Adina closes one eye and sticks the tip of her tongue out, trying to paint the line above her left eye in perfect symmetry to the right one. For a moment, she’s almost made it - but then her finger twitches and the pattern is ruined with a bright cobalt smear all the way to her temple.
Adina swears. Behind her back, a laugh sounds:
“Come on, kid! It’s not supposed to be a masterpiece.”
“Shut up, Ashar,” she mutters. She spits on her finger and tries to erase the smear.
“Just saying, you spend way too much time on it,” the rogue says.
“Just because you dump your entire face in paint and call it vitaar,” Hissera says, “Doesn’t mean we all should do the same.”
Adina turns to look at them - and snickers; Ashar’s face is one solid red stain, his features buried almost completely beneath the thick layer of paint.
“You look like something cut your face off,” she tells him.
“Keeps me safe, though,” he grins.
“Doesn’t keep your eyebrows from burning off with your flasks,” Hissera murmurs. She’s midway through her own vitaar, painting a jagged black line across the stitch scars on her lips, turning a former Saarebas’ mark into a toothy grin stretching from ear to ear.
Ashar rolls his eyes. “Fine, you big artists. Wake me up in two hours when you’re done working on your war face.”
Once he strolls off, Hissera comes up to her and kneels down by her side. She looks at the tiny pocket mirror in Adina’s hand and offers her own mirror instead, much larger and embedded in the lid of her vitaar kit.
“That should make it easier,” she says.
Adina nods and mutters a “thank you”; now that she can see her entire face, fixing the smear becomes less of a problem; she paints a new line over it, curving up to the base of her horn, and mirrors it on the other side.
“Good job,” Hissera praises her; Adina grins, happy for the compliment.
“Ashar means well,” Hissera adds.
Adina shrugs. “I know.”
“For some, vitaar is just protection, or a boost to their abilities. For others, like me,” Hissera taps a blackened finger on her painted lips, “It’s a way to show the enemy exactly who’s going to kill them. They put stitches on my mouth, and I tore them open. Compared to that, anything they can do to me is just a joke.”
This, Adina thinks, is why Hissera’s so cool. Her stone-cold stare, her voice that never rises to a shout, but sends chills down your spine. She’s scared of nothing, and everyone knows it, and if they have some brains left in them, that makes them scared of her .
“I wonder,” Hissera says suddenly, “What is it to you , Adina.”
“I…” She opens her mouth and closes it; Adina knows the answer to that question, but it’s kind of embarrassing.
Hissera watches her reflection in the mirror with dark red, almost black, eyes.
Finally, Adina gathers the courage to reply.
“I want to be beautiful,” she says, “But - like - in a terrifying way."
She gives her reflection a bitter glance; four blue lines on her face aren’t exactly going to do the trick, and she knows that.
”…I need to get way better in this, though.“
Hissera is silent for a moment - and then, the black painted grin is broken with the white of her smile. She laughs quietly and ruffles Adina’s hair.
"You will,” she says. “You will, imekari-saar.”
The next time they’re in town, Hissera buys her a larger mirror - and a paintbrush. Adina doesn’t know a lot about art, but she can feel it’s expensive; soft to the touch, but doesn’t bend too easily, and it’s trimmed to have a wide edge for broad strokes and a fine point for detail.
She locks it in her jewelry box, along with the rest of her treasures, and swears in her heart to make Hissera proud.
Ashar begrudgingly agrees to let her practice on him; Adina sees how much he struggles to remain still, tapping his fingers and fidgeting with the buckles of his armor as she covers his face with broad strokes of the same bright blue paint she uses; a basic rashvine mix, to make you sturdier against the elements.
“No offense, Saar,” Ashar mutters, “But I could’ve done that myself.”
“Oh, I’m just getting started,” she says.
“I’m going to be dead by the time it’s done, aren’t I?”
“Sitting still for a moment won’t kill you,” Hissera says, and only then Adina realizes she’s right behind her back, watching.
She swallows and cleans her paintbrush before dipping it into the next paint.
