An island oasis turns deadly when a terrifying legend threatens to kill off visitors one by one…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Sacrifice, a haunting new novel from Rin Chupeco, author of the Bone Witch trilogy—available September 27th from Sourcebooks Fire.
Pristine beaches, lush greenery, and perfect weather, the island of Kisapmata would be the vacation destination… if not for the curse. The Filipino locals speak of it in hushed voices and refuse to step foot on the island. They know the lives it has claimed. They won’t be next.
A Hollywood film crew won’t be dissuaded. Legend claims a Dreamer god sleeps, waiting to grant unimaginable powers in exchange for eight sacrifices. The producers are determined to document the evidence. And they convince Alon, a local teen, to be their guide.
Within minutes of their arrival, a giant sinkhole appears, revealing a giant balete tree with a mummified corpse entwined in its gnarled branches. And the crew start seeing strange visions. Alon knows they are falling victim to the island’s curse. If Alon can’t convince them to leave, there is no telling who will survive. Or how much the Dreamer god will destroy…
Nobody tells Hollywood about the screaming.
Nobody tells Hollywood about the curse. Or the way things walk across the sands here like they are alive enough to breathe. Nobody tells them of the odd ways the night moves around these parts when it thinks no one sees.
Nobody gives them permission to visit, and it’s all the incentive Hollywood needs to permit themselves.
The people who live in the provinces nearest the island don’t talk. Not at first. But money is the universal language, and the years have been lean enough, desperate enough. Tongues loosen. The words come reluctantly.
Yes, they say. There is a curse. Yes; at least five people dead.
No, they say. We will not step foot on that island with you, not even if you gave us a million dollars.
Hollywood crashes into the island, anyway; it’s a new breed of conquistadors trading technology for cannons. First their scouts: marking territory, measuring miles of ground, surveying land. Next their specialists: setting camp, clearing brush, arguing over schematics. Then their builders arrive with containment units, solar panels, and hardwood. In the space of a few days, they construct four small bungalows with an efficiency I’m not accustomed to seeing.
The noise is loud enough that they don’t hear the silence how I’ve always heard it.
They scare the fishes away most days, and so I’ve gotten accustomed to idling, to watching them from my boat instead of hunting for my next meal. Hollywood does terrible things with machinery. They whirl and slam and punch the ground, and the earth shakes in retaliation. They dig perfect circles, add pipelines to connect to local supplies, and install water tanks. They set up large generators and test the lighting. They cut down more trees to widen the clearing to place more cabins.
None of them step inside the cave. The one at the center of the island, where the roots begin.
They don’t talk about the roots that ring the island, half-hidden among white sand so fine it’s like powder to the touch, so that they trip when they least expect it. But they talk about the balete. “I came here expecting palm trees,” one of the crew says with a shudder. He stares up fearfully at one of the larger balete trees, with their numerous snake-like gnarls that twist together to pass as trunks, and at the spindly, outstretched branches above. “If trees could look haunted, then it would be these.”
Soon they notice me standing by the shore, only several meters away.
“Hey, you there!” one calls out. He wears a Hawaiian shirt and dark shorts. A pair of sunglasses are slicked up his head. “You live nearby?”
“Oh, thank God, you can understand us. We’d been having a hell of a time trying to translate.”
“Most of the people here understand English,” I say. “They probably don’t want to talk to you.”
“Ouch. Big ouch. Well, you’re still the only local I’ve seen this close to the island. Even the fishermen stay clear. You’re not afraid of the curse?”
I shake my head. Askal peers cautiously from around my legs, watching the foreigners curiously. “You?” I ask.
He guffaws. “I’m more afraid of my bosses docking my pay if we don’t get this right.” He peers back at Askal. “Cute dog. I’ve never seen the locals bring pets on their boats.”
“He’s used to the water.”
Askal wags his tail, sensing he is being praised.
“Want to make some money, kid? We need someone who knows their way around the place. Everyone we’ve asked on the mainland has turned us down.”
I row closer to where they stand, hopping out and dragging the boat through the last few feet of water. Askal scampers out after me.
“Not scared like everyone else, eh?” Hawaiian Shirt’s companion asks, a guy with a goatee and bad haircut. Clouds of smoke rise from the little device he’s puffing away at, and it smells of both cigarettes and overly sweet fruit. A half-empty beer bottle is tucked under his arm. His eyes are bloodshot, and I’ve seen enough drunks on the mainland to know what that means. “You hang around this place a lot?”
“You shouldn’t be here.”
Hawaiian Shirt scowls. “That’s what the officials here have been telling us the past few months while we’ve been negotiating, but it’s not gonna stop us. We have all the necessary permits. It’s hypocritical, don’t you think, telling us to leave when you’ve obviously been poking around here as much as we have?”
“I didn’t ask you to leave. I said you shouldn’t be here.”
“Semantics. Look—we need someone to point out the mystery spots, maybe tell us about cursed areas on this damn island. Besides the Godseye. We’ve heard about that. We’re on a deadline, and we need to get things moving before the rest of the crew arrive.”
“The cave on this island. The one where all those deaths happened. The locals didn’t have a name for it, but we needed one for the show and that’s what Cortes called it. You know why we’re here, right? You must have heard the news by now.”
Goatee blows rings in the air. “How are we gonna build three seasons around one fricking cave?”
