Quick note: I'm going to be using the Western naming style (as well as Gaelic rather than Japanese) in Izuku's home country, as it's much closer to Eire and Alba than Japan. Names are preserved for the sake of it being a fanwork, don't hurt me.
chapter one: sword beneath stone
Izuku Midoriya breathed in his first lungful of musty cavern air, cool and damp and carrying with it the cloying aroma of moist earth.
Today was his sixteenth birthday, the day when - in his village, at least - a boy became a man. Not that he felt much like a man, standing there in the cave's mouth with nothing more than a rusty short sword and a padded leather vest to protect him from whatever lay within, but he wasn't going to back out. If he did, he'd be exiled; a boy had refused to enter the cave three years prior, during a spate of livestock disappearances, and promptly been sent away from the village - though, judging from the fate of the next boy to enter the cave, his choice of exile was most likely the smarter one.
He wouldn't pretend that he wasn't scared. Anyone undergoing the coming-of-age trial (a three-day journey into the depths) was required to do so within their own means, and his class - the peasant class - more often than not failed to reemerge from the cave. Few rations, poor equipment and lack of training were no doubt a factor in this; the sons of merchants, with full armour, full bags and newly forged weapons, rarely fell prey to the cavern.
The short sword in his hand was his father's, and it served as a reminder of why exactly he'd chosen to risk his life rather than simply leave the village. Hisashi was ill, and rumor had it that he'd been cursed by a Plaguebringer (a mage whose dark magic arts spread from person to person, devouring their very essence), leaving only his son Izuku and his wife Inko to care for him and the farm he'd painstakingly cultivated for a decade. Izuku couldn't leave his parents alone.
The odds were high that he would anyway, but at least it wouldn't be by his own cowardice.
As he stepped into the cave, escorted by the jeers of the other boys and the grave, silent stares of the Túschic village elders, he had to admit to himself that there was another reason he'd chosen to risk his life in this cave rather than strike out on his own.
He had no affinities.
The other villagers, even his parents, all possessed some affinity or other. People commonly held affinities for two schools of magic and one school of weaponry, and although nobody in his village was a skilled magic user or gifted in the weapon arts, having any affinity was better than having none at all. Izuku had tried to practice the necessary techniques for both magic and weapon arts and met with moderate success - but when he attempted to actually perform magic, the limited mana he managed to perceive and grasp simply wouldn't do anything, and when he tried weapon arts, his life force failed to manifest in any form whatsoever, succeeding only in fatiguing him. He simply couldn't.
It was possible for people to learn magic they lacked an affinity for, but from what he'd heard, it took years he didn't have, and those who managed to do so were typically accomplished mages with solid grasps on the intricacies of magic rather than teenage farm boys.
The metal plates grafted to the soles of his leather work boots clashed against the weathered stone of the cavern floor, and the sound echoed around him until all he could hear was the din of rock and iron.
Deeper, deeper into the cavern. He could still see the mouth behind him, still see the others watching. He doubted any of them expected him to come back; he'd spent his whole life being treated like a dog for one reason or another. When it wasn't accusations of being a Plaguebringer himself - a ridiculous notion, for all children found to have an affinity for plague magic were summarily executed, and Izuku's affinities had been appraised years prior - it was taunts of "useless" or "worthless" and ostracization worthy of a Necromancer. To the other village children, how strong your affinities were was a measure of how cool you were, and having none meant that Izuku resided at the very bottom of the social totem pole.
Somewhere deep in his heart, he resented this, resented their narrow-minded refusal to see anything except power, but there were more important things to worry about. Each day, he went out to work the fields alongside his mother, doing his best to take up his father's share of the work while the man himself wasted away in his bed. He went to sleep aching each night and woke up aching each morning, but the way his body hurt was nothing compared to the pain of knowing his father wasn't getting any better.
No matter how hard he tried to pretend, his was not a happy existence.
He resented himself as well, for that dim, flickering hope in the back of his mind, for the little voice that suggested all-too-happily that he might meet his end in this hole. Izuku didn't want to die, but he knew that if death came for him, he would not run.
As he rounded the first turn in the cave, the floor began to slope gently downwards, and the light of the sun penetrated no further into the inky blackness ahead. With a grunt, Izuku knelt, untying the torch he'd attached to his satchel and striking his tinderbox over it until it caught. His father, he knew, possessed enough of an affinity for fire magic to light torches and small fires on his own, but it was something Izuku hadn't seen since childhood, and he himself lacked this gift.
Returning to his feet, he continued deeper into the cave, its walls glimmering wetly in the flickering orange torchlight. It was, for the most part, not topographically dangerous, but he knew it connected to other cave systems across the continent, including - distantly - the Críoch, known as the deepest, most dangerous caverns in the world and supposedly the heart of every cave system in the country of Áit Dearmadh.
The floor soon evened out again, becoming softer; his footfalls fell silent, softened by the spongy cushion of runoff soil that covered the stone here. Here and there, deep cracks in the earth above let in fleeting beams of dusty sunlight, and fronds of some fern sprouted where they fell.
It was, Izuku reflected with a grimace, truly amazing how hardy life was.