She scatters short, bold strokes all over Ashar’s forehead, bursting from between his brows and curving back down under his eyes, dripping down like tears; a whirlwind mosaic of red, yellow and green - bright and flashy just like the potions he uses. Some of the colors blend and bleed into each other; Hissera passes her a small box over her shoulder, and Adina opens it to find a thick golden paste inside.
“For highlights,” Hissera says.
Adina uses the tip of her brush to paint guide lines over the swirls, giving them direction and bringing out the features underneath the paint. When she leans back to examine her work, it’s not perfect, but it’s good.
She holds up a mirror and taps Ashar on the shoulder:
“You can open your eyes now.”
He blinks a few times, adjusting to the light; then, his eyes focus on the reflection. For a moment, his expression is hard to read underneath the paint - and then, the tall, loud rogue squeals.
“Holy shit!” he whispers.
The first moment of fascination turns into sheer delight, as he laughs and leans closer to examine the shiny gold lines and the vibrant colors.
“Blue is my favorite color,” he says. “How’d you know?”
“I didn’t,” she says, “But I’m glad you like it.”
“ Holy shit , Saar,” he repeats and shakes his his head, still smiling. “This is the prettiest I’ve ever looked killing people.”
She sticks her tongue out. Ashar pats her on the shoulder, then pulls her into a hug. Adina laughs.
“Now, excuse me,” he says, “But I’m gonna go show that off to the entire kith.”
She has to mix Aqun’s paint from scratch every time; the measurements are different from anything she and the others use, and the paint he keeps for daily use is always a boring dark red, maybe a little box of black or white for highlights.
Like it’ll kill you to wear bright vitaar more often, Adina thinks as she rummages through packets of herbs and bottles of pigments and tiny vials with all kinds of extracts; she’s assembled quite the collection over the years, nearly taking over Hissera’s position as the main herbalist when it comes to vitaar.
She keeps the red in her palette, but makes it bright, closer to the color of his eyes; fresh blood, not dry. Black and white are nice too, Adina decides - and she adds a deep blue to them as well; not a common color for war paint, more soothing than intimidating, but it’ll fit him perfectly.
Deathroot solution, a sharpshooter’s paint; the toxin numbs the muscles, makes your eyes water, lets you go longer without blinking - giving you those precious few more seconds of sight in battle.
She keeps the pattern he uses, too; red around the eyes, one corner curves up to the forehead, the other goes down along the nose, then curves out around the mouth like frown lines. Kind of like a bow’s curve - so she adds an arrow in the middle, from the forehead down to the nose, and, after a moment of thought, a couple more on his forehead. A hall of arrows falling down against a dark blue sky, about to tear the enemy to pieces.
“That’s not how arrows work,” Aqun tells her when she mutters those thoughts out loud.
Adina tells him to shut up.
She paints the upper half of his face in blue, and the lower half in black; the red streaks are bright against either background. She accents them with gold, but the pattern is still missing something. After a moment of thought, she dips her paintbrush in white and paints a pair of eyes on the line between black and blue, spiky, like the symbol of the Inquisition.
“There,” she says, satisfied. “Now you’re scary enough.”
He is; if she leans back and squints, the pattern becomes a dark mask of a creature with four eyes and no mouth, made of night and arrows.
Like a demon, she thinks, that sees you and knows you no matter what you try to do about it.
She doesn’t say that part out loud.
“I’ll trust an expert’s word on that,” Aqun says; his speech already begins to slur under the toxin’s numbing influence, but Adina is used to deciphering it. She grins in response.
It takes some convincing for Naish to let Adina do her vitaar - but after she swears on all sorts of things that her paints aren’t going to hurt(they’re not - the kind she’s going to use is harmless even to humans), Naish finally agrees.
The scars on Naish’s lips remind her of Hissera; maybe that’s why Adina thinks of solid black and purple with a highlight in silver, a bit like Hissera’s grin pattern(she almost never changes it, except for letting Adina take over from time to time and turn the painted mouth more realistic, with teeth and one time even a red tongue lolling out; she laughed so much when Adina did that).
Naish isn’t Hissera, though; she might seem just as harsh, but the way she stands in front of the world is different, and so is the way she casts her spells; her determination is not as stone cold, her heart is different, and Adina knows she has to let it show in the pattern she’ll give her.
