A short way further on, the path opened out into a wide, flat valley of extraordinary beauty. The sun was just rising and the white mountain soared up into the sky from the valley floor. Around its base was a city that looked as if it had once been very prosperous. But now, the thousands of houses that they could see, although magnificent in scale and design, were in various stages of ruin and collapse. Not a sound was to be heard, not even the twittering of birds. The three had never seen a place that was at once so beautiful and so terrible. They stood for a moment, over-awed by the crushing silence, hardly daring to even breathe, then Chen urged his horse forward and they entered the city.
The area was extremely dry, so dry that there was virtually no vegetation on the ground. The contents of the houses had stayed undisturbed for countless years and most appeared to still be in good condition. They entered the first house they came to and Princess Fragrance noticed a pair of ladies' shoes on the floor. Their colour was still fresh, but as soon as she touched them, they disintegrated into dust, and she jumped in shock.
"This city is in a basin surrounded by high mountains which protect it from rain and wind," Chen said.
As they continued through the streets, they found skeletons everywhere and swords and other weapons thrown about at random.
"It doesn't look as if the city was buried in a sand storm as the story says," Chen commented.
"No," Huo Qingtong agreed. "It looks more like there was a big battle and all the people were killed."
"But there's so many paths outside the city," Princess Fragrance objected. "How would the enemy find their way in?"
"There must have been a traitor," Huo Qingtong replied.
They went into another house, and she spread the map out on a table and leaned over to examine it. But the table was completely rotten despite its apparent sturdiness, and it collapsed under the weight of her arms. She picked up the map and studied it for a moment. "I'm afraid these houses wouldn't withstand an attack by the wolves for very long," she said. She pointed at a place on the map. "This is the centre of the city, right at the foot of the mountain. There are a lot of markings around it, which probably means it is a place of importance. If it's a palace or fortress, it is bound to be very sturdily built, so let's go there."
"Right!" said Chen. The three continued on their way, following the path indicated on the map. The roads in the centre of the city were like a maze, twisting and turning until their head's swam. If they had not had the map, they would surely have lost their way.
After an hour or so, they came to the place marked on the map as the city centre, but were disappointed to find no sign of any palace or fortress. From close up, the White Jade Peak looked even more beautiful than from a distance. It was completely white, pure and shining. A jade carver who found even a small piece of white jade would never go hungry for the rest of his life, but here was a whole mountain of the precious stone. They looked up at the towering peak and felt a sense of spiritual upliftment. Their cares and worries dispersed and they reflected on the wonderful mystery of creation.
Then, amidst the silence, they heard far off the howls of wolves drifting towards them.
"They're coming!" cried Princess Fragrance. "Could it be the wolves have a map as well?"
"Their nose is their map," Chen replied. "We have left our scent wherever we have gone and by following it, they will never make a mistake."
Huo Qingtong pointed at the map. "Look," she said. "There is the mountain, but there are many roads marked inside."
"They must be tunnels," he said.
"Yes. Now how do we find them?" She looked at the explanation on the map and slowly deciphered it. "To enter the palace, climb the tall tree and call out "Ailongabasheng" three times towards the sacred mountain."
"What is Ailongabasheng?" Princess Fragrance asked.
"It must be the password," Huo Qingtong replied. "But where is the tall tree? And could this really be a magic spell?"
"Of course it could," said Princess Fragrance, who had always believed in spirits and fairies.
"In the old days, there would have been people in the mountain who would have pushed a switch when they heard the password, opening a cave entrance," said Chen. But after so many years, everyone in there is certainly dead."
The howls of the wolves sounded closer. "Let's go and hide in one of the houses," Huo Qingtong suggested.
The three turned and ran towards the closest of the buildings. As they ran, Chen tripped on a bulge on the ground and saw it was the stump of a huge tree. "The tree's here!" he called.
Princess Fragrance examined the sheer face of the mountain above and pointed. "That must be the cave mouth there. Look, aren't those footholds?" Chen and Huo Qingtong looked up and saw with delight that there were indeed notches in the rock face.