He shortly came upon a water-carved "room" of sorts, and seeing no signs of other life - neither the unfortunate remains of his predecessors nor more traditional evidence such as footprints or waste - he decided he'd rest here for the time being. The heavy scent of growing things would mask his own from the creatures that lived further in; most if not all of them were blind, so he was free to light up the cave as much as he pleased, but they possessed acute senses of smell and hearing. When on the move, the biggest attractor was the rhythmic clanking of his boots, but when he remained stationary, he was more likely to be detected by smell, so setting up camp in particularly pungent areas would be necessary. Actually finding those areas was the least of his worries - between the cavern's fungi, sulphur deposits and the inevitable slew of corpses he'd find, he doubted there was a shortage of foul scents down here.
If there was one good thing about having no affinities, it was that he'd learned to rely on his own intelligence and physical ability. While the other boys focused on reemerging from the cave as heroes, to be lauded by their peers and elders, Izuku focused on learning the cave itself, studying relentlessly to ensure his own survival.
It's not as if I'll be praised for coming out alive, he reasoned. Instead of going after the head of a monster or something, it's best to get by as smartly as possible so I can go home.
Sheltering in a small, u-shaped bend to the left of the sunlit chamber, Izuku slid his treasured notebook from his satchel. He'd debated briefly when packing on whether or not it was worth the valuable bag space, but eventually he reasoned that the knowledge it contained was just as valuable a tool for his survival as the sword at his waist. The book itself was a leather-bound volume he'd saved up for and purchased at the next town over; the town had its own library, and he'd spent quite some time researching the things he might find in this cave, from hostile life to environmental hazards. Upon returning to his village, Izuku had filled up another several pages with what information he could wheedle out of the few people who'd willingly speak with him - information on those who'd failed the trial, information on the trial itself, the rumors surrounding it. The result was a rudimentary guide on what he could expect in the days to come, as well as how to deal with it.
Leafing through the pages, he paused at one titled Surface Layer. Up until now, he'd been in this layer of the caverns, where if he were to burrow through the wall in a straight line, he'd eventually emerge from a hillside above sea level. The next layer was the first upper layer, where some relatively non-threatening organisms unique to the caves lived. He'd have been fine simply camping out in this chamber for a couple of days, sneaking berries from the woods just outside the mouth of the cave when nobody was around, but the trial mandated that he venture into at least the middle layer and bring back some proof that he'd done so.
According to what he'd read about multilayered cavern systems, the middle layer represented the last layer that an adventurer without a party could safely explore. This wasn't to say any adventurer could tackle it, but rather that even a highly skilled one wouldn't stand a chance by themselves in the lower layers. He wasn't required to explore the middle layer in any capacity, so his task was actually "reach the end of the upper layers", whereupon he could grab something from the entrance of the middle layer before heading back up.
Upper Layer 1, he read, in his own careful handwriting. Scanning the page, he located what he'd been searching for: Ecology.
First upper layer is populated mostly by creatures smaller than one's forearm. True "monsters" will occasionally make their way up from the second upper layer to find prey, but for the most part, the first upper layer is safe.
Following was a detailed sketch of something resembling a butter clam, immediately preceding a drawing of a rat with a second set of legs sprouting from the tops of the first and reaching for the sky above. Grotesque as they were, neither was particularly threatening, and he turned his attention to the second upper layer, where the first true threats would make their appearance. Considering the nonzero possibility of one of these wandering up to hunt eight-legged rats, he figured it would be wise to read up sooner rather than later.
Upper Layer 2's section on Ecology began with the ubiquitous giant spider, a monster he wasn't particularly afraid of. Their venom was nasty, but due to the limited range of their fangs, a wary target was able to keep out of striking range with ease. Izuku had actually killed a few of these himself during harvest season as they wandered through the fields in search of prey, ripping them in two with a well-aimed scythe strike or pinning their fat bodies with the tines of a pitchfork before finishing them off with his father's shortsword. He'd actually come to look forward to these encounters, for they gave him a chance to feel as if the weapon arts techniques he'd practiced hadn't gone completely to waste. Even if he was unable to get his life force to manifest, simply being able to circulate that energy throughout his body and weapon heightened his senses and deepened the connection between mind and body, giving him an edge against someone or something unable to use the technique.
The other monsters in the second upper layer were endemic to the caverns, but still relatively mundane: a blind, two-meter snake that navigated by smell and touch; a pale, eyeless bat that clamped onto the heads of echolocated prey to drink the blood that ran through their veins; centipedes that would detect mammals' body heat and drop on their unfortunate quarry to sink their paralyzing fangs into some vital point. The first two didn't particularly bother him, as their size and method of movement would alert him to their presence, but he found the last terrifying, and he'd actually brought along two things to protect himself.
The first was a straw hat. It wouldn't protect him like a helmet, but if a centipede were to fall on his head, it would be a simple matter to throw down the hat and kill the bug. The second was, like his shoes, of his own modification - he'd cut off the buttoned collar of one of his father's shirts and sewn on several layers of leather strips to create a rudimentary neck-guard.
Speaking of his shoes, the metal soles had been intended to protect his feet from protruding rock and help him keep his footing on slippery terrain (two things that the leather soles beneath the metal hadn't done), but the noise of his footsteps was proving to be more than a little irritating, not to mention dangerous. There was never a way for me to be perfectly silent, but I could have at least not made everything worse, he scolded himself, longing for wind magic's ability to create muffling cushions of air underfoot as one walked.
