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Stephen Donaldson

The Power That Preserves

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant — 3

One: The Danger in Dreams

THOMAS Covenant was talking in his sleep. At times he knew what he was doing; the broken pieces of his voice penetrated his stupor dimly, like flickers of innocence. But he could not rouse himself, the weight of his exhaustion was too great. He babbled like millions of people before him, whole or ill, true or false. But in his case there was no one to hear. He would not have been more alone if he had been the last dreamer left alive.

When the shrill demand of the phone cut through him, he woke up wailing.

For a moment after he threw himself upright in bed, he could not distinguish between the phone and his own flat terror; both echoed like torment through the fog in his head. Then the phone rang again. It pulled him sweating out of bed, compelled him to shamble like a derelict into the living room, forced him to pick up the receiver. His numb, disease-cold fingers fumbled over the black plastic, and when he finally gained a grip on it, he held it to the side of his head like a pistol.

He had nothing to say to it, so he waited in blankness for the person at the other end of the line to speak.

A woman’s voice asked uncertainly, “Mr. Covenant? Thomas Covenant?”

“Yes,” he murmured, then stopped, vaguely surprised by all the things he had with that one word admitted to be true.

“Ah, Mr. Covenant,” the voice said. “Megan Roman calling.” When he said nothing, she added with a touch of acerbity, “Your lawyer. Remember?”

But he did not remember; he knew nothing about lawyers. Numb mist confused all the links of his memory. Despite the metallic distortion of the connection, her voice sounded distantly familiar; but he could not identify it.

She went on, “Mr. Covenant, I’ve been your lawyer for two years now. What’s the matter with you? Are you all right?”

The familiarity of her voice disturbed him. He did not want to remember who she was. Dully, he murmured, “It doesn’t have anything to do with me.”

“Are you kidding? I wouldn’t have called if it didn’t have to do with you. I wouldn’t have anything to do with it if it weren’t your business.” Irritation and discomfort scraped together in her tone.

“No.” He did not want to remember. For his own benefit, he strained to articulate, “The Law doesn’t have anything to do with me. She broke it. Anyway, I–It can’t touch me.”

“You better believe it can touch you. And you better listen to me. I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but-“

He interrupted her. He was too close to remembering her voice. “No,” he said again. “It doesn’t bind me. I’m-outside. Separate. It can’t touch me. Law is”-he paused for a moment, groped through the fog for what he wanted to say-“not the opposite of Despite.”

Then in spite of himself he recognized her voice. Through the disembodied inaccuracy of the phone line, he identified her.

Elena.

A sickness of defeat took the resistance out of him.

She was saying, “-what you’re talking about. I’m your lawyer, Megan Roman. And if you think the law can’t touch you, you’d better listen to me. That’s what I’m calling about.”

“Yes,” he said hopelessly.

“Listen, Mr. Covenant.” She gave her irritation a free hand. “I don’t exactly like being your lawyer. Just thinking about you makes me squirm. But I’ve never backed down on a client before, and I don’t mean to start with you. Now pull yourself together and listen to me.”

“Yes.” Elena? he moaned dumbly. Elena? What have I done to you?

“All right. Here’s the situation. That-unfortunate escapade of yours-Saturday night-has brought matters to a head. It-Did you have to go to a nightclub, Mr. Covenant? A nightclub, of all places?”

“I didn’t mean it.” He could think of no other words for his contrition.

“Well, it’s done now. Sheriff Lytton is up in arms. You’ve given him something he can use against you. He spent Sunday evening and this morning talking to a lot of people around here. And the people he talked to talked to other people. The township council met at noon.

“Mr. Covenant, this probably wouldn’t have happened if everyone didn’t remember the last time you came to town. There was a lot of talk then, but it’d calmed down for the most part. Now it’s stirred up again. People want action.

“The council intends to give them action. Our scrupulous local government is going to have your property rezoned. Haven Farm will probably be zoned industrial. Residential use will be prohibited. Once that’s done, you can be forced to move. You’ll probably get a fair price for the Farm-but you won’t find any other place to live in this county.”

“It’s my fault,” he said. “I had the power, and I didn’t know how to use it.” His bones were full to the marrow with old hate and death.

“What? Are you listening to me? Mr. Covenant, you’re my client-for whatever that’s worth. I don’t intend to stand by and let this happen to you. Sick or not, you’ve got the same civil rights as anyone else. And there are laws to protect private citizens from-persecution. We can fight. Now I want”- against the metallic background noise of the phone, he could hear her gathering her courage- “I want you to come to my office. Today. We’ll dig into the situation-arrange to appeal the decision, or file suit against it-something. We’ll discuss all the ramifications, and plan a strategy. All right?”

The sense of deliberate risk in her tone penetrated him for a moment. He said, “I’m a leper. They can’t touch me.”

“They’ll throw you out on your ear! Damn it, Covenant-you don’t seem to understand what’s going on here. You are going to lose your home. It can be fought-but you’re the client, and I can’t fight it without you.”

But her vehemence made his attention retreat. Vague recollections of Elena swirled in him as he said, “That’s not a good answer.” Absently, he removed the receiver from his ear and returned it to its cradle.

For a long time, he stood gazing at the black instrument. Something in its irremediable pitch and shape reminded him that his head hurt.

Something important had happened to him.

As if for the first time, he heard the lawyer saying, Sunday evening and this morning. He turned woodenly and looked at the wall clock. At first he could not bring his eyes into focus on it; it stared back at him as if it were going blind. But at last he made out the time. The afternoon sun outside his windows confirmed it.

He had slept for more than thirty hours.

Elena? he thought. That could not have been Elena on the phone. Elena was dead. His daughter was dead. It was his fault.

His forehead began to throb. The pain rasped his mind like a bright, brutal light. He ducked his head to try to evade it.

Elena had not even existed. She had never existed. He had dreamed the whole thing.

Elena! he moaned. Turning, he wandered weakly back toward his bed.

As he moved, the fog turned crimson in his brain.

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