A beetle that a full grown man can stand on without so much as cracking it, the Tuffchafer is a remarkably resilient insect. Making its home in the heated ash slopes of R’unorian volcanoes, they brave fire and ash with the stolid air of small ambulatory rocks. Though not by any stretch the more impressive of R’unorian insects (with that title surely going to the enormous lurker beetles) they have earned a place in the mythology of their habitat, as the “Living Coals", of Hel'fik's Hearth.
Tuffchafer are large and round, with slightly flat-topped elytra, making them
almost the perfect size and shape to fit into a human hand– about a
palmspan across, which would
make them fairly large beetles almost anywhere except
R’unor, where they are dwarfed by the giant
lurker beetles. Walking along the ground, they look quite like ambulatory lumps
of tuff, hence the name. They are a pale, ashy grey in colour, flecked and
speckled with darker spots, which are slightly raised, giving the shell of the
beetle a grainy, bumpy feel.
The six legs are bright white, and very sturdy, spaced evenly round the sides to give it a stable footing when climbing over difficult terrain. The lower sections of the legs are slightly flattened, to aid in digging.
The beetle’s underside is less armoured, but still more thickly plated than most beetles. It is also coloured a striking bright orange, to act as a warning to any predator which flips them over, and to make a very convincing threat display when they rear up and wave their white legs around. It is arguably this colouring that has gained them the name of Fire-Iron or Living Coal among R’unorian folklore, and it certainly reinforces the idea that it is not wise to touch them.
The head of the Tuffchafer is quite hard to find, tucked in under the sturdy elytra, and as dully coloured as the beetle’s back. They have small antennae with fan-shaped appendages at the end, which are opened when the beetle is excited. This display is usually accompanied by a hissing-squeaking sound which is the Tuffchafer’s only vocalisation. The jaws are not proportionately very big, but they are quite strong, and capable of making short work of most local vegetation.
The grub of a Tuffchafer is much harder to see, as they spend their time below the surface of the ground in burrows around the smaller vents that dot the flanks of the two R’unorian volcanoes. They are, however, occasionally dug up by brave souls who value the caustic fluid they secrete, or particularly determined lizards. They are a large grub, over a palmspan long and as thick as an adult human’s thumb. Their skin is dark grey in colour, and feels somewhat slimy, like leather that has been soaked for some time. They are generally quite hot to the touch, and once they start to cool down in the open air they invariably curl up and die. When alive, though, they don’t curl up like most grubs but stay stretched out, like a caterpillar. Their heads are large, and coloured a pale straw-orange, taken up mostly with their formidable mouth. They have strong mandibles much like the adult beetles, but they are also capable of dribbling a pinkish liquid, which will burn any tissue it touches, so they should be handled with utmost care.
The Tuffchafer’s thick, shovel-shaped legs help them swim or burrow through ash
and mud, or shift small rocks out of the way to construct the nests that
surround so many of the small volcanic vents of
R’unor. They are enormously strong for their size, able to move stones
several times their weight. The burrows they make are always grouped together in
banks, and “neighbours” often cooperate to maintain their burrows and raise
grubs, leading to suggestions that they are not beetles, but show a level of
intelligent cooperation more like a very large, sturdy kind of
One of the more extraordinary aspects of the Tuffchafer is its super-hard shell. The beetle can tuck its legs and head in to make itself sturdy enough for a full grown man to stand on without causing so much as a crack. This is of course invaluable for keeping them safe from predators, and also from rains of rock and ash. The shell of an adult Tuffchafer also seems very heat resistant, though not nearly so much as their grubs, which thrive in the baking heat under the ash around volcanic vents. Adult beetles cannot quite manage that much heat, but they seem able to fly through flames relatively unscathed, and happily burrow in warm volcanic ash.
The grubs secrete a caustic substance that burns the skin like fire, which they seem to leach from the ash they live in. Such burns must not be washed with water, but with fruit juice or vinegar, which both seem very effective in taking the sting out of the “coalbile” as it is called.
Territory. Tuffchafers are found only on the Isle of R’unor, around the volcanoes especially, and in particular on the flanks of the smaller of R’unor’s two volcanoes, Hel'fik's Hearth. They can fly quite far but don’t often go further than the surrounding Tinderwood Forest, as they breed in the ash near the volcano’s vents, and so cannot stray far from their burrows.
