THE VUBUAZ INSECT

APPEARANCE - SPECIAL ABILITIES - TERRITORY
HABITAT/BEHAVIOUR - DIET - MATING - USAGES - MYTH/LORE

Any traveller in some of the northern forests of Sarvonia stumbling upon a tree apparently swamped by strange, papery boils, so that only its branches poke through the mass of bubbling growths, might be inclined to pause and investigate, especially if, as sometimes happens, they find themselves among a whole grove of such oddities. This would be a grave mistake indeed, and by doing so they risk attack from a pack of growling beasts whose ferocity and cruel power inspire fear among the bravest of people. The fact that said beasts are, though larger than many insects, still only a few nailsbreadths long is no reason to underestimate them – the Vubuaz is an insect as dangerous as it is fascinating, and it is very fascinating indeed.

A Vubuaz Nest

View picture in full size Picture description. Vubuaz raise their grubs in large galls, which are formed in the bark of birch or pine trees. As can be seen here, in picture of the Mantle Woods. Image by Seeker.

Appearance. The Vubuaz is a large insect, and heavily-built, with the females measuring around six nailsbreadths from the head to the tip of the abdomen. Males are usually a couple of nailsbreadths shorter, and a good deal more slender. Both males and females have long, slender transparent wings, but females have a much larger, heavier body, and so fly with less grace. Males fly very fast and with great agility, making a characteristic growling noise through the vibration of their abdomen and wings, hence the common name Vubuaz, (pronounced “voo-boo-ahz”) a literal imitation of the noise they make.

Among the most recognisable traits of the adult Vubuaz are the males’ prominent sting and impressive, serrated antennae and jaws, which pack a notable nip, even if you don’t get stung. Males and females both have massive mandibles, but males’ are so exaggerated that they can’t close them – they are incapable of eating properly and have to be fed regurgitated birchsap by females. Both male and female also sport the long, heavily serrated antennae, which give them the name “antlered fly” in some areas. These antennae appear to be an important sensory tool for Vubuaz, and they constantly wave them around, a little like the unending waving of tree-branches in a light breeze. Vubuaz are very active insects, moving with obvious efficiency – females walk more often than flying, on long, sturdy legs that hold the body a little above the ground. In their scuttling movements, they are somewhat reminiscent of giant winged myrmex.

As with the common wopse (their smaller, less sociable relatives), the breeding females have a clearly visible egg-laying-tube, which is often mistaken for a stinger, an easy mistake to make, but a mistake nonetheless, as only the male Vubuaz is so armed. Male Vubuaz have a large, thorn-shaped stinger, much easier to see than in their southern cousins, the wopse.

Both male and female Vubuaz are armoured in a pale gold exoskeleton, much thicker than their southern relatives, and very shiny and reflective – the Vubuaz is a conspicuous insect that stands out from a long way, if the light hits it. With few natural predators, it benefits from looking distinctive, as most animals learn to keep away from them and their nests.

The nests are perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the Vubuaz – much like wopses, they raise their grubs in large galls, which are formed in the bark of birch or pine trees. Unlike the wopse, however, Vubuaz build their galls communally, massing their individual constructions into one giant conglomeration which can swamp an entire tree. The galls themselves are smaller than wopse “bircheggs”, and rounder, forming delicate papery bubble-shaped globes, each about the size of a dove’s egg, on the surface of the bark. As each individual Vubuaz adds its egg to the nest, the bubbles mass on top of each other, growing by a layer every year, until they form the bulk of the tree itself.

The grubs inside are unremarkable in appearance – pulpy white and fat, with large, strong jaws, usually around three nailsbreadths long. Return to the top

Special Abilities. Males produce large amounts of potent venom, delivered by means of their sting at the slightest provocation. They attack in small groups of three or four, risking as few individuals as possible whilst still assuring that several stings hit home – enough to discourage all but the most determined intruder on the nest’s territory (though this territory generally stretches no further than the reach of the nesting tree’s branches). Though Vubuaz do not usually lose their stings when attacking, as malise do, they often attack with such vehemence that they are injured, or simply run out of venom. When this happens they tend to land on the intruder (if it hasn’t managed to run away yet, which is somewhat unlikely given the encouragement they receive from the stings) and bite with their mandibles, which are sharp and barbed enough to pierce all but the thickest skin. However, male Vubuaz mandibles are mainly for show, acting as a threat to other insects, and when used offensively, they occasionally cause the Vubuaz to become pinned to its victim, unable to open its jaws wide enough to escape.