"I'll go up and have a look," said Chen. With the dagger in his right hand, he bounded up the cliff. He made it up about a dozen feet then used his Inner Strength Kung Fu to lodge the dagger in the rock face for an instant and race up further. Finally, he reached the point where the footholds began. The two girls cheered from below, and Chen waved to them before turning his attention to the cliff above. Over the years, the cave mouth had become blocked by sand. Chen grabbed an outcrop of jade rock with one hand and started to shift some of the sand with the dagger. He pulled broken slabs of rock out one after another, and let them drop to the ground, and in a short while had made a hole large enough to wriggle through. He crawled in and sat down. Then, pulling his Pearl Strings from his pocket, he undid them all, tied them together end to end and dangled the resulting rope down the cliff face to the girls waiting below.
Huo Qingtong tied the rope round her sister's waist and Chen slowly pulled her up. Just as she reached the cave mouth, she screamed, and Chen quickly helped her inside, saying: "Don't worry, you've made it."
Her face was deathly pale. "Wolves!" she cried.
Chen looked down and saw seven or eight wolves had already arrived at the base of the cliff. Huo Qingtong was valiantly fighting them off with her sword. The white horse shook its mane and neighed loudly then galloped off through the streets of the ancient city.
Chen hastily grabbed some large rocks from around the cave mouth and threw them down, forcing some of the wolves to back away, then dropped the rope down again. Huo Qingtong was afraid that in her weak condition, she would be unable to hold on long enough, so she transferred the sword to her left hand, and tied the rope round her waist as she continued to fight off the wolves.
"Right!" she yelled. Chen yanked on the rope and she flew into the air just as two wolves threw themselves at her. One of them bit deeply into her boot and refused to let go. As Princess Fragrance screamed in fright, Huo Qingtong bent over in mid-air and chopped it in half across its belly. The top half of its body accompanied her up to the cave mouth.
Chen helped her inside and tried unsuccessfully to pull the half-wolf off her boot.
"Did it bite into you?" he asked quickly.
"I'm all right," she replied. She took the dagger from his hand and cut open the wolf's mouth, revealing the serried ranks of teeth sunk deep into her boot. A small trickle of blood oozed out of one of the holes in the leather.
"Your foot is wounded," Princess Fragrance said. She helped her sister remove the boot, and ripped a strip of material off her gown to bandage the wound. Chen turned his head away, not daring to look at her bare feet.* (* In traditional China, feet were considered one of the most erotic parts of the female anatomy.)
When she had finished the bandaging, Princess Fragrance looked down at the thousands of wolves amongst the buildings below, and wagged her finger at them angrily. "You evil wolves, biting my sister's foot! I won't feel sorry for you any more," she scolded them as Chen and Huo Qingtong smiled.
They turned to look into the cave, but all they could see was pitch-blackness. Huo Qingtong took out her tinderbox and lit it, and immediately jumped in fright: they were sitting on a thin ledge and next to them was a drop of nearly two hundred feet down to the floor of the cave, which looked even lower than the ground outside the mountain.
"There has been no fresh air in here for a long time," said Chen. "We can't go down yet." After a while, when he thought most of the stale air would have dissipated, he said: "I'll go down first to have a look around."
"Once we're down it won't be easy to get back up again," said Huo Qingtong.
Chen smiled. "If we can't, we can't," he said. Huo Qingtong blushed and looked away.
He tied one end of the rope round a rock outcrop and started to slide down into the abyss, but when he reached the end of the rope, he was still a hundred feet from the bottom. Abandoning the rope, he climbed down the cliff face for a way, and then jumped lightly to the floor.
"Throw down the tinderbox!" he shouted and Huo Qingtong did so. He struck a light, and under its glow, he saw he was in a chamber carved entirely out of white jade furnished with several sets of wooden tables and chairs. Chen looked up and saw the two girls peering down from the ledge, and shouted: "Come down!"
"You go down first, sister," Huo Qingtong said. Princess Fragrance took hold of the rope and slid slowly down to its end. She saw Chen standing beneath her with his hands opened wide, closed her eyes tightly and let go. Almost immediately, she felt his strong arms catch her and place her lightly on the ground. Huo Qingtong jumped down in the same fashion and as Chen embraced her, she flushed deep red with embarrassment.
