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June 26, 2012, 9:45 am

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Puppeteer Beetle

By:

Caution: contains mature content regarding the gruesome ecology of a parasitic beetle.

A terrible monster. A thing of nightmares. Tales of the creature shake the core of the most sturdy and chill the spine of all who hear. They say, "Be careful who your friends are. They may just want you for your body." They were right.

 

Overview

The puppeteer beetle, also known by proper name of Coleocryptus (meaning Hidden Sheath), is a macroscopic insect that lives in a variety of habitats.  It has 4 stages of life: egg, larva, pupa, and adult (imago).  While the egg and the larva are very similar to large examples of traditional coleopteric insects, the pupa must inhabit a human body—actually a vivified corpse—that they use as if it were their own.  Pupa usually serve their mother, a gigantic, shell-backed beetle that administers to her family from a cave, where she tends to the complex ecology of symbionts that their species requires.

Biology

An egg varies in size from 4" to 6" in diameter, and is coated with a soft, foamy shell.  Eggs are laid on the ground, but are usually quickly placed inside the mother's back for protection, but eggs could still be harvested and hatched inside a warm, moist towel. Eggs hatch after approximately 12 weeks, and the mother usually produces 3 or 4 dozen eggs with each batch.  Gestation takes seven months, but the mother will not be fertile again for over a year.

Once the eggs hatch, the larvae emerge from the mother's back as larva. The larvae are blind, deaf, and fragile. These grubs cling to the mother's back where they are protected by her two large, shield-like wing plates. The larvae consume sustenance from special glands on the mother's back.  After 2 weeks of feeding, the larvae develop caterpillar-like legs, a needle-like horn that will allow them to burrow into their host, and many tactile hairs that cover their bodies. It is around this time that puppeteer beetles develop intelligence and become receptive to communicate with their mother.  While they can react to a variety of olfactory and pheremonal signals, their primary method of communication is through vibration.

Larvae require implantation in a body to mature, and if there is no available body, their metabolism slows to a crawl—they effectively hibernate while waiting for a host.  Upon the appropriate pheromone signal from their mother, they enter into a host-seeking mode.  In this state, their mother directs them towards potential host bodies, communicating with them through subsonic vibration.  The cat-sized larvae drop to the ground, and move to their target.  If the target is available, the first larva to reach it will occupy it by burrowing into its torso.  If the target is still capable of defending itself, the mother can direct them to return to her or to attack and attempt to occupy the target anyway.  Larvae are barely sentient—they are not seen as full members of their species until they have a face and a name—so nothing is thought of sacrificing them.  

Once implanted, the larva uses its prototentacles to quickly hijack the host organism’s musculoskeletal system.  This hijacking takes several hours, and kills the host very painfully in the process.  

Prior to infection, the host must be poisoned by ingestion or injection of a certain parasite that grows in the salivary glands of the mother—a protist called Embalmerago.  This parasite will severely weaken and sicken someone once it enters their system.  This protist has a secondary use: it helps preserve bodily tissues.  While feeding on the host's blood, the Embalmerago gives off a faint scent that the larvae instinctively know to home in on. Implantation is unlikely to succeed without Embalmerago to liquefy the stomach and intestines for the larva's first meal, but if too much time passes before implantation, the host will die from organ failure and begin decaying.  The prospective host may be tricked into ingesting it, or it may be forced upon them.  A bite from the mother's pincers will also infect the target.  If the prospective host is already dead, the parasite is administered at the same time as the larva, but chances of successful implantation are low depending on how long the host has been dead.  Infected by Embalmergo, the metabolism will slow to a crawl (if the host is still alive) and nerves and muscles will be preserved as long as possible, allowing the larva to attach to living nerves and hijack them.

