The queen of grammar, Catherine Morgenstern was kind enough to beta this chapter for me. Thanks, dear.
"I swear it won't cost much"
Hermione completed the list in just under two hours. Most of that time had been spent reading over each of the ten questions carefully to make sure they were worded perfectly and would tell her what she needed to know. But it was the first that was the most important; Can the Curse be broken?
The answer to that would determine if the rest were needed at all and her main dilemma was finding someone trustworthy to help. The problem was that she didn't trust any of the Playground's inhabitants. Tom Riddle had an agenda she had yet to figure out, both the Twins and Fenrir scared the crap out of her, Luna looked incapable of holding a conversation for more than a few minutes and Sirius had seemed more interested in her breasts than anything she had to say. Pansy was a possibility, but Hermione wasn't sure if she would run to Tom and relay their conversation.
She needed somebody neutral. Somebody she could trust. Biting her lip, she walked to the window and glanced outside. The sky was a washed-out grey that echoed her mood perfectly. Leaning her head against the glass, she glared at the untidy grounds. The trees looked like they wanted to sink into the earth and die and every blade of grass sagged in defeat. A flash of red caught her attention and she narrowed her eyes as she spotted Charlie Weasley striding between the miserable trees.
"Of course," she whispered.
He would be ideal. She even recalled him saying that he never entered the house. Turning around, she rushed out of her room and through the Playground's gloomy halls. The air seemed to condense, almost as if it were seeking to halt her progress and trap her inside. She brushed that disturbing thought aside and tugged the front door open. A cold breeze touched her face as she left the house and stepped onto the overgrown path.
It felt so good to be outside and away from the feeling of being constantly watched. For the first time in days she felt like she could breathe freely. Circling the house, Hermione made her way to the back of the property and to where she assumed the Menagerie as hidden. Excitement made her heart thump unsteadily as she wondered what kind of creatures she would encounter. There were so many rumours that she didn't dare speculate.
Leaving the path behind, Hermione walked towards the place she had last seen Charlie. The shrubs and trees closed in on her, blocking her view of the Playground. She let out a relieved sigh and slowed down, breathing in the scent of earth and dying greenery. The leaves that that already littered the ground crunched and rustled beneath her feet.
She didn't notice how silent it was at first. All of her attention was fixed on the feeling of being free, but then the lack of noise filtered into her mind. There wasn't a single sound to be heard but her own noisy footsteps. No birds or scuttling insects or even the clack of branch against branch. She stopped walking and cocked her head to the side to listen. And that's when she heard it. A dry hissing sound that seemed to rise up from the earth and into her body.
Her heart skipped a beat and she stumbled forward. The shrubs snagged on her clothes, almost seeming to want to pull her back. Hermione thrust her arms forward and forced her feet to move. The branches gave and she was spat out and into a clearing. Her hands hit the ground with enough force to rattle her teeth. She looked up, cursing the thick curls that had flipped forward to cover her face. Lifting a hand, Hermione shoved her frizzy hair aside and took a look around.
The first thing she saw was the edge of a metal cage. It was made up of concrete pillars and wrist-thick iron bars that were rusted from age. Climbing to her feet, she slowly made her way towards it. Ivy had grown over two sides and along the roof, plunging the far corner in deep shadow. The floor consisted of the same iron bars, but it had been covered in a thick layer of damp, half-rotten straw. The air closer to the cage smelt sweet and musky.
Hermione peered into the dark corner, breath held, as she tried to listen for signs of life. And then she heard it; a sighing hiss. There was something in there, hiding just out of sight. She could almost make out its outline. Darker than the shadows around it and large.
"Hello?" Hermione called out, feeling ridiculous. It was probably just a bear or a tiger.
A sigh of breath reached her ears and she crept closer to the cage. Then a rattling noise filled the air, followed by a dry, sliding sound. The shadow moved forward and into the light. Hermione stopped breathing at what she saw. The top half was human. A woman with grey, leathery skin. Long, white hair sprouted from her head and fell down to her waist in stiff waves. Her eyes were yellow and the pupils were vertical slits. Hermione's eyes trailed down the creature's body in astonishment.
