The Cult of the Dragon
This semi religious organization was founded by Sammaster, a
powerful wizard favored by the gods with great power, in a manner similar to
(reportedly) Elminster and Khelben Arunsun. In Sammaster's case, however, the
additional power brought delusions of godhood and madness, and he came to
believe that "dead dragons shall rule the world entirely" and began to
work toward that goal. While Sammaster has died, risen as a lich, and fallen
again, his cult lives on, and continues to threaten the Heartlands.
The Cult of the Dragon venerates dragons in general, evil dragons in particular, and specifically dead evil dragons, reanimated as powerful and fell dracoliches. The Cult acts as an information network for its draconian "masters," brings gems and riches as offerings, and encourages evil dragons to become dracoliches.
The Cult of the Dragon is active throughout the Realms but is specifically powerful in the Cold Lands and the North, where dragons are particularly populous (if not popular). Cult member activities include gathering information on particularly rich caravans to be raided, stealing unique items to be offered to their master, and leading raids against their enemies, who in their minds are all those who might oppose the rulership of the dragons.
The Harpers are a semisecret society based in the Heartlands.
The Harpers have seen a number of incarnations through the years, with rising
and falling levels of political power. They are primarily a good-aligned group
that is allied with a number of good churches, and are receiving support from
powerful neutral individuals, including druidic circles. Their aim is to keep
the dangers both of and to civilization at bay, including goblin raids, dragon
flights, and the insidious control of other groups such as the Red Wizards and
the Cult of the Dragon. They believe in the power of individuals, the balance
between the wild and civilized, and the good of humankind and its allied
sentient races. They also believe in preserving the tales of the past, so that
one may learn from those tales for the future. The Harpers attract a wide
variety of character types, but this society is most attractive to elves,
rangers, and bards.
Harpers are spread throughout the North and the Heartlands, often operating in secret. They are by their nature meddlers, and often operate alone or in small groups to achieve their ends. Except when battling long-term foes, it is unimportant to them if their name is connected with their actions (their own tales and songs are another matter). The Harpers are an amorphous organization, and as such have no main base of operations.
Independent merchants generally tend to be individuals who deal
on face value and (at least reputed) honesty. They also tend to stay out of
politics, other than currying the favor of whoever or whatever is currently in
charge of their favorite watering holes and way stops. Merchants trust to their
luck but hire mercenaries as protection, and enough of their goods get through
to make them profitable. The rulership of the lands they pass through is up to
others, including retired members of their craft, whom they trust to give them a
An apparent exception to this is the Iron Throne, a mysterious organization which has been operating over the past decade. Despite its long existence, little is known of its purpose or the identity of its backers.
The Iron Throne operates through agents, mostly low-level thugs and brigands who have only recently taken legitimate employment and entered into the service of the merchant coster. The turnover is apparently high, since Iron Throne agents often seem to lapse into their older ways. The Throne denies all complicity in any criminal acts by their agents, and replaces them regularly. The Iron Throne wishes to maintain a patina of respectability, regardless of how thin.
The veneer has become thin indeed, for the Iron Throne has been charged with attempted assassination of competition, extortion, and thuggery, trading weapons to inhuman tribes, and trafficking in smoke powder, poison, and drugs. There have been frequent reports of conflicts between Iron Throne caravans and agents and those sponsored by the Zhentarim, and reports of Throne disputes with the tribes of the North and the Goblin Marches. The Iron Throne has recently been banished for a year from acting within Cormyr.
Some say that the Iron Throne members are secretly agents of the Zhentarim, or of Cormyr, and previous actions against those groups are only to hide their trail. Some mention that some god is involved, such as Cyric or Lliira, or that some dead deity is using the Throne as a stage for resurrection. Some talk of undead beholders, sentient lizards, or pale blue sea giants as the true masters of the merchant company and the secret of its power. The truth remains to be seen.
This group is also known
variously as the Council of Lords, the Lords' Council, and the trade barons, and
was formed to oppose the Zhentarim and their agents. It is a lawful and
essentially good alliance of the rulers of the cities of the North and the
Western Heartlands. These include Waterdeep, Mirabar, Neverwinter, Silverymoon,
Baldur's Gate, Elturel, Berdusk, Iriaebor, and Sundabar. The Lords' Alliance is
not to be confused with the Lords of Waterdeep, though members of the latter
belong to the former.
