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9

As the three rode along, the land about them gradually became more rocky and a crooked path appeared. It grew dark, and the White Jade Peak began to tower over them.

"According to the map, the Secret City was built around the base of the mountain," said Huo Qingtong. "It doesn't look as if it would be more than three or four miles from here." The three dismounted and gave their two horses some water.

Chen stroked the white horse's mane lovingly, knowing that without it, he would never have been able to rescue Princess Fragrance. He also knew he would not have left without her.

They rested for a while until the horses had recovered some of their strength and then continued on, the cries of the wolves already vaguely discernible in the distance. Chen rode the chestnut horse alone and the two sisters rode together on the white horse.

The night was cool and the snow on the peak glistened brilliant white under the moon, looking almost close enough to touch. The path became rough and treacherous and suddenly split a dozen or so ways, with no indication of which was the correct one.

"With so many paths, it's not surprising people get lost," said Chen. Huo Qingtong pulled out the map and examined it under the moonlight.

"It says: `left three right two'," she said.

"What does that mean?"

"It doesn't explain." In the distance, they heard the wolves howling in unison.

"It's about midnight," Huo Qingtong said. "They must have stopped to howl at the moon. When they've finished, they will be after us again. We must choose the path and go quickly."

"There are five paths on the left here," said Chen pointing. "The map says left three right two, so let's take the third."

"If it's a dead end, we won't have time to come back again," replied Huo Qingtong.

"In that case, the three of us will die together," said Chen.

As Chen spoke, Huo Qingtong felt a sudden warmth in her breast and tears welled into her eyes. She raised her horse whip and led them into the middle path.

The track narrowed into a stone-walled corridor which had obviously been hacked out of the mountainside by men. After a while, they came to another crossroads from which three paths branched out to the right.

"We're saved! We're saved!" Huo Qingtong shouted with joy, and they spurred their horses up the middle path with renewed energy. But the track had not been traversed for many years, and in some places, it was completely overgrown by grasses taller than a man, while in others, it was blocked by sand drifts. The three had to dismount and lead the horses over the obstacles. Chen also moved rocks onto the top of the drifts to slow the wolves' pursuit.

Less than half a mile further on, they came upon three more paths forking to the left. Suddenly, Princess Fragrance screamed and pointed to a pile of white bones at the mouth of one of the paths. Chen dismounted to investigate and found they were the remains of a man and a camel.

"He must have been unable to decide which path to take and ended up dying here," he sighed.

They entered the third path and found it suddenly steepened sharply. The cold and darkness became oppressive. A short while later another skeleton appeared by the side of the path with jewels glistening amongst the bones.

"He was rich but he couldn't get out," Huo Qingtong said.

"But it means we're on the right path," replied Chen. "There must be even more skeletons on the wrong paths."

"When we leave, none of us must take any jewels, all right?" Princess Fragrance said.

"You're afraid the ghosts won't let us go," said Chen with a smile.

"Promise me!"

He heard the pleading tone in her voice and hurriedly replied: "I won't take anything, don't worry." All the jewels in the world could not match having you two sisters as companions, he thought, and suddenly felt ashamed. Why did he include them both together?

They continued up the twisted path the whole night, and by morning, they and the two horses were exhausted.

"Let's rest a while," said Huo Qingtong.

"We must concentrate on finding shelter first and then we can all sleep easily," Chen replied firmly.


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