By now, the howls of the wolves outside the mountain were becoming faint. Chen looked at their shadows dancing on the white jade walls, and then at the two beauties beside him. Under the glow of the reflected light, they looked even more exquisite. Here they were, the three of them, in the bowels of a mountain, not knowing what was in store for them. Of all the strange things that had happened to him in his eventful life, this was the strangest.
Chen snapped off a chair leg and lit it with the flame from the tinder-box. Princess Fragrance exclaimed at the beauty of the chamber they were in, and taking the torch from Chen began walking about. He broke off another seven chair legs and the three began to walk off along a long tunnel which turned out to be a cul-de-sac. Chen wondered how they would get out. Then in a corner of the tunnel, he noticed something sparkling under the torchlight. He walked over and saw it was a gold suit of armour containing a pile of old bones. The suit of armour was exquisitely-made, and the three marvelled at the fine workmanship.
"He must have been a nobleman," said Princess Fragrance. Huo Qingtong noticed that there was a winged camel engraved on the breast plate and added: "He may even have been the king or a prince. I've heard that in ancient times, only kings could use winged camels as their emblem."
"It's the same with the dragon in China," replied Chen. He took the torch from Princess Fragrance and began to examine the end wall of the tunnel for some trace of a door or an opening mechanism. Raising the torch, he saw a huge ring door knocker with a long-handled axe lodged in it.
"There's a door," Huo Qingtong exclaimed joyfully. Chen passed the torch over to her and tried to pull the axe away, but it had rusted onto the iron ring and was immovable. He took out his dagger and scraped away the rust, then with an effort, managed to pull the axe free. He found it very heavy.
"If this was his weapon, then His Highness was a strong man," he said with a smile.
On closer examination, they found there was an iron ring fastened to all four corners of the stone door. Chen took hold of each of the rings and gave them a mighty tug, but the door did not move even a fraction. He tried pushing it instead, and with load squeaks, it slowly began to swing open. They saw the door was at least ten feet thick, and in fact was more like a huge boulder than a door.
The three looked at each other with expressions of jubilation on their faces. Chen raised the torch high and with the dagger in his other hand, led the way through the door. One step inside, something crunched under his foot, and he saw a pile of bones on the floor. Looking ahead, there was a narrow tunnel leading off into the darkness, just big enough for a person to walk along. Skeletons and swords were scattered all about them.
Huo Qingtong pointed to the back of the great stone door. "Look," she said. Under the torchlight they saw deeply scored lines obviously scratched out with swords.
"These people must have been locked in here by the king," said Chen in a startled voice. "They tried the best they could to get out, but the door was too thick and the jade rock too solid."
"Even if they had had ten blades as sharp as your dagger, they would still never have broken through this door," replied Huo Qingtong.
"They must have considered every alternative, and finally one by one died as hope faded…"
"Don't! Don't go on," Princess Fragrance pleaded. The scene was too tragic. She could not bear to hear any more.
"Why did the king stand guard on the other side of the door instead of escaping?" Huo Qingtong asked. "I can't work that out at all." She pulled out the map and looked at it for a moment. Her face brightened. "At the end of this tunnel there should be a great hall and other rooms," she said.
Slowly, they walked forward, treading on human bones as they went. They turned two corners, and emerged into a cavernous hall as Huo Qingtong had predicted. They stood at the entrance and looked about. The floor of the great hall was filled with skeletons and weapons lying about at random, evidence that a furious battle had been fought here.
As they walked into the hall, Chen's dagger suddenly shot out of his hand and fell to the floor with a clatter. At the same instant, the belt supporting Huo Qingtong's sword around her waist snapped, and the scabbard fell heavily to the floor. The three jumped in fright. Huo Qingtong bent down to pick up her sword, but as she did so, the darts in her pocket flew out with a whoosh and dropped to the ground in the same manner.