If the host is alive and infected by Embalmerago at the time of the implantation, the takeover is swift and effective, and the larva will have the body up and walking around in only a few hours using the native nerves and muscles.  However, if the host has been dead for a few minutes or there is no Embalmerago infection, the nerves have decayed enough that they are impossible to commandeer, and the larva must remain in the immobile host body, immobile, while its family feeds it.  After a few weeks, it has grown its own nerves and muscles (which all larvae eventually do anyway) and is able to join its siblings as a new pupa.  However, no matter how quickly this adaptation takes place, it is always difficult on the body, which suffers from incipient necropsy and massive organ failure.  To combat this, the new pupa is fed The Nectar of Life (see below) which is grown and administered by the mother.  This nectar also destroys the Embalmerago infection and allows the new pupa to develop much faster and without the toxic effects caused by the protist.  Without the Nectar of Life, the process would be next to impossible.

Although the pupa will eventually replace all the tissues in the host body, there are a few exceptions: the bones, the vocal apparatus, and the eyes.  The insect will keep the bones until it is an adult with a strong exoskeleton of its own.  It will keep the eyes and vocal apparatus until it dies.

While animating the host body, the pupa eventually has full control of all the muscle groups, including the small muscles of the face.  However, it must learn to use them, and facial emotions are one of the things that do not come naturally to a puppeteer beetle. The beetle is very skilled at mimicking expressions and inflections, so by spending some time with humans, the beetle will quickly learn to fit in and mimic the human emotions they observe.  Once puppeteer beetles have replaced the muscles and nerves of a host body, the resultant creature will effectively be stronger than the original human.  This is offset by the beetle’s poor hand-eye coordination and atrocious balance.  Under heavy trauma, the surrogate muscles may even detach from the bone, rendering a limb useless.  This causes the beetle pain, but is not especially harmful.  In fact, a severed limb may even be reattached if it is promptly recovered.  This is true even for the head since the beetle's brain is actually in the chest cavity.

Beetles live in colonies as large families.  In this state, they may infiltrate and impersonate a human settlement, or create a settlement of their own.  This is true whether the colony is based out of a cave or integrated with a human settlement.

When the pupa has matured, a process that can take anywhere between 2 and 20 years based on nutrition and stimuli, it will undergo the maturation ceremony, where it is given the symbiotic populations of Embalmerago and the spores that it will use to cultivate its own colony of Nectar mushrooms.  This ceremony can be as simple or as complex as the mother dictates.  Afterwards, the pupa sets out on its own to find or create a new cave to inhabit. The pupa will then enter a cocoon and emerge as an adult. If the adult is female, it's mother usually sent it off with a few younger siblings to help found a new colony. If the adult is male, he is usually sent off alone and will begin roaming the lands collecting food and looking for a mate. 

The new adult female will grow again to the size of a horse (or even larger), and she will often bear remnants of the nervous system she grew as a pupa. These external remnants are often very sensitive and will cause her a great deal of pain if they are injured forcing her to retreat from any conflict whenever possible. With the help of her younger siblings, the mother will set up her own colony, and begin cultivating the clumps of mushrooms that she will need for her children to survive implantation.  She will finally shed her human face, although she will keep the eyes and vocal apparatus.   Once the female has mated and hatched a new generation of larva, the younger siblings will set out to secure more hosts for the new family, something that can be done with deception, force, or simply finding a way to procure very fresh human corpses.

At the heart of every Puppeteer Beetle colony is the mother’s home, usually a cave.  In this cave, she grows the delicate Nectar mushrooms in her own spoor.  She is able to refrain from defecating for an extremely long time, perhaps even as long as a year, in order to quickly create the environment that the mushrooms require.  She usually remains in this cave, tending to her small garden of mushrooms.   These mushrooms are green, grow to two feet tall, and secrete a honey-like fluid properly known as the Nectar of Life.  The nectar of life is a complex cocktail of regenerative organisms that promotes natural regeneration.  It can cure poisons, diseases, wounds, and even reverse aging (to a degree—lifespans above a few hundred years are not possible by use of the Nectar alone).  However, the Nectar of Life also acts as a mild psychotropic, and will produce insanity as well as addiction after prolonged use.  When a female adult is ready to mate, she will send out her mating call—a rhythmic vibration that can travel for as many as twenty miles through the ground.

