The Lesser

“You wouldn’t last three days,” is what Wesley said to Julius when speaking on the subject of survival. They had been sitting on the couch in their apartment watching one of those survival reality shows when Julius made a comment about surviving in the wild being easy. Julius laughed at his friend’s doubt and gave him a shove. “B******t. I’d last longer than you, bro.”

Wesley and Julius met through a mutual friend one summer and they just clicked from the start. Wesley was a vibrant soul who could get a laugh out of anything and always found joy in challenging his friends. At the age of 19, he was 5’9 and well built with short blonde hair and blue eyes. Julius was the opposite. A year older than Wesley, he was 5’7 and a little on the heavy side with blue eyes and shaggy reddish-brown hair. Before meeting Wesley, he was always the quiet one. He didn’t get out much, preferring to sit in his room playing video games. He didn’t like to be seen as weak, though, so he was always ready for the challenges his friends came up with.

“You really think you could survive in the woods for a week without food and water? You wouldn’t last four days.” Wesley gave a sly grin followed by a chuckle, which usually meant he was about to make a crack at you. “What’s so funny? Another fat joke, Wes? That gets old, you need some new material.” “Okay, fine,” Wesley said in a voice broken by his laughter, “I dare you to spend four days out in the Beckler Woods with only the essentials. You won’t.” You won’t. In this friendship, those two words are all you had to say to make sure the other would go through with something. It was basically a challenge of manhood.

“Watch me. When I come back, you have to buy my weed for a month.” “F**k that. You smoke too much. I’ll buy your beer, though.” “Deal.” Wesley smacked his hands together and rubbed them quickly creating heat with the friction. This was something he did when he got excited, which was quite often. Julius grinned as he went to the bathroom to relieve himself. He was happy with the deal. He liked beer better anyway, and he knew he could last four days in the woods. Piece of cake.”

Julius got up early the next morning to collect the few things he would be taking with him. A machete, a gallon jug for water which he filled ahead of time, a lighter, some rope, and a tactical knife. He put them all in his backpack and sat down on the couch to smoke a blunt. It would be his last one for a few days “Morning, b***h.” Wesley spoke in a gruffy voice as he emerged from his room stretching his arms above his head. “Let me hit that.” “F**k no, this one’s mine, bro. My last before I head out into the woods to be a badass.” “Or maybe your last one ever,” Wesley responded as he released the rest of the night’s satisfying sleep from his body. “Ha ha, very funny. Come on, let’s go. We need to hurry up so I can find a place to camp.” Julius tossed Wesley the keys to his Jeep and they walked out the door.

Beckler Woods covered the vast majority of Coleshire, the small town where Julius and Wesley lived, and spread out across the county. Many people were known to get lost in these woods and most were never found, but that was decades ago. Most people just avoided them now out of fear, so he would be without human contact for four days. This was okay with Julius, since he preferred to be alone.

The drive to the entry point was spent smoking and singing along with stoner-rap music. It was in the afternoon when they finally reached their destination. “Here we are. If you want to back out, you better do it now,” Wesley chuckled, ready to spit out jokes if Julius changed his mind. “Hell no. I’m doin’ this s**t.” Julius hopped out of the passenger side of the Jeep and slung his backpack onto both shoulders. He shut the door and turned around, leaning through the window. “Don’t wreck my Jeep, f****r.” “I’ll try my best to wreck it,” Wesley snorted out as he threw his head back in laughter. “For real, Wes. Be careful with it, you maniac.” “I will, man. You should be worrying about yourself. See you on the flip side.”

Just like that, Julius was on his own. He watched Wes drive off and turned around to start his journey. As he entered the woods, he kissed his lucky coin necklace that he never took off. “I think I’m going to enjoy this.”

He took his first steps through the tree line with a smile on his face. He knew he would win the bet. The way he saw it, he had watched enough survivor shows to know what he was doing. He knew he had to find a place to set up camp before sundown, so he didn’t plan on stopping until he found a good spot. It was near the end of Autumn and almost all the leaves had fallen from the trees. This was when he thought the trees were most beautiful.

