The Hell's Vengeance Adventure Path is here, and it's time to reveal the next iconic villain for Paizo's first Adventure Path for evil characters! Today we present the iconic torturer, Zelhara. Check out Pathfinder Adventure Path #106: For Queen & Empire for Zelhara's full stat block, and download the new Hell's Vengeance Player's Guide, which contains all of the new iconic villains for use as pregenerated characters!
Some beings—like those from the Outer Planes—are intrinsically virtuous or malevolent; however, mortals enjoy the unique characteristic of free will. No humans are born evil. They become evil.
Like many children in the Nidalese city of Ridwan, the girl who would one day be called Zelhara grew up in a massive nursery run by the church of Zon-Kuthon. This institution allowed parents to continue their work without having to attend to their children's daily needs, and after a number of years, once the children could physically contribute to the household, they were returned to their families. Agents of Nidal's Umbral Court performed numerous tests on the children during their time under the care of the Kuthite clergy, selecting certain candidates for the state's and church's future needs. Mere weeks before she was to rejoin her family, Zelhara herself was brought before an Umbral Court agent who claimed he could see something in her that pleased the Midnight Lord. One day she would share his message of pain and duty with thousands of fearful inheritors. Her family, loyal Nidalese who worked meager trades in the city, found delight in knowing that their child would one day hold high status in the state.
Zelhara and 12 other children from the nursery began their training at a young age. Unlike shadowcallers, Zelhara and her young companions didn't undergo the scrutiny of a nightglass, but were instead selected by virtue of their mere presence and their reactions to fear and pain. Zelhara proved a severe and obedient child, perfect for the role of a state inquisitor.
After their selection, the children in Zelhara's group were moved into a wing of dormitories within the temple of Zon-Kuthon. The priests began the children's training with religious study and the dark history of their nation. The Kuthites taught the children how to identify enemies of the church and state. The members of Zelhara's group received the best foods at mealtimes, and as long as they performed their required duties and showed the proper respect to their tutors, they were allowed relative freedom to do as they pleased. They were even allowed outside the temple, and granted the privilege to occasionally spend time with their parents, provided they lived within Ridwan. This favorable treatment attracted jealousy and animosity from the young shadowcaller initiates and prospective clerics also training at the temple. Zelhara's tutors told her that the other children were envious because they were too independent and didn't properly understand submission. Zelhara believed it was because they knew they might one day have to withstand her ministrations.
Zelhara's training grew more rigorous as the instruction continued. She and her colleagues were encouraged to invent their own unique methods of inflicting pain and drawing the truth from their victims. Zelhara preferred emotional manipulation and stress positions rather than direct pain, for she believed pain to be a form of religious ecstasy that only the truly devoted could enjoy. As she subjected dissidents of Nidal to her ministrations, she felt strong and grew proud of the service she performed for her nation and her god.
As Zelhara and her companions matured into their teenage years, they moved to their own building in the city near the volcanic rift that splits Ridwan's central square, and their training changed significantly. Their tutors became more strict and abusive. Zelhara, who had been the standout student within her group, started to be treated with suspicion and disdain. She couldn't even perform simple tasks in the dormitory kitchens without being scolded and punished. She and the others suffered beatings, periods of isolation, and the burden of meaningless tasks at all hours of the day. Their old names were stripped away and their tutors provided new ones. The Kuthites forced Zelhara and her colleagues to torture and humiliate each other as part of their training, yet they still gave the students the chance to voluntarily remove themselves from the process and return to their families. Surprisingly, none of the children accepted. Despite their abuse, they wanted to be useful tools of the state, and while their instructors dehumanized them, the children formed bonds with one another, as they had no one else to rely upon. During this period, Zelhara grew close to Tornine, a boy she had known since her time at the nursery.
Finally, Zelhara and the others were judged ready to undergo a ritual called the Descent. More to test loyalty than to extract admissions of guilt, prospective inquisitors are placed in pairs within iron cages, their faces mere inches from each other, and then lowered into the rift in the center of Ridwan where the Midnight Lord is said to have first manifested upon Golarion. The oppressive heat causes intense pain and the cloying smoke makes breathing an ordeal. As the inquisitors are lowered into the rift, they must overcome their own suffering and disorientation to force their counterparts into absolute submission to their authority. Zelhara found herself paired with Tornine, and as the iron cage creaked down into the crevasse, they engaged in a battle of wills. Tornine tried to remain strong under Zelhara's scrutiny as tears evaporated from his cheeks, but Zelhara was unrelenting. She knew her strength was superior. When Tornine began to crumble within minutes of hanging over the sulfurous fissure, Zelhara felt utter disgust for her former friend and continued to disparage him. She didn't give the signal to raise the cage until she knew Tornine had died—just another useless tool to be discarded. Having passed the test, Zelhara achieved the rank of full inquisitor, earning her family's pride and admiration.
As one of Nidal's best and most thorough inquisitors and torturers, Zelhara now travels throughout Avistan in service to her nation and the Midnight Lord. Zelhara claims that, with enough time, she can make anyone divulge what they know—yet she doesn't care for forced statements, when people blurt out anything just to make her stop. Zelhara hears the real voices of her subjects when they scream in agony, and she can smell the truth in the blood that she spills in pursuit of her goals.
Stay tuned over the coming months as we reveal more of the villains you'll see in the pages of our first evil Adventure Path, Hell's Vengeance!