Things do not go well here, my friend. Manshoon, in his insanity, is gathering powerful wizards, clerics, and warriors throughout Zhentil Keep for some insane purpose. I have been contacted as well, and rumors are flowing regarding a secret cabal Manshoon is forming called the Zhentarim. I fear the growing evil of Zhentil Keep may soon spread beyond the Emerald Sea, and we will be helpless to halt it. This may be my last contact with you, for I fear for my life. It is difficult to tell whether Edrax -- nay, all of Abios, would be safe from the unbalanced mind of Manshoon. What his exact plans are, only his inner circle has even a hint at. Rest assured, this black network will only bring sorrow and destruction upon us. For the good of the land, I will stay to discover what I can. Should I not return, may Mystra guide and keep you through the years, my friend.
The Zhentarim, also known as the Black Network, is a not-so-secret organization, comprising of members recruited by Manshoon and others within its Inner Circle, whose main goal is to dominate trade throughout Abios. Although controlling trade is its main objective, the Zhentarim is much more than a group of evil merchants vying for wealth. Power is the key to the Zhentarim way of life. The more power one has within the Black Network, the more power one requires -- and the more enemies one picks up along the way. Many contend that the Black Network will eventually consume itself, but history has proven that there are enough greedy, megalomaniacal, and malicious folk in the world to replace those lost to infighting within its ranks. Sadly enough, the Zhentarim is here to stay.
The strength of the Zhentarim lies in its members' magic. The majority of Zhentarim are wizards and priests of Bane
. Rogues and warriors are also considered for membership, but only those of exceptional skill, possessing particularly good connections, or occupying strategic terrain are given the title of Zhentarim agents -- the remainder are sent to the ranks of the Zhentilar
The bulk of Zhentarim wealth comes from the trade caravans it controls, carrying valuable goods of all kinds from place to place (including stolen goods, slaves, and other illegal, high-priced wares, as well as costly legal cargo such as precious gem ore). The Zhentarim's cutthroat mercantile reputation is built on its no-questions-asked practice of handling goods, its use of magic and strong-arm forces to guard shipments, and its ability to always get cargo through -- regardless of the perils. The Black Network tries to get its goods to their destinations faster than everyone else, then undercuts its competitors' prices in an effort to put them out of business (then raising prices sky-high once there is no competition). It also resorts to vandalism, murder, arson, and other acts of sabotage in an effort to establish and control strategic trade routes across Abios.
The Zhentarim began as a group of merchants based in the city of Fallight
with their root of power residing within Zhentil Keep
. Over the years since its founding, the organization has grown to include assassins, spies, an army, and the backing of the Church of Bane
. Once in control of half of the area around The Emerald Basin
, the Zhentarim now struggles to increase its influence across the continent and achieve footholds in the western and southern regions of Abios following catastrophic events in its history. Well armed and supplied, the Zhentarim is supported by powerful wizards and clerics and led by an arch-mage who is the Chosen of Bane himself.
Feared by the common folk, and bearing an evil reputation, the Zhentarim is not a foe that one should challenge without serious intent. As the organization and the church of Bane grow together, its influence is likely to spread even faster, for both groups seek complete domination of Abios. Now even a group of common merchants bearing the symbol of the Black Network is treated respectfully and kept at arm’s length, for the merchants might be under the protection of a powerful wizard or carry magic far beyond the means of ordinary folk.
Functioning very much like a secular arm of the church of Bane, the Zhentarim is organized along a rigid hierarchy of command.
The Zhentarim hierarchy follows a linear branching structure, with Shavok Doz at the head of the organization. Several powerful lords report directly to him, with each lord having subordinates who pass on reports and requests. The Zhentarim discourage skipping ranks in the chain when giving orders, so only in times of emergency does Shavok give orders directly to one of his generals’ officers without that general’s knowledge.
Motivation and Goals
The Zhentarim used to be an organization that focused mainly on the control of trade around the Territory of Achana. With the expansion of its activities into murder, espionage, extortion, arson, and all-out warfare, the Zhentarim have become a political and military organization with as much power as a small country and the desire to see the leaders of rival cities and countries fall into line under the banner of the Black Network. Much as they control most of the Emerald Sea, Shavok would like to see the Zhentarim eventually rule lands that stretch all the way westward to the Onnicia ocean. To achieve these goals, Zhentarim operatives use several key tactics. First, they have extensive merchant contacts in their own lands and nearby territories, and they can move large amounts of goods safely and quickly through dangerous lands. Often their goods consist of contraband or restricted items (such as poison, slaves, or drugs).
Second, they raid enemy caravans, using human soldiers or recruited gangs of humanoids to drive their competitors into poverty. Often these caravans are simply captured and then brought to their intended destination under the flag of the Black Network, providing both a profit from the goods and an implicit understanding from the buyer that the Zhentarim succeed in trade where others fail. Since the Zhents charge essentially the same prices as their competitors, even honest folk tend to buy from them, despite any misgivings over the source.
Third, they use tactics such as extortion, arson, and murder to deter their rivals and opponents in mercantile trade and political activity. Zhentarim agents commonly attack local farmers and warehouses to delay their trips to market, allowing the Zhents to sell their goods first. Sometimes an entire village is held hostage by a group of Zhentarim warriors, preventing the import or export of needed supplies until the Zhentarim’s demands are met.
The Black Network also takes advantage of its access to many spellcasters by secretly agitating local monster populations, causing unexpected attacks upon smaller settlements that a squadron of Zhentarim soldiers (led by the spellcaster responsible for the disturbance) can scare off. Once these soldiers have established a base camp in or near the settlement, they are remarkably difficult to dislodge, especially because they have standing orders to ally with local greedy merchants to justify their presence as caravan guards and assume the veneer of invited guests. If local monsters are not available, Zhentarim spellcasters have been known to conjure hideous creatures, with the same net effect of rampaging native terror.
While the Zhentarim have eagerly sought recruits in the past, the recent upheavals have slowed down its recruiting drives so it can consolidate existing resources in preparation for future expansion. It is still interested in enlisting like-minded wizards to its cause, as well as clerics of Bane, but most other individuals are turned away or simply not offered positions within the organization. Once the Zhentarim are prepared to expand again, it will look for people to fill out all levels of the organization, with a large percentage of the recruits coming from the church of Bane.