“We’ll figure it out, Karl. They say there’s gold hidden in the cave that Cortes stole. Viewers love hearing about buried treasure. I’m sure Ethan’s storyboarded more ideas.” Hawaiian Shirt scratches his head. “You ever been inside the Godseye?”
Both stare at me. “All this time,” Goatee mutters, “and he’s been here all along. Kid, if you’re who we think you are, then you’re famous among the locals. You’re like a ghost whisperer, they said. You’re the only one brave enough to come here. We’re hoping you could help us.”
I look about pointedly and gesture at their building. “Do you even need permission anymore?”
“We signed off with the authorities. Well, we offered them a ton of money and they took it, so I guess that’s permission. But we need more information, and that’s the one thing they ain’t selling.”
“I’ll give you five thousand dollars to come on board with us,” Hawaiian Shirt says eagerly. “And another five if you stay the whole season, but that means you’ll have to go on camera to talk about any creepy stories you have about the island. All the highlights of this place.” He eyes my empty net. “That’s gotta be more than you make fishing in at least a decade, right? I’ll have a contract drawn up for you in an hour. You can look it over and tell me what you—” He stops. “You can read, right?”
I frown. “Yes.”
“No offense, just checking. Get a lawyer to look it over for you if you want. It’s got some terms and clauses you might not be familiar with—saves a lot of headaches later. So you’ll help?”
I take my time, coiling my nets, making sure the boat’s beached properly. Askal lingers near me, keeping a careful eye on the two men. “Have you been inside?”
“Well, no. Not till our legal department clears us to proceed. Or the exploration team gets a crack at it. Standard precautions.”
Without another word, I head up the path, Askal keeping easy pace beside me. I can hear them scrambling to follow me.
No one can miss the cave entrance at the center of the island. It’s two hundred feet high, built for giants to walk through. Limestone stains mar the walls. Something glitters in their cavities.
It doesn’t take long for Hawaiian Shirt and Goatee to catch up, both looking annoyed.
“Ask it permission,” I tell them, and they guffaw.
“The hell I’m asking some ghost,” Goatee says with a snort.
“We can’t go in until we get the all clear,” Hawaiian Shirt repeats.
“A few steps in won’t make a difference.” I place my hand on the stone, which is cool to the touch. “Tabi po,” I murmur, and enter.
The ground is softer here, and my sandals sink down slightly wherever I trod, leaving prints in my wake. Though reluctant at first, I hear them following, Hawaiian Shirt grumbling about all the trouble they could get into should R&D find out. Askal pads along, ears pricked as if he already senses something we cannot.
It’s not a long walk. A stone altar lies a hundred feet in. Part of the ceiling above it caved in at some point, revealing a view of the sky. It’s late afternoon, and the moon is already visible and silhouetted against a sea of blue.
The altar is more yellowing limestone bedrock, chiseled from ancient tools and carved with purpose. I look down at the ground and see, running along the sides, withered tree roots so old they’ve grown into the cave wall, stamped so deeply into the stones as to be a part of its foundation.
The passageway branches out, circles around to another tunnel that lies just behind the altar, leading deeper into rock.
“You said something before we came in,” Goatee says. “‘Tabi po’? That’s how we’re supposed to ask permission to enter?”
“It’s a sign of respect,” I say.
But the two men are no longer listening. They’re too busy staring at the stonework, and then at the sky where the moon stands at the center of the hole above—a giant eye gazing down at them.
Askal whimpers softly. I lean down and stroke his fur.
“They weren’t kidding about the Godseye,” Goatee says, impressed. “How’d you have the balls to come here all by yourself, kid? Seen any of the so-called ghosts? See Cortes himself?”
I pause, debating what to tell them. “I’ve heard the screaming.”
“No one’s told us about any screaming.”
I approach the altar but do not touch it. I hear a soft, rasping sound, and look down to see small makahiya leaves writhing quietly on the ground. From the corner of my eye, I catch the tree roots on the walls curling, stilling only when Goatee, sensing their movements, steps nearer.
I have spent enough time on this island to recognize when it’s distressed.
“You all shouldn’t be here,” I say again.
Goatee snorts. “Let’s wait until the cameras start rolling before you get all creepy, kid.”
“The Diwata knows me. But outsiders are another matter. You can’t stay here.”
The smile Goatee shoots my way is patronizing. “Kid,” he says, as the sounds of digging outside resume, “we’re just filming a TV show. We have permission.”
“Better drag Melissa here to do some initial shots,” Hawaiian Shirt says happily. “This is gonna look beautiful in our promos.”
“We’ll still need to hook viewers for a second season,” Goatee says. “Maybe something’s haunting the mangroves on the eastern side of the island—a spirit that pulls people underwater. Or maybe a dead woman. Dead women are always hits.”
He laughs. Hawaiian Shirt laughs along with him.
From somewhere within the cave, something mimics their laughter.
They stop, tearing their gazes from the eye above them to into the cavern’s depths. But all I hear now are the faint reverberations of their voices.
“Easy to see why people think this place is haunted,” Goatee says, with a nervous, quieter chuckle. “Makes you start imagining things.” He raises his hand, which trembles slightly, and downs the rest of his beer in one noisy gulp.
They do not linger long. Askal nuzzles at my hand, lets out a soft whimper. “We’re leaving, too,” I assure him. Before I follow the men out, I look back at the tunnel stretching farther into the cave, waiting for a shift in the darkness beyond—but find nothing.