The effects of Vubuaz venom are potent, and though rarely fatal, are severe enough to be extremely dangerous to anyone who rouses the anger of a nest. This account from a Kuglimz hunter illustrates the risk:

“I’d set out after anything I could catch; I was hoping for a deer or some such, maybe a young fawn, and that would have made a fine quarry. So I headed for the forest, where I knew the mothers sometimes took their young to hide whilst they went out to feed. I hadn’t gone far when I heard a low buzzing growling sound. If I’d any sense I reckon I shoulda run then. But I was concentrating on looking for signs of deer, and I passed it off as a stream nearby. I didn’t realise how close I’d come to the nest till I could actually see it: a round, pale bubbly kinda shape on the trunk of a great big pine, like the foam that builds up round waterfalls. Took me a good few minutes to work out what the thing was, as Vubuaz nests aren’t something you often get to see very close. I stayed still a while and nothing happened – the insects were flitting about as if they couldn’t care less about me. I figured I’d be fine, so long as I didn’t get to get too close, and turned back to the business in hand.

Couldn’t believe my luck when I saw the hind – between me and the nest, she must not have noticed me ‘cos I was so still. There was that long moment of perfect silence you get, when you can almost see the line connecting your spear to the quarry, and then I let it loose, to find its mark.

If I had only hit her square on, everything would have been fine. As it was, she moved at the last moment; I struck a glancing blow on her flank and she was off, into the distance. Of course, I was angry at myself, for missing such a perfect target, and I suppose that’s why I headed straight towards the nest to pick up my spear, which had stuck straight through those bubbly warts on the Vubuaz tree. It was a stupid, stupid thing to do, and I began to realise that as soon as I noticed, with my hand already closing on the spear, that the buzzing was suddenly very, very loud.

And then the first one stung: I didn’t see it, but by Sur’Tyan I felt it, like someone had rammed a hot needle deep into my neck. And I saw the Vubuaz fly past, out of the corner of my eye, and felt the wings brush my cheek. And suddenly there was another one, and a third, all stinging, on my neck and arms, the back of my hands. The pain was horrible; I could actually feel it spreading, I remember, like fire clinging to my skin, and burrowing deeper. I ran, as fast as I could; I doubt I’ll ever run faster, and certainly hope I’ll never have such cause for haste. They kept stinging and stinging until I yelled out with pain, and when I swatted them with my burning hands they bit at me with their mouths.

Eventually they seemed to give up, but there was still one: I’d swatted it and it’d latched onto the skin of my hand, hooking itself on so it couldn’t get away. The pain from the stings didn’t die down, but seemed to drain away all my strength, as it spread inside me, and my hands shook like an old man’s and I couldn’t breathe properly, my breath came shallow and too fast. The pain was literally blinding – all the colours of the trees and their new leaves seemed too bright, and blurred together, and I fell down... I couldn’t stand anymore, couldn’t think, even. All I remember is how much it hurt, so that I yelled out the Gods’ names in the forest, and the feel of that trapped Vubuaz wriggling and drumming its wings against my hand, as if it were trying to get my attention.

They found me by following the screams, I’m told – I don’t much remember screaming – I couldn’t hear anything over all the pain... Does that make any sense? That’s how it felt. I remember their shapes bending over me, thinking this must be Lier’Tyan come to take me away, because surely I’m dead now, you can’t hurt this much and not die?

But I suppose I was wrong; they do sometimes call Vubuaz poison “the cruel water”, because it makes you wish you would die but you never do. I was stung nine times, and the pain lasted for five hours, before I could think or keep still enough to rest. The stings are gone, healed away like the most innocent of cuts, but I’ve still got the one that trapped itself in my skin: here, I put it in a bottle, to remind myself, and as a good luck charm.”


