Terrified Dalelanders describe seeing the Zhent Headless Horseman galloping through forest crossings and charging through night mists. The Horseman rides the twisted woody forest trails at full speed, trailing mist and mad laughter in his wake. Attempts to waylay the horseman have failed, and the body of would-be heroes are discovered when the mists clear, sans head.
Visitors to the area sometimes dismiss the tale of the Zhent Headless Horseman. After all, a similar story of a mysterious rider lacking a head haunting the Golden Way in Thesk turned out to be a ruse contrived by bandits who enriched themselves by demanding tolls, until they were found out.
However, in retrospect, perhaps the Golden Way bandits conceived of their ruse only after hearing of the Zhent Headless Horseman. All attempts to "unmask" the headless, mist-enshrouded rider have ended in the grisly deaths of the would-be debunkers, who are later found somewhere along the road with their own heads missing.
The Zhent Headless Horseman seems real enough, and the story of his origin can be traced by those with the means and might to get all the way to the truth.
Trials of the Zhentarim
The Zhentarim's Black Network of merchants, spies, and assassins began suffering unexpected reversals several years ago, though few enough realized it. High-ranking Zhentarim wizards covered up the specifics of each disaster, but rumors leaked out nonetheless. Even interested outsiders heard a tale or two about sudden raids on established Zhentarim merchant caravans, the loss of at least two supposedly secret cells in the Silver Marches, and the assassination of at least one important official in Zhentil Keep itself.
Though unsubstantiated, most believe the Zhentarim can trace their trouble to the appearance of shades in Anauroch, shades who claim kin to ancient Netheril now transfused with shadow's grim vitality. What complaint the Netherese have with the Zhentarim is a complete mystery.
Regardless of whether the Shadovar are to blame for the Zhentarim's recent tribulations, one fact is certain: a small Zhentarim garrison northwest of the Dalelands revealed itself, declaring its intentions to act as a source of mercenary might to any with the coin to pay for Zhentarim know-how and Zhentarim connections.
A surprising move to be sure -- when had the Black Network ever before showed any interest in advancing anything but their own schemes? Most suspect the Zhents made the offer in bad faith. Word in the Dales was that even while taking mercenary coin, the Zhents would report their activities all the way to Zhentil Keep, describing what they learned while supposedly pursuing commissions.
Other students of the Zhentarim believed such behavior was simply not in keeping with the egotistical dogma driving the organization. No, proclaimed these naysayers; the Zhentarim must face some sort of real, as yet unrevealed threat for the organization to take actions so at odds with their standard dealings. They suggested the network was attempting a full-on campaign to fill its war chest by hook, crook, and even "legitimate" means.
The "Zhent Mercs" as they came to be known, initially failed to find patrons. Dalelanders had no reason to hire others to deal with the threats gathering on their borders, especially if the cure seemed worse than the cause.
That is until a tribe of particularly vicious gnoll marauders from out of The Ride passed across the River Tesh, and melted into hiding within the green boughs of western Cormanthor.
Unexpectedly, terror gripped the Dales in the form of hyenalike humanoids that smelled of filthy wet dog and blood. The gnolls were either uncannily lucky in timing, choosing to invade while the storied defender of Shadowdale was absent, or else some higher agency sent them when the Dales were vulnerable.
Calling themselves the Beasts of Butchery, this aggressive gnoll tribe personified mindless slaughter. For them, existence was one long, wild opportunity for rapine and pillage. They claimed to be the mortal instruments of Malar, he that personified inhuman savagery. The Beasts took nearly demonic pleasure in causing fear before death, and in causing sorrow and hopelessness through vicious acts of destruction and torture. According to the few gnolls captured alive and at great cost, the Beasts worked toward a day when the entire world would be a wasteland populated only by gnolls feasting upon the heaped bodies of the dead.