There’s only the altar, which has borne witness to old horrors, blessed with the moon’s quiet, unrelenting light.
The island has known me my whole life. As a child I raced along its shores and scavenged oysters hiding underneath its rocks, caught the small fish trapped in its shallow pools at low tide. I would lie down near the shore and while away lazy hours, diving into the waters when the sun grew too hot for my liking.
My father taught me everything. How to catch fish with my bare hands. How to scale trees for coconuts. How to quiet the voices on the island. How to show them you mean no harm.
Except ’Tay hasn’t been strong for a while now.
Occasionally I would see things. Things pretending to be one of the trees by the coast, dangling from branches. Or crouched against the stones by the cave, waiting for nightfall.
The creatures here leave me alone, and I’ve become accustomed to their presence.
But I am no longer the only person on Kisapmata, and I can see signs of the island’s discomfort. Now as I walk along the shore, small makahiya plants litter the soil, opening their leaves as I pass. They snap shut when Goatee or Hawaiian Shirt or the Hollywooders step through.
The island has not had this many trespassers before, and for so little reason.
I say nothing. I only stay close and keep watch. Askal refuses to leave my side. He’s always been protective of me.
Goatee and Hawaiian Shirt give me little to do in the days after our meeting. “We tried looking for you, but nobody knew where you live,” the latter tells me. “People said you were likely on one of the smaller islands, the ones that aren’t even big enough for a village. Wasted ten months searching. Every lead we had of you was a dead end. ‘Why not head to the Godseye,’ Hemslock finally said. ‘Sooner or later we’ll find the kid.’ And he was right, goddamn it. You don’t live in Leyte?”
“I live nearby, with my father.”
“He ever been to this island?”
I nod. “Taught me everything I know about it.”
“You or he give anyone guided tours before us?”
“Because of the murders, right? I know they’d locked up access to this place afterward. Lucky for us the mayor decided our intentions were noble. The plan is to put you on camera without any prep, so you can tell us what you know of this place. Steve thinks it’s gonna be more authentic that way, provoke better reactions from the cast if they’re hearing the story for the first time. So he wants us to wait for him to get here for that. Just a heads up—sometimes we’re gonna have to move your words around, to make a bigger impact for the show, right? That’s specified in your contract, but since you’ve already signed it, I’m assuming you know.”
Hawaiian Shirt sighs. “I’m gonna try and look out for you, all right, kid? I’ve worked enough shows to see how easy it is for producers to take advantage of someone for fifteen minutes of fame. We’re gonna be the first people to stay on this island since, what? That plane crash? Whatever happened to that, anyway?”
Goatee shrugs. “Investigators tried to dig up the island till the locals put their foot down and said no. They couldn’t find any bodies, other than that one passenger they found buried here. No evidence of plane debris, either. That’s not stopping Gries, though.”
“Who’s Gries?” I ask.
“You’re gonna meet him soon enough. Used to be a hotshot back in the day. Got some blockbusters under his belt, and I don’t always mean in theaters. Broke up a few unions in his time. Ruthless. Then his wife died, and he lost his edge. This show’s supposed to be his comeback as much as it is Hemslock’s. Who knows? Maybe you’ll get some fame from this too, kid. Get you on the circuit. Anything can happen in Hollywood.”
I look at the cabins they’re building. Pre-fab houses, he called them; they are a riddle of metal containment units joined together to create the trappings of luxury. “I don’t want fame,” I say.
Hawaiian Shirt grins, like he finds the idea hilarious. “That’s what they all say at first. Look, I want the island to throw something at us. That’s what we’re here for. It’ll be much easier to film hauntings than have to create them.”
Slowly, and then very quickly, I watch them gentrify the island. Several generators are on standby to funnel electricity for a secure internet connection. There are water tanks and medical tents. A refrigeration system for food storage. There is even talk of paving part of the island to make walking easier, but the idea was thankfully discarded.
Hawaiian Shirt gives me a quick tour of the pre-fab houses. One for the showrunner/actor, two more for some executive producers who wanted to come with the production. Everyone else has to be satisfied with tents, which are nonetheless far more impressive in size and interior than what the name suggests.
There are more people than I expected. Aside from production there is the safety crew responsible for checking the equipment, a medical team, and a group of scientists keen to explore the Godseye.
A larger bungalow is the mess hall. It is where the crew gather to eat their meals and to plan the rest of the series. There is a large freezer inside the mess hall stocked with food flown from overseas, and the crew has employed several chefs.
But the island is surrounded by fresh seafood, and so I oblige when they ask me for a sampling of the local delicacies. On the days when Askal and I can catch enough fish, their chefs cook them over a makeshift grill. They’re good fish—tilapia, galunggong, bisugo—and it helps endear me to the crew.
I negotiate with other fishermen, and they frequently supply us with other varieties of seafood—curacha, alimasag, and other kinds of crabs on luckier days, but more often squid, green mussels, and mackerel.
The crew offer me an extra tent. I accept but rarely spend nights there. Sick father, I say. Need to look in on him. I live only several minutes away. They are sympathetic.
Askal and I go home and spend time with ’Tay. He sleeps more frequently nowadays, though I know that is normal for his age. I’m not worried about the time I’ll have to spend away from him. My father raised me and Askal after my mother’s death. He’s stubborn enough not to want help from anyone. Runs in the family.