He was absolutely loving the freedom that came with this idea. He was feeling more relaxed than ever walking through the woods, listening to the dead leaves crunching beneath his feet. It took him approximately two hours to find a nice clearing, now being around 5:00pm. “Yes, this will be perfect.” It would be getting dark soon, so he began clearing the leaves from the area and collecting fire wood. It took him a minute to get the fire going, but he was proud of his accomplishment after the fact. He had already eaten before starting his journey, so he wasn’t concerned much with finding food that night. Besides, he snuck a box of granola bars into the pack when Wes wasn’t looking, along with two cans of beans. So what if I’m cheating? He thought. It’s not like he’s out here doing this.

As he sat by the fire keeping warm, listening to the crickets, he realized he was bored. “Damn, should’ve brought a book or something.” After rocking back and forth and humming one of his favorite tunes for about ten minutes, he noticed the silence. No more crickets. The only sound being the occasional breeze blowing through the naked trees. “Okay, that’s kinda creepy,” he whispered to himself. He decided this would be a good time to get some rest, but not until after he enjoyed the last thing he snuck into his bag. A pipe and a small bag of marijuana.

He chuckled with excitement as he pulled it out, along with the water. “Gotta love nature, man.” He broke a bud apart and packed it down into the pipe. The first hit was amazing. This was some good s**t. After a few more hits, he was feeling good and the pipe was empty. “Nature in nature, HaHa, nature in nature.” He just couldn’t get over how awesome this was. He was thirsty now and took several swigs from the jug of water he had brought with him. He almost choked when he heard a frightening yipping sound in the distance. He slowly lowered the jug and put the lid back on. He heard it again, coming from another direction. All around him, he began to hear the yips of a pack of coyotes.

He quickly grabbed the machete attached to his pack and backed up against a tree. He heard the crunching of leaves coming from every direction, getting closer and closer. “Man, I’m too high for this s**t,” he whispered in a quivering voice. Yipping, crunching, closer and closer. He began to accept his fate and decided he would take at least one of them down with him. As he was about to let out his battle cry, he heard something much more sinister. Something that sobered him up the instant he heard it. It sounded like what you would imagine a pterodactyl sounding like, mixed with the cry of an enraged ape. This caused the pack of coyotes to yelp and scatter, and run in the opposite direction of Julius. He was more frightened by the noise that saved him. He heard it again, followed by the cracking of tree branches. He sat down and coward up against the tree nearest to the fire, hoping whatever it was would ignore him.

The fire was getting low and since he had not heard anything except the occasional twig break, he decided to get up and feed the flames. He just wanted it to last long enough for the sun to give enough light for him to get the hell out of there. He was too afraid to sleep, but had dozed off several times. The only issue was every time he started to slip into the dream world, he would hear something that would wake him right back up. A twig breaking, leaves crunching, your average sounds in the wilderness now making him jump right back into survival mode. As soon as the sun started to come up, a fog had set in making the whole situation creepier. He collected his things and started to make his way back out of the woods. “F**k the bet,” he thought, “Nothing happens to me if I lose anyway.” He knew his manhood would be questioned if he backed out of it, but Wes didn’t hear what he heard. There was no way he was sticking around to find out what that was. He was still high when he entered the woods the previous day and he was exhausted from lack of sleep, but he was certain he would make his way back out.

He had been walking for forty-five minutes when he started to feel like he was being followed. He stopped by a tree shaped like a Y and turned around to see if he was right. He carefully scanned the ground and the trees before deciding he was being paranoid. Still, he couldn’t help feeling like he was being watched. He sat on the split in the tree and pulled out his water and a can of beans. He didn’t pack anything to open the can with, so he spent at least fifteen minutes trying with the tactical knife. He poured the water out and began to scoop the beans with the knife. He was starving, so they tasted better than they actually were. He bent down to pick up the water and as he looked back up, he saw something in the trees. “What the f**k,” he said before dropping his can of beans. “Damn it, dude.”

As the delicious meal he had been eating was now spread out across the ground in front of him, he returned his attention to the trees, scanning for whatever it was he had just seen. He only caught a glimpse, but it looked like a hairless chimp. Thinner than a chimp, but it definitely had the same features. He was tired of feeling helpless, so he screamed out at the creature. “Back off! Stop following me or I swear to god you’re f*****g dead! You hear me?! Dead!” He collected his things as quickly as he could and grabbed the machete from his pack. He slung the pack over his shoulders and pulled the straps tight so it wasn’t hanging loose in case he had to run.