Chen grabbed the two girls and leapt backwards several paces, steeling himself to defend them against any attackers. But there was not a sound from the hall. He wondered what kung fu could snatch the weapons from their hands and even suck Huo Qingtong's darts from her pocket.
"We have come only to escape wolves and with no other purpose," Chen shouted into the darkness in the Muslim language. "Please forgive us for any indiscretions we may have committed."
There was no answer but the echo of his own words returning from the far side of the hall.
As Huo Qingtong's initial fright receded, she walked forward again and stooped to pick up her sword. But it was stuck to the floor as if nailed in place. She tried again using all her strength and managed to free it, but a second later, it flew out of her hand again and hit the ground with a clang.
Chen realised what was happening.
"There must be a magnet under here," he said.
"What's a magnet?" asked Huo Qingtong.
"Sailors say there is a big mountain in the far north which attracts pieces of iron which hang free, making them point north to south. When they're on the ocean, they rely on something called a magnetic compass to find their direction."
"And you think there's another magnet mountain under here which is attracting our weapons?" asked Huo Qingtong.
"I think so. Let's try it." He prized up his dagger and placed it and a wooden chair leg on his left hand with his right hand on top to hold them in place. When he took his hand away, the dagger flew to the ground but the chair leg remained motionless.
"So as you see, the magnet is powerful," said Chen, picking up the dagger again and gripping it tightly.
Huo Qingtong walked on a few more steps. "Come here!" she called. Chen ran over and saw a skeleton which was still standing. A few tattered pieces of clothing hung on the frame, and its right hand was holding a white-coloured sword which was stuck into the skeleton next to it.
"It's a jade sword!" Huo Qingtong exclaimed. Chen carefully extracted the sword from the skeleton's grasp, and with its support gone, it collapsed to the floor in a heap.
The jade sword's blade was very sharp, but it was still frail enough to shatter if it clashed with a metal blade. Looking round, they saw there were many other jade weapons of all sizes lying about the hall.
"I know!" Huo Qingtong suddenly said. "The master of this mountain certainly planned things very carefully."
"What?" asked Chen.
"He used this magnet to draw the enemy's weapons away and then his guards finished them off with the jade swords."
Princess Fragrance pointed at a skeleton wearing a metal breast plate. "Look! Some of the attackers were wearing armour. i'll bet they couldn't get on their feet."
"But what I don't understand," Huo Qingtong continued, "is if the guards with the jade weapons killed all the attackers, why did they also die here as well?"
Chen had also been considering that problem, but could think of no explanation.
"Let's go further in and explore," said Huo Qingtong.
"No," Princess Fragrance said. "Let's not, sister."
Huo Qingtong saw the anguished expression on her face and squeezed her arm. "Don't be afraid. Perhaps there are no skeletons over there."
They walked to the other side of the hall and looked into a smaller chamber. But the scene there was even more terrible than in the first hall. Dozens of skeletons were piled about the room, most of them still standing as if alive. Some had weapons in their hands, some didn't.
"Don't touch anything!" said Chen. "There must be some strange reason for them dying like this." They continued on, and passed out of the chamber into a tunnel. After a couple of bends, they came upon a small swing door. As they pushed it open, their eyes were assailed by a bright light. Sunlight poured in from a crack in the ceiling hundreds of feet above into an excuisite jade room which had obviously been carved out of the mountain at this spot to take advantage of the natural lighting.
Although it was only a single shaft of sunlight, the three were very excited at the sight of it. The room they found themselves in had a jade bed, a jade table, jade chairs, all beautifully carved. A skeleton reclined on the jade bed, while in one corner of the room, there were two other skeletons, one large and one small.
Chen extinguished the torch. "We'll rest here," he said. They pulled out their dry rations and water and had a small meal.
"I wonder how long the wolves will wait outside the mountain for us?" said Huo Qingtong. "This has became a contest between us and the wolves, so we will have to make the food and water last as long as possible."
For the past several days, Chen and the two sisters had not had a moment in which they could relax. Now, in this silent jade room, an immense exhaustion came over them and before very long, they fell into a deep, deep sleep.