’Tay was delighted when I told him about my new job. The money will be good. The Americans know the risks. It’s not my fault they won’t listen, and it’s not on me to protect them.
While he dozes, and while Askal lies down beside him and does the same, I look at the contract I signed, the one promising me ten thousand dollars if I stay through their filming. It’s more money than I’ve ever expected to have in my hands all at once.
And for a moment, I feel selfish, tempted. There are so many things I could do with this money. Leave the island. Make my own way in the world.
’Tay stirs beside me, and the thought dissipates. Ten thousand dollars can only get you so far. And I’m not going to abandon ’Tay.
But there are far too many people on the island. This will not end well.
“Paano na?” I ask myself quietly, knowing I don’t know the answer to that.
“This island is almost perfect,” one of the crew members gushes the next day, when I return. “Add a Panera and I’d be all set. Do you go to school on the mainland, Alon? You speak English so well, and I know there are excellent schools in Leyte for—”
“Harriet,” another woman rebukes sternly, and Panera Lady gasps.
“I didn’t mean that people here can’t speak English well,” she says hastily, unhelpfully. “I know most people here do because of, uhhh, colonialism, right? I wasn’t expecting—I mean—”
“You need to stop constantly sticking your foot in your mouth, you know that?” the woman says, not caring for tact. She takes Panera Lady’s arm and steers her away. She returns later to apologize, though I am mostly amused. Panera Lady isn’t the first to assume that Filipinos don’t understand English, and she’s unlikely to be the last.
The nicer lady’s name is Melissa, and she wears her hair in a style she calls an undercut, bleached pink at the roots but gradually blending to purple at the tips. She’s got a tattoo of something called a roomba on her bicep—a private inside joke, she says, between her and her girlfriend. She’s also a PA—a production assistant—a fancier name, she admits, for a glorified unpaid intern. She’s only older than me by two years, and I like her best out of everyone so far. “But they pay me for being here,” I point out. “And I do a lot less than you.”
She chuckles. “That’s not how it works in Hollywood—or a lot of other places in America. There’re a lot of us desperate for a chance to break into the industry, and they know we won’t complain. They pay us in connections, in introductions to bigger names who can poach us for positions with actual salaries. I live with my folks, so I don’t need to pay rent. I’m lucky. I know people who’d be better at the work than me but can’t afford the job.”
It is a strange thing to say, to afford a job.
Melissa bends down and pets Askal, who likes the attention, his tongue lolling out as she scratches behind his ears. “What’s your deal? The scuttlebutt is that you’re the island whisperer. That you’re one person the island won’t curse.”
“The island won’t harm the people living around the area.”
“But the others don’t come here even so. Why do you?”
I stare in the direction of the cave. “I was five the first time I came here,” I say. “’Tay brought me.”
“That means dad, right? So this was back when he wasn’t ill?”
I nod. “You don’t think about whether or not you should be afraid of this place when you’ve lived around here your whole life. Respect is key. But most foreigners don’t have that for us.”
Melissa winces. “Well, that’s true enough. Is he doing all right, your dad? Is someone looking after him while you’re here?”
I think again about my contract, the quiet way ’Tay breathes in and out. I want to stay on Kisapmata, but money and ’Tay are not the reasons I do. “He’ll be okay.”
Later, Goatee tells me more about showrunners. They pitch ideas to network executives in America. If the latter likes it, they receive hefty budgets for pre-fab houses and generators among other expenses.
“They’re calling this show The Curse of the Godseye,” he shares, offering me a cup of coffee. Melissa said the food’s free, and the caffeine boosts are unlimited. “Or maybe just Godseye; we’re still deciding. Either should be catchy. Ever watched any ghost hunting shows before? You know—intrepid spirit investigators staying in haunted places and screaming at whatever’s there to scream back?” Goatee doesn’t take coffee. He’s got another bottle of beer on hand, though I’ve already seen him drink four today.
“There have always been ghosts,” I say. “Even when there’s no one around to see.”
“Yeah, but now there’re cameras and CGI to monetize the shit out of them. You’re in luck, kid. Hemslock’s the best screamer in the business. Made ghost reality shows cool again. He had a couple of setbacks the last few years, but they’re throwing big money behind him this time.”
I know little of Hollywood, but I know directors are usually involved and hear no mention of one for this production.
“That’s not uncommon with these types of shows. Hemslock made his name with the solo survivalist format—you know, the ones where you do all your own filming on a handheld camera, pretending you’re the only one there? That’s his brand—him versus the world—so it’s par for the course. Twenty years ago, he would go this solo. But he’s a big name nowadays, so we’re here taking the risks for him first.”
“You’re friends with him?”
“Dunno if friend is the right word. Colleague, drinking partner. Know some of his family. Southern boy. His ma’s big on church. Dad served in ’Nam. Joe—that’s his younger brother—died in a car accident. Some uncles and aunts he likes to talk about—an Aunt Elle who was arrested for fraud and an Uncle Mal who was in the Irish mob or something. He always said he got his bravado from his uncle.”