The Alliance communicates through official envoys by means of the trained pigeons of Piergeiron the Unmasked Lord of Waterdeep and by the magical arts of Khelben "Blackstaff" Arunsun. In this way Alliance agents have successfully coordinated military operations against the Zhentarim annexation of an exclusive overland trade route, limiting that organization to its base in Llorkh.
The Lords' Alliance is an alliance against the Zhentarim, and while the lords stand firm against the encroachment of the Black Network, they are less cohesive in other matters. The Zhentarim hope to use such differing attitudes toward trade, magic, and treatment of nonhumans to break the alliance, but to date have failed.
The agents of the Lords' Alliance are varied, and usually swear their loyalty first to one particular lord, then to the Lords' Alliance as a whole. Still, there are a number of adventuring companies and paladins who strike against the Zhentarim "in the name of the Lords' Alliance."
The coastal city of Luskan, north of Neverwinter is not a member of this group, as it receives most of its goods by sea, places a fierce value on its independence that precludes any firm alliances, and is noted for not being above a little trade raiding of its own. The kingdoms of Amn and Calimshan are indifferent to the alliance. It has been rumored that the Empires of the Sands secretly side with the Zhentarim for economic reasons - while there is trade strife in the North, the overland routes within their own borders will be enriched.
The Red Wizards are the rulers of Thay, and the powerful ruling
zulkirs of that land are chosen from among their numbers. The Red Wizards are
abroad throughout the Realms as spies and agents of their kingdom. Their actions
are supposedly for the good of their home government, but each Red Wizard has
his or her own agenda to pursue.
The stated goals of the Red Wizards is to establish Thay as the superior political and magical force in the Realms. The Wizards' chief opponent has historically been Mulhurand, since Thay is a former principality of that ancient country, but in recent centuries their attention has been redirected westwards, towards the cities in Cormyr and Sembia, and in the direction of strong concentrations of magic in the Moonsea, the Dales, Nimbral, and Halruaa.
The Red Wizards are many things, but one of the things that they are not is subtle. Swaggering, boastful, loud, insulting, and dangerous, yes, but never subtle. It takes great personal danger for a Red Wizard to affect personal humility, no matter how slight, and tolerate even the most subtle reproach as to the superiority of the Thayvian people. Despite this, there are always (apparently) new Red Wizards to challenge adventurers.
The Black Network of the Zhentarim is a not-so-secret group of
mages, priests, and warriors devoted to the task of dominating trade, and
therefore power, throughout the Heartlands region. To that end they work to
achieve the downfall of an ever-increasing list of opponents, including the
Dalelands, the Harpers, rival Moonsea cities, the Cult of the Dragon, Cormyr,
Sembia, and anyone else who gets in their way. That which cannot be infiltrated
and controlled must be cowed into obedience or destroyed.
The Black Network is active throughout the Heartlands, but currently has three major bases of operations. Darkhold has been established as a base within the Far Hills, a terminus in the Western Heartlands for caravans from the northern, southern, and eastern Realms. The Citadel of the Raven, hard on the borders of Thar, is a major military base as well. The third headquarters, and birthplace of the organization, Zhentil Keep, has been less influential over the years owing to the rise of the church of Cyric. Despite having a major figure in the church in their employ, the Zhentarim have been less than effective in dominating the new faith, in contrast to the degree of control they had over the church of Bane. As a result, most of the daily deviltry of the Black Network comes from the other two locations, which have the added advantage of having no native civilian population to get in the way (or lead a revolt).
There are three members of the Zhentarim inner circle who oversee all operations within the Network. They are Lord Manshoon, a wizard who operates out of the Citadel of the Raven; Sememmon, a wizard who currently controls Darkhold; and Fzoul Chembryl, a priest of Cyric who maintains the organization of Zhentil Keep.
