This Chapter was edited by the lovely, Catherine Morgenstern, who corrected my mistakes, altered some sentences, cut out some words and replaced them with others. Thanks. She's also translating the story into German, you can find the info on that in my profile page.
"Welcome to the Devil's Playground"
Hermione had never been so terrified in her entire life. Standing in front of the twisted wrought-iron gates of The Devil's Playground, she knew what true fear was. It was the crippling kind that seemed to wrap around your insides and squeeze so tightly that you couldn't breathe properly. Stealing your life away one precious second at a time. Her skin prickled as her wide eyes took in the sweeping lawn and distorted trees. At the end of the curving driveway, she could see the slate-grey facade of the mansion that housed the Playground and its collections of antiquities, artefacts, and cursed inhabitants. Soon she would be joining them. Hidden from the world and unable to ever leave its premises again, she would be made to live out her life in the shadows until death finally claimed her.
The dark-haired man beside her reached across to pull on the chain of a rusted bell. It rang out with a dull clang that quickly faded in the oppressive air and left silence behind. Hermione shuffled nervously, eyes darting to the man next to her. He'd picked her up from her house four hours ago, roughly introduced himself as Severus Snape and then proceeded to ignore her for the long journey up to the Playground. She'd been bursting with questions, but was too petrified of the answers he might give should she ask. So she'd kept quiet, watching the countryside fly by in a blur through the train's window. Two strangers forced together into a cramped space and unwilling to talk to one another.
Several times she'd found herself close to tears. The fear of what would happen to her overwhelmed her fraught nerves. Like everyone else, she'd heard of The Devil's Playground. She'd speculated and gossiped about what happened there. But never in her wildest dreams could she have imagined that she'd become one of the Cursed. Doomed to join Tom Marvolo Riddle's collection, or succumb to an agonising death and pass the curse on to another innocent soul, just as the death of another had passed it onto her.
Heart pounding painfully, Hermione peered through the gate's thick bars searching for whoever was coming to open it. She wondered if it would be Tom Riddle himself, but quickly cast that thought aside. There were whispers that he was unable to leave the Playground, just as cursed as those he watched over. Hermione didn't know what to believe. She almost wished that someone would ask her the question, so she would be forced to answer.
That was her curse: to know everything. Whatever question was asked of her, she instinctively knew the answer. It bubbled up inside her with the certainty of the encroaching tide. Yet, she was only ever able to respond with yes or no. She cast her gaze to the side, taking in the stoic man beside her. Ask me if I'm right to be afraid. Ask me if the rumours are true, Hermione silently begged inside her head, the words spiralling around her mind as quickly as a Merry-Go-Round. The man, Snape, remained stubbornly silent, holding himself perfectly straight, seemingly unconcerned that her world was about to end.
More unnaturally long minutes crept by. The worry was spreading over her so thickly that she felt confined, squeezed tight and unable to breathe.
"Perhaps they didn't hear," she murmured into the still air.
Snape responded wordlessly with a sneer.
Sucking in a tired breath, she glanced down at her fingers. Her nails were bitten to the quick, her skin pale and fragile. The long months of illness had taken its toll on her body. She knew if she were to look in a mirror, her reflection would show dull eyes with bruised-looking circles under them, limp hair, and a too-thin face. She'd ignored the emerging curse for as long as possible. Dismissing the growing sickness and the new-found ability to know the answers to whatever questions were asked of her. Denial became her closest companion, whispering false reassurances into her ears. Only when her friends started to notice and pull away, watching her with wide eyes, did she know she couldn't put off making a decision any longer.
Live at the Playground or die.
She'd chosen to live because she wasn't ready to die. She'd be damned if she let the curse pull her into death. But feeling the sinister aura of the Playground pressing in on her, she wasn't sure she'd made the right choice.
A face appeared in front of her. Startled, she took a step back as she took in the heavily scarred face and bright-red hair of the man behind the gate's rusted steel bars. His deep blues eyes were filled with pity, assessing her silently as he lifted a bruised hand to swing open the gate. Hermione had expected it to creak dramatically but the heavy iron moved with relative ease, welcoming her into her new life with ominous silence. She hesitated and glanced at Snape, but the sour-faced man simply turned and began to walk away. The urge to reach out and grasp the sleeve of his black coat was so strong that her hand actually lifted, fingers splayed wide. He was the only familiar thing here. Even if she'd only known him for a few short hours.
"Won't you come in?" the red-haired man said.
Hermione flinched, her gaze darting back to him. "I...yes, of course," she murmured, stepping through the gate and trying not to stare at the scars that stretched across his face.
As soon as her feet touched the velvety grass, she felt the air shift. It grew wispy, like she was inhaling mist, although there was none to be seen. And it smelt different too, more intense, mineral-like, and it seemed to press against her in an unwanted caress, creeping under her clothes and hovering over her skin.
The sudden sound of the gate closing drew her attention. Her eyes took in the sealed iron, regret heavily weighing down her shoulders.
"I'm to take you up to the Playground," he said.
Hermione slowly shifted her gaze, arms lifting to hug her waist in self-comfort. "I don't even know your name."
He held his hand out. "Charlie Weasley."
"Hermione Granger," she said, reaching forward to take his bruised and battered hand in a careful grip.
"Come on then, it's best not to keep him waiting." He began to walk towards the Playground, giving her no choice but to follow.
"What is it that you do here?" she asked, struggling to keep up with his ground-eating gait, wondering if he, too, was cursed.
Charlie glanced at her, amusement showing fleetingly on his face. "I run the menagerie."
Hermione gasped in disbelief. She'd heard rumours of a menagerie hidden on the grounds where impossible creatures were chained and caged, the wildness tamed out of them. But that had been one of the rumours that she hadn't thought to be true. It had just seemed too fantastical to be real. But it would certainly explain the scars and bruises that decorated Charlie's body.