Goatee looks around at the crew working. “That group’s gonna check the caves, figure out which caverns we can film. Then there are the cameramen for interviews, for following Hemslock, and for whatever B-roll footage we haven’t gotten already. Light and sound guys to make everything watchable. Editors to make sure shit makes sense, figure out if we need more footage. Most are gonna head back to the mainland before filming begins. Hemslock wants as few people around for that as possible.”
Some of the crew members are watching videos of Hemslock on his previous shows in the mess hall when I enter. Hemslock is a large man with a head of yellow hair and pale skin tanned from the sun. In one video, his hair is long and disheveled, and his beard is full, as he screams inside a temple in Cambodia for Khmer Rouge spirits to come and assault him. In another he is clean shaven with a crew cut, sitting in darkness inside a castle while making demands for unseen things to curse him. In one more he is being forced out of a shrine by several irate priests. Hemslock is shouting, accusing the priests of harassment.
“Kinda ironic,” says one of the show’s editors, a dark-skinned man who wears a wide-brimmed straw hat. “Considering all that shit that went down with him after this aired.”
“He doesn’t respect sacred places,” I say from behind them.
The two crew members jump, their fear melting into relief when they see me.
“Don’t sneak up on us like that!” a redheaded woman gasps.
“Causing outrage in sacred places is what made him popular,” Straw Hat explains. “People eat this up.”
Reuben Hemslock, as it turned out, is not his real name. They tell me that it is Paul Grossman, and that two years ago, eighteen women, including a few ex-girlfriends, stepped forward to accuse him of longstanding abuse. He has since taken a two years’ sabbatical to distance himself from the scandal; this show will mark his return.
“Of course it turns my stomach,” the redhead says. “But this is my paycheck. I’ve got three kids. I’m not going to risk my job for anything. Besides, I’m heading home when they arrive. Hemslock wants a skeleton crew, which is real bullshit because they’re keeping the chefs.”
Goatee takes a much more relaxed stance regarding Hemslock. He’s drinking again, this time from a bottle of Red Horse, a local beer he must have brought from the city. “You get a lot of enemies when you’re famous,” he explains, after a long pull. His eyes are slightly unfocused. His fingers shake with the natural tremors of an unrepentant alcoholic. “That’s what happened to Hemslock. These women want to make money off knowing him. Their tell-all books, talk show slots. But people have shit memories; dangle some new celebrity bait, and they’ll forget the scandals soon enough. They’ll forget this one, too.”
“What are their names?” I ask.
“Beats me. I think one’s an Audrey and maybe there’s a Jill? Main girlfriend is Gail Merkan. D-list actor.”
“Hey, wait,” Straw Hat says. “Weren’t there rumors that Gail Merkan was visiting Cebu or something? Isn’t that the next island—”
“That’s all rumors. Tabloids getting a slow news day, trying to bait us into making a statement.”
“If these women are making accusations for the fame,” I ask, “then why doesn’t anyone remember their names?”
Goatee scowls at me. “Yeah well, he makes money, and that’s what we’re here for. I’ve worked with him on other projects. He’s fine. No idea what those bitches are going on about.”
“You’ll probably like Chase better,” Melissa says cheerfully. “He’s a celebrity, too. Sort of.”
“Leo Gries’s son. Content creator or social media influencer or whatever. He’s pretty popular.” Melissa types on her phone then, grinning, shows me a video of a good-looking, shirtless boy wearing skimpy shorts and a plastic horse’s head, tap dancing to music. “He got almost twenty million views from this alone and literally put “I Need a Hero” back on the billboard charts. He got some publicity for the horse head, but he’s such a big goofball that it’s hard not to like him.”
I don’t claim to understand the logic behind the video’s popularity, but Askal seems to enjoy it, letting out staccato yips in time to the beat.
I hope Goatee is right, and that many of the crew will leave once shooting starts. There are far too many strangers on this island.
Two weeks before filming officially begins, a team of scientists explores the cave. I sit on a nearby rock and watch as they disappear inside. Askal seats all fifteen pounds of himself on my lap and barks. “They’ll be all right,” I tell him.
The sands feel soft underneath me. The nearby balete sway against some unseen wind. I watch their branches ripen; tiny makahiya leaves unfurl along their length. They are tiny and segmented like small feathers, and while they have no flower heads, the plants on this island can grow several feet long, resembling creeping ivy. I heard some of the scientists ponder taking samples; makahiya don’t normally thrive on balete. Most things don’t.
Makahiya close on its own from external stimuli, like when it’s been touched. There is no one else nearby, but I watch the slender leaves fold in on themselves anyway, one after the other, as if caressed by something unseen.
One of the larger buds opens; something oddly familiar winks at me from within before the bud seals itself up again.
Soon, the scientists return. “It’s breathtaking,” one says excitedly, as they brief the rest of the team on their findings. “We’ve found writing to corroborate both Cortes’s and Key’s journals. We marked off areas inside. Make sure Mr. Hemslock and his team don’t go farther than that. But he’ll love what we’ve found. There may be a few more closed-off caverns in there, but we couldn’t find a way to get in. Incidentally—Gerry, the maps those plane crash investigators provided were completely inaccurate. It’s almost like they explored a different cave system.”
“They seemed reliable,” Hawaiian Shirt says. “Let me double check. They didn’t find anything out of the ordinary when they were inside, either.”
“None of you tell Hemslock,” Goatee says dryly. “He wants to pretend like he’s the first to discover everything.” He takes another gulp of his beer—and then starts in surprise.