Upon sensing the subsonic mating call, male beetles will flock to the location.  Unlike females, males grow much larger and carry no sensitive remnants of their juvenile nervous system.  They are aggressive, and their mouthparts are adapted for combat.  Males do not carry Embalmerago parasite or the Nectar spores.  Males are nocturnal apex predators. Unless the male is starving, large prey is not digested, but instead given as a gift to females as a form of courtship.  More resourceful males, however, will bring the most desirable of all gifts: a healthy, living human, ready for implantation.  When males cross paths, they fight in colossal, brutal battles.  Unless one beetle retreats quickly, the fight will be to the death.

All beetles are able to able to communicate through subsonic vibrations.  However, only pupa and adult larva can actually make the sounds.  Because these sounds take place below the range of human hearing, many assume that the insects possess a form of telepathy.

Psychology

Puppeteer beetles have an alien psychology.  Perhaps the hardest for us to understand is the intense devotion that beetles have towards their matriarch.  They would no sooner attack her than they would harm themselves (although there might be exceptions).  Anger is seen as a definitively masculine emotion, and adult females will often go to great lengths to avoid seeming angry.  Inversely, matriarchs will often play up their own weakness, and will often wheedle and cry to get what they want.  This is more than just an imitation of human sexism—it actually seems to be part of their natures.  Lastly, when pupas are learning to show their emotions on their human faces, there are often difficulties.  These can manifest as (1) incorrect facial expressions, (2) excessive facial expressions, (3) "twitchy" facial expressions, and (4) no facial expressions (if the beetle has given up on learning them).

Beetles have their own families and names (except the Gemensogeb clan, see below), but there is one part of the human culture they associate with strongly: their human face.  Beetles use these faces to tell each other apart, and quickly come to think of it as their face.  Many young beetles are hesitant about maturing, since it means giving up their human face.  This is perhaps an adaptation meant to discourage pupa from maturing, since there are rarely enough resources for every pupa to become an adult.

Puppeteer beetles have childhoods.  Young beetles (younger than two) will play games, usually revolving around language, facial expressions, or agility.  The matriarch will often encourage these games since it teaches the young pupas the skills they will need to use their human bodies effectively.  Of course, it might still surprise a traveler to see an (apparently) eight-year old man leaping from roof to roof while making faces and repeating the words like "Beth" (they tend to have trouble with b’s and th’s).

The mother beetle will often try to find hosts of appropriate gender for her young. It makes sense to implant a female larva into a female host, but it is common for the beetles to take what they can get. The females tend to be more conservative, thoughtful, and prone to self-preservation while the males tend to be aggressive, stubborn, and protective. Without proper cultural indoctrination, beetles will play the role of their own gender rather than the gender of their hosts.

Insanity happens among puppeteer beetles, too.  Sometimes the affected beetle may become convinced that they are humans, and flee from their clan.  In extreme cases, the pupa may even try to "cure" itself of the parasite living in its belly.

Perhaps the beetles’ surrogate immune systems are not as well adapted as the original human cells, or perhaps beetles simply survive things that would kill humans, but sometimes the human will become completely consumed with bacterial infection. The Nectar of Life can be used to help beetles recover from serious wounds, infections, or other parasites, but the mother is very conservative with the Nectar because it could cause disaster if one of her young became addicted or went insane from consuming too much Nectar.  Many beetles become infected and are either refused the Nectar or do not receive enough. The unfortunate beetles are called the "faceless ones" since the skin will usually be consumed by necrotizing fasciitis.  However, because human diseases frequently don’t affect the subdermal pupa, the beetle is often healthy (although blind, unable to speak except subvocally, and exposed to the elements) and will continue to walk around on the moldering skeleton.  Faceless ones are usually driven out in the wilderness, if for no other reason than the infection risk that it poses.  Faceless ones are usually hateful, wretched creatures.  Faceless ones sometimes undergo a metamorphosis despite their warped appearance, resulting in "abominations" which puppeteer beetles destroy on sight and will not speak about.