Her eyes searched the landscape, looking for the mythical beasts she now knew were hidden from sight. Her eager gaze passed over twisted trees and shadowed shrubbery, hoping to spot a winged beast or a fiery phoenix.
"It's out back," Charlie said, noticing the way her eyes darted about.
"Can I see it?" she asked, taking in the deep scars that bisected his cheek, running from the outer corner of his left eye to the side of his lip.
Perhaps the creatures weren't as tame as she were lead to believe.
Charlie grimaced. "Another time maybe."
Frowning, she swallowed her words of protest and continued to walk towards the Playground. It was closer now, filling the sky and hovering over her menacingly. The blank windows seemed to be watching her. And the closer she got the more the feeling intensified. The building was Victorian in design, although the Playground itself was much older than that. Over the centuries devastating fires had befallen the place and necessitated the rebuilding of the museum several times. And after so many years of existing in the same place its very presence had tainted the air and stained the earth. She could almost taste it on the back of her tongue as she inhaled.
Hermione felt the fear she was trying so hard to contain slip free and creep up her spine. It was an effort to keep her legs moving. Her feet didn't want to take another step. Inside her boots, her toes curled in protest. But turning back wasn't an option if she wanted to live. And she did, desperately. They finally made it to the door, a large intricately carved, wooden monstrosity that looked capable of withstanding a battering ram. She bit her lip when Charlie reached forward, placed his hand against the waxy wood and pushed.
A large circular entrance hall met her gaze, through a domed glass ceiling watery grey light filtered in. Opposite her, a wide staircase curved upwards and was lost in shadows. The walls were painted a matte green which complimented the dark woodwork, and the floor was black marble, threaded through with red and gold veins. She sucked in a breath of dusty air and looked at Charlie.
"His office is that way." He pointed a scratched finger towards a door hidden beneath the staircase. "Follow the hall to the end, it's the only door there."
Hermione's head whipped around to face him. "You're not coming with me?"
"I don't enter the Playground," he said in a flat voice, turning away and leaving her on the threshold, wringing her hands.
She watched him leave with growing panic. Twice in the space of a few minutes she'd been abandoned. First Snape and now Charlie. Was this what her life was going to be like now? Forever alone? Cast aside and left to rot in a museum whose edges frayed reality?
Forcing herself to straighten up, she turned back to the Playground, commanding her feet to move. They did so with great reluctance, taking her into the building with faltering steps. Almost straight away she felt the curse shift within her. Burrowing further down and entangling with her soul. A gasp left her mouth as intense pain flooded her body. It came and went in the span of a second, leaving behind a prickling sensation that hurt her skin.
She held her breath as she ventured inside, wincing when the door slammed shut behind her. It didn't echo like she expected it to. The sound simply disappeared into the air, almost as though it was swallowed up. She fixed her eyes on the door Charlie had indicated and stepped forward. Her feet tapped on the marble as she walked, matching the beating of her heart. A trickle of sweat rolled down her back, soaking into the material of her shirt. She'd never been so afraid in her whole life. Not even on that rain-soaked day when she'd first felt the curse manifest inside her.
Finally she reached the door, quickly opened it and found herself in a mirrored hallway. A line of candelabra was spread across the ceiling, throwing out flickering cold light that was reflected a thousand times over on the blurry mirrors, creating the illusion of a tunnel of light. At the end of the hall she could see a black door. It almost seemed to be watching her. Waiting for her to approach so it could ensnare her.
Her hands curled into white-knuckled fists, her fingernails digging into her palms as she desperately fought the urge to run. Instead she moved forward, carefully placing one foot in front of the other. The reflected Hermione's moved with her, slowly making their way towards the black door.
From the corner of her eyes she spotted movement. She twisted her head left and came face to face with her own startled reflection. Her hair hung down her back in loose, chocolate curls and her whiskey-coloured eyes regarded her mirror image with suspicion. She could have sworn she saw something move. And yet, she was the only one in the hallway. She could see every angle and corner from where she stood and there was nobody else present.
She shook off her unease and moved onwards. It seemed to take forever to reach the door. As though the hall was stretching away from her. Teasing her. She sped up, not caring that she resembled a terrified child. Her reflection accompanied her.
At last she made it to the door and if anything it looked even more ominous up close, if that were possible. Or perhaps it was just because she knew she'd be behind it soon, meeting the custodian of the Playground, that made it seem like that. Her body quivered at the thought but she was determined not to let him know how frightened she really was.
Biting her lip, she knocked. A second passed. Then two. The very air seemed to press against her, making her feel claustrophobic as the seconds crept by.
The voice was muffled slightly by the thick wood, yet despite that, Hermione still felt the cultured tones and lazy arrogance trickling into her ear. Holding her breath she opened the door, eyes immediately focusing on the man sitting behind the desk. He looked to be in his mid thirties. His dark hair was swept back from the most angelic face she had ever laid eyes upon. Piercing green eyes regarded her with a coldness that made her shiver.
Tom Marvolo Riddle.
She felt her stomach clench as he appraised her with bored contempt, before moving back up to meet her eyes.
"Ah, Miss Granger, you've arrived at last," he mocked. "Welcome to The Devil's Playground."
Yes, another fic, don't shout, but this one I couldn't resist. I will warn you that it will be dark and definitely earning its 'M' rating. Those who follow me on tumblr will already have an idea of the tone the fic is heading in, and will also know who the other Cursed are going to be. If you want to join the fun then you can follow me under the user name jheeley. You can also follow Catherine Morgenstern under the name lascitateognesperanza. Thanks for reading and if you feel like feeding the review box, it's just down there ;)