The bottle in his hand shatters.
“Jesus Christ, Karl!” The scientist moves away from the broken glass.
Goatee stares at something within the dense patch of trees just several meters from camp, and I see a glimpse of something moving within the copse.
A woman. Long brown hair, pale skin. She stares unblinkingly at him. The rest of her is hidden behind the gnarled lower branches of a tree; only her face is visible.
There is something odd about the way she tilts her head.
“Get me another drink,” Goatee says hoarsely.
“Karl? You, okay?” The scientist persists.
The figure is gone when I look back. Goatee rips his gaze away.
“No,” he says, voice trembling, only slightly slurred from the alcohol. “Does it look like I’ve ever been okay?”
And then he grabs another bottle from his assistant and downs its contents, until every drop is gone.
It isn’t long before there’s another sighting, and the rumors begin. The witnesses, this time, are the redhead with the kids and the Panera Lady.
“We thought someone on the team was injured, so we called out,” Panera Lady says, still shaking like a leaf. “Someone was staggering around like they were drunk. We thought it was Karl. We walked toward it—and then it turned and—and—”
“It had no face!” the assistant editor bursts out. “Like—you’ve seen Texas Chainsaw Massacre, right? Like Leatherface.”
“Exactly! Its face was peeling off, and it was naked—”
Hawaiian Shirt raises his hands. “Well, what do you want me to do about that? Write it up for HR to sanction? Did it attack?”
“No,” Panera Lady falters. “It disappeared. I can’t stay here, Gerry. I want out, I want—”
“Look. Supernatural sightings are great for PR, but there aren’t really any ghosts. People see all kinds of weird crap out in the boondocks. I know you’re both scared, but my hands are tied till Hemslock gets here. Tasha, you’ll be off the island soon, so hold on till then. Don’t let Gries make it hard for you—he’s fired people for less.”
Theirs is not the only report made. The number of sightings grows as the days pass, giving Hawaiian Shirt more reason to worry. Something with tangled, dark hair skulking among the trees. Naked. And yet somehow not naked, either. No face that anyone could remember.
Until they could.
In the space of a day, the accounts shift again. There is a face, and it’s the face of a cameraman’s father, dead for years. It’s the face of a staff writer’s estranged brother, a production coordinator’s best friend, a gaffer’s school bully. The sightings last no longer than a few seconds. All happen within the vicinity of camp.
Frustrated, Hawaiian Shirt cancels filming for the day and sends everyone back to their tents. There are no new reports the next day, but one of the generators stops working, and it takes another half a day to fix. In the afternoon, one of the water tanks produces greenish, bracken-like fluid for an hour before reverting to normal. A check reveals nothing has been tampered with.
Next there’s a scream in the middle of taping. It unnerves the crew, and this time Hawaiian Shirt hears it as well. The safety team does a check. Everyone is accounted for. No one claims responsibility.
“Are there animals on the island?” Hawaiian Shirt asks me, trying his best to act calm though it is clear he’s unnerved.
“Only insects and fish. And Askal.”
Askal barks importantly.
“It was a woman’s scream, wasn’t it? Wasn’t that what you mentioned hearing before? When we first met?”
“Equipment breaks down all the time, so that’s to be expected. But some are claiming they’ve seen the ghosts of their grandpa or people who should be dead. What’s that all about? How is that related to the screams?”
“Should I tell you now,” I ask dryly, “or wait for the cameras?”
I am not expecting him to take me up on the offer.
Soon Hawaiian Shirt is hollering at the cameramen, for the light technicians to work their magic, for assistants to pin a mic on me and make sure they can hear every word. Askal dances in and around their legs, excited by the flurry of activity.
“All right,” Hawaiian Shirt says, determined, once everything has been set up. “You can answer now. What’s the deal with all these so-called sightings?”
I try to ignore the camera pointed at my face. “It’s the Diwata’s way of testing people, to see if they’re worthy.”
“Worthy of what?”
“Of being sacrificed. If you’re one of the eight deaths that he’s looking for. The ones who are kind—he won’t harm them. The ones who are not—” I pause. “If you’ve done your research, you would have known this already.”
“Have you ever had sightings like the ones my crew has been experiencing?”
I take a deep breath, not knowing why I am being so honest. “Not my own, no. But I see everyone else’s. I know you’re going to dismiss this as nothing more than superstition, but I’m telling you that the legend is just as real as you and me. And while I may not agree with your reasons for coming here, I don’t want to see any of you harmed, either. Kisapmata is dangerous, and you should start treating it as such.”
Hawaiian Shirt gazes steadily at me for a few more seconds. I can tell that he’s more worried now, but he shakes it off.
“Nice work,” he says. “We got all that, Rich? Do you mind saying everything again but in Tagalog, so we can decide the better version to air later?”
Hawaiian Shirt seems happy to pass off the visions as a form of mass hysteria. The psychologists on the team mandate that those who’ve had an encounter schedule an appointment with them.
Goatee, I notice, never reports his own experiences.
The VIPs reach the island two weeks later. The ship that brings them to shore is a bangka larger than mine, large enough for tours but small enough to get close to the shallower shoals. It anchors beside a small wooden pier built for the production. A dozen people climb out; they look around with curiosity, a few with distaste.