Subsonic communication is another area that humans often have difficulty relating to.  Beetles use it frequently to communicate amongst themselves.   If a pupa pauses as if listening to something that you can’t hear, it probably is.  Beetles can transmit very complicated messages through subsonics (although speech is faster).  However, when the matriarch is feeling a particular emotion, she may sing a "song" that imparts that same emotion to all of her offspring.  These songs can be "happy", "sad", "angry", "secretive", "alert", or even "attack".  When the matriarch sings these songs, the mood of the entire colony will tend to match hers.

Culture

The progeny of Gemensogeb (a prolific puppeteer beetle that lived over 400 years ago), believe that they inherit the souls of the humans that they inhabit, and that the souls are held accountable for things that their bodies do.  They are taught to send gifts to the family of the human whose body they inhabit for as long as they inhabit it.  If they are occupying an adult body that left orphans behind, they may raise those children if no other relative assumes the responsibility. Even the normally belligerent males will sometimes fight to protect the human relatives of their old bodies.  They believe that a human does not end when a pupa inhabits it, and so it is no crime to implant a larva in a human (unless that human provides for others).  When a pupa matures and discards their human body, the human body is buried and a funeral is held for the human who gave their body.  When an adult beetle dies, it is usually buried in the same place as the human body.  Beetles of the Gemensogeb clan assume the names of those that they occupy, and so the double headstone will usually have the same name twice.  All of this is tinted by the belief that their identities as insects must be kept secret, since humans would fear them and work to exterminate them (which is true, in most cases). 

The Hecateriesca clan of puppeteer beetles have a very different view of their hosts, and are fond of holding families hostage.  They will only release these humans if they are given a greater number of humans, usually at a 2:1 ratio.  Pupas who disobey the matriarch undergo a punishment called "tearing".  In "tearing" the mother beetle rips out the pupas vocal cords and devours all or part of the face, leaving the pupa forever as a gurgling, faceless monstrosity (since the skin will never regrow without substancial quantities of Nectar).  The Hecateriesca clan are notorious for the clever deceptions they employ to lure in potential hosts.  A favorite of theirs is to send out beautiful female humans (occupied by ruthless pupa) to lure men to a secluded place, usually under the pretense of heroism. Because of this, the Hecateriesca highly value beautiful people and are often willing to trade two or more "ugly" humans for one beautiful human. The Onema people call beetles of the Hecateriesca clan "bone demons".

The Repentance beetles are unique among the clans: they have something approximating a religion.  They believe that they have been sent far away from their native homes by a beetle-headed human named Ohexichotep for showing weakness in the battlefield.  Their entire culture is based on notions of honor, debts, and fair deals.  They are the one of the few clans that sometimes sells Nectar of Life to humans (at exorbitant prices), and many of their colonies work with human settlements.  Paradoxically, they are the most likely to both cooperate with humans and attack them  Males of the Repentance clan don’t fight each other—instead, the male with more human skulls attached to his shell is assumed to be the victor.  In theory, males only attack humans who have attacked or wronged them somehow; in practice, males will attack humans who trespass on their territory (which is huge and ill-defined).  Some males will even burst from hiding and tear trees out of the ground in order to panic a group of humans, and then wait until they are attacked so they may retaliate in "self defense". However, matriarchs refuse to allow their young to implant in unwilling humans.  Many times, they strike up a synergistic relationship with human settlements, preferring to bargain for or buy their humans.  There is some flexibility in this, and in many places they are given corpses of criminals (if they aren't part of the execution process already).  In some towns with draconian laws, even debtors may be threatened with death-by-larva.  Repentance beetles address their matriarch as "commander" and oftentimes practice with weapons.  Even adult beetles will have metal scythes attached to their mouthparts.  In rich parts, their thick carapaces may even be supplemented with armor.

Other clans exist, and there are a great number of disparate puppeteer beetle cultures.  In fact, many puppeteer beetles live in small caves as tiny families operating in near isolation while others only live in heavily populated cities.

 



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Comments ( 24 )
Commenters gain extra XP from Author votes.

OmegaDraco
June 1, 2012, 20:50
0xp
Update: Updated the summary to included a cautionary warning. Thanks for the idea, Mourngrymn.
Mourngrymn
June 1, 2012, 21:16
0xp
yep... I try.
Voted Forganthus
June 2, 2012, 7:52
1xp
I didn't vote this as high as Unummodo. Let me explain.