The woman's hips widened and morphed into the cylindrical shape of a snake. Her grey skin darkened and flushed green and then black. Scales the size of a thumbnail reflected the light, giving her an iridescent glow. At the end of her tail, a rattle as big as a small dog vibrated, it was moving so fast that the edges seemed blurred.
Lamia, Hermione's brain supplied.
"You...I...I've never seen anything like you," Hermione whispered.
The rattle intensified. "Come closssser, human. Look at me."
Hermione moved to take a step nearer.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you," Charlie Weasley said from behind her.
She gasped and turned around. The redhead was standing beside a tree, a wry smile pulling down the scar on the side of his face. "She'll pull off your arm if you get too close."
Hermione quickly stepped back, the hair on her neck rising when a hiss filled the air.
"She's a Lamia?"
"She's dangerous is what she is." His eyes flicked to the hissing creature. "But beautiful. Very beautiful."
"How did she get here?" Hermione asked, stepping close to Charlie and further away from the Lamia.
"The same way Riddle acquires all of his beasts." At Hermione's confused frown he elaborated. "Snape."
"But where did she come from?"
The rattling sound intensified. "The beasssst hasss earsss and dissslikesss being ignored."
Hermione spun around, guilt tightening her chest. "Oh! I'm so sorry! Please, forgive me."
"She's drawing you in, Granger. Take your eyes off her and look at how close you are to the cage," Charlie said.
Hermione blinked, her eyes moving from the Lamia's corpse-grey face to the cage. The bars were near enough that she could see flecks of rust peeling off the metal and fluttering to the ground. The scent of musk coated her mouth every time she took a breath and the hissing, rattling noise was so loud that it blocked out her thudding heart. She took several stumbling steps back and turned to Charlie.
"Thank you." She swallowed nervously and glanced back at the Lamia. "It was actually you I came to see, Mr Weasley," she murmured. "I have a favour to ask."
His eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Okay. Follow me and I'll see what I can do. And call me Charlie. Mr Weasley sounds like you're talking to my dad."
Hermione smiled and gave one last look at the Lamia, before trailing after him. He led her past several empty cages and towards a lopsided hut. They had almost made it inside, when a furious screech tore through the air.
"What is that?" Hermione gasped, stepping closer to Charlie.
The redhead turned his head towards the sound. "Gryffin."
"Really?" she asked, peering through the overgrown trees. "Can I see it?"
"Perhaps another day," Charlie said, opening the door to the hut and gesturing for her to step inside.
It was larger than it looked. The rectangular space somehow managing to fit a bed, sofa, table, and tiny kitchen. In the furthest corner stood a large cage. Whatever was inside made the white sheet that covered it glow a fiery-red.
"Sit," Charlie invited, pushing her towards the scruffy, blue sofa. "Cup of tea?"
Hermione stumbled forward, almost tripping on the curled up edge of a rug. "Yes, please." She took a seat, her eyes widening comically when she sank almost to the floor. "Umm. What's inside the cage?"
"Phoenix," Charlie replied in a distracted voice. "Do you take milk and sugar?" he asked as he filled the kettle from a rattling tap.
"Just milk," Hermione murmured as she stared at the cage. "Can I take a look at it?"
"Yeah. Don't try and touch him though, his feathers will melt your skin."
Hermione nodded and proceeded to push herself out of the seat. It was like trying to fight her way out of a marshmallow. What springs the seat did contain were concertinaed into a solid lump and every single one of them was prodding her backside. In the end, she kind of rolled off, feeling utterly foolish as she caught sight of Charlie's grin.
She stood up and straightened her clothes, before making her way to the cage and its hidden occupant. The red glow moved as she approached, although she didn't hear a single sound from under the sheet. Once she was beside the cage she didn't quite know what to do next.
"Just yank it off," Charlie said.