The first out is a man in his fifties wearing a suit despite the hot summer day. He glances about with misgivings, shaking off someone’s attempt to guide him to the sand. “This is an Armani,” he snaps. “Wash your damn hands first.”
Reuben Hemslock arrives with eight men dressed in military fatigues and camouflage, all visibly armed. They hover around him like a moving barricade, stopping others from getting too close. Hawaiian Shirt quietly assures the surprised crew that this is normal, because Hemslock has specific stipulations for them in his contract. A flex in Hawaiian Shirt’s jaw also tells me that some other clause has been broken, nonetheless.
“He’s been in a few movies, you know,” Goatee murmurs, words slightly slurred. “Ever seen them? Infinite Space? The Fight at the End of the World? That recent Star Trek movie? He’s done a few popular roles in television, too. Best Served Cold? The Con-In-Laws?”
I shake my head.
“You’re missing out. He’s been nominated for several awards, for Infinite Space especially. He started out with reality documentaries, but it turns out he’s a pretty great actor, too.”
Reuben Hemslock is exactly what his shows depict him as—a six-foot-six-inch-tall behemoth of a man, with a handsome, smiling face. He wears no beard this time, and his sunglasses obscure his eyes. He strides down the wooden planks with an air of self-possession, surveying the shore like he owns the island and has come to collect taxes. The crew members applaud as he walks past—even Hawaiian Shirt and Goatee. Reuben Hemslock bows theatrically, his ponytail curling down one side of his neck.
“Appreciate the welcome. Who’s ready to make an award-winning documentary with me?” he shouts, and more cheers greet his call.
“And who’s this?” the actor soon asks, spotting me. Unlike the others, I do not clap.
“Name’s, uh,” Hawaiian Shirt taps rapidly on his phone to check. “I’ve got the signed contract here—yeah. Alon. Alon Budhi. Our official tour guide for the rest of the season. Dog here’s named Askal—Az for short—but we haven’t bothered asking him to sign.”
“Here’s a tip for you, kid,” Reuben says. “Az is a crappy name for a dog. The other dogs are gonna kick his az if they haven’t already.” He chuckles at his joke. I don’t. “Is this who we’ve been trying to find?”
“Yeah. Fishing nearby, if you can believe that. Knows more about the lore than anyone else and is willing to tell us on camera. We’re waiting for Steve before we get the whole story, but kid’s been inside the cave before. Eighteen years old, but dunno if we’d be all right filming a teen inside the Godseye. Legal tells us it’s all good, but optics-wise it’s dodgy, might get us some pushback.”
“Nah,” Reuben says. “Eighteen’s an adult. If Alon here wants to come into the Godseye with us, then the kid’s got every right to. And how many of these folks would kill for a chance to be on an American show? You agree, Alon?”
“If you say so, sir.”
“See? I’m gonna crash for a bit at my cabin. Partied too much at Austen’s last night. Why didn’t anyone tell me it was gonna take fifteen hours to get to this goddamn island?”
“Reuben,” Hawaiian Shirt says, smile fading from his face. “You promised you’d stop drinking. The press is already on your case for the rehabs, plus all that other news. I don’t think you should be—”
Reuben yawns. “We’ll talk about this later. After dinner. Where’s my trailer?”
Hawaiian Shirt rubs the bridge of his nose after the actor departs, his bodyguards trailing closely after. “You said he was going to clean himself up,” he says to another man, the one wearing the Armani suit. “He’s not taking off those shades because his eyes are bloodshot, right?”
“There’s no paparazzi here to photograph his drinking bouts, Gerry. How bad could it be? Give him a day to wind down, and he’ll be good to go. If you can handle Karl, surely you can handle Hemslock.”
“We can’t afford any more scandals.”
“I’ve been his work partner for years. We fended off those hysterical women months ago. This is nothing.”
“Bodyguards all look ex-mercenary to me. He said he was bringing in four people, not eight. Who does he think is gonna attack him here?”
“He paid them all on his own dime, so why not?” Armani looks back, as another man joins them. “Leo, the cabins for you and your son should be that way.”
“Thank you,” the newcomer says, stretching. Unlike the man in the suit, he wears a casual polo shirt and long khaki pants. His hair is graying, and his face naturally tanned but tired. “This is…a lot less gloomy than I expected.”
At his side is a boy my age with yellow hair and bright green eyes, looking like he dressed for a beach party but caught the wrong boat. He’s carrying a suitcase over his shoulder, oddly enough. He holds his phone in the air, grinning widely at it, and I realize he’s taking a picture of himself.
“Dad, you didn’t tell me this was literally in the middle of nowhere,” he said, finally lowering it to blink at us.
“You said you wanted to take a break from home, Chase, so this is that. I told you this wasn’t going to be a five-star resort.”
The boy turns to look at me and nearly trips. His suitcase falls, and I reach out without thinking—and then grunt when the weight nearly sends me to the ground. The boy grabs it back with a sheepish grin, one hand holding the suitcase like it weighs nothing while the other helps me balance. He’s stronger than he looks. “Sorry,” he says. He takes another look at me, and his eyes widen. “I just, ah—hi! Who are you?”
“This is Alon,” Hawaiian Shirt says. “Our tour guide.”
“A tour guide?” The boy asks, sounding genuinely confused. He stares at me like I’ve grown another arm. “But I can walk around this island in like an hour.”
