Night's chill breath whispered across the woodland and licked the pines with ice and flicked snow throughout until they looked like tombstones rising in the moonlight.
Two hikers, packs on backs, made their way through the ankle-deep snow, stopped to observe and rest less than fifty feet from an old weather-beaten house. The two-story structure creaked in the wind. The moon draped shadows like gaunt, clutching fingers across it.
The female hiker, long red hair appearing strawberry in the moonlight, snow resting in it like powdered sugar, said, "That's the place, Kevin." She shifted her pack for comfort.
"Creepy enough," Kevin said. "You know, Dag, you get some crazy notions. How long's this shack been in your family?"
"It's not exactly a shack, Kevin. Old, yes. But a shack? No. There was a house here on this site before the Civil War. Not this one, but a house. I believe this one was built in the early 1900s, but don't quote me on that. But, you don't like the view, so let's get inside. It's cold."
Kevin smiled, pushed at his unruly brown hair with a gloved hand. "You're the one that wanted to rough it a little. So don't say it's cold. 'Any fool can hike in the springtime,' you said. 'Where's your sense of adventure?' Remember?"
"I remember," Dag said. "I wasn't cold then. I meant it would be more exciting."
"The word's cold, not exciting."
"All right. If you want to go home, there's the trail ... somewhere beneath the snow."
"You've got me trapped," Kevin said grinning. "Guess I'll have to go through with it."
"Thought you might, tenderfoot. Besides," Dag said, showing him a narrow smile, "I thought we might be able to think of something to do besides sleep. Something to wile away the time, help us forget the cold."
Kevin looked curious. "You brought cards?"
Dag slapped his shoulder playfully. Her gloved hand popped up flecks of snow from his thick flannel coat. "Silly. C'mon. The snow is nearly to our butts."
Laughing they trudged toward the house.
The wind picked up, blew a gusty popsicle wind against them, chewed through their clothes and pricked their flesh with goose bumps.
The house, a cold, gray corpse, capped and slashed with white, rattled its termite-riddled bones.
When they were on the long encircling porch, Kevin said, "This is the damnedest snowstorm I've seen for this part of the country. It's really getting deep out there." He slung his pack off his shoulder. "This porch go all the way around?"
"All the way," Dag said, and she removed a key from her jeans pocket.
"You keep this old joint locked?"
"For what good it does. It's been in the family for years. Some pretty nice antiques in here. That's why all the windows are boarded up. Even have an old Edison in here with those big thick platter-looking records."
"What a treat."
"No sense of history," Dag said, and she unlocked the door. It was as dark as the sea bottom inside.
"Charming," Kevin said, and he took out his flashlight. They went inside, Kevin led with the light, slashed at clinging cobwebs and swirling dust.
"Damn," Dag said as she thrashed cobwebs from her face and hair. "You're supposed to knock them out of the way, not on me!"
"Pardon me, Masser Dag ... God, but it's dark in here, and cold as a polar bear's foot."
"It's the high ceilings that do it," Dag said. "Hard as hell to heat."
Dag slipped off her pack and frame, leaned them against the wall; Kevin, who had been carrying his in his hand, tossed it next to Dag's pack.
Dag bent over her pack and removed a Coleman and a handful of candles. She lit the candles, and with Kevin guiding her with the flashlight, placed them about the room in a circle. They lit the candles on the old fireplace mantle last.
"Don't throw out a lot of light, do they?" Kevin said.
"Reddi Kilowatt they're not," Dag agreed.
"And they smell funny."
"Tell you what," Kevin said. "I'll go out and see if I can scrape up a bit of firewood. Provided I can find something that isn't snow covered."
"There's a little shed out back. Used to be a pump house. There's some wood there. Some of it might be rotten, but it'll do for tonight, throw off a little light and heat."
"Sounds like my best bet."
"No, I'll stay here and make sure these cheap candles don't go out."
"Don't talk to any ghost while I'm gone."
"Don't even say that, Kevin."
"Hey, sweetheart. This was your idea."
"Don't remind me. Go on before I tag along in your shoes."
Kevin kissed her on the forehead, said, "Right back."
He went outside and around to the old pump house. The wind howled through the pines like a dying wolf.
The fire crackled pleasantly. Kevin and Dag sat together, Kevin's flannel jacket draped over their knees. Strobe shadows and orange-red glints filled their faces.
"Not so bad, huh?" Dag said resting her head on Kevin's shoulder.
"Well, the rooming isn't great, but it isn't as bad as the food."
"Last time I ever buy Spain."
"This old house," said Kevin, "didn't you say something at school about it being haunted?"
"No. I said there was an old legend about it. Not exactly a haunting. No ghost. Let's don't talk about it. I'd forgotten about it."
"Crying out loud. You talk me into this and won't even tell me the ghost story that goes with it?"
"It's a silly story."
"It'll entertain me."
"Roll out those bedrolls and I'll entertain you!"
Kevin laughed, took Dag's hand. "Come on, tell me."
Dag sighed, lifted her head from his shoulder. "It's just a bunch of nonsense. It'll give you nightmares. Worse yet, it'll give me nightmares and I'm the one that thought up this screwy idea."
"The cold does take some of the charm out."
"Very well. You talked me into this, so that puts you on the spot. Dag, spill the story."
"All right, but it's screwy. My grandfather, who owned this house last, was as rich as they come. He could do what he damned well pleased. He pleased to explore the world, and did. Down in South America he found Huitzilopochtli, or so he claimed."
"Huitzilopochtli. Let me tell you a bit of the background behind that. It helps for understanding the story."
