The Zhentarim

"Take from this world what you will. The weak shall fall to ruin. Only those with the will to rule are worthy. Remember always that while your plots in the name of the Black Lord are important, you are still insignificant. Go forth and do my will. To defy me is to die."
-Bane, the Black Lord

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The Zhentarim, also known as the Black Network, is an evil organization intent on dominating the land from the Moonsea to the Sword Coast North. Originally a secret society, for years the Zhents have operated openly in the Moonsea area, particularly around their greatest base of operations, Zhentil Keep. People who live near Zhentarim strongholds grow used to caravans with its symbol but live in fear that someday they will see armies marching under that banner.

While many of the Zhentarim are nothing more than opportunistic merchants, some resort to illegal acts such as attacking rival caravans, extorting villages for food, or more serious crimes such as arson or murder. The Zhentarim hire bandits to attack other caravans and towns, or have wizards conjure up or enrage monsters. Recently they have begun sending older members to frontier nations such as the Silver Marches, where they buy land and become peaceable homesteaders with families, biding their time until they are needed.

The agents of the Zhentarim are well equipped in both mundane and minor magic items. Masterwork items are common, and nonspellcasters usually have at least a potion of some sort. Spellcasters in good standing with the Black Network gain a scroll of two spells of any spell level they can cast every time they gain a spellcaster level (most wizards immediately add these spells to their spellbook).

Fear of this cabal has spread from the Moonsea lands across the Heartlands to the Sword Coast, where everybody "knows" the Black Network is a sinister, murderous organization of spies, informants, armies, and flying-monster-riding wizards engaged in all sorts of secret and terrible activities.

Folk who live in the Dragon Reach lands know rather more about the Zhentarim. They can tell you that it rose to open rule and power in Zhentil Keep, seized control of the Citadel of the Raven from the other Moonsea cities that shared it, conquered Teshendale, Voonlar, and Yulash, and plotted the conquest of Shadowdale, Daggerdale, and Mistledale. The Zhents have entire armies hidden away in the Citadel and a sinister fortress, Darkhold, Somewhere in the Western Heartlands. Zhent gold and sorcery govern affairs west across the Anauroch desert (until the arrival of the shades, anyway) to the vales of the Gray Peaks, east to the walls of Mulmaster, north through the Ride and the Cold Lands to the Great Glacier, and south through the weaker Dales.

The Zhents are soldiers (from black-plate armored veteran warriors to orc mercenaries) commanded by aggressively cruel minor wizards of more ambition than power, who report to truly powerful mages headed by the sly-tongued Lord Manshoon. The Zhentarim seem bent on enriching themselves and controlling towns, villages, and entire realms along a trade route linking the Moonsea with the Sword Coast (specifically the Waterdeep area) via Darkhold. They smuggle slaves, poisons, and contraband.

They have spies everywhere. In their ranks is an evil unholy knight known as the Pereghost and Zhentil Keep's charismatic champion, the lady Scyulla Darkhope. (Scyulla administers the defenses and day-to-day affairs of the Keep itself.) Anyone could be a Zhentarim, and some of them seem to want to seize all the magic they find while others want to rule every town and steading between Evermeet and Shou Lung.

How much of any of this is truth and how much exaggerated speculation (or grave underestimation), is the topic of endless conjecture in whispered conversations across half the Heartlands.


Zhentil Keep (Large City, 14,658): The first human city built on the Moonsea north coast, Zhentil Keep has always been rich thanks to the mines of the northern Moonsea, whose ores and gems flow through it. Perched at the western end of the Moonsea, Zhentil Keep was once a walled metropolis with a population of nearly fifty-seven thousand. It was (and remains) one of the major ports of the Moonsea. At its height, Zhentil Keep was a mass of stone buildings six stories high and spanning both banks of the River Tesh.

The north section was sacked and destroyed in 1368 DR (seven years ago), along with both of the city's bridges. The survivors crammed themselves into the southern section, which had its own fortifications. The Zhents have since rebuilt both bridges and repaired the harbor facilities on the north bank of the Tesh. The harbor has been walled off from the surrounding ruins, and the Zhents are busy repairing the entire wall surrounding the rest of the city.

In many other ways, Zhentil Keep is as it always has been. Press gangs still roam the streets at night, seeking unwary civilians to force into the ranks of the Zhent military (or sell into slavery at a tidy profit). Visitors can expect to be stopped and questioned about their business at any time.