Gripping the machete tight in his right hand, he walks at a faster pace than earlier. He wanted to get out of there now. While he was turning his head from side to side looking for his stalker, he forgot to look in front of him and stumbled over a root. “Mother-” there it was again. That horrible scream he heard last night. “Oh god,” was all he could say before collecting himself and turning around to see it about a hundred yards away sitting in a tree. Not really sitting, but crouched on tree limb holding itself up on all four extremities.

It just glared at him as he stood there, frozen in place. He was in a staring contest with this creature and just knew he would lose more than the contest if he looked away. It had pale, brownish skin covering its body, including the bony “eyebrows” on its forehead. Its hands and feet looked more like talons than anything. The creature let out a low growl, showing its dog-like teeth before letting out the same ear-piercing scream.

This made Julius turn and run full sprint in the opposite direction. He wasn’t thinking about where he was going, just running from whatever that thing was. He couldn’t even hear the leaves crunching beneath him over the wails of the creature and its claws skinning bark as it leaped from tree to tree.

Before he knew it, the creature blindsided him from the left, knocking the machete out of his hand as he fell to the ground. It started smacking and clawing him on both sides, growling and wailing the whole time as it splattered blood all over the dead vegetation around them. Julius tried reaching for the machete, but the creature jumped off of him before he could get it. He rolls over, wincing from the pain, and lifts his head up to see it running off. It stopped long enough to turn its head to look at him. This was when he saw its eyes.

The sclera was completely bloodshot. It had a greenish hue around the outer part of the iris, with the pinpoint sized pupil surrounded with a pale grayish-blue. It turned its head back around as it leaped back into the trees and disappeared.

Julius was now lying on the ground, several gashes covering his arms and face. He coughed and gagged as he spit out some of his blood. He pulled himself up using a tree and began to look around. He had no idea where he was. He must have took a wrong turn while running from that… thing. He wanted to scream for help, but he was afraid it would return and finish the job.

He washed out the wounds and ripped pieces of his shirt off to cover them up, then sat down as he tried to see where he made a mistake. He knew it wasn’t a smart idea, sitting down where he had just been mauled by what can only be described as a thing, but he was exhausted from lack of sleep and just being attack. He decided to close his eyes, just for a second.

When he woke up, he had no idea how long he had been asleep, but the fog was gone. The sun was shining through the top of the trees and hitting him right in the face. It felt good. It almost made him feel safe, but he knew he had to get up and find his way out. There was no way he would last another day. He tried to push himself up, but fell back down in agony. “Gaahhh! Son of a b***h…” he took a few deep breaths and pulled himself up using a tree. He leaned against it, once again screaming in pain. After taking a few more breaths and few glances around, he realized he forgot to look for markers when he entered the woods the day before. “Some survivalist I am,” he scoffed. He decided to go straight and began limping his way…. further into the woods.

About an hour had passed and Julius was beginning to feel helpless. He found a stick to help him walk, but he had no idea where he was going. Everything looked the same. He didn’t want to stop, but he had to take a rest. He felt like he had not had anything to eat or drink in days. As he scarfed down a few granola bars and chugged his feel of water, he decide to check his wounds. They weren’t bleeding anymore, but they were obviously infected. The area around each one was a bright red color with dark purple tint around it, and small black lines were protruding from it. “Goddamn it, dude. I’m going to die if I don’t make it out of here soon.” With that being said, he pulled himself up with his walking stick and started off in a different direction than before.

“Hey!” Julius felt a lump in his throat and his eyes began to water. Someone found him. “Thank god… Hello?” he said as he wiped the tears from his eyes. “Over here! Can you see me?” He turned to his right to see a man approaching him. “My god, are you okay? What happened to you?” “Please, just get me out of here. I don’t have time to explain, it might come back. Hell, it’s probably still following me.” The man looked at Julius, a confused look on his face. “Look, just sit down, okay? We won’t make it out of here before dark. This is a good spot to set up camp, so if we-” Julius cut him off before he could finish. “No. No, man. We can’t stay here. You don’t understand, we’ll die if we stay.” The man decided to calm him before going any further.