"Are you making this up?"
Dag held up her hand. "Girl Scout's honor. This is for the family legend. I've heard it all my life. I was interested in it enough to do some reading on it. There really isn't much about Huitzilopochtli, or witchy-wolves, as the Spanish called him. As far as I can tell the witchy-wolves stuff had nothing to do with werewolves and that sort of thing. Some other connotation altogether.
"The Aztec, as the Spanish called them, supposedly, early in their history, found in a grotto an idol. This idol was Huitzilopochtli, and through the idol a god lived. The god offered the Aztec advice. It was a constant oracle if they would satisfy certain conditions. They were to carry the idol with them like a banner and feed it on fresh hearts ripped from the breast of recently sacrificed victims. This was part of the Aztec preoccupation with human sacrifice, the satisfaction of Huitzilopochtli."
"And your uncle found Huitzilopochtli?"
"So goes the legend. After the Spanish came and destroyed the Aztec, the idol was hidden, and eventually when its keepers died it was forgotten. Without human sacrifices it became nothing more than stone again.
"While exploring some ancient caves my uncle came upon the idol. All this was recorded in his diary. What happened after the discovery of the idol was also recorded, and when his diary was read it was determined he claimed the idol made him a promise."
"He claimed the idol made him a promise..."
"The same promise it made the Aztec. He brought the idol home with him. Here. Used it to make things better for himself than they were. Not that he needed it. He was rich, remember? But you see, the neighbors started missing."
"I got it. He was killing them for Huitzilopochtli."
"On the dot. He kept a diary of it all. How he killed them and flayed their skin to wear as a robe."
"In this very house he killed and cut the hearts out of his victims. The diary goes into great detail. It tells how he fed them to the idol, a small black statue not over six-inches high with a leering face, ruby-red eyes, and one of its hands holding an upturned plate."
"That's where the heart went, and once it was placed there, still dripping blood, the statue would begin to come to life. The diary tells how its eyes would be the first thing to reveal its life. Blood red they would become, and then the statue, plate and all, would grow to the height of eight feet."
"Jesus, that's one tall tale. He was losing his marbles!"
"When the heart was devoured, the statue would return to normal size."
"Right. Well, it was never entirely lifeless. Just limited in mobility."
"Why the skins? Why did he flay the victims?"
"That was another part of the Aztec custom. To flay the victims and wear the skin to impersonate a deity."
"What happened to your grandfather?"
"That's the interesting part. He went to prison. For one night he was in the middle of one of his ceremonies when the law broke down the door. They found grandfather wearing the unfortunate victim's skin. The body was on the floor, it's chest torn open."
"Nowhere to be found."
"Then it was all in his mind?"
"The victim's heart was never found either, and according to legend, there were deep grooves dug in the wooden floor planks as if by something heavy being dragged across it."
"Huitzilopochtli making his escape."
"The scrapes got smaller outside, and they said they tracked the scrapes for some distance till they disappeared into a stream. They dragged the stream a couple of times, but decided the current must have carried it out to the river."
"And your grandfather? You said he went to prison for awhile."
"He did. He began to age radically. You see he was 65 then and looked 40. He'd looked 40 ever since he found the idol. He claimed that was part of his agreement with the god. Fresh hearts for eternal life and youth.
"He spent about six months in jail and looked 70 by the end of that time, and then, by a stroke of luck he managed to escape."
"They catch him?"
"Never even saw him again. But legend goes that some folks saw him, and that he was as young as before, and the story goes on to say that when the heat died down he came back here, and off and on, it's been his headquarters."
"And the diary?"
"The police took it, turned it over to the family eventually. That's how we all know about it."
Dag nodded. "But you have to admit, eternal life is quite a prize."
"I suppose," Kevin agreed.
That night they made love and Kevin could not remember it ever being so passionate. Not even the first time when the thrill of sneaking into her dorm room added to the pleasure. This was something else altogether. Hot, unrestrained passion.
When they were through he slept with Dag close in his arms, her sweet breath tickling his flesh.
It was the smell of the candles that first alerted him to wakefulness, and then the sound of chanting.
He blinked. Dag was gone. He raised up on one elbow, and gasped. Before the fireplace, back turned, was a figure, and on the figure's back was a tattered skin. Enough of it remained so that there was no doubt as to what type of skin. It was human flesh. Through rips and rents in the skin the flesh of another showed. It was from this figure the chanting came.
And as Kevin watched, frozen, the figure turned.
It was a man, about 40. But the eyes were much older, and very wicked. Kevin found the courage to struggle out of his bedroll and to his feet.
The man moved toward him. Kevin could see that the face of the skin was thrown back like a hood. The man reached up and took it, pulling it down over his face.
He turned quickly. Behind him, wearing the same ghoulish garb as the old man, was Dag.
"Dag ... What?" And then he noticed what was in her hand and what set on the floor beside her.
"Eternity is worth most anything," Dag said and she lunged toward him with the obsidian knife.
He had just enough time to scream before the old man grabbed his hair and Dag planted the dagger in his chest. But before the blade ripped his heart free, the thing that had been at Dag's feet, a little, black, grotesque statuette, moved on stone legs and feet toward him. In one hand, balanced in the middle of its palm, it held a black, obsidian plate.
"Huitzilopochtli" was originally published in 1980 ... and don't ask me where it was originally published. It later appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent, a collection of Lansdale's short stories published in a limited-edition hardcover by Subterranean Press. "Huitzilopochtli" © 1980 Joe R. Lansdale.
Strap on your gear and hike on back here Thursday, March 14, for more Mojo excitement!