Evil deities, particularly Bane, are venerated in Zhentil Keep. Followers of Cyric, however, are not welcome. After the return of Bane, every follower of Cyric in the city was given one chance to convert to Bane. Those who refused or even hesitated were sacrificed to Bane. Many clerics and followers of Cyric escaped the carnage and fled to Amn. The worship of good deities is not outlawed in Zhentil Keep but it is "discouraged".

Now more than ever, Zhentil Keep is under the iron hand of the Zhentarim. The Black Network survived the destruction of its home city with little damage, because the organization's leaders, agents, treasures, and secrets were hidden in the Citadel of the Raven and at Darkhold in the Western Heartlands. With the fall of the Keep's city lords, the Zhentarim now openly rule here. Fzoul Chembryl, leader of the Zhentarim and high priest of the Temple of Bane, declared himself tyrant upon the death of Lorth Orgauth, the last city lord. As far as Fzoul is concerned, Zhentil Keep is only one of the Zhentarim's bases and holdings, and he administers the city as an armory and haven for the Black Network.

Zhentil Keep currently has a garrison of over two thousand troops and serves as the main base of the Zhent navy (currently nine ships, with more being built). The current castellan and champion of the Keep, Scyulla Darkhope, commands the Keep's army and the city watch. She also oversees Zhentarim interests in the Keep itself and the nearby conquests of of Teshwave, Voonlar, and Yulash, freeing Lord Fzoul to turn his attention to greater designs elsewhere.


Manshoon and Fzoul

The Black Network was founded almost one hundred years ago by a dark and powerful lord of Zhentil Keep, the wizard Manshoon. Through guile, murder, intrigue, and his ever-increasing magical might, Manshoon created a cabal of like-minded wizards (the so-called Black Cloaks), beholders, wealthy Moonsea merchants, and servants of evil temples whose purpose did not cross his - most notably, the temple of Bane.

While Zhentil Keep was nominally under the rule of a council of lords, the real power in the city was Manshoon, absolute master of the Zhentarim. Through a small number of hand-picked lieutenants (chief among them, Semmemon, his second) he ran a secret empire of thousands of merchants, mercenaries, spies, and agents. In the years preceding the Time if Troubles, Manshoon cemented an alliance with Fzoul Chembryl, an ambitious cleric of Bane, to strengthen the Zhentarim even further.

In the last twenty years, the reach of the Zhentarim has extended to every corner of Faerun, forming what amounts to a not-so-secret empire over much of the Moonsea and the North. But the Zhents have also suffered many setbacks, most notably the fall of Bane, internecine strife between Banite faithful and those who turned to Cyric, the destruction of Zhentil Keep in a holy purge, and viscous feuds between Manshoon's Black Cloaks and Fzoul's clerics. The winner in all this turned out to be Fzoul Chembryl, who assumed control over the organization and nearly destroyed Manshoon, driving the archmage into hiding for a time.

At the time of this writing, Fzoul Chembryl is the master of the Black Network, Lord of Zhentil Keep, and the Chosen Tyrant of Bane. Semmemon, Fzoul's longtime rival, has abandoned the fortress of Darkhold and is in hiding, conceding control of the western Zhentarim. Manshoon has recovered from Fzoul's attack and, ironically, returned to the Zhentarim in some kind of secret accommodation with Fzoul. The founder of the organization serves as a member-at-large, a free agent with the power and authority to direct Zhentarim assets as he sees fit in pursuit of power and influence across Faerun.

With the Zhentarim fully under the thumb of Fzoul and the church of Bane, the Black Network is finally starting to see some of its major plans come to fruition. Over time, Fzoul plans to make the Zhentarim an arm of Bane's church in all but name.


Zhent Terminology

The intrigues of Zhentil Keep have spawned a nomenclature all their own.

Zhent: A person from Zhentil Keep or an adjective describing an origin in Zhentil Keep. "Zhentish" is incorrect and brings derision on the user even in places where Zhentil Keep and the Zhentarim are despised. Not all Zhents are members of the Zhentarim.

Zhentilar: A defunct term once used to distinguish the military forces of Zhentil Keep from the forces of the Zhentarim.

Zhentarim: A member of the Zhentarim secret society or the group as a whole. Zhentarim can be in the Zhent army or not.

paraphrased from the Forgotten Realms campaign setting 3.0 Illustration by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

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