He checked the magically-etched stone he'd been given for the purpose of the trial and found that he'd been in the cave for two hours. Deciding he'd rested enough, Izuku slid his notebook back into the satchel, then picked up his torch, hauling himself to his feet and heading back out into the last sunlight he'd see for a while. At the chamber's edge, he took a deep breath, then his first step into the downward slope that led to this cave's first upper layer.
The first rat he saw startled him, but as he made his way along the tunnel, Izuku grew used to their company. They didn't seem particularly interested in him, scurrying to and fro at the edges of the torchlight as they went about their own business. A couple of times, he came across holes in the cavern walls, but their origin and purpose remained unclear until an ant the size of his fist dragged a dead rat into one and vanished, chitin glittering orange in the light of the fire.
An hour into this layer, he found the first body.
It was old, and he doubted he was the first to run across it. From what personal effects hadn't decayed or been stolen, he figured it was someone who'd failed the trial, but he had to wonder: how did they manage to die here? They had died sitting up against the wall, so there was always a possibility they'd been injured in a lower layer and succumbed up here. The thought was sad - bleeding out alone in the dark, knowing you'd never have a proper burial - but he couldn't dwell on it, and after giving the skeletal figure a cursory once-over for anything he could use, Izuku went on his way.
Towards the end of the first layer, he encountered a spider that had wandered up from the second, and while he lacked a long-hafted weapon this time around, his prior experience with these spiders had taught him that they weren't particularly intelligent. It would attack first, and that would be his window of opportunity.
You can do this. Breathe, he told himself. Focus. Pour yourself into the weapon.
The familiar sensation of flowing energy hit his nerves, and he exhaled through his nose, closing his eyes for just a moment - then, as he felt his life force enter the blade, he stepped forward and darted to the left with a fluid agility he'd lacked seconds prior. Threatened by his approach, the spider lunged, but his sidestep foiled its attack, and without missing a beat, Izuku turned and drove the shortsword up to the hilt into its head.
Its legs twitched as it died.
After slaying the spider, a weary Izuku made camp roughly fifty meters from the entrance to the second layer. Between his chosen sleeping space and the gaping rift in the rock that marked the border between the two layers, a powerful odor of rot filled the cavern, and he figured it would effectively mask his own scent from the predators no doubt lurking below.
He didn't want to extinguish his torch, but he also didn't want to exhaust his supply of wrappings and oil or do something like light himself on fire while asleep, so with a grunt, he resigned himself to a quiet, dark night. Upon covering the torch with the thick leather extinguisher tied to the handle, he saw that the passage ahead was actually dimly lit by patches of bioluminescent mushrooms that grew along the walls. They were, he assumed, also responsible for the overpowering stench, and he was grateful for them.
Izuku slept fitfully, for he couldn't have slept soundly even if he'd so desired - there was too much at risk for deep sleep. When he awoke, he checked the time-stone again; according to the stone, he'd taken six hours to traverse the first upper layer, and if he wanted to be back at this campsite by ten at night, he had seven hours each way through the second upper layer. That would give him the third day to head back through the first upper layer and surface layer and...return to his life, he supposed.
Am I even getting anything out of this? he groused to himself. I'll come back out, they'll see I survived, and I'll go right back to the same life until Father dies and...then what? He and his mother were both in good health, well enough to travel. Perhaps they could sell the property and work their way up in a town where they weren't the subject of half a dozen rumors. Maybe they could head to Eolas - where he'd bought his notebook - and Izuku could find some work with the library. He'd be dismissed at first, but once the librarians learned he could read and write, he was sure they'd at least consider taking him on in some role or other.
Still, that wouldn't be for some time. The one Healer who'd come out to see his father - accompanied by a Manipulator, whose role was to constantly redirect and confine any and all magical energies around Hisashi in order to protect the Healer from possible plague magic contamination - had explained to Izuku and his mother Inko that Hisashi was not the only person with this disease, and that its spread had been a slow but steady trend from east to west. According to the Healer, the cause remained unknown, but those affected could live for anywhere from five to twenty years after infection. Hisashi's was progressing slowly, and Izuku would be an adult before his father finally passed.
Agonizing as the situation was for all involved, Izuku gave himself a mental slap for focus. He loved his parents, and he was down here so that he could come home safe to them tomorrow. Yes. That's what I'll do. I'll show up at the door tomorrow afternoon as a man.
He decided to retract his earlier lament. He was getting something out of this: time to think.
Relighting his torch, Izuku hurried through the passage of rot-shrooms only to find that the odor disappeared entirely the moment he stepped into the second layer, meaning that the fungi weren't rot-shrooms at all. Something had died in the passage or one of its branches. Unfortunate for the deceased, but handy for Izuku.
As he traversed the second layer, however, he became increasingly aware of the marks all along the stone walls. They were all around the level of his knees, alternating between three vertical gouges and a long, wavy scrape that continued unbroken for a couple of meters at a time. He also didn't find any living second-layer predators, though he did come across a butchered bat and what looked like a much larger version of the butter-clam worms from the first upper layer. It sprawled dead across the floor, three deep gashes along what he could only assume was its underbelly.
