The voice was old and hoarse, ancient in its lisp and tone, belonging to a decrepit man and the end of a seat with 3 ancients at either side.
On the floor in front of these seven old men was a young man with a straight back and head held high towards the esteem of his elders, showing neither excessive pride nor reverence.
“You stand accused of fratricide, the murder of another chosen of Ji, do you admit your guilt?”
The young man’s deep green eyes shone with a strange tranquility that seemed almost unnatural as he opened his mouth and responded with two simple words:
His voice was soft, like a gentle caress, but the will contained within his words was unwavering and clear.
He would not cower in fear, nor would he hide from punishment.
The elders nodded all as one in grim acknowledgement of his sincerity and cooperation. They looked at one another for a while, seemingly debating something amongst one another in voices that no one outside of their circle could hear.
Finally, the elder who was seated highest spoke up once more.
“The punishment for such a transgression is death, but your father has pleaded for your life to be spared. Considering his meritorious service to the clan of Ji, we will rescind capital punishment.”
The young man seemed neither pleased or surprised, but as still and tranquil as he had been before without moving a muscle.
“However…” continued the elder in a grave tone of voice, “We cannot allow you to go unpunished… thus we have come to an agreement that will give face to all parties: your cultivation will be destroyed and you will be banished to the lands of mortals to live out your life as one of them until the end of your days.”
This was a punishment that some would consider worse than death, some cultivators might even rather self-detonate than allow his or her cultivation to be lost, but Ji Hong stood as calm and clear as day in front of his elders, bowed, and clasped both his hands in front of him in a show of respect.
“Junior thanks seniors for their leniency.”
The highest elder looked at the young man for a short while, then he sighed and dissipated from sight. He re-emerged in front of Ji Hong and placed a finger on the young man’s forehead.
There was the sound of something shattering, then a shiver from the young man, before Ji Hong coughed up a mouthful of blood with a pale face.
He was no longer a cultivator.
Once he was finished, the elder did not even spare Ji Hong a glance before vanishing once more and re-appearing upon his seat above.
None of the elders spoke any more words to the young man in front of them, it was as if he no longer existed in their world.
In fact, he did not; he was now a mortal who would wither and perish with old age, no longer would the gates of immortality open for his body or soul, at least not in this life.
The young man seemed to understand the difference between them and just gave a shallow bow before turning and leaving the hall he had stood in.
“Such a shame…” said an elder once the bronze door had shut behind Ji Hong’s retreating figure, “To see the greatest genius of his generation be felled by such a grievous mistake.”
“Genius means nothing without the proper respect for the rules,” said another elder in a high-pitched voice, “Better he is cast aside now, than wasting precious resources on such a poor mentality in the future.”
The other elders nodded in silent agreement with one another, before each began to fade away into obscurity and nothingness, leaving the hall empty of any presences.
A young girl, hardly even in her early teens, ran up to Ji Hong as he exited the hall of elders, still with his own blood running from his mouth.
Her rose mouth was quivering in a mixture fear and happiness, her hands trembling even though she tried to keep them still by clasping them together in a death grip.
She had almost barged into him before she stopped and asked with a shaking voice: “Will they let you live, brother?”
Ji Hong smiled and looked at his little sister with a doting glance, she would be beautiful once she grew up, he realized, but said nothing.
“Brother!” she insisted.
“Ahh, yes,” he mumbled while wiping off the blood from his mouth with his sleeve, “Don’t worry Lin’er, I will be fine.”
“Are you sure? You promise!?”
Her eyes became filled with hope, the kind of hope that would not be denied or lied to. Ji Hong felt almost bad for his white lie, he knew he would be fine, but he probably would never see his little sister again in his lifetime.
She would live for centuries, he knew.
“Is it done…?” another voice broke through the little girls’ optimistic questions, bringing Ji Hong’s attention onto a middle-aged man with a well-kept beard and solemn eyes.
“Yes, father,” said Ji Hong and bowed, “the verdict has been passed.”
“I see,” said the middle-aged man as he eyed his son carefully, knowing full well what his child had lost, “You are ready then…?”
“I am…” Said Ji Hong, but trailed in the certainty he had showed inside the hall as his gaze fell upon his adorable little sister.
“What…? Brother, are you going somewhere?” the girl inquired?
Ji Hong smiled and knelt down before front of his sister, so that their eyes would be even, and said in a soothing voice: “Your brother has to go away Lin’er. You should not worry, because even though I will be gone, I will always remain here with you.”
He said this while placing his hand on the fragile girl’s heart, then her head, before he stood up once more and faced his father.
“We should go now, Father.”
“NO!!” Shouted the little girl fiercely as she grabbed Ji Hong’s clothes and tried to stop him from leaving with all her might.
Had it been just before, Ji Hong would not even need half of his strength to resist the little girl, but now he was like a leaf in a violent tempest!
The little girl’s strength was so overwhelming to Ji Hong that he was immediately catapulted backwards. So surprised was the little girl that she even forgot to hold on to Ji Hong, and instead the young man was flung out of her grasp and towards the nearby wall with such speed that it would be impossible for her to stop him.
