A gust of wind whistled through the mountains, bringing with it the first real cold of winter. The trees had already anticipated the change, and had changed themselves accordingly, their leaves turning to brilliant colors, reds and oranges and purples. It was as though the trees felt the oncoming of winter and were becoming a brilliant conflagration of color, a fire to stave off the winter’s chill for a bit longer. Slowly, slowly the winter would win, dousing the fire and turning the leaves a dry brown, the forest surrendering to the cold once again, as it had every year, but for now the forest gloried in its flaming beauty.
It was through this glorious forest that Kyle hiked. It was the forth day of his vacation and the third day since he had seen another human. He was hiking a branch off of the Appalachian Trail, a six-day hike through the wilderness by himself. Most of his friends at the office had called him crazy, told him it was insane to go out in the mountains by himself for a week, but some others, who knew him better, understood. They still thought it was dangerous, but they understood his need to be alone.
A deer darted away through the underbrush, white tail flying. Kyle smiled. This was indeed better for him than any other vacation he could have gone on. His friends had advised him to go to Hawaii or, if wanted to stay closer to home, the Florida Keys, or to go on a cruise. His boss had told him that New York would be fun. But Kyle knew that he had had enough of people. He lived in the city, worked in the city, was around people all the time. Like so many other engineering graduates he had worked hard through high school, and even harder through college, and as soon as he graduated an engineering firm had snatched him up. Oh, they had treated him well; they flew him to Atlanta to visit their plant, visit the office he would work in, get to know his future colleagues. They set him up in a nice hotel, and later when he accepted their job offer, had helped him find a nice apartment. But it had been nearly three years, and the thrill of finally having money and being on his own was wearing off. The monotony of his job was finally starting to get to him.
He had decided that was why he had not been able to let go of his mother. She had been his last real connection to the world, the real world. His job did not seem to matter in the grand scheme of things; he had no real friends, just casual acquaintances and other people in the office, and no love interests. Since she had died in a car accident a two years ago he had felt like he was floating, drifting, listless. He did not seem to have any real purpose in life. Or rather, he felt that he should have a purpose, but did not know what it was. His mother had been the compass that had guided his life for as long as he could remember, and with her gone, he felt lost.
Being alone in the forest had helped. As soon as he had left the main highway and come to the tiny town at the start of the trail, a sense of calm had come over him. It had been faint at first, but it had gotten stronger the longer he was away from civilization, the farther along the trail he hiked.
Kyle was hiking along the bottom of a small valley, next to a small stream, and the ridges on either side were bringing an early twilight as the sun passed out of view behind one. It was in this twilight that Kyle noticed something odd. He had come to a shallow place in the stream, and the trail cut across it here, to slowly snake up and over the ridge on the other side. As he splashed across, he was looking down, watching rather carefully, trying not to splash any water above the top of his mostly waterproof hiking boots, knowing that having wet pants would be unpleasant with the temperatures dropping for the night. It was because he was looking down that he noticed it.
A flash of light in the corner of his eye was all it seemed at first, and when he looked around, he did not see anything. Then he saw it again, a flash like sunlight reflected off of something shiny at the bottom of the stream. Puzzled, Kyle looked closer. There it was, gleaming at the bottom of the lake, green like an emerald. He reached down and grabbed it, and realized that it was nothing more than a small stone. Still he was interested.
Kyle held the stone up and looked at it. It was small, but large for a river pebble, and a rich translucent green. It was egg-shaped and fit surprisingly well in the palm of his hand. It was mostly smooth, but seemed to have a few scratches on it, the nature of which Kyle could not distinguish because of the dim light. There was nothing particularly spectacular about it, but Kyle decided that it would be a nice souvenir, and was about to drop it into the pocket of his jacket when something strange happened.
The stone suddenly grew warm. Kyle looked down at it, surprised, and saw that it had started to glow. What Kyle had thought were simply scratches were now glowing with a strange, dim light, just enough that he could see that they were hardly random scratches. They were clearly man-made carvings, writings of some kind. Kyle had taken a course in Hebrew in college, and this looked similar, although certainly not the same. The symbols were arranged in an unbroken spiral, with no spaces to designate words, covering most of the stone.
Kyle stared in shock at the glowing stone. He knew, logically, that there must be some explanation for the glow, perhaps a trick of the light, and that the warming of the stone in his hand must be due to some kind of strange insulating properties of the material, or…something. Still, his instincts told him otherwise, told him that this was no illusion, or set of interesting coincidences. And as the strength of the glow increased, and progressed from simply the runes to the stone itself, he realized that his instincts were right. This was both distinctly real, and like nothing he had encountered before.
The glow in the stone increased, and Kyle suddenly felt faint, as though he was losing a lot of blood. He grimaced, and shook his head, trying to clear it, and suddenly got the feeling that it was the stone that was making him feel so strange. He could almost feel his strength draining down his arm and into the stone. Kyle staggered, his legs suddenly unable to support him, and caught himself on a low hanging tree branch. All at once he felt better, as though the strength that was flowing out of one hand into the stone was balanced or even surpassed by strength flowing into him from the tree.
Kyle inhaled in a gasp, only then realizing he had been holding his breath, and tried to drop the stone. Nothing happened. He was still holding the stone in a death-grip, his knuckles turning white. Kyle tried to shake his hand around, thinking he could perhaps throw the stone away, or shake some life into his hand, but even as he did so he felt the strength flowing into him from the tree start to ebb, and he staggered again. The branch slipped from his numbing fingers, and his knees buckled, sending him toppling backwards toward the stream.
There was a sudden flash of brilliant emerald light, illuminating the vivid image of his hand print, burned into the bark of the tree, and-