-- Knut Igdergva, Kuglimz hunter

Aside from this most notorious ability of the male Vubuaz, the females have the remarkable skill of building the spectacular nests which wanderers in the northern woods have learnt to give such a wide berth. The exact process by which a female Vubuaz persuades tree bark to grow into strange, papery thin bubbles filled with soft edible tissue, is unknown. Possibly they secrete some chymical that alters the consistency of the bark, or, as some researchers have suggestd, they may carry some disease which brings the tree out in convenient boils, which the Vubuaz have learnt to make use of in rearing their young. In any case, Vubuaz nests are strange and eerily beautiful sights to behold as, unlike their southern relatives the Wopses, they nest communally, returning to the same tree for many years. Each generation of Vubuaz builds its nursery-galls on top of the previous year’s remains, which will have formed thin papery bubbles of living bark. Thus entire trees slowly become swamped by a seeming froth of these “bubbles”, leaving only the topmost branches poking out. Often the tree will eventually die, whereupon the entire swarm of Vubuaz will have to hurriedly relocate to a nearby tree and try to start again before winter, as they rely upon the living tree to nourish their young. In this short window between nests, Vubuaz are at their most vulnerable and most dangerous. Males become even more aggressive, in their need to protect the females as they search for a new nest. There are some areas in the most uninhabited forests where wide groves of trees have been suffocated under Vubuaz nests and abandoned. Such areas are eerie places indeed, with all the trees leafless and swollen with egg-shaped growths, and always the threatening growl of Vubuaz wings nearby, reminding the traveller that somewhere the hive responsible for this still lurks. This process takes a very long time, however, as it may be fifty or more years before a tree succumbs to the galls. So Vubuaz never entirely kill off an area of forest – the slow growth of their nesting areas gives plenty of time for new trees to grow in place of the dead ones.

Of course, to build and maintain such nests from generation to generation requires a level of cooperation between individual insects that is quite remarkable in its own right. The social structure of a Vubuaz hive is not as complex as, for example, that of a silverwood bug colony, or on such a scale as that of the myrmex. What marks it out is its perfect adaptation to the short summers of Northern Sarvonia, and the need to prepare as many grubs as well as possible for the ensuing winter. The entirety of a Vubuaz’s adult life is dedicated, depending on its gender and status, either to protecting the nest from any and all intruders (a duty carried out exclusively by males), forming, nurturing and maintaining the year’s crop of nursery-galls (the role of all females who have mated), or finding food for the males , who are unable to feed themselves, which is the job of those females who have not mated. By this strict segregation of roles, every generation of Vubuaz ensures, barring catastrophes of climate or other interference, the safety of the following generation. Thus Vubuaz nests are often among the most stable landmarks within a habitat, even occasionally being marked on maps. 
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Territory. Vubuaz are exclusively a northern insect, dwelling in the great forests of North Sarvonia. The furthest south they have been found is at the northern reaches of the Shaded Forest, where they favour evergreen trees with their thicker bark which seems better to support their nests. Their northern range is limited by the length of the summers – there must be enough time for the adult Vubuaz to hatch, mate, and rear new galls large enough to sustain the grubs they contain through the winter. Thus, any further north than the Mantle Woods they are unknown except as occasional lost individuals. The population resident in the Mantle Woods appears to have altered to better cope with the extreme cold, being generally smaller, and a darker colour, almost like brass or tarnished bronze. They appear to be hardier than other Vubuaz populations, with the adults even surviving occasional frosts with no obvious adverse effects. There is also known to be a handful of nests in the Wood Forest, though the precise number and locations of these are a closely kept secret of the Kaaer'dár'shín people. Even in the best habitats, they are never common, with widely dispersed nests, usually in areas removed from people.
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Habitat/Behaviour. Immediately after hatching and mating have finished, the adult Vubuaz begin the work of building their nests – in their northern habitat, summers are often short, and so they must race against the coming snows in order to ensure the safety of their young. Females who haven’t mated (usually around a third of the overall females in a generation) begin finding food to feed the males. Mated females also find food, but only for themselves, and begin clearing any vestiges of snow and new twigs from the hive tree, so they can start building their galls on top of the remains of those they’ve just hatched from. Males patrol the area around the hive tree, protecting it from anything and everything that comes too close. In this way, they will dedicate the rest of their lives to nurturing next year’s generation. Once mated females have finished preparing the nesting tree to receive this year’s batch of galls, they each use their long egg-laying tube to implant a single egg into a crevice, either in the bark itself, or between previous galls if no more space on the original bark remains. Even though it may already have been forced to grow into paper-thin boils during previous years, the bark will somehow maintain a flow of nutrients and sap so long as the tree is alive, so galls can be layered upon each other almost indefinitely, and still receive a supply of the nutrients which feed the grub and maintain the gall. It seems to be understood that the females keep a margin between their galls each year, allowing the bark to heal and not be chewed through all the way round, which would kill the tree.

