan nodded. With a brief promise to meet at the edge of the village once they were clear, he brought his sisters to follow and continued running.

Terra did as she'd been told. She didn't look back. As they ran, she focused on figuring out where to go, fighting the bite in her feet and the heat on her skin and the terror in her heart. But then she listened. She didn't hear footsteps going the other way. She heard shouts and struggling. It was only now she realized there wasn't a path that direction. The only way her parents could have gone was straight into a clearing.

They hadn't been splitting up to get farther. They were buying time for their children to escape.

Terra made the mistake of looking back now.

Right as the first of two deafening gunshots rang out.

April 11, 2170…

Terra could see why Violet wanted her to open her present first. She was amazed at what she received. It seemed like a simple pencil box; however, it not only was just the right size to carry all of her precious drawing tools but also played music when opened. Specifically, it played a recording of one of their mother's piano compositions, the one that Terra would often leave playing when she was drawing. "Vi, this…this is wonderful!"

Violet smirked. "Well, I had to meet the bar you set with mine."

Terra smiled. Violet's birthday was only two months ago. Their father had spent over a week making a violin for her, one Terra then spent the better part of a day painting with an elaborate design of actual violets. It was no Stradivarius, but in Violet's hands, it sang. Not many 14-year-olds celebrated their birthday by practicing Vivaldi. Because not many 14-year-olds were Violet Shepard (which worked out well, because Terra couldn't name a single other 14-year-old who could play Vivaldi properly).

Terra set the box aside, taking note that Violet had left it a simple metal casing with the obvious intent that Terra would paint it herself later like she had painted the violin.

Nathan shook his head. "Way to make my gift look bad, Vi." Ignoring the scoffing look Violet tossed his way, he slid his present over for Terra to unwrap.

Terra pulled the paper off to reveal a book inside. When she opened it, she found that each page was a printed copy of one of her paintings, underlined by the poetic lines she had scrapped when she couldn't fit them into a proper verse. Seeing her works presented this way was truly special. Seeing that the last several pages carried a short story of Nathan's written in her honor and the final opening was a family portrait was even better. She was speechless when she tried to voice her gratitude.

Violet gave Nathan a stunned look when she saw just what he'd given their sister. "What was that you were saying about me making your gift look bad?"

"If it helps, Vi," Terra shrugged as she set the book aside, "I'll be getting more use out of yours."

Violet shrugged with a light smirk. "Well, I guess it helps a little."

Terra simply smiled, rolling her eyes even as she fought the urge to laugh.

"Oh!" Nathan spoke up, "I meant to tell you, sis. Your birthday is apparently good luck. Look what came in the mail today." He held up a book.

Terra looked it over. Upon seeing her brother's name on the cover, she quickly snatched it from his hands and began to scan through it. "No way! You didn't even tell me you finished it!"

"This day and age, you can get published pretty quickly. Figured it'd be a nice surprise."

Violet simply cocked her head at it. "They're printing it? …on paper?"

"Not as a whole, no. This was special order. You know how much we all prefer the traditional."

Terra beamed as she opened the book. She flipped through the pages towards the first chapter. She froze halfway there. "Nate…"

Nathan smiled. "That's the rest of your present, actually."

One of her poems was in the opening pages, right before a dedication to her.

Each star is but a fire
Burning deep within the night
But flames still speak desire
And darkness shows the light

Terra smiled to her brother, hugging the book close and resolving to read it later.

Nathan smiled back. "I know I don't say it much, but…you're actually very inspiring."

Violet sighed. "You know, you could say it about me, too, once in a while." She then stood up and went to retrieve her violin, playing their mother's "Sunrise Sonata" as Nathan laughingly took notes on his omni-tool that would presumably go into whatever wild story he had next in mind.

Terra closed her eyes and let her sister's music wash over her. She wished every day could be like this one.

April 24, 2170…

It was only thanks to Nathan that Terra had the strength to keep running. When she threatened to lose all her strength to the devastation of the chaos around her, he took her hand and just kept running. The shock of witnessing her parents' murders didn't even have time to settle into her as they raced through the burning streets in search of a place to hide. Nathan finally dragged her through a clearing, careful to move only when none of the invaders were nearby, and uncovered a hidden compartment under a hill. It was supposed to be a storage unit but it doubled as a storm shelter of sorts; since Mindoir saw so few storms, it was rarely used and slightly overgrown, a natural camouflage the invaders would certainly overlook.

Perfect, Nathan concluded, prying the door open. "Get in. We need to—"

"Wait!" Terra looked around, panic clutching her at what she found. "Where's Violet?!"

Nathan turned to look behind them. Their sister wasn't there. She must have fallen behind. Inside, he was furious with himself for not keeping up with her, but this was no time to lose it. Instead, he pulled Terra over. "Just get in and stay quiet. I'll go back for her."

"Nate—" Terra immediately debated.

"We don't have time to argue! Get down!" He all but pushed her in, forcing her to comply. Once she was in, he closed the door, locking it and hiding it as best he could. "I'll be back with her as soon as I can." So he raced off.

Terra watched him go through the crack between the door and the ground. She could see the entire clearing through it.

She could see her world falling apart.

April 11, 2170…

As Terra sat in bed at the end of the day, she kept her new pencil box open and drew the night sky as the colors of sunset faded to reveal the stars. She could still hear her mother and sister playing together downstairs, a sound that made her smile as she captured the constellations of Mindoir that she loved to see every night—the falcon, the fox, the sailor. It was sights like this one that had first inspired her in her chosen craft.

When she finished the drawing, she carefully placed everything back in her new box and closed it so she could properly hear the songs playing downstairs. She slid the box and her sketchbook into her pack, which she always kept handy in case of sudden flashes of inspiration, and looked back on the events of the day while she prepared to turn in for the night.

She adored her family. As she closed her eyes to rest, the stars through her window the last thing she saw that night, she dreamed of spending her days on Mindoir, the Shepard clan a constant source of brightness in the fields.

April 24, 2170…

Terra stayed down, still peering under the hidden door. She stayed quiet, no matter how much she wanted to cry and scream. She was already paralyzed by the fear and dread, horrified by what she saw.

She watched as the invaders closed in. She watched as the few Systems Alliance soldiers stationed on Mindoir came into the small clearing outside the alcove. She watched as they fought desperately against the invading aliens and were overcome. She watched in horror as the soldiers were forced to helplessly observe the colonists' suffering before being subjected to the same torture.

She watched as the invaders dragged Violet into the clearing. She watched powerlessly as Nathan rushed to his sister's defense only for one of the batarians to force him back, as he struggled to disarm his captor…as that captor finally delivered a blow so sharp that Nathan dropped, unmoving, to the ground. Violet cried and screamed as she was forced to witness the whole scene before being dragged away. Once she was out of view, her screams blended in with all the other helpless colonists being tied down and implanted like cattle.

Terra watched it all, frozen and silent. She finally collapsed in the alcove, waited for the attack to die down, and burst into tears, no longer willing to ever dig her way out of this hole.