"But what is most incredible of all is that in journeying beyond these mountains, they arrived very near to the surface of the Moon, a shining land ruled by Tira herself, and saw many things which must be supposed by others to be exaggerated inventions."
— The Wonders Beyond the Sands, composed many centuries before the Godswar by an unknown Belharan author
Old Belhar conquered most of the world before the outbreak of the Godswar. It sent fleets and armies to strange lands that had seemed mystical and mysterious to those who lived in the Heartlands, and although its rule over some of them, like Jassira and Tronarii, lasted long enough for them to remain integrated into the Belharan world system even after the empire dissolved, others remain nearly as mysterious as they were before the Belharan invasion… if not more so.
Even the croc-folk and anubians who ply the inland rivers and deserts of Jassira cannot manage to cross the vast sea of dunes that stretches beyond the sultanate's borders. No oases can be found, no safe route devised, no caravans organized to try to reach whatever lies beyond — if anything does. Yet, from time to time, in the suqs of Crocodopolis and the open-air markets of the sultana's mountainous province of Arkacia, blue stones of tremendous beauty and worth appear for sale, sometimes in well-crafted jewelry and sometimes in the raw, with flecks of gold shining out from their oceanic depths. Such stones work better than nearly any other as magical catalysts, and with this use and its beautiful deep-blue coloration in mind, the Jassirans named them azul. Their name has stuck. Belharan geographers knew nothing of whence it came, but hypothesized a "foreign land" and named it, with no sense of irony, Xenaspa. This was the land beyond the desert, and legends of it grew with every fresh sample of azul jewelry that mysteriously appeared.
Only in the era of Belharan conquest did people learn some of the truth behind the stories of Xenaspa. Beyond the sands there truly were populous, wealthy realms, though the deserts and mountains between them and Jassira were so imposing that the Belharans only found them by sailing around the mountains entirely, through treacherous waters and against difficult currents, aided by powerful magics. Most of the details of the lands they found are lost, but what is known is that the lockstep legions triumphed in many battles over the peoples who lived there in "the land of a thousand cities" — some of which were of the races that remain familiar to Belharans from their home continent, and others of decidedly new ones. When it was done, they had conquered a vast new imperial province bearing the name Xenaspa after the legendary realm. Heartlanders came to live there to govern and garrison it, intensify cultivation, extract what wealth came from it, and bring a flavor of imperial culture and religion; by all appearances, within a century Xenaspa was a relatively stable and well-integrated part of the imperial realm, even if all travel remained by sea and magical portal.
When the darkness of the Godswar descended, the lands beyond the desert vanished from history. Some Xenaspan imperial subjects — liontaurs in particular, as they were prized by the Belharan army and often became generals in its ranks — had come to live in the Heartlands and retained some of their ancestral memories, so their original homeland wasn't seen as a wholly mythical place. But all contact was lost, and it could not be regained. Even the flow of azul stopped for well over a century. One cannot know what transpired in the former province while the rest of the empire convulsed with apocalyptic destruction, though there were rumors of great battles waged between warlords vying for power on the edges of the desert.
The only people who have managed to travel there since are the mighty-winged valkyries, who are sworn to answer prayers to Lumia all over the world and have the endurance to soar even over the trackless Jassiran desert. Their global journeys are infrequent and cloaked in legend, and they are not exactly ethnographers, so many of the stories that they do tell must be taken with a large grain of salt. But in the lands beyond the desert, at least, a Heartlander can correlate their often-tall tales with what little is known from Belharan history and determine that there are now several successor realms to the old imperial province. One, Ariana, is ruled by a native dynasty of harpy-queens reduced to governors during the Belharan conquest but once again proudly independent; another, which still claims the name Xenaspa, has elven rulers. Both appear to be peopled by the same mix of Heartland-descended and indigenous folk that they were in imperial times, and both count an almost-intelligible variant of Belharan among the many tongues that they speak.
According to the valkyries, the azul that has once again appeared in Arkacian markets is indeed originally from Xenaspa. The dust elves and myrmarcs that dwell there create mines to rival any in Khor'minos, extracting not merely azul but all manner of precious metals and building-stones. With the bounty of the earth, both stone and metal, they create great, well-engineered cities — albeit on the surface, rather than underground. While they cannot trade in any great amount with Jassira, they can trade in great volumes with the other places on the far side of the deserts and mountains. Their fabulous trade-wealth and well-irrigated river valleys feed a large population, a court of Narevan snake-like scholars, and a thoroughly-drilled military that still holds memories of making war like the Belharans of old. As for Ariana, it is nearly as wealthy and populous, but its greatest tradition is as the womb of heroes. Arianan legends tell of lone warriors journeying into the mountains to tame the great birds that dwell there and ally with them to vanquish darkness. Their warriors are equal in pride and prowess to any Yvennese, and many are just-as-devout worshipers of Lumia, lady of fire and sun. Some have apparently even joined the valkyrie order itself.
Ariana and Xenaspa, despite still being shrouded in myth, are only the nearest of the lands that lie beyond the great desert. The tales the valkyries tell of them mostly tally with what we can reasonably verify. But as the valkyries' stories get further from Ariana and Xenaspa, the tales get taller. What lies beyond them are places without names, known mostly by the fact that their traders once ventured (and, according to the valkyries, still do) into Xenaspan markets selling wares that seem as fabulous as azul: exotic spices that lend food any taste one can imagine, horses with tremendous endurance and undying loyalty to their riders, corals even more elaborate than the ones in the seas between Jassira and the Heartlands, and clothes that are somehow light and strong at the same time and dyed with a riot of beautiful color.
As ever, one of the first hints of lands beyond the horizon is trade. These things must come from somewhere, and perhaps someday the intrepid traders and explorers of the Heartlands will be able to journey to their source. Perhaps they will even journey beyond the lands that Old Belhar knew.
- The Wonders Beyond the Sands is a reference to the classical romance by Antonios Diogenes, The Wonders Beyond Thule.
- Crocodopolis - Krokodeilopolis - was a polis in Greek Egypt located in the Fayyum, so named because of the cult center of the god Sobek.
- Azul is essentially lapis lazuli.