Prologue

"Even the most brilliant lights eventually flicker and die. And when they are gone, darkness will return."


"What do you mean, you don't have any ?"

"Exactly that."

Roman Torchwick glared daggers at his vis-a-vis. He had been having a really bad week so far, and it seemed it was about to get worse. It felt as if the entire universe was conspiring to make his life miserable these days. Admittedly this wasn't a new feeling. In fact, it was this very reason he started to walk the path of crime, in a perhaps misguided attempt to punch back at an uncaring world. The fact that said feeling persisted to this day might have been a clue that mistakes were made along the way, but the orange-haired criminal mastermind didn't feel in an introspective mood right now. All he knew is that he had expected his current meeting with Junior to alleviate his foul humor, and that it looked like he was going to be disappointed on that count too. On the other side of the bar counter, the club owner known as Junior – not his real name of course, but Hei Xiong didn't roll off the tongue quite as easily - casually grabbed a glass and began to clean it, a calculated gesture to avoid his simmering anger.

Taking a deep breath, Roman did his best to keep his temper in check and changed tack instead, hoping honey would work better than vinegar. "Listen, my friend. If it's a matter of money, I can assure you this is not an issue. I need people, and I'm willing to pay a lot for them." Certainly more than what their quality warranted, judging by the last batch, at least.

The other man grunted. "No can do. The guys I lent you last time were the last ones I could spare. Way I see it, you wouldn't have any problem if you hadn't went and got most of them arrested to begin with."

And with that, Roman's annoyance flared once more. "They wouldn't have been arrested if they had, I don't know, the slightest bit of competence! When I hired your people, I expected results. Instead they got demolished by a little girl not old enough to have a drink!"

Junior simply shrugged. "Might have been a huntress in training. With Beacon next door, those things happen."

"And what kind of goon-for-hire," Roman drawled through gritted teeth "loses twenty-to-one against a brat who did not even graduate from combat school?" She barely looked old enough to be a first year, for fuck's sake!

"The kind that never went to combat school to begin with," Junior simply answered. "If they had, pretty sure they'd have better options than simply be rented muscle."

While Roman could acknowledge the point, it did little to placate the rising urge to grab the man by his cheap tie and strangle him with it. "From their last performance, I'd say even that seems to be asking a lot of them." Granted, that red terror certainly seemed like a handful, but still! "Listen, as I said, I'm willing to pay, especially for actually qualified help. From what I heard, those two girls of yours-"

"Not happening," Junior interrupted. "They're basically the only thing keeping this place open, I'm not sending them away to pick fights with random huntsmen, no matter how much you offer."

He might as well have talked to a brick wall. At this point, Roman Torchwick felt like he had little choice but to capitulate. "Do you at least have something to drink?"

"That I can do."

Minutes later, Roman was sitting alone with a glass of cheap wine that he barely touched. Gods, how he hated this place. The music was too loud, the lights were too bright, the drinks were too coarse, and the less was said about the smell, the better. He was pretty sure he wasn't getting out of this dump without his white suit suffering some kind of stain, and to cap it off, he just realized he had left his cigars at home. A shame, he really could have used one right now. A miserable way to end a miserable day, he supposed.

How did things turn out so wrong? When that mysterious woman, Cinder, had come to him, he had been so sure this would be his chance to finally rise to the top. The job, a simple dust robbery, was exceedingly simple, and the pay ridiculously good. He wasn't sure he liked the woman condescension toward him, nor the implications that she had more powerful backers waiting in the shadows, but for that amount of money, he was willing to overlook a lot of things. So he pulled it off - flawlessly, if he said so himself. And then he accepted the second job. And the third. And by the time he realized how dangerous his situation really was, it was far too late.

The demands kept increasing in scope and numbers, making it impossible for him to pull it off alone, even with the help of his trusted aide. Neo was invaluable, but there was only one of her. So he had to start relying on hired goons, people he didn't know and who were prone to mess things up. Similarly, the new time constraints forbade any form of intricate planning. Roman Torchwick fancied himself an artist in his domain, but by now elegant heists had to make way for common burglary, sometimes in almost broad daylight. In retrospect, that one of those rush job would turn wrong was probably inevitable.

At this point, he had been ready to call it quits and look for less obnoxious backers. Until he heard of what happened to the others. As it turned out, he apparently had not been the first that Cinder had called upon. And when those had eventually decided to pull out, they were all met with rather gruesome fates, involving flames more often than not. Roman had to admit, that was a good incentive to continue working with the fire-wielding woman. So he kept toiling on, scrapping the bottom of the barrel when it came to manpower, with riskier and riskier operations. Until his luck ran out, and the last attempted robbery turned into a street fight with a red-caped brat who ploughed through his hired muscle, and coming dangerously close from preventing his own escape, especially when a bona fide huntress showed up on the crime scene.

So now he had a big problem. With most of his henchmen in jail just as the unreasonable demands from his contractors kept piling up, he was beginning to run out of options. At this point, the only one he could count on was Neo, but even she couldn't be everywhere at once. And discontenting Cinder, and her mysterious employers was simply not an option, not if he wanted to get out of this alive. Which he did, thank you very much.

Perhaps I should have let Little Red arrest me after all?

A gulp of bad liquor was enough to dismiss that idea. Pft, as if. The people he worked for- the people he worked with seemed like the vindictive type, and he doubted a prison cell would be an adequate refuge from them. Beside, he had plans of his own. Big plans. He had crawled from the bottom and he would rise to the top, no matter what. As for his current lack of personnel... he'd figure out something. He always did.

Taking one last sip from the awful wine, Roman was ready to leave this club behind, possibly for good, when a commotion near the bar counter drew his attention.

"What the hell is this? Those coins aren't worth anything!"