There's a lot of cool, cool stuff going on here, but most of it is just a recap of what we learned in the Unummodo sub. There's a few new details (vibration, parasites, FACE-WEARING).

This sub is just the biology. They have a great propensity for evil, but do they ever get super-evil with it? Do they feel bad about the people they eat? They're smart (they learn in 4 weeks what takes us 10+ years), but do they have personalities, goals, or culture? What exactly does a face-wearing horse-sized beetle do for fun?

Anyway, I pay more attention to biology than I should, and it sort of bugs me to think about the idea that nerves are still usable after rotting for five days. If we don't have circulating, oxygenated blood, very bad things happen to our bodies. After a few minutes, our neurons break. After a few hours, pH and osmotic pressure have started rupturing all the cells, muscles lock up (broken Ca+ pumps), and bacteria blooms have already made our guts stinky.

If you want a more IRL version, you could have the parasites preserve organs instead of digesting them, and the implantation fails without them. Maybe they're really good at keeping skin alive and healthy. Instead of nerves, you could have the young bugs depend on the cadavers for skeletons, since they can't stand up without a framework to lean on (they're just tentacled grubs at this point). Heck, they can't even chew their food without a human head (they don't grow their adult pincers until later. Maybe they grow their own tentacle-muscles where the human's muscles used to be, and it takes them a long time to learn how to talk without slurring like that other face-wearing beetle in MIB. Ooh! Maybe they bond with their human skull/skin face, and think of it as THEIR face. Throwing it away when you get older would be weird. And then you'd have this creepy bug face and you probably couldn't whistle anymore! Sadness.

Come to think of it, if you really annoyed your siblings, they could rip off your face and you wouldn't be able to talk for a few days while you regrew your cranial tentacles. Couldn't even chew. Or see. Or hear. I guess it would be cool to see a PC chop off a angry villager's head (with surprisingly little blood), only to see the villager drop to their knees and go searching for it like Velma for her glasses.

Also, you've got two symbiotic organisms in here (and I guess the beetles themselves are a sort of postmortem parasite). If you want to go symbiotic/parasite-themed, you could give these guys a parasite menagerie (Is there a 30 symbiotes sub?) And maybe the ceremony where the mother gives a daughter a colony of the parasite and the mushroom could be a coming of age ceremony, like Catholic Confirmation and First Communion.

Also, also, what do the mature males do if they aren't raising a brood of nightmare-spawn? Raid tombs for arcane lore or just tromp around the desert looking for buggy love?

Also x3, I can imagine one of these working as a healer in a village. She dispenses small amounts of Nectar of Life to sick villagers, and in return, she gets fresh corpses from the hangman. And her children have to get jobs as ditch diggers. Or town watch, if they are stronger than normal humans. That'd be another fun town to go to. The guards just run away after you decapitate them, no one's been buried in the cemetery for 2 decades, and there are these WEIRD tracks around the gallows. . .
OmegaDraco
June 2, 2012, 10:20
1xp
I like the way you think. I think a lot more culture would be a really good addition.

Also, I recommend that you start adding some idea scrolls. You've got some good stuff here.

Moreover, I agree that the parasites should be a requirement for the larva to take hold on a host.

Additionally, I really like the idea that the beetles can just reattach lost body parts. It makes a lot of sense and is generally a cool idea.

Furthermore, I agree that the host's body would have severely degraded and be near the verge of useless rot. I vaguely relied on the regenerative powers of the Nectar to reverse the decay. However, I think that reworking the process might be in order. Perhaps the first thing the beetle does is "commandeer" the host's heart to keep the blood flowing after the host dies an agonizing death from mass organ failure.

Finally, being more biologically minded, would you be interested in reworking this sub and co-authoring it with me?
Forganthus
June 2, 2012, 13:55
0xp
Thank you! I've never actually noticed that "Add an Idea" button before.