The Black Network activities in the Heartlands include a number of legal and illegal actions. Trade is a major component of the Zhentarim's income, and they are not limited morally to mere transport of ores from the Moonsea area and finished goods from Waterdeep and the North. The Zhentarim also do excellent business in poisons, illicit drugs, weapons, and slaves. Caravans bearing the black banner of the Zhentarim (and not the coat of arms of Zhentil Keep) can be found throughout the Heartlands, particularly in areas far from prying eyes and normal travel.
Conquest is also high on the Zhentarim agenda, usually using the forces of Zhentil Keep or some other catspaw such as Voonlar or Llorkh. They also make extensive use of nonhuman tribes and mercenaries, usually promised to be paid with the spoils of pillage after the battle. The chief intent in battle is to punish enemies or weaken rivals, and it is usually implemented after failure to take over the community from within. The attacks on Shadowdale ceased during the reign of Jyordhan, a Zhentarim puppet, and have intensified in the years since then.
Assassinations, theft, blackmail, kidnapping, and torture are all acceptable methods to advance Zhentarim goals. Zhentarim have no compunctions about hiding behind aliases or setting up rivals against each other, but usually wish to let their opponents know who is responsible for their downfall.
The Zhentarim have infiltrated a number of thieves' guilds throughout the Heartlands and the North, and have agents in most major cities. In addition, they have nonhuman monstrous allies, and have an especially good relationship with beholders.
The Mages of Halruaa
A rising presence in Faerun
comes from the South, from the mystical and near-legendary land of Halruaa. This
land is reputed to be controlled by powerful wizards, and wizardry there is
incorporated and standardized into common use. It is a land where castles float
on the breeze, water runs uphill to where it is useful, and even the meanest
scullery maid knows a few cantrips to make her job go smoother.
The true nature of Halruaa is best described by those who have pierced its mountainous borders. In Faerun, these mages are best known for their flying ships, which are slung beneath great framed bags filled with volatile gases. These flying ships are the hallmark of the Halruaan mage, and often appear off the coasts of many port cities in the Realms, approaching from over the water, in the manner of standard craft, but remaining "above it all."
The merchant-mages who control these crafts seem above it all as well, dealing in a few items, often of little worth to their owners, and paying extravagant prices. It is said that the mages of Halruaa seek the perfect components for their mighty spells, while others say the act of trading is merely a cover for darker, more sinister acts committed when the ship is in port. What is known is that every sailor on these ships has magical abilities.
It has been increasingly apparent that the mages have a second set of operatives at their command who work more quietly within the great trading cities of the North and the Heartlands. These are shopkeepers, merchants, and common traders who act as the eyes and ears of the Halruaans, keeping them abreast of new developments, particularly the appearance of powerful items of magic. Such artifacts are regularly sought out by the Halruaans, though whether to research them, destroy them, or merely keep them out of the hands of others is unknown. It is known that often after a particularly powerful relic has been unearthed, the city where it appeared receives a visit from the great floating ships of the Mages of Halruaa.
The Shadow Thieves
The Shadow Thieves are a
wide-ranging guild of thieves, spies, and assassins who perform particularly
dangerous, evil-aligned, and lucrative ventures. Their activities, unlike those
of most thieving guilds, are not limited to a single city, and they range the
length of the Sword Coast from Luskan to Calimport.
A group directly opposed to the Lords of Waterdeep and all their allies, the Shadow Thieves are based in Athkatla, in Amn, where they have a massive training complex and a testing ground for the assassins they sponsor.
These thieves were once the thieves' guild of Waterdeep, until they were driven out of that city or slaughtered by the Lords of Waterdeep. The Shadow Thieves have sponsored an assassins' guild in Athkatla with the eventual aim of slaying all of the Lords of Waterdeep. In the meantime, this secretive organization appears to have reached some sort of agreement with the merchant-kings of Amn, who would like to see turmoil in their trade rival, Waterdeep (and perhaps also wish to avoid being on the assassins' list of targets themselves). Under this pact the merchant-kings leave the Shadow Thieves alone and are in turn left alone.
The Shadow Thieves operate up and down the Sword Coast; their trademark is a black silk mask impaled upon a stiletto blade (usually used in assassinations, or left behind at the scene if a garrote or poison is employed instead). No names, levels, or even numbers of Shadow Thieves are known; high-level operators are thought to be few.
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