Something was wrong here. Izuku could feel it was wrong. He should have been fighting off bats and bugs and whatever other low-level predators hunted here. He should have been worrying about what might be crawling overhead rather than what might have been lurking deeper in. The trial was harsh, the trial was stupid, the trial was dangerous - but the trial wasn't meant to kill anyone, and if someone was well-prepared and at least competent with a weapon, the first two layers would not pose much of a threat. The middle layer experienced a difficulty spike, as did each successive layer, but they were only required to reach the middle layer, and he was certain nothing capable of carving stone with its claws lived near the entrance...
Then he came upon the lair and, for the first time, he felt fear.
The chamber reeked. He was sure that it hadn't always been a lair; this particular cave was fairly straightforward, as the main passage did not branch or fork. It had been carved by a single stream thousands of years ago, and were it not for its connection to the Críoch, it would have made a fine attraction for affluent would-be spelunkers. It consisted largely of a spacious, singular passage, punctuated by chambers where the stream had run up against a strata of harder rock and pooled, wearing away the soft rock behind it and to the sides before eventually making its way through the bedrock ahead.
The fact that whatever had made this den had made it in an existing chamber reassured him that there were likely few of them in the layer, as the chambers lay few and far between. The fact that this cave was largely a single passage sent chills down his spine. If he kept walking, he would no doubt encounter whatever lived here, unless by some stroke of luck it had crawled into a smaller passage in search of prey.
Raising the torch, Izuku swept around the chamber, inspecting the contents of the lair with his sword in the other hand. There were quite a few bodies, but most of them were old, and as the most recent boy to pass the trial had mentioned nothing about such a lair, Izuku figured it had been taken over sometime within the past six months or so.
The equipment on the bodies piqued his interest; attached as he was to his father's shortsword, he couldn't deny that it was a shoddy weapon. He'd sharpened and polished it, but its craftsmanship was mediocre at best, and the blade had grown brittle with age. The armour on several of the bodies was also tempting, particularly the limb guards, which would give him much-needed protection against biting monsters.
Forgive me, he thought, dropping to one knee and beginning to remove the vambraces from a pair of skeletal arms. I'm in far more danger than you are.
He began to circulate his own life force throughout his body, straining to pick up on any sound of an approaching threat. For the first few minutes, as he fitted the vambraces to his own forearms, there was nothing but the faint rustling and clanking of leather and steel - until he heard the first scrape.
Horrid chills shot down his spine.
The sound had come from further ahead in the tunnel, and Izuku took up a position to the side of the chamber's exit. He definitely couldn't hide, and even if he ran, his boots would draw its attention - and it was likely that this thing was faster than he was.
No, he would have to fight. He'd get the drop on it as it entered the room, which might at least give him an advantage to press.
A fine sheen of sweat formed across his skin. His heart pounding, Izuku listened as whatever it was drew nearer and nearer, until the scraping was right outside the chamber and he could see something pale and disfigured by the light of the torch he'd left on the floor -
With a scream that was part terror, part desperation and, unexpectedly, part rage, Izuku lunged for it, a surge of fear and revulsion shooting through him as the blade stuck and snapped off in the creature's dense, milky-white hide. In a brief moment of clarity, he studied with detached fascination the jagged edge of the hilt in his hand, the trickle of dark, gooey blood oozing up around the broken blade - then the thing, whatever it was, turned and clamped its jaws down hard on his arm.
The vambrace he'd just put on protected him from its fangs, but there was no denying the strength in this creature's body; the pressure of the bite alone was enough to send an intense ache into his bones, and with an irregular jerking twist, it flipped him into the air and tossed him across the chamber to crash into a pile of discarded weapons. A dozen rusted swords clattered across the ground, banging against the cavern floor loud enough to make his boots sound whisper-quiet by comparison, and Izuku, disarmed, scrabbled frantically at his sides in an attempt to find something to protect himself with before its next attack.
its head swung to and fro, trying to track him, and only then did Izuku realize that it was blind, eyeless, tracked him by sound, and the ringing, grating clash of steel on stone had it confused. With a great, snarling leap, it pounced on one of the swords instead, a two-handed blade with a decaying leather grip, and he expected the metal to break under its jaw strength, but -
With a blast like gunpowder, the edges of the blade lit up with flame, and it rocketed backwards out from between the monster's fangs, slicing through its gums like butter and shooting pommel-first across the chamber towards Izuku. Without thinking, his body and mind still pulsing with his own life energy, he reached for it, and the weapon seemed to slow midair, letting him catch it; he pulled it closer and slid his right hand up to the guard, and as the beast howled in pain, he got his first good look at it.
"Dog" was the first impression he received, and it definitely had a canid body, but that was where the similarities stopped. It had no external ears, merely a lotus-pod pattern of holes to either side of its head, and it was completely hairless, its skin the color of curdled milk and stretched unnaturally smooth across its spine. If Izuku had been a less rational person, and especially if he hadn't studied the Áit Dearmadh caverns before the coming-of-age ritual, he'd have thought it was some kind of aberrant, otherworldly entity come to kill them all, but even in his panic, he recognized it as a cave wolf.