“Okay, son. What’s your name?” “Julius. My name’s Julius.” “I’m Mike. Look, we can’t go walking through these woods at night. It’s too dangerous. We could get lost or mauled by coyotes. You don’t look like you’re in any condition to run, so we just can’t risk it. Here, eat some hot dogs while I set up camp. You look famished.”

The man was well equipped and obviously knew what he was doing. Julius was too tired to argue anymore, so he complied with the man’s request. After Mike set up camp and got the fire going, he tried to get more information out of Julius.

“What happened to you, kid, and why are you out here by yourself?” Julius let out a deep sigh before answering Mike. “I’m out here because my friend bet me I couldn’t even last four days out in the wild without food or water. I had to prove him wrong. As for what happened to me, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” “Try me,” Mike said with a serious face. Julius told him about everything that happened and waited for Mike to tell him he was crazy, but he just sat there spinning his plastic spoon around in his beans. “You don’t believe me, do you?” Julius asked, obviously upset. “No. I believe you. It’s just… I thought we got rid of the last one decades ago. Well, I hoped.” This sent a chill down Julius’ aching spine. “What is it?” He asked, not sure he even wanted to know.

“What you just described to me is something unknown to the world, except in our little corner of it. It is a creature we call the lesser, because they are less than human. Less than what they used to be. They have no memory of what they were before. They exist only to spread their filth.” He pulls a handgun from his bag, holding it as he continued to look down and continues his story. “Twenty years ago, my wife was the last of 49 people that went missing in these woods. We had enough, and those of us brave enough set out to hunt down the lesser and kill them all. We knew some of them would be our loved ones, but we also knew they were no longer what they used to be.”

Mike turned to Julius, his eyes seeming to be staring through Julius and many miles further. “We killed them. We killed them all. I searched the bodies before we burned them, looking for my wife. I just needed to see the eyes. See, her eyes were two different colors. Outer green iris, inner blue iris. Very distinctive. I didn’t find her, so I assumed she was still alive and out here somewhere, or she may have died out here from something other than the lesser.”

Mike turned his eyes back to the fire, remembering the pile of Lesser burning as he wondered where his wife was. Julius gave him a moment before asking him a question. He didn’t want to tell him that he saw his wife as a lesser, not while he had a gun. “So, if they were human… how did they become.. lesser?”

“When a lesser cuts you, it releases a toxin into your blood stream that causes you to change. If it happens, there is no way to stop it.” Julius felt like he was going to vomit. “That means…” Julius looked at the gun, and Mike looked at Julius. “Sorry, kid.” Mike raised the handgun, but Julius threw himself at Mike before he could pull the trigger and a shot was fired into the tree that Julius had just been leaning against. They hear the undeniable cry of the lesser, which distracts Mike long enough for Julius to turn the gun on him and put two rounds into his chest. Julius turned around just in time to see it, what used to be Mike’s wife, pounce at him from the tree above. He shot her until she hit the ground and the gun started to make a clicking sound.

He stood there, unable to believe what just happened. He didn’t even think, he just… did it. He dropped the gun and fell to his knees. “Oh my god, dude. Oh my god…” After staying like this for what seemed like an hour, he stood up and just started walking. “I have to get out of here. I have to-” he began to feel warm. He was pulling at the collar of his shirt.

“What the f**k, man. What-” he just kept getting hotter. He started taking his clothes off, trying to cool himself down. He was naked, and still burning up. His body began to feel strange as he poured what was left of his water over his head. He screamed as his fingers cracked and busted, revealing talons under the skin. “Aargghh, GOD!!!!!” He felt parts of his skull popping out just about his eyes. His spine began to curl, forcing him to scream out again. His teeth popped out and were replaced with sharper ones. The pain was too much and he slumped over, his head hanging just above the ground.

He was silent for a moment, and then he began to pant. He looked around, seeing everything perfectly in the dark of the night as he turned and looked at the dead bodies before him. He looked down at the coin necklace he wore around his neck and let out a blood curdling wail before leaping into the trees and disappearing from the light of the fire. He was lesser.