"They aren't? I mean, I know it's not the same money but hey, it's still pure silver! Or so I've been told anyway."

By the bar counter, Junior was glaring at the handful of coins that were just dropped. The target of his ire seemed more confused than worried though - probably a mistake given what the club owner tended to do to bad payers. The Three Bears wasn't a place for pleasant people.

Whether or not the newcomerr counted as such, that remained to be seen. The hapless stranger cut quite a figure among the usual clientele of the club. Tall, with a complexion marking him as a foreigner and long, spiky dark hair tied in a ponytail, entirely hiding one of his hazel eyes, and some sort of dark tattoo running along his neck. The newcomer was wearing some sort of robe, mixing white, purple, orange and red, with an armored pauldron covering a single arm, in a style that reminded Roman of things he'd seen in Mistral. But above all else, it was the weaponry that held his attention: a pair of long, curved daggers to his belt, and a sheathed longsword almost as tall as he was on his back made him a hard man to miss. And Roman could tell from the way the stranger moved those weren't just for show. Was that man a huntsman? They were about the only ones displaying such weaponry in such a blatant fashion; most criminals preferred easier to conceal weapons, such as his own unassuming Melodic Cudgel, which he grabbed on instinct. If this one was a friend of the huntress that had tried to apprehend him, it was possible he was here on his trail. Roman tended to avoid fights when he could, but it always paid to be prepared.

That being said, if the man was after him, he was really good at hiding it; all his attention seemed focused on the furious club owner, who shoved a threatening finger in front of his face.

"Listen, smart guy. This is a proper establishment, where you pay with proper money." Roman couldn't help but roll his eyes, there was very little 'proper' about this place. "If you're looking to barter, try a money lender. So now, how do you intend to pay for your tab?"

Roman knew that Junior's bark was worse than his bite, but most people tended to flinch when a large, angry bearded man gave that sort of warning. Which is why the stranger answering the tirade with a genuinely friendly smile was a little off-putting. "Aww, don't be like that. I'm sure I can repay you in other ways. For instance," for an instant, Roman could have sworn the foreigner's hidden eye just glowed red. "I can kill someone for you if you want."

"W-what?"

The man seemed to misinterpret Junior's surprise. "You don't need anyone killed? That's weird, I thought it was pretty common in those sort of places" He scratched his head. "I can try to stick to maiming, if you really want. Fair warning though, if they fight back, I might get carried away."

The club owner took a second to recover, but when he did, it was with a hand signal to one of his present henchmen. Already, Roman could see Melanie making her way toward the bar – or was it Miltia? He could never tell the difference between the two. "I don't know what you're playing at, and I don't care. If you can't pay, then this will end badly for you."

The foreigner kept his smile, but Roman could see his posture shift, as one of his hand dropped near his waist, making drawing his blades easier should the need arise. The cane-wielding criminal jumped in before the newcomer could answer the threat. "If you don't mind, I'll be picking the gentleman's tab."

Junior shot him a curious look, but didn't protest as a few lien changed hands. The dark-haired swordsman seemed similarly confused, showing no signs of recognizing him. "Oh? Much obliged."

It could be a trap, Roman acknowledged. A huntsman masquerading as a killer-for-hire in order to draw out veteran criminals. But the orange-haired crimelord always prided himself in his ability to read people. And whoever that newcomer was, Roman was convinced he didn't have a deceitful bone in his body. Either the man was the greatest actor he ever met... or this was the opportunity he had hoped for.

"In fact, my friend, if you want anything else, allow me to treat you," he continued with a genial tone. "I wish to talk business, but one can hardly do that with a sore throat and an empty stomach."

"Don't mind if I do!"

Several minutes later, the two of them were sitting together around a bottle of sake. Roman had never been one for this sort of alcohol, but his prospective business partner seemed happy enough with it. "Aaah, that hit the stuff. Too bad they didn't have candied sweet potatoes, that would have make it perfect."

"I'm sure I'll be able to find an appropriate place for that, if that's what you want," Roman casually answered.

That earned him a genuine laugh. "Man, you must really want someone dead, am I right?"

"Today? No. Tomorrow?" He let a pregnant pause settle in. "Who knows? For now, I have a few errands that need to be taken care off, and who might require a bit of muscle to pull off."

"Ah, so this is a long-term job, then?" The swordsman seemed to consider the offer. "I'm not against it, but fair warning, I have a prior thing going on with a few friends. Right now I haven't the slightest clue of where they are, but when they show up again, I probably won't stay around for long." He was quick to offer reassurance when he saw Roman's scowl. "Don't worry though! I pride myself for always repaying my debts."

Hm. Not quite ideal, but better than nothing, he supposed. With luck, those friends of his would never show up. Even if they did, a couple of weeks might be enough to do a good enough job and appease Cinder. "I suppose that will have to be good enough. You seem to be able to handle yourself in a fight?"

The stranger's face grew a smirk that oozed bloodlust, reminding him of Neo in her bad days, and for a moment, Roman wondered if he wasn't about to make a terrible mistake. "Yeah, you could say that. You don't have to take my word for it, though."

Roman cleared his throat, a little bit off-put by his new associates... intensity. Once again, he thought he caught some sort of red glow from under his bang, but that probably was just his imagination... right? "That won't be necessary, I'm sure you'll have the opportunity to prove your worth soon enough." He almost let out a relieved sigh when the stranger relaxed, once again becoming the picture of friendliness. "By the way, I believe I haven't introduced myself. Roman Torchwick, at your service. I'm an... entrepreneur, of sorts."

His extended hand was immediately grabbed. "Rokurou Rangetsu, nice to meet you. Just your average swordsman, I guess."

Definitely from Mistral, it seemed. "Long way from home, I take it?"

Rokurou's smile grew more mysterious. "You have no idea."