Cave wolves were considerably stronger than those on the surface and well-adapted to life underground, with claws able to gouge grips into smooth rock faces and full dependence on hearing and smell. This one moved in a twitchy, jerking fashion, but it wasn't sick - it was phocomelic, two of its legs malformed and twisted. One was simply awkward, but the other was almost useless, and if Izuku had to guess, it had come up from the middle layer in search of prey. It was even possible that its own pack had abandoned it, and he was struck by a pang of pity.
You're a lot like me, aren't you? They thought you were beneath them and cast you out, even if the rest of you is still perfectly capable, he thought. This wasn't exactly a fair comparison - a wolf that struggled to hunt and a human who lacked nonessential abilities - but the sentiment was there, and Izuku gave a wry half-smile. And yet, he mused, both of us are still trying. We each came to this layer of the cavern to keep on going, even if we didn't want to. Why is that, anyway?
As if in response, the cave wolf closed its mouth, blackish blood running down its lower jaw, and tilted its head. Its eyeless face turning to regard him, it snarled again, and Izuku realized that down here, sentiment held no value. He murmured his thanks to the weapon, then began to coax his own life energy into its form - and the rusted old greatsword blazed to life, arcs of energy rippling along its nicked edges and up the pitted flat and flashing in every color from blue to yellow to red before settling on a cool green and shooting back down the blade and up his own arms.
As the monster charged him again, Izuku swung the sword, aiming to intercept its leaping attack with a vertical, overhand slash. Even with his senses up, he didn't register the way the weapon lit up or realize his own body had moved until the cave wolf's body lay torn in two at his feet and searing agony screamed through his upper arms and into his shoulders.
He dropped the sword, and the light drained from it, leaving it once again nothing more than a rusty old strip of metal.
Falling to his knees, Izuku breathed out something between a sigh of relief and a hiss of pain, studying his arms. The vambraces covered his skin, but he imagined that beneath them, his tendons were angry, inflamed, throbbing and burning.
The sword lay quiet and mundane upon the cavern floor. Izuku stared at it a moment, wondering what exactly it was had just happened. Perhaps his sudden strength had been an adrenaline rush, and he'd simply imagined the lights popping before his eyes? Regardless, the sword was certainly a solid weapon to cleave through such tough flesh and bone the way it had, and he gave silent thanks for its service before he left it to rest alongside whatever remained of its owner.
He pushed himself wearily to his feet, wincing as hot pain lanced through his forearms, and realized - he could bring the cave wolf's skin back as evidence he'd been to the middle layer, right? Relieved that he wouldn't have to continue his descent with no weapon and damaged arms, Izuku drew a knife, making his way to the cave wolf's body. Carefully, he skinned one half, then the other, bundling the skins into wet rolls and tying them together with some twine he'd brought along. He gripped his knife gingerly as he made his way out of the chamber, back the way he'd come, but a rattling scrape from right behind him made his blood run cold.
More of them? I'm dead, I'm dead, I'm -
Something bumped his ankle playfully, and he turned to see that the sword he'd used was right behind him, laying flat on the floor.
For a moment, he stared at it, the previous moment's icy terror still running through his veins. Then he took another step forward, and the sword followed like a puppy, dragging itself along the ground.
You've gotta be kidding me was his first thought.
The concept of an enchanted sword wasn't a foreign one in the slightest - hell, most quality weapons were specially smithed and crafted so as to synchronize with, control and maximize the wielder's life force output. The concept of a sword that moved on its own, however, was completely unheard of; now that he thought about it, hadn't it ejected itself from the cave wolf's jaws into his own hands?
Swallowing hard, Izuku leaned down and, ignoring the protests of his damaged arms, carefully picked up the sword. Its weight was comforting, if on the heavy side for a sword, and at his touch, the weapon hummed to life once again, vibrating faintly beneath his palms. In the darkness of the cavern, the blade glowed a faint, flickering green.
"What are you?" he murmured, rubbing at the rusted metal with the back of one finger, and as if in response, the humming grew in volume. It was almost as if the weapon had its own life force, but...that's impossible. Weapons aren't alive.
Izuku might have been rational, but he wasn't an idiot. The world was old, the gods older, and there were plenty of cases where adventurers or institutions had stumbled across or located ancient artifacts that were, in retrospect, perhaps best left sealed away. The odds of him encountering such a thing were low, but they weren't zero, and looking back over the chamber, he reasoned that one of the boys who'd failed the trial had ventured further into the middle layer - where the cave became more than simply a winding, single tunnel in the rocks and began to branch and expand as it encountered other cave systems - run across the sword, brought it back, and…
Hang on. How did he die if he had a weapon like this? Don't tell me that cave wolf killed him - that thing couldn't even handle the sword on its own.
Something further down the tunnel made an unpleasant skittering sound, and Izuku decided that thinking was an activity best reserved for safer surroundings. Fitting the sword as best he could into the straps of his bag, he set out for the surface.
The trip back was uneventful, but it was long and he was tired; thankfully, the "shortcut" he'd encountered in the form of the cave wolf had given him eight extra hours, and by the time night fell on the surface, he was already back at the surface layer, giving him the night and morning to rest before returning to town.
