Home > The Hunt (The Secret Circle #5)

The Hunt (The Secret Circle #5)
Author: L.J. Smith

Chapter 1

Cassie held her father's Book of Shadows in her hands and shivered. There would be no going back, her mother had said, but now she watched Cassie expectantly.

The book's gold deckle-edged pages were cinched closed with a leather string, like a soft, thin belt. Cassie pulled on it, and dust particles flew into the air as its knot came undone, but the book's cover remained in place.

"It's not too late to change your mind," her mother said. "Are you sure you're ready?"

Cassie nodded. If this book contained the secrets to defeating her half sister, Scarlett, and saving the Circle from the hunters, it wasn't even a question. It was her duty to study it.

She carefully fanned open the book. Its spine cracked and Cassie's eyes seemed to meld to the page. The text scrawled upon the paper's yellowed surface was composed of squiggly lines and archaic symbols. The curl of each brushstroke felt forbidden, like Cassie had revealed something not intended for her eyes.

But before Cassie could process exactly what she was seeing, the book grew warm in her hands, and then threateningly hot. Within seconds the skin of her fingers was sizzling, and Cassie couldn't stop herself from crying out. Her flesh adhered to the book, and she couldn't pull her hands away despite the scorching pain.

Her mother's face was stricken with fear, but she acted fast. She raised her palm and with one wide swoop batted the book out of Cassie's hands and onto the floor.

Cassie released a whimper of relief, but the damage had been done. Her hands were singed red with throbbing, bubbling burns.

She looked at her mother, terrified. "You said it was just a book."

"It was. Or I thought it was." Her mother examined Cassie's injuries to see how serious they were. Then she glanced at where the book had landed facedown on the wooden floor. She moved toward it cautiously, picked it up without harm, and secured it closed by tightly retying the string.

"I'll put this somewhere safe for now," she said. "I'm sorry, Cassie. I had no idea that would happen. I've never seen anything like it."

"I don't understand." Cassie gaped at her mother, dizzy for answers. "You said I'd need this book to defeat Scarlett, but how can I study it if I can't even hold it?"

Her mother shook her head. "I don't know. It must be spelled, to keep it from being opened by anyone other than its owner."

"Then I have to figure out how to break the spell. Scarlett is out there somewhere, and she wants to kill me. That book is my only hope against her."

Her mother raised her hand to halt Cassie's anxious stream of consciousness. "One thing at a time. Our first priority is to tend to those burns. I think you've had enough excitement for one night."

She gave Cassie's shoulder a quick, loving squeeze, and then she ushered the book out of sight.

When she returned with an armful of gauze and ointment, Cassie's mind was racing with new questions and concern for her friends who'd been marked by the hunters. "Faye's and Laurel's lives might depend on me opening that book," Cassie said. "I have to try again."

Her mother sat beside her looking forlorn. "Faye and Laurel are in grave danger." She reached for Cassie's hands and began dressing the wounds. "But there are two steps to the process of witch hunters killing a witch: They catch you doing magic and you're marked, and only then can they perform the killing curse. If we can stop the hunters from performing the second step, your friends will be okay."

The killing curse. Cassie remembered the hunter mark, the aftermath of the curse on Melanie's aunt Constance's forehead the day she died. The Circle hadn't even known the hunters had marked her until it was too late.

"Why don't the hunters just perform the killing curse immediately after marking someone?" Cassie asked. "Why wait?"

"Because it takes just one hunter to mark someone, but the killing curse requires several of them." Cassie's mother wrapped the burns quickly and efficiently, like a battlefield nurse. "It's a process, much like a spell, so it can't just happen at any moment."

Cassie winced as the harsh gauze touched her raw skin.

"So Faye and Laurel will need to be protected," her mother said. "But tonight, the only thing for you to do is rest."

Cassie nodded. She still had so many questions, but the pain was making her weary. She moved to the comfort of her own bed and felt her eyes grow heavy. She allowed them to close as sleep overtook her. But even in the soft dark of her own eyelids, Cassie could see the glowing outline of her father's book shining against the black.

The next morning, Cassie's mind was still running in circles while she waited on her front porch for Adam to pick her up for school. She tried to relax, to admire the sun glinting red off the windows of each house on the bluff, but there was too much to be anxious about. In the past week Cassie had learned that her half sister wanted to kill her and take over the Circle - and she'd nearly succeeded. They'd had a confrontation in Cape Cod, and Cassie had chased Scarlett away, but she'd escaped with the Master Tools.

As if that weren't enough, there was also the issue of the hunters. The Circle was now sure that Max and his father - Principal Boylan - were witch hunters. They'd already marked Laurel and Faye with the hunter symbol, and it was possible they knew the identities of all the Circle members.

Cassie looked down at the gray paint peeling off the front porch. This old house, she thought, this antiquated town. There was no escaping its ancient history.

It was a sunny, windless day, but how could Cassie enjoy it? She pulled the sleeves of her purple hoodie down over her hands to cover her burns. She would have disappeared entirely into its soft cotton if she could. And then she heard something - a rustling in the bushes. It's just the breeze, she told herself, but not a single blade of grass stirred.

There was the crunching of leaves. It was coming from her left, along the row of shrubs that lined the path to the house's side door - an opportune place for an intruder to break in, or for Scarlett to sneak her way into Cassie's home.

Treading lightly across the rickety wooden porch, Cassie stepped closer to the sound. The shrubs moved again - this time she saw it with her own eyes - and she screamed, "Scarlett!"

An orange tabby cat shot out from the wavering hedge, zipping past Cassie and up a neighbor's tree. The cat's prey was left behind in the uncut grass: a sorry-looking field mouse. Cassie exhaled. She would have laughed out loud at herself if she weren't so embarrassed.

She walked back around to the front porch just as Adam pulled up to the curb. Her heart hadn't yet returned to its regular rhythm when she climbed into the passenger seat of his old Mustang and leaned over for a kiss.

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