And sure! I'm up for anything that can turn my 5am delirium into something productive. I just don't want to hijack your beetles with silly ideas. What's the best way for Strolenites to talk to each other? Chat? PMs? Message board? Brunch at a tapas place?

I do love tapas.
Forganthus
June 2, 2012, 7:53
0xp
HOLY CRAP THAT IS LONG AND I AM SORRY
Forganthus
June 2, 2012, 8:04
0xp
Wait. One more.

Sensing vibrations is pretty far from a hivemind. Could a human replicate the vibrations by hand or with an instrument? I'm picturing a scene where the PCs are interrogating the gravedigger about the missing ambassador. After enough sweat has run down the gravedigger's face, he does a quick, arrhythmic series of taps on the floor with his boot and all these creepy crawlies swarm out of the basement while the gravedigger makes a break for it.

Also, later they meet the missing ambassador weeding a turnip patch and he seems to have some sort of weird amnesia. And's he a little pale. Talks like he's drunk, too.

Okay, goodnight.
Forganthus
June 2, 2012, 8:08
0xp
Are deserts a good place for giant beetles? They need a lot of food, and some amount of people.
Mourngrymn
June 2, 2012, 11:09
5xp
Food wouldn't be the issue it would be water. Water is the one source that every things "alive" needs. In a non-fantasy setting that is. However, a Namib Desert beetle dwells in one of the most arid areas with only 1.4 cm (0.5 inch) of rain per year, and has developed a unique technique to survive by obtaining water from early morning fogs.

Mother nature will find a way to make an area that shouldn't be lived in livable for something.
Forganthus
June 3, 2012, 11:53
5xp
Deserts are the driest places on earth, so that's fair. However, I'm just thinking about the amount of biomass that grows per square mile of desert, and the total biomass that an elephant-sized beetle would need to eat in order to grow to that size. Also, larger mammals have problems dissipating heat. Most desert animals are small animals.
OmegaDraco
June 4, 2012, 8:26
0xp
I imagine that the beetle would need to eat 4 to 6 humans. Very good point though. Fortunately for the beetle, it lives underground. It is never exposed to the direct sun. Part of my rework on this sub is going to clarify that the beetle is a cave beetle rather than a desert beetle. This should help with a lot of the discrepancies.
Forganthus
June 2, 2012, 8:20
5xp
Men's Health tells me that I poop 200% of my body weight in a year. If the beetle is 10 times as efficient, and poops 20% of its body weight, and it weighs about 1000 lbs (mid-sized horse), then it poops about 200 lbs of poop at once.

Wow. You can grow a lot of mushrooms in that stuff.
OmegaDraco
June 2, 2012, 10:20
0xp
I was actually thinking of a massive 100+ pound dunghill, so it's good to hear that I wasn't far off.
Voted Kassy
June 2, 2012, 10:58
0xp
Magic Mushrooms!!!

Erm.. I mean, good sub, well written :)

3.5/5
Silveressa
June 2, 2012, 15:35
0xp
A nice expansion on the Unummodo sub, I also especially like the ideas Forganthus suggested, I think they would enhance the sub nice and make an even more enjoyable piece.

If you do expand/update this, please send a PM and let me know so I can come back here and re-read the new version/update my vote. :)
OmegaDraco
June 26, 2012, 9:44
0xp
Update: Completely reworked everything. Huge thanks to Forganthus for his help.
OmegaDraco
June 26, 2012, 9:45
0xp
Update: Changed Habitat to "Any"
Murometz
June 26, 2012, 10:57
0xp
I like the re-work, and i LOVE the "Culture".The progeny of Gemensogeb, the Hecateriesca clan, the Repentance Beetles. Awesome!
OmegaDraco
June 26, 2012, 11:01
0xp
Those were Forganthus' brainchild. I agree, the cultures are fantastic.
Voted Silveressa
June 27, 2012, 0:08
0xp
Excellent revision, it really makes the piece more usable and interesting, have a re-vote!
Voted valadaar
April 28, 2013, 19:25
0xp
This is quite good, though I think you should revise it for length. There are a lot of good details, but the length of the piece defends itself from being read (with apologizes to Winston Churchill).


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