Once the egg is implanted, the female Vubuaz chews a circular ring around it in the surrounding bark or old gall-tissue. It appears to be something in her saliva that triggers the growth of the gall, which she will then nurture and tend to for the rest of the summer, keeping it free of any moss, fungus or parasitic creatures.

Male Vubuaz are purely hive guards, using their vicious stings and ridiculously exaggerated mandibles to warn off any creature, be it as small as a butterfly or large as a packox, that comes within the span of the nesting-tree’s branches. They patrol their territory in loose groups of four or five, returning occasionally to visit the unmated females, who will regurgitate food in a liquid form which they are able to swallow, their impressively barbed mandibles being too large to allow them to ingest solid food. Should any creature come too close, the nearest “patrol” will unhesitatingly dive on them with loud, angry buzzing and vicious stinging. If for some reason the intruder does not leave, more patrols will be attracted by the buzzing, and attack repeatedly until the intruder is seen off. It is a method of defence which seems rarely to fail, as the pain inflicted by Vubuaz stings is fierce enough to leave a lasting impression even in the stubbornest creature.

When the snows become too heavy for the females to keep their galls clear of it, the adults will die, killed by the drop in temperature that accompanies the snow, leaving the young ensconced in their nursery galls to live and grow through the winter.
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Diet. Unlike their southern relatives, Vubuaz are capable of eating when in their adult form, and indeed require regular sustenance to survive. Grubs live off the flesh of the galls in which they spend their young lives. Adults, however, rely on hunting small insects and foraging fungi (mostly would-be parasites on the nest) and “milking” sap from neighbouring trees. Only females can directly eat like this, as the males’ overdeveloped mandibles prevent them from eating solid food. Males feed, therefore, by visiting certain specialised females (those who did not mate on hatching from their galls) who, instead of tending the galls, spend all their time hunting, and then regurgitate a liquid “broth” in large droplets which the males can then swallow. These forager females are the most vulnerable of the adults, as they must often venture outside the territory protected by the males. As such, they are often picked off by opportunistic corbies or gynnia birds, or even by foxes, if they are quick enough.
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Mating. Breeding takes place upon hatching in the first few days of spring – as soon as the snow melts off the galls. Males hatch in the early hours of the morning, often burrowing through frost still on the galls, helped by their larger mandibles. Once emerged, they dry their wings in the first rays of firstflame, before locating galls containing un-hatched females. They appear to find these by scent. Females hatch once the injera is properly up, by which time the males are ready to mate. There are always a good deal fewer males than females, so every male will, in all probability, find a mate easily. Once every Vubuaz has hatched, the immediate work of running the hive begins, and the only direct relation between male and female will be when the males come to un-mated females to be fed. It seems that males are more likely to mate with females whose galls are particularly large and clear of obstructions such as frost and moss, making the role of the mother in clearing her grub’s gall and choosing a good site all important.
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Usages. The strong Jaws of male Vubuaz mean they are sometimes used as temporary stitches, much like the blue myrmex, though in the Vubuaz’s case the use is much less common, as they sting so fiercely, and even when dead, the barbed jaws are hard to remove cleanly.

There have also been a handful of attempts, mainly by more secretive peoples such as the Melád’rhím elves, to attract Vubuaz into building their nests around a settlement or other area that needed strong protection from outsiders. By carefully removing parts of a nest tree just before the Vubuaz are ready to hatch, and attaching this “graft” to another tree, it was hoped that the Vubuaz, on hatching, would build their galls on the new tree. These experiments have had only limited success, with most of the Vubuaz simply dieing when removed from their tree and the nutrients that it supplies to the gall, but a few have reportedly survived, presumably because they were transplanted at just the right time, and have gone on to create new nests, so in theory such relocating methods could be used to build a formidable defence around a village; impenetrable to strangers, but, by means of gaps left between the nests, easily navigable to those who know the area.