He set up camp in the first spot he'd rested - in the chamber with the ferns - and leaned back against the wall of the cavern, moonlight drifting down through the fissures in the ceiling. Here, he laid the sword across his lap, studying it by the light of his torch. The moment his hands left the grip, it fell still and silent, and to all appearances, it was nothing more than an old greatsword in desperate need of either repair or (at worst) salvage. Do artifacts rust? he wondered. You'd think they'd have some enchantment or other keeping them from degrading like this.
Briefly, he debated whether or not it was some sort of evolved form of mimic - monsters capable of taking on the shape of an object they'd encountered before, be it natural or artificial - but he quickly dismissed the thought. A mimic would have torn him to shreds long ago, and they certainly weren't capable of letting him release whatever kind of power he'd just unleashed upon that cave wolf…
When morning came, a lightly slumbering Izuku woke, the sword still and innocent beside him; he'd fallen asleep studying it, and his body screamed in protest as he sat up from an incredibly uncomfortable position. Ignoring the pain, he wrapped and oiled his torch one last time, lighting it again before setting out for the cave entrance. In what felt like no time at all, he was back in the unexpectedly bright light of the sun, and he had to squint the entire half-hour walk back to the village.
Now that the trial was over, he figured he'd notify the elders, then head home. What he'd do with the sword then was beyond him; it was in such bad shape that he would likely be allowed to keep it, and he'd have to explain to his parents where he'd gotten it. He'd also have to apologize to his father for breaking the shortsword, though he'd at least retrieved the blade from where it had snapped off in the cave wolf's thick hide.
Still, if this sword was indeed some sort of ancient weapon, why had it attached itself to him? It clearly possessed the power to save its previous wielder, but they'd died anyway, so he doubted it was simply looking for a free ride out of the cave. No, it had likely chosen to lend him its power, and with a sort of thrill, he allowed a childish part of himself to entertain the idea of being the chosen one.
That's ridiculous, though, he eventually reasoned. If I were some kind of chosen one, I would have been born with affinities and had a better life. The rueful smile that came to his lips then surprised him, and he actually laughed out loud. I think the tension is getting to me. I'm sure I'll feel better when I'm back in my own bed.
After three days underground, the surface was almost overwhelming, but he found a new appreciation for the freshness of the air, for the songs of birds and bugs, for the color in the world. He thought he'd have embraced death with open arms - but when it came for him, he'd torn it apart, clinging to life with the ferocity only a dying thing could muster. Here now was the life he'd held onto so tightly, and it bore a beauty only one who'd seen death's barren face could truly appreciate.
Gazing up at the sky, Izuku hadn't noticed that he'd already made it back to the village outskirts. A group of children several years younger than he played a game by the roadside, some kind of sport where they all carried large, painted wooden paddles and hit a ball around.
"Yeah," he shot back automatically, keeping the inflection out of his voice. "I know." In truth, he didn't, but most of the time, when a younger child called out to him, it was to relay a rumour he'd already heard dozens of times and that they must have just picked up from their peers or parents.
"How could you know what we were gonna say?" a girl asked him, wrinkling her nose. "I bet you don't even know what the game we're playing is called."
"Does it matter?" Izuku sighed, too tired to care. "I'm going to see the elders. Enjoy your game."
Without warning, one of the other boys slammed his paddle into the ball and sent it flying straight for the back of Izuku's head. He didn't see it until it had already struck him, knocking him off-balance and sending a sharp bolt of aching pain through his head.
Definitely not the chosen one, he agreed. I'm getting bullied by a bunch of twelve-year-olds. How pathetic is that? Sword, do you even know who you handed yourself over to?
As if in response, it hummed against his back, and a thought that most certainly wasn't his own made its way into his mind.
You could hack those children down to their boots if you so desired, but even in your pain, you bear them no ill will. Your thoughts are only of those for whom you care deeply.
Izuku stopped in the middle of the path.
"What's the matter, Midoriya?" another girl taunted. "Did that hurt?"
"Leave him alone. The Plague's probably got his brain by now," the boy who'd first called out to him told her.
He was silent another few seconds. Then he turned, picked up the ball with one hand, and drew the sword with the other, resting the tip on the packed earth underfoot as he spoke.
"Yes, it hurt," he called back, head throbbing. "But I have someone back home who's hurting much more than I am. So - " and he tossed the ball high, gripping the sword with both hands now " - I don't have time to hurt right now, sorry."
Ignoring his discomfort, he swatted at the ball, hitting it back to them. It rolled to a stop on the grass in front of the closest child, and when he glanced up to gauge her response, he found the whole group staring at him as if they were only just now seeing him for the first time.
Izuku kept walking.
He moved further into the village, ignoring the glances and murmurs his mere presence provoked. By the time he entered the hall, someone had clearly notified the elders - they sat in their shoddy makeshift thrones upon some carpenter's attempt at a dais. This arrangement was, Izuku was certain, to allow them to look down on anyone brought before them, though why they all smiled gleefully when he stepped into the skylight at the center of the hall was beyond him.
I know they aren't happy to see me. So what's got them in such a good mood?
"Izuku Midoriya," the village head thundered, ignoring the six other elders seated to either side of him. "You've returned alive from your trial. Prove to us your worth."