When the gnolls struck a small hamlet, they consecrated the place of slaughter and destruction in Malar's name. When they burnt down a village and killed its inhabitants, they feasted amid the blazing buildings and decorated the ruins with the bodies of the fallen, impaling the remains on standing spears or hanging them from high places.
The beasts didn't bargain or parley. They attacked those who tried such weak methods.
In a fit of terror, a group of Dalelanders hired the Zhent mercenaries to track down and wipe out the gnoll infestation once and for all.
Zhent Mercs Against Gnolls
The Zhentarim garrison mercenaries answered to a wizard named X'fas Oleg, whose strangely red-hued flesh and tiny horns curling up from his brow marked him as a tiefling.
The field commander of the garrison was a tall man named Astin Lesander who had the trust of those beneath him, a rare thing in Zhentarim circles.
One thing seems clear, if nothing else: The mercenaries took their first commission seriously. They desperately wanted the coin promised them if they were successful. Within days, the Zhents swept away three outlying gnoll encampments, leaving only the central gnoll den, still hidden somewhere in Cormanthor.
Eager to claim the full commission promised by the Dalelanders, X'fas Oleg knew he had to clear out the original lair quickly, before the nearly defeated Beasts of Butchery slunk back across the River Tesh. As demanded by the contract he had signed, the Zhents had to produce the head of the demonic gnoll adept who led the Beasts as proof the Dales would never be bothered again by this particular horrific gnoll tribe.
X'fas Oleg took the sword of the Zhent mercenary field commander and drew upon it an infernal rune, something X'fas had been saving since he had seen it in a nightmare. He told the commander that when the rune was triggered, his sword would briefly gleam with vorpal appetite, and remove the head from a single enemy with the merest touch.
Thus armed with a secret trick provided by X'Fas, Astin Lesander and his mercenaries struck out by night, following a twisted, muddy track into a tangled stretch of trees the local foresters had long avoided.
And ... that's all that is known for certain concerning Astin, his rune-scribed sword, the other mercenaries, and the remaining gnolls.
True, the gnolls were never seen again. Then again, neither were any of the mercenaries, including their field commander, Astin Lesander.
Or, then again, perhaps he did return, after a fashion.
Zhent Headless Horseman Rides
Nearly three tendays after the disappearance of the mercenaries, on the dark of the moon, the Zhent Headless Horseman first rode. Like a demon in human shape, it raced down tree-lined lanes, trailing fog and bitter laughter in its wake. Witnesses say the headless form wore the uniform of a Zhentarim field commander. With one hand it clutched the reigns of a steed that seemed more canine than equine. In its other hand was a sword on which blazed a fell rune, a single letter of an infernal script.
The next day, the body of X'Fas Oleg, the Zhentarim garrison leader, was found in the otherwise empty compound without his head.
Ever since that night, the Zhent Headless Horseman rides forth, sometimes on the dark of the moon, other times when cloud cover seals away all the lights in the sky. Those who quail before the rider usually survive. Those who seek to bar the horseman's path are decapitated, and their heads are never found again.
Lair of the Zhent Headless Horseman
Most Dalelanders accept the reality of the Zhent Headless Horseman, and simply move aside when it appears at the end of the path and thunders forward. Others, less quick to evade the charging steed, or perhaps somehow marked ahead of time by the Horseman as prey, are not so lucky. Several people each year, at least, are felled in just such fashion.
Perhaps the time has come to put a stop Horseman's terrifying rides. Are you up to the challenge? Many questions want answers. In putting a stop to the Zhent, perhaps you will answer them.
Is the Zhent Headless Horseman some sort of reanimated remnant of Astin Lesander? Does the Horseman wield the blade prepared by X'fas Oleg the tiefling to shear the head from a single gnoll adept? Where do all the heads harvested by the Horseman end up, and why does the horseman reap heads in the first place? Does the Horseman return, month after month, because the original commission was never paid?
Look first to the old, twisted, muddy track that leads into a knotted stand of trees the local foresters avoid ...