She starts with black circles around the eyes and a thin line across the lips; the paint is felandaris-based, so Naish can see the spirits a little sharper, and the commands she speaks to them will carry even louder across the Veil. Adina leans back, narrows her eyes, looks at the shapes; they’re almost skull-like, like the tattoos of some dwarves she’s met. She decides to roll with the theme, adding a dark triangle on the nose and turning the line on Naish’s lips into a silhouette of teeth, then outlines it all in silver and adds a few more thin lines with the tip of her brush, framing Naish’s face into a skull shape. It’s grim and menacing, like the creatures she resurrects and bends to her will - now all that’s left to show is the difference.
Adina fans the paint with the wide edge of her brush, helping it dry. Then, when it’s not wet enough to smear anymore, she paints Naish’s eyelids bright purple against the black background of the skull’s eye sockets - and adds swirling lines rising up from them like smoke or magic, bringing life and color to the pattern. She makes their edges curl and bloom like flowers, smiling as she does - and wonders what Naish will say when she sees the result.
Asala giggles as Adina covers her face with a layer of solid white; her hair is tied back for once, so the paint won’t catch up in her bangs.
“It’s cold,” she says.
“I know,” Adina mutters, “But I really need you to sit still if we want to get anywhere.”
“Alright, alright …”
She decides to go a little differently about it this time; the first color she uses is a soft pink, not too vibrant or intimidating. She paints Asala’s eyelids and lips with it, like an Orlesian porcelain doll; Asala giggles again through lips pressed together, but keeps still enough for Adina to draw precisely.
She adds accents in orange and yellow, giving Asala sunset-colored wings at the corners of her eyes. It looks pretty, just what she was going for - but she’s just getting started.
Adina cleans her brush, not hurrying too much; the paint needs time to dry. Then, she opens a box of red paint she mixed just for today and traces the arc of Asala’s eyebrows with bright crimson, drawing upward-curling lines from it like crazed eyelashes. The paint is diluted, and some of it drips down, leaving wet red tracks. It matches Adina’s intentions, so she doesn’t mind at all; next, she lowers her brush to Asala’s mouth again and draws two sharp fangs curving up from her bottom lip.
For the final touch, she uses the tip of her brush to give Asala a little golden flower on each cheek; still pretty and sweet and somewhat doll-like, but a doll that could tear a man’s guts out if she needed to.
“You can open your eyes now,” Adina says; Asala’s eyes futter open, and she smiles.
“How do I look?” she asks with a laugh.
“Like Corypheus’ worst nightmare,” Adina promises her.
“…Can I see?”
Adina shakes her head.
Asala pouts; Adina laughs and leans forward, planting a kiss on the tip of her nose. No paint comes off, but she’s still left with the sour taste of deepstalker venom on her lips.
“C’mon, turn around,” Adina says. “We’re doing your braids next; your hair will hide all my hard work if we just let it dangle like that.”
Bull looks reluctant as he heavily settles on the crate next to her - and, to be honest, so is she.
Adina knows it’s different now, he’s not a crazy Qun-person anymore, he’s one of them now; she thought it had sunk in by now, but by the frantic pounding of her heart she can tell it hadn’t.
This thing she’s about to do - it’s a display of trust on both sides. She never realized that, until something made her think it was a good idea to suggest it to Bull.
They stare at each other for a moment - and then, with a sigh, Bull pulls up his eyepatch.
“Well, Saar,” he says, “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
She picks up her paintbrush, her box of paints; she doesn’t have anything special prepared for this one, no color arrangement, no plan. She tried to think about it, but nothing came to mind - and now there she is, staring at Bull’s face, no idea or theme to hold on to.
She doesn’t know him. How can she show his enemies who he is if she doesn’t know him?
Then, Adina looks at the eyepatch, and a thought passes through her mind; he pulled it up, but he’s going to have it on when fighting. There’s going to be a diagonal line across his face; the pattern would have to work with that.
She dips her paintbrush in red and draws a thick line right where the leather cord usually is. Her hand trembles a little; she doesn’t know if he noticed or not. She leans back, tries to think of shapes, of colors, not of people.