Ji Hong felt like all the air had been sucked out of his body as he was flying directly towards the wall at breakneck speed, without any ability to stop what was probably about to become his death.
“Enough!” barked the middle-aged man and vanished from sight. Ji Hong only felt a slight touch as his momentum was slowly out to a halt with his father’s hand on his back.
“B-brother…” stammered the girl with her eyes wide open with fear, shifting her glance from her own hands, and the ragged stature of Ji Hong.
“It’s alright Lin’er” said Ji Hong as he coughed up another mouthful of blood and fell onto his knees.
“Lin’er,” said the middle-aged man and gave a stern glare towards the young girl, “Do not meddle any further in this decision. This is no longer your brother, he is no longer a son of Ji; he is an outcast, a mortal.”
“I-is that t-true?” asked the girl and looked at Ji Hong with pearly tears in her big eyes.
“Yes Lin’er… no, Ji Lin. I am no longer your brother, I must leave this place to live among the mortals,” said Ji Hong very slowly and with great pain, it was as if he was cutting out his own heart while he spoke these words.
“B-but…! No!” stammered the little girl and drew close to her beloved elder brother, “I-I will give back the Firebone talisman! If it was not for that, you would never have had to kill Ji Zhen, you would not have had to stand trial!”
“NO!” hissed Ji Hong and grabbed his sister’s shoulder, staring her dead into her youthful eyes, “The talisman gave the legacy to you, and you alone, giving it away will accomplish nothing! That talisman is your hope of one day becoming a true immortal, never reveal to anyone that you have it, never speak of it ever again, do not even think about it!”
The little girl became stiff from Ji Hong’s weak touch, almost as if he was a strange creature that should not be her brother, but finally she nodded with tears streaming down her cheeks in rivers.
Ji Hong stood up and faced his father.
The man seemed to have aged a century since last Ji Hong saw him and, though his facial expression was as still and immovable as a mountain, he knew that the man had mourned the son he was about to lose already.
“I am ready.”
“Good,” said the man and nodded, before he brushed past the little weeping girl with Ji Hong right behind him.
Ji Hong gave one last glance towards his little sister, the cute little Lin’er of his stood with her big teary eyes and bade him farewell in a sorrowful whimper that could be heard all through the building.
A sad smile was on his face as he turned his neck and no longer looked back, not on his family, not on his clan, and not on the life he was supposed to live.
They walked for a while, passing whispering clansmen who sent stolen glances towards the father and son pair, chattering about them as they neared, silenced themselves as they walked by, and then continued their gossiping once their backs were turned once more.
“That is Ji Hong!” Someone whispered, just loud enough for Ji Hong to hear the conversation, something that was clearly deliberate.
“The murderer?” The other asked, “I heard they found him standing above Ji Zheng’s corpse, bloody from head to toe, staring up at the stars!”
“I heard that he did not even fight back when he was apprehended!” said the first right back, “They say he merely asked to be allowed one night of tranquility before they executed him!”
“Why is he walking free?” Asked the second in a curious tone.
“Haven’t you heard?” Said a third voice that brought itself into the conversation, “His cultivation was destroyed by the elders, they’ve banished him!”
“Truly! He is mortal!?”
They laughed smugly as they glanced over at Ji Hong, who still walked with his back straight as if none of their loud claims had anything to do with him at all.
They passed them and soon they came upon a great teleportation array, belonging to the Ji Clan.
“Have you decided where you wish to go?” asked the middle-aged man without looking back at Ji Hong.
“I have heard that the Southern Domain is a good place for mortals” said Ji Hong without much emotion in his voice.
The middle-aged man nodded and gave some instruction to the guards who were present at the array, before turning to his son and handing him a pouch filled with common gold.
“I understand that mortals value these stones just like we value spirt stones,” he said and placed the pouch in Ji Hong’s hands, “You should not want for anything at all among the mortals.”
“Thank you… Father,” said Ji Hong hesitantly and bowed his head, in both respect and a little bit of shame. He knew that he had disappointed this man in front of him, and yet he had still pleaded for Ji Hong’s life, even if it was just as a mortal.
The middle-aged man nodded and turned to walk away, before stopping only three steps away and said, without looking back: “I’m sorry… my son.”
For the first time, Ji Hong’s tranquil exterior was broken down completely, as a single tear found its way to the corner of his eye and fell upon the ground with all the clamoring that one might expect from such a fragile thing.
“Father…” the words were not spoken, but stuck inside Ji Hong’s throat as he watched the stern back of his father set back into movement and walked away.
With a deep breath, Ji Hong dragged himself away from the sight of his father and turned instead towards the teleportation array that was ready.
With determination gleaming out of his deep green eyes, Ji Hong strode forward and entered the array, fading away from the ancestral lands of Ji.
He reappeared moments later a great green and brown expanse of the Southern Domain. It was night, he was far away from any city, and above the stars twinkled with mocking gestures.
Ji Hong turned his face towards the skies and spoke softly to himself.
“Truly, I have left the heavens now…”