“Chase, show some respect,” his father says sternly. “It’s very nice to meet you, Alon. This is my son, Chase. My name is Leo Gries. I’m the co-executive producer for this show. It’s been a lovely visit so far. We stayed in Cebu for a couple of nights before coming here to Kisapmata, and I was so very charmed by the people there. I hope we’re compensating you well for this?”
“It’s been difficult to find anyone local willing to tell us about this island.”
“The island doesn’t look cursed,” Chase says, still in wonder. “Have you seen those waves? U-uh, Alon, right?”
Gries smiles at me, then shoots an exasperated look at his son. “Chase.”
“Sorry, sorry. It’s just—I know you told me about a curse, but I thought you guys were just gonna magic it all up in the studio. You mean, for real this is a cursed island?”
“Your son’s right,” says Armani. “We’ll have to put some darker tones in, maybe a blue filter to set the mood. It doesn’t look haunted if it’s always this sunny.” He shoves his suitcase into my hands. “Here. And get some coffee ready for me.”
“Steve!” Leo Gries grabs the bag and shoves it back at the other man. “Alon isn’t the hired help!”
Armani shrugs. “Well, my cabin’s on the left. That’s where I expect it to be by the time I get there.”
“This is Steve Galant,” Hawaiian Shirt says, with lesser enthusiasm. “Another of the show’s executive producers.”
Armani scrutinizes me. “So you’re the kid Gerry’s been going on about? Your English’s impressive.”
“Steve!” Gries exclaims once again.
Melissa takes the suitcase and shoots me an apologetic look as she lugs it away.
Armani laughs, pats me on the back. “I’m kidding. If Gerry’s right, you’re gonna be the hidden star of this show. Just don’t tell Hemslock I said that. We’re gonna talk shop at dinner. Stay and eat with us. I’d like to pick your brain about this place.”
Leo Gries turns back to me when Armani leaves. “Can you give us an idea why so many of the people living nearby have refused to tell us anything about Kisapmata?”
“At least fifteen people have already died on this island, sir. The people here do not want to be blamed for any more deaths.”
“Fifteen?” Chase breathes. “And it’s not like, drownings or shark attacks? Like people were murdered? Even though no one actually lives here?”
His father sighs. “Yes, Chase. Actual murders took place here. If you’d read the articles I gave you, you would have known that. The murder of the poor woman by that cult is the one we want more information about. We’ve been asking for any related documents from the municipalities for months, but they only shrug and say they can’t find any. Likely destroyed by now, they said.”
“A woman’s murder?” Chase echoes nervously. “Cult?”
“Apparently there was an active cult here a couple of decades ago. They were supposedly killed on the island before they could be arrested, but all we’ve found are rumors and secondhand accounts. No official case reports. I’ve been hoping that we could find someone here willing to talk. Do you know anything about this, Alon?”
I shake my head.
Askal ambles toward Chase, sensing his nervousness. The boy absently reaches down and scratches him behind the ears. “Nice dog,” he says. “Is he yours?”
“Some lab mix?”
“Maybe. We don’t pay much attention to pedigrees here.”
Chase smiles, and it transforms his face. The worry in his brow eases and he appears more relaxed. “Heya, Askal. You’re a cute fella, just like—”
He stops and turns red. Askal yips happily and licks at his hands.
Hawaiian Shirt shoves his into his pants pockets and sighs.
“We’ve got more problems,” he says. “Did Cameron tell you the local first responders won’t be coming if we run into any emergencies? That we gotta fly in our own medics? They really hate this island.”
“They don’t hate it,” I say.
“Could have fooled me.”
“They aren’t fearful of the curse. They’re afraid of what all of you might do while you’re here.”
A soft indrawn breath from Leo Gries. “Then why are you helping us? Why aren’t you warning us away like the others?”
“I’ve walked this island many times before. I’ve fished in its waters. I am familiar with the island’s ghosts, and they are familiar with me. My countrymen will be blamed if anything happens to any of you. My presence might help.”
“You are very kind. Thank you.”
“We’re not going to be intimidated by some old wives’ tales,” Hawaiian Shirt says. “We stand to make a lot of money from this show if we get the ratings we’re after—or at least if we make it good enough for the network to give us a bigger push.” He grins at me. “And when we do, we’ll give you a bonus, Alon, and a nice treat for your dog, too. We’ll finish out this season, whatever happens.”
No sooner are the words out of his mouth than we hear a horrific crash.
The sound comes from the direction of the cabins.
I sprint toward the site before the rest of them can react. Crew members flee, screaming.
By the time I arrive, the damage has already been done.
One of the pre-fab cabins is gone, fallen into a sinkhole that has appeared, seemingly out of nowhere—a perfect circle on the ground, a mimicry of one of the many machines that the builders used for construction.
An ancient monstrosity stands at its center. A tree without a trunk. It is, instead, a fortress of webbed roots and slim ivy-like coils climbing up the pre-fab’s foundation to spread its ossified tree branches. They reach up greedily, as if to claw at the sky above with their gnarled fingers.
Crew members gather at the edge of the sinkhole, unable to look away. Someone screams and points toward the thickness of the strange, twisted mass within the dead tree.
Within the cobweb of branches, a body lies huddled; its head is thrown back, and its mummified mouth is twisted open in an endless, soundless scream.
Excerpted from The Sacrifice, copyright © 2022 by Rin Chupeco