17 - The Lesser of Two Evils

When a town falls under a dreadful curse, the local witch has to find the source of the curse before the town decides she's to blame and hangs her.

Chastity lives on the outskirts of a large colonial town in New England. She’s a witch, and is regularly coached in her witchcraft by her familiar, Humor, a talking cat. She also has a son, Philo, who she’s teaching in the ways of witchcraft. She’s not well loved by the town; the only people who will really talk to her are the Rolfes, a deeply religious family who act on the belief that Jesus loves the outcasts, and right now that means Chastity. Their daughter Amity and son Comfort are Philo’s closest, maybe only, friends.

The village animals have been getting sick and dying for a while, and it’s been pretty good for business for Chastity. The prevailing theory is that she’s causing it, and she’s okay with that; her familiar, a cat named Humor, says that if people worry that she’s the cause, they’re more likely to pay her for counter-curses. Philo asks what will happen if her counter-curses don’t work; Chastity says then they’ll just know that she didn’t cause it, and everything will be okay.

Her counter-curses don’t work, and she soon sees a large drop-off in business. That’s expected. The bad part is what comes next.

The sickness starts infecting people. And people start dying, painfully. Chastity had assumed that when her counter-curses didn’t work, people would stop blaming her. Instead, people say that she got greedy, and started infecting humans so that they’d have to come to her. If everybody wasn’t afraid of her, they’d probably have her hung, or maybe burned at the stake.

She starts turning away business when people come to her for a counter-curse, saying she’s not the cause, she doesn’t know how to stop it. But then they just say that she’s in it for revenge, not money, and they hate her all the more. Humor warns her that if she can’t find the source of the sickness - or at least stop the sickness - soon enough, she’ll likely be hanged.

The only people affected by the curse that will let her examine anything are the Rolfes, who have a few infected cattle. Chastity investigates and determines that the cause is indeed black magic; this is no ordinary sickness. Moreover, it’s powerful. She doesn’t think she’s capable of blocking the curse.

Chastity goes hunting for the source of the curse. She talks to the birds and the bugs, but they don’t want to help. Eventually she convinces them to lead her to a ritual site out in the woods. The circle is too intricate for anyone but an expert. She’s the only one nearby that she thinks could’ve pulled it off, so this just adds to the mystery. She’s convinced that the birds and the bugs know more than they’re telling her, but she can’t convince them to help anymore. She knows Philo gets on good with the animals, and goes to get him to help her.

When she returns home, the Rolfes are there, asking for her help: Amity has the Curse. Chastity runs there to try to help, but just like the cattle, there’s nothing she can do but ease the pain. Philo freaks out when he hears about Amity. Chastity is barely able to calm him down enough to get him to help.

She takes him to the ritual site in the woods, and asks him to ask the birds and bugs who made the circle. He breaks down, and admits that he did. He started the curse. He begs Chastity to break the curse on Amity. He explains every detail of the curse, asks Chastity how to reverse it. But his detailed description confirms what Chastity already figured: it’s not reversible. The curse only created the disease; now, it’s self-sustaining.

She asks him where he learned this curse, and he says one of her books; he was mad at the town for always blaming her for everything, and wanted to punish them. But he didn’t know the disease could spread to humans! She asks him if Humor helped him, and he says no, he did it all on his own.

Chastity tells Philo not to tell the Rolfes, but Philo tells Amity, and Comfort overhears. Amity takes it okay, but Comfort freaks out and attacks Philo. The Rolfes are barely able to stop him. But when they find out that he caused it, they kick him and Chastity out of their house. Chastity begs them to let her stay, but after confirming that there’s nothing she can do to help, they refuse.Chastity swears them to secrecy, and leaves.

At home, Chastity assures Philo that it’s okay; he didn’t know what he was doing. But she’s kinda freaking out, too. Because now she has to make up a source of the curse that the town will believe. Humor says her only option is to run away, but Chastity won’t leave the Rolfes when Amity is sick.

Amity dies a few days later. Mr. Rolfe - Absalom - comes by to tell them. He tells Philo that he forgives him, but that he should confess. Chastity won’t allow it; if he confesses, they’ll kill him. Absalom doesn’t deny it’s a possibility, but reminds her that he’s killed dozens of people at this point. The town is going to demand blood.

Humor tries to get them to leave again, but Chastity instead tasks him towards finding a way to stop the disease from spreading.

As the town recovers from the curse, they get the strength to start seeking justice. And to them, “Justice” means “killing Chastity.” They storm Chastity’s house, and she’s only barely able to escape to the Rolfes’. Humor can’t escape with them, and hides in the woods. The Rolfes convince the mob to back down, but even as they leave, the townsfolk accuse them of being bewitched, and warn that it’s not over.

Chastity tries to convince everyone that it is in fact over, that it’s never going to happen again, but because she can’t tell them who did it, they can’t believe her. Chastity and Philo stay with the Rolfes for a few weeks. Things get increasingly strained between Philo and Comfort, until eventually Comfort lets it slip to the town that Philo did it.

They return in force, and practically lay siege to the Rolfes’ house. Philo leaves willingly to get the mob to stop, despite everyone else urging him to stay back. The town hangs him, and their bloodlust is apparently sated. They leave Chastity alone, warning her that they’ll be watching her.

Chastity buries Philo alone, refusing the Rolfes’ help. The Rolfes try to urge her to forgive the town, warning her that without forgiveness, she’s stooping to their level. She lashes out at them, telling them it’s not their business. If she wants to stoop to their level, she can! They remind her that they lost a child, too. She leaves them.

Humor finds her, and urges revenge on the townsfolk. He tells her that all it will take is one small tragedy, just someone’s horse throwing a shoe for them to start blaming her. She needs to either act now and do something they couldn’t retaliate to, or she needs to just leave.

She asks Humor where Philo learned magic of that level. Humor feigns ignorance, but Chastity knows Humor was the one who led him to start the curse to begin with. She rejects him, rejects magic, forsakes it all, and banishes Humor. She moves in with the Rolfes.