Incarnate Online - Jodi Meadows

Chapter 1

Snow

I WASN’T REBORN.

I was five when I first realized how different that made me. It was the spring equinox in the Year of Souls: Soul Night, when others traded stories about things they’d done three lifetimes ago. Ten lives. Twenty. Battles against dragons, developing the first laser pistol, and Cris’s four-life quest to grow a perfect blue rose, only for everyone to declare it was purple.

No one bothered talking with me, so I’d never said a word—not ever—but I knew how to listen. They’d all lived before, had memories to share, had lives to look forward to. They danced around the trees and fire, drank until they fell over laughing, and when the time came to sing gratitude for immortality, a few glanced at me and the clearing was so eerie quiet you could hear the waterfall crashing on rocks a league south.

Li took me home, and the next day I collected all the words I knew and made a sentence. Everyone else remembered a hundred lifetimes before this one. I had to know why I couldn’t.

“Who am I?” My first spoken words.

“No one,” she said. “Nosoul.”

I was leaving.

It was my eighteenth birthday, only a few weeks after the turning of the year. Li said, “Safe journey, Ana,” but her expression was stony, and I doubted she meant it with any sincerity.

The Year of Drought had been the worst of my life, filled with accumulated anger and resentment. The Year of Hunger hadn’t started much better, but now it was my birthday and I had a backpack filled with food and supplies, and a mission to find out who I was, why I existed. The chance to escape my mother’s hostile glares was a happy benefit.

I glanced over my shoulder at Purple Rose Cottage, Li standing tall and slender in the doorway, and snow spiraling between us. “Good-bye, Li.” My farewell misted in the frigid air, lingering when I straightened and hitched my backpack. It was time to leave this isolated cottage and meet . . . everyone. Save the rare visitor, I knew no one but my snake-hearted mother. The rest of the population lived in the city of Heart.

The garden path twisted down the hill, between frost-covered tomato vines and squash. I shivered deeper into my wool coat as I began the march away from the woman who used to starve me for days as punishment for doing chores incorrectly. I wouldn’t complain if this was the last time I ever saw her.

My boots crunched gravel and slivers of ice, which had fallen from trees as morning peeked between mountains. I kept my fists in my pockets, safe in tattered mittens, and clenched my jaw against the cold. Li’s glare stalked me all the way down the hill, sharp as the icicles hanging from the roof. Didn’t matter. I was free now.

At the foot of the hill, I turned toward Heart. I’d find my answers in the city.

“Ana!” From the front step, Li waved a small metal object. “You forgot a compass.”

I heaved a sigh and trudged back up. She wouldn’t bring it to me, and it was no surprise she’d waited until I got all the way down before reminding me. The day I’d gotten my first menstruation, I’d run from the washroom shouting about my insides bleeding out. She’d laughed and laughed until she realized I actually had thought I was dying. That made her guffaw.

“Thank you.” The compass filled my palm, and then my front pocket.

“Heart is four days north. Six in this weather. Try not to get lost, because I won’t go looking for you.” She slammed the door on me, cutting off the flow of warm air from the heater.

Hidden from her sight, I stuck my tongue out at her, then touched the rose carved into the oak door. This was the only home I’d ever known. After I was born, Menehem, Li’s lover, left beyond the borders of Range. He’d been too humiliated about his nosoul daughter to stay, and Li blamed me for . . . everything. The only reason she’d taken care of me—sort of—was because the Council had made her.

After that, still stinging from Menehem’s disappearance, she’d taken us to Purple Rose Cottage, which had been similarly abandoned and given a mocking name when no one thought Cris’s roses were blue. As soon as I was old enough, I spent hours coaxing the roses back to life so they’d bloom all summer. My hands still bore scars from their