By and large though, Vubuaz have only one real use, and it is a particularly unsavoury one, though they are perfectly suited to it, in many ways. The venom produced by the male insects is collected by certain individuals, who have learnt to approach the nest just as the males are hatching, before they can fly. The collectors are mainly of human descent, such as the Antislar people, and their descendants the Kaaer’dár’shín half-orcs, who use the venom to gain a vital advantage over their enemies. The dark elves are skilled in the tricks of Vubuaz harvesting as well. The Vubuaz thus collected are killed, and the venom sacs within the abdomens retrieved, dried and powdered. The venom is then sold to specialists, who greatly value its effects – in that it causes unbearable, debilitating pain even in small doses. Yet it is rarely fatal, unless administered in extremely concentrated form, or to someone already otherwise weakened. Grim though it is to contemplate, this makes it the perfect tool of torturers, and thus they will pay very highly for “cruel water”.
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Myth/Lore. The powerful stings of the Vubuaz, and their unflinching loyalty to certain areas, which they slowly transform with their cumulative papery nests, makes it understandable that they should command considerable respect and fear among the people who share their forests. Though the name Vubuaz seems fairly ubiquitous, as an accurate representation of the growling buzzing that denotes the presence of the insects, they have many other names. The Melád’rhím elves call them tán’avá (Styrásh lit. "angry ones"), the orcs Hnk’arq (Kh'omchr'om lit. "biting attacker"), and among certain Kuglimz (it is a rather old term and not often used in common parlance), they are called Aek’ash, which means loosely “rabid insect” in Kuglimz'Seitre. Such fearsome titles are a clear mark of the power attributed to these little insects.

Despite the pain they can cause, though, they are often afforded a certain respect by those who live nearby. It is true that if a nest looks like being too close to a settlement, or a particularly important hunting area, they will occasionally be burnt down in the winter, when there are no adults present to fight back. This is a rare occurrence, though; partly because the Vubuaz are not often found near inhabited areas, but partly also because, especially among some northern elven tribes, they are deemed to be protectors of their forests, creating clear barriers to remind people of their place and to keep out those who would damage the area. It’s easy to see why the long-lived elves would see Vubuaz as less of a threat – once they know the location of a nest, it is easy to skirt around it, and thus it becomes harmless. To a stranger, however, they are easily stumbled upon and thus more dangerous, hence their perceived role as protectors or sentinels within a forest. In reality, the fearsome reputation of Vubuaz may be deserved, but it comes with the caveat that, like most wild creatures, they are only dangerous if you give them reason to be. Visit the nests at night, in the winter, or simply take care not to get too close, and there is relatively little danger.

There are, however, less favourable stories about the Vubuaz, among the humans and orcs, where they often take the form of retribution for some slight against the Gods. Grisly stories of human prisoners being tied up near Vubuaz nests by Losh-Oc, and left to lure their companions into the trap with their agonised cries, are often used as evidence of orcen barbarism, though the truth of such accounts is dubious, as the Ashz-Oc tell similar stories, which have it that a cunning human prisoner lured his captors to a Vubuaz nest. These stories have many variations, all intended to show the tellers in the best possible light. One version told by Kuglimz living near the northernmost borders of their territory, though, is a little different from the others, and a little more unlikely.

The myth of Ewyn’ine and the man of Aek’ash tells of a raid by the Losh-Oc on a Kuglimz village. The orcs burned and pillaged the settlement, taking the women and children prisoner and retreating before their menfolk could react. The Losh-Oc, or so the story goes, noticed one woman among their prisoners whose beauty was obviously exceptional even to their eye. This woman, whose name was Ewyn'ine, they decided would be the ideal bait for a trap which would draw all the surviving men of the village to their deaths. Putting the other prisoners to death, they blindfolded Ewyn'ine and marched her to a Vubuaz nest, dormant as it was still night. tying her to the tree, they left her to be attacked when the daylight woke the creatures, her screams at which would bring the men running to the same fate. But when daylight came, she was met by not vicious territorial stings, but instead the entire swarm, face to face, and hovering in the shape of a human figure, who seemed almost as scared of her as she was of it. It lingered for some time, trying to get her to leave. When it realised she was tied there, and that it could not free her, it left in the direction of the Losh-Oc. Soon after it left, Ewyn'ine was overjoyed to see the men of the village approaching. They were reunited with much joy and relief, but could not understand what had hapened - why Ewyn'ine was tied up next to an Aek'ash nest, but no Aek'ash were in evidence. Puzzled, Ewyn'ine returned to the village with her father, whilst the other men continued after the orcs. Not long after, they returned bringing news that they had found the orcs - but something had already got to them. They were all prostrate with the agony of thousands of Aek'ash stings, and begged for the Kuglimz men's swords.
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 Date of last edit 20th Awakening Earth 1670 a.S.

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