Hermione bit her lip and took a hold of the edge. Breath held, she pulled. The material fluttered to the ground, revealing a dishevelled bird the size of her forearm. He was slender and glowed as if a gentle fire was blazing inside of him. Blood-red feathers covered his body, dripping down the back of his neck and onto the flaring end of his tail. Several singed feathers sat at the bottom of the cage, their colour faded to a dull ashy-grey. Pitch-black eyes regarded her without apparent interest. Indeed, after a few seconds the Phoenix turned away and began to groom itself. It was all done in absolute silence, as if the bird absorbed any sound he made.
"He's stunning," Hermione whispered in awe.
"Yes," Charlie said from beside her.
Hermione jumped at his unexpected presence. She hadn't heard him approach and wondered whether it was because she had been so intent on the Phoenix or if the bird had sucked the sound of his footsteps out of the air. He was holding two cups in his hand and looking fondly at the bird. The Phoenix let out a trilling whistle, before turning elegantly on his perch and giving them his back.
"He's temperamental," Charlie muttered, handing Hermione her cup of tea.
"Thank you," she said, taking the proffered drink, but keeping her eyes on the bird.
It was hard to believe such creatures were real and hiding in the world.
"What was it you wanted to ask me?" Charlie asked as he arranged himself into the saggy chair with a graceful flourish that she envied.
"Actually, it's you who will be asking." She fished the list from her pocket and handed it to him.
Charlie raised a ginger brow and took the paper into his freckled hand. He was silent as he read, but Hermione could feel the tension rising as he reached the end of her questions. After a few silent minutes he lifted his eyes and stared at her. Hermione met his deep blue gaze without flinching.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" he asked.
Hermione swallowed and nodded her head. "I'm sure." She placed her cup on a side table and perched herself on the arm of the sofa. "I need to know and you're the only one I trust enough to ask."
Charlie blew out a hard breath. "Okay then." He frowned and cleared his throat.
"Hermione, can the curse be broken?"
A sensation of fullness swelled in her chest, expanding until it became difficult to breathe. It felt like her lungs were being shoved aside and her heart squeezed in an iron fist. She sucked in a mouthful of air, momentarily confused by the difference in sensation compared to past experiences. There was no answer waiting on the back of her tongue to crawl free. It was trapped inside the bottom of her chest, twisting and pulsing, growing like an angry clot.
"Granger?" Charlie enquired.
Hermione wheezed in a breath and blinked. "Ask me again," she gasped.
Charlie gave her a slightly alarmed look. "I'm not sure-"
"Ask me again!" she ground out, pressing the palm of her hand to her aching chest.
The red-head's brow furrowed, but regardless of his concern he asked her, "Can the curse be broken?"
The words intensified the pain and she slammed her eyes shut and gasped. She bent over, willing the answer to dislodge, to move. She could feel it trying to squirm free like a worm on the end of a hook. Sucking in her stomach, she pressed with her hands. Pressure and then, "Yes!" spat free. With the word now out, her body felt empty and lighter than air.
"You okay?" Charlie asked, standing to offer her a tissue.
Hermione took it and wiped the thin material across her sweat-beaded forehead. "I think so." She blinked a few times and tried to regain her composure. "I don't know what happened. It was like the answer was stuck."
"Do you want me to continue?" he asked, lifting the paper to examine the next question.
"Yes." She swallowed and took a deep breath in preparation.
Charlie's gaze traced over her face, checking to see if she was okay, before dropping once again to the rumpled list. "Can someone at the Playground break the Curse?"
The discomfort was worse this time. The answer edged with sharp spikes that dug into her ribs with jagged teeth. She gasped as the room began to spin and black spots floated across her vision. Pain travelled down the back of her throat and she felt like she was going to be sick.
"Yes. No. Yes. No. Yes. No." The words tumbled out of her mouth in an endless stream, her voice gradually getting higher and more hysterical. Her body tensed and she began to convulse. "Yes. No. Yes. No. Yes. No." She fell sideways and the last thing she saw before she blacked out was Charlie's worried face.
Guess what? The Devil's Playground has a fan vid. The gloriously kind, funny, and ridiculously talented primrue (primruesabcd on tumblr) created a fantastic video. Please go check it out on YouTube. You'll find it by searching for primrue (and she's done others that are fantastic as well!)
thanks for reading guys and please review. Take care!