Looks a little unbalanced. She adds another stripe right across the first one, making it a symmetrical “X” shape across the upper half of Bull’s face - or three triangles with the tips meeting between his brows, almost like a half-mask.
Right, right, right. Now she’s getting somewhere.
She picks up the gold paint; usually she saves it for highlights, but not this time. Her mind works at twice the pace; we need something bright, a voice in her head says, bright and big and scary - but beautiful, like sun on a dragon’s scales.
Adina blinks, turns around. There’s no one there, but for a moment she expected to see a silhouette behind her back. Suddenly, she’s quite certain she didn’t pick up the gold paint - it was handed to her, by… who?
A hazy memory of a thin frame, wide-brimmed hat - and then it’s gone.
Adina shrugs and returns to her work.
She paints the spaces between the red lines with solid gold; she forgot to wash the red from her brush and the result is more of a bronze, but somehow that’s even better. She stretches the color all the way up to Bull’s horns, then cleans the brush and goes back to the red, painting long lines over the lower half of his face, dripping down like blood. Struck by sudden inspiration, she switches colors again and carefully paints a scale pattern over the bronze - like a dragon.
After that, just a few highlights in white and she’s done; she holds up a mirror and waits for the verdict.
Bull pulls the eyepatch back on, careful not to smear the paint - shouldn’t bother; it’s already dried, - and inspects his reflection. Adina sees his eyebrows rise; after a moment, Bull hums and nods, and looks at her over the mirror.
“Not bad,” he says. She smirks like it’s no big deal, but she’s not sure how much that really does to hide the huge wave of relief that washes over her at the moment; whatever this was, she survived it, and she even did well.
After all of her friends are set and ready to go, and she’s done admiring her work on their faces, Adina walks away and sits down in the grass with her box of paints and her brush and her mirror.
There’s a bundle that takes up almost half of the box, vials and bottles and small boxes wrapped in cloth; paints she doesn’t use a lot anymore. They’re all perfectly good, and some of them were her favorite colors - but ever since the explosion at the temple, those paints have names attached to them, so she can’t just use them for anything she wants.
Adina unwraps the cloth; some of the containers slide out, clinking together. She runs her fingers over them, picks two; Ashar’s blue, Zahra’s orange. They always go well together, especially if you put a little gold in the middle. Or Kathari’s yellow - but Kathari’s yellow is deathroot, and it won’t mix well with Adina’s special recipe, so she settles on just the two bottles.
She picks them up, turns them in her hands.
“We’re going to another temple,” she tells them. “Elven one, this time - and I might see Corypheus again. If I do, he’s getting what he deserves, I promise.”
She can’t put a lot of paint on right now, so she settles on a simple streak over each eye, blue with an orange rim, and a little bit of gold between them applied with the tip of her paintbrush.
A way to show the enemy who’s going to kill them.
She’d take them all with her, if she could; usually she tries her best to fit as many colors as possible in the patterns she wears, all from the same bundle, each with a name to it. Today, though, Adina has something different.
She cleans the brush and puts it away along with all the different paints, and pulls out a small wooden box; her special recipe. She opens it and breathes the thick, moss-like scent of crushed felandaris and the prickling undertone of lyrium that makes her nose tingle with the threat of a sneeze.
Adina sets the mirror on her knees, dips her fingertips into the paste and draws a four-finger arc on her forehead, then another one on the lower half of her face, curving all the way down to her jaw. She paints an arc on the shaved side of her head as well, draws a ring around her throat and covers every inch of her exposed arms with spirals. The paint is thick and greenish-brown; right now it looks like dry mud than anything else, but the moment she casts her first spell, those lines will light up.
In her mind, she can already feel the stinging on her skin as the lyrium powder burns off, bursting into blue flames, making her figure wraithlike, making her that much closer to being one with the Fade, one with the spirit delivering blows at her side, what she should be. Saar.
She can almost feel the pain, tugging, sharp, not enough to paralyze her but enough to make her see blue instead of red, to feel the path of every single spark of energy passing through her body. The burns will take a few days to heal; that’s why she saves it for special occasions, like this one.
Adina looks in the mirror; her friends’ colors are vibrant and odd against the dark swirls, but they will stay with her when the rest of the vitaar burns away.