Without breaking eye contact, Izuku held aloft the cave wolf skins. "I slew this beast in the cavern's depths and present its skin to you as proof of my manhood," he recited, by rote, feeling none of it.
The elders were silent, and only the village head remained unsmiling. As far as Izuku could remember, the village head himself had always been sympathetic to the Midoriyas' plight, and it had been his influence that had allowed them to stay in the village in the first place. Izuku didn't blame the man for the way his family had been ostracized - how would he have controlled such a thing? - but the fact that the only ones smiling were the ones who took pleasure in his family's suffering made Izuku uneasy.
He held a brief hope that his slaying of the cave wolf would grant him some leniency in whatever they were scheming. It wasn't common for the boys of the village to return with a trophy; more often than not, the monsters were the ones bringing home trophies. This hope was shattered, however, when the elder on the far left spoke.
"Where, pray tell, did you acquire the weapon on your back? Your family does not have the money to afford even that strip of rust you call a sword."
"I picked it up in the cave after my father's blade broke on the monster whose hide I carry," Izuku replied, struggling to keep his voice level through the sudden surge of dread that filled his body. "Why do you ask?"
"Did you take it from a corpse?"
"I believe it may have been carried by one who failed the trial," he admitted, swallowing hard.
"Stealing from the dead is a foul act," another elder proclaimed, her voice ancient and creaking louder than her bones. "This stolen sword and its thief can bring only misfortune upon our village."
"I didn't steal anything!" he blurted out, curling his hands into fists. No. Don't do this. Don't you dare do this. You know my family needs me. You know my father is going to die. Don't do what I think you're going to do.
"Then where did you get it?"
Izuku let himself breathe a moment. When he spoke again, his voice was calmer, controlled. "I pulled it out of a pile of old equipment in one of the chambers. I think someone from one of the previous trials must have gotten it from further in."
There was a pause, then another elder cleared his throat. "So, technically, it was in the possession of the deceased?"
"How could I know?" Izuku shrugged. "The cave wolf threw me into the pile and sent stuff flying everywhere, and I just grabbed the nearest weapon." This last part was a lie, but how was he supposed to explain to them that the sword had thrown itself to him?
The elders murmured amongst themselves. Occasionally, one glanced at him; he could tell by the way the firelight glinted off their eyes. After a few seconds of this, Izuku decided that he was far too nervous to simply stand here with no knowledge of what they were talking about, and so he turned to the basic weapon arts technique of circulation, focusing on the flow of his own life energy through his body. As the effects kicked in, his senses grew sharper, and the first thing he heard was -
"Izuku Midoriya," one of the elders declared, her voice gargling out from behind the wattle of her throat, "are you aware of the repercussions of stealing from the dead?"
"Repercussions?" he echoed, completely lost. "Uh, no."
"Desecrating another's final resting place brings a powerful curse upon the culprit," she boomed, spreading her mottled arms, and Izuku's stomach dropped. Then, in a honeyed, sickly-sweet voice that didn't fool him for a moment: "For one already so cursed…my dear, we as elders are afraid you'll bring naught but misfortune upon our fair village. This is for your own good, you see."
What? What's for my own good? Izuku thought, mind and heart both racing. What are you talking about?
"We can't allow this to continue," another agreed. "First, the Plague upon your poor father...now, a robber, and a grave-robber at that."
His voice heavy, the village head elaborated: "The council wishes to call a vote on the exile of Izuku Midoriya."
The words didn't fully register until, one after another, the hands of the council members to either side of the village head rose; he himself did not raise his hand, but conceded defeat nonetheless, burying his head in his hands with a heavy sigh.
"You see, Midoriya," the elder with the honeyed voice went on, "you've already brought nothing to our village but discomfort and misfortune. It's only thanks to Fergus here - " and she patted the village head's sloped shoulders a little too roughly " - and the will of your parents that you've been allowed to stay this long, but now that you're a man, you are no longer under your parents' protection, and we see it necessary that you leave. Perhaps, in your absence, your father will recover."
Izuku wasn't quite sure how to respond at first; he gaped soundlessly for a moment, then shook himself, trying to gather his thoughts. The elders waited patiently, watching him with their hands folded and expressions of what he could only describe as condescending false pity.
"Why?" he said, at length. "You know my parents aren't going to be able to survive without me. It's too much work for just my mom. Why can't you just let us be? It's not like it's hurting anything to let us live on the outskirts like we've been for the past sixteen years…"
"But that's exactly it!" she positively chirped, clapping her fat hands once. "Everyone believes you to be a Plaguebringer, dearie. What would they think of us, allowing an adult Plaguebringer to continue living under our protection?"
"So you're saying that you're kicking me out to boost your ratings?" Izuku shot back, true anger flaring up in his chest. "Because you think people might not vote you back onto the council if you don't do something to comfort them? How about you try to reassure them that I'm not a Plaguebringer? Don't pretend that you don't know about how all children with Plague affinities are executed by a royal disposal unit."
"But they don't know that," another elder explained, with the detached, half-amused air of one confronting a petulant toddler. "And there's a very high chance that they wouldn't believe us even if we all took your side."
"Look at it this way, dearie," the woman suggested, the smile on her face failing to reach her eyes. "You can finally get away from all of this! Think of it as a second chance."
"And what about my parents!? Are you just going to let them die?" For a moment, Izuku's fingers twitched, and he reached for the sword. Immediately, the two guards stationed to either side of the dais lowered their spears, pointing at him.
"Your judgement has been passed, Midoriya," a previously-silent elder declared. "Take your cursed, stolen sword and think - if you'd died with honor in that chamber, you could have atoned for the suffering you've brought us."
"What suffering!? What do you mean, died with honor!?" he screamed back, feeling too mistreated to care about the repercussions, and before he knew it, his frustrations were spilling over. "You would have liked me to have my throat torn out in that cave where nobody's ever gonna retrieve my body? The caskets at the funerals for the boys who die down there are empty, aren't they? Why the hell do you keep sending boys down there? What do you get out of it?"
He didn't receive an answer. Instead, the woman spoke again: "Guards, please remove Midoriya from the hall and escort him to the village boundary in whatever direction he chooses," the woman instructed, clapping her hands once before addressing Izuku himself. "Dearie, I don't believe someone like you could ever understand why we choose the sacrifice we do."
The guards advanced, giving warning jabs with their spears, but on pure instinct, Izuku drew the sword, and it hummed to life as he parried both jabs with a single swing. They'd been more warnings than actual attacks, but he'd drawn his weapon on them, and belatedly, he realized that he may have just doomed himself. There was no way he'd get out of here now, not with guards stationed all around…
The council, to his surprise, did not start calling for his head - no, they'd taken a collective intake of breath, they'd started muttering amongst themselves, studying the sparking edges of the blade, and the elder addressed him again, her voice now a silky purr. "Actually, Midoriya, my dear...may I ask again where you found that sword?"
"I told you, it was in the cave!" he shouted. "Why? What about it?" Why are you changing your tune all of a sudden?
"It seems we've misjudged both you and your weapon," another elder told him. "That sword...if you are willing to hand it over, we will allow you to continue living here and caring for your parents."
Izuku blinked, still wary, but the words were placating. "You'll...what? You'll just let me go home?"
The elder dipped his head. "Just give us the sword, and all transgressions will be forgiven."
Transgressions? Yeah, right. Still, if this is the only way I can see Mom and Dad again...
"Sorry," he murmured to the sword, shifting his grip so that it lay flat across his palms. "Thank you for your help. But I have to go home. I have people relying on me."
Frowning, Izuku took a tentative step forward, holding the sword out, and the guards moved aside. The noisiest elder reached out to take it, her eyes alight with greed, and as he handed it over, the light seemed to go out of the sword.
To be perfectly honest, he admitted to himself, I'd have liked to keep it, but I'm definitely not going to trade away my parents' lives for a weapon, even if it's...special.
The elder shifted her stubby hands up and down the sword, feeling it up. Izuku retreated as respectfully as he could manage; now that they had what they wanted from him, he didn't have any bargaining chips left, and he wasn't about to blow his second chance.
Unfortunately for him, the sword had other ideas.
Just as the elder gripped the hilt with both hands, holding it upright in front of her face, the sword flared with an irregular, electric light that danced black-and-red along its length before launching itself into the ceiling with enough force to rip the woman's arms off.
For a moment, all present were unable to do much more than stare, too shocked to act. By the time the woman's body began to catch up with her injuries, it was too late; blood pumped from her torn arteries, painting dark splotches on the dais, and as she began to scream in agony, her own arms came crashing to earth, flopping uselessly upon the wooden platform. Two seconds later, the sword floated back down, right into Izuku's outstretched hands, and the other elders began to shout -
"Guards! Seize him!"
"What did you do!? What cruel power is this!?"
"Stop the bleeding - don't you have Healing affinity!? Can't you do something!?"
It was much, much too much - Izuku felt faint - the sword hummed louder than ever - everyone was screaming, some were sobbing - blood was everywhere - she was going to die without a powerful Healer - then someone was shouting for him to go, to run, and he had just enough time to realize that it was the village head before another elder knocked him to the floor with a heavy punch to the face and the guards closed in on him -
The sword jerked his arms upright, and Izuku shouted in a voice that wasn't his:
"Borian art: Anáil Fórsa!"
With a heavy swing of the blade, a powerful gust of wind swept through the town hall, sending the guards sprawling and their weapons clattering off into the shadows at the edges of the room. Acting on pure instinct now, ignoring the way his own arms ached and burned, he sprinted from the hall, still wielding the greatsword, blood flecking his front - the sword shouted through him again:
"Leucetian art: Grásta Tintrí!"
- and then he was moving much too quickly for his body to handle - It hurts, it hurts, it hurts - his muscle tore, his tendons ripped, he would no doubt collapse and die any moment - how the hell did I get out of town already? - his mind couldn't keep up, the sword sparked and crackled -
The adrenaline pumping through his body kept him from feeling too much pain until he'd long fled the confines of the village, and as he let out a choked half-sob, whatever weapon art he'd used lost its effect - how the hell did I use weapon arts!? - and he tumbled headfirst into some bushes.
The last thing he thought of before all the strength left his aching, burning, stinging, screaming body was the bed he'd been so looking forward to sleeping in once more.