Habitat/Behaviour. Tuffchafers are social, but not particularly organised or cooperative insects, building individual burrows in the sides of volcanoes, particularly Hel’fik’s Hearth. The burrows are clustered together in neatly spaced rings around the pressure vents found along the slopes of the volcano, often within a couple of peds of the vent itself, depending on the state of the ground. They seem to take advantage of the soft ash and lack of vegetation in these spaces to dig burrows where they won’t be disturbed – as even the lizards of the slopes know to avoid the vents, which often shower burning debris if they get blocked. Though the Tuffchafers and their burrows are by no means immune to the damage such vents can do, their tough carapaces protect them from much of the fire and debris, and they can out-fly gases and liquid debris. They do often have to relocate their burrows, though, and the mortality rate for grubs seems to be quite high – not through being burned to death, but from suffocation if the entrance of the burrow is blocked.
The burrows of female Tuffchafers are usually around an arm’s length deep, with males building considerably shorter ones. Depending how far they are from the vent, they could be shallower or deeper; the adults will dig until the ash becomes too hot for them to comfortably cope with. Near the top of the burrow are a number of small side-chambers, containing food stores, which appear to be held relatively in common by neighbouring beetles, inasmuch as they will occasionally move food between burrows to balance them out.
They are often found in the Tinderwood at the foot of Hel’fik’s Hearth, foraging for fruit and flowrs to eat. When encountered they are not aggressive or particularly evasive as they have few natural predators, owing to their extraordinarily tough carapaces. However, the vashkoon has learnt the knack of jamming its fingers into the weak parts of the Tuffchafer’s underside, and so winning a valuable meal. Thus, it seems the brightly coloured underside of the beetle is meant to frighten or astonish a predator long enough for the Tuffchafer to flip itself back over and escape.
Diet. Tuffchafers are herbivores, eating mostly plant material such as tree sap, flowers, fruit and the occasional fresh leaf or shoot. Grubs are fed regurgitated or chewed-up food collected by their parents, but also seem to leach nutrients from the ash they live in, as attempts to keep them in captivity fail unless real volcanic ash is used. The best food is carried back to burrows, often over large distances, to be fed to each beetle's grub or stored in small side-burrows which act as food stores for hard times. They don’t forage cooperatively, but occasionally a Tuffchafer will allow neighbouring beetles to steal from their food stores if supplies are unequal. Some beetles have even been observed carrying food from their stores and spacing it around neighbouring burrows – it seems keeping things evenly shared out is more important to the Tuffchafer than possessing food for themselves.
Mating. Breeding occurs irregularly, whenever the food supply is particularly bountiful. Females construct a small side-chamber in their burrows, like a larger food store, in which they live whilst the grub occupies the main burrow in the deeper, warmer section.. Males will battle for the right to mate with females, who wait inside their burrows. The battles consist largely of threat displays, with males rearing up and waving their legs, hissing and squeaking at each other. If neither backs off they will fall forward and wrestle, trying to flip the other over and disappear into the burrow before they can be stopped.
Two or three eggs are usually laid in the bottom of the burrow, but only one will hatch- the others will be eaten by the grub, which will then grow to fit the burrow over the course of several months, though they are generally never quite as long as the burrow, leaving a section near the entrance clear, by which the parents can access food stores. When it is tightly packed in the burrow, it will pupate, emerging as an adult around a year after it first hatched.
Usages. Hollowed out Tuffchafer carapaces are occasionally used to make small boxes, but the chitin that forms their armour loses much of its integrity if the shape is changed too much, so the uses are limited. Sometimes the elytra are inset into leather armour at key points, to reinforce it. They are traditionally used to make a guard for the heart among R’unorian warriors, worn under the armour, and believed to be unfailing at stopping arrows.
The secretion from the grubs, known as coalbile, is used as a cleaning agent, a weapon, and a vital reagent by gnomic alchemists. As such it is occasionally collected by enterprising R’unorians, working in teams of at least two – one to dig up the grubs, and the other to grab the grubs (with thick gloves, of course) and put them safely into a bag, so they can be sprited away before clouds of angry adult Tuffchafers descend.
Myth/Lore. Among the people of R’unor there is a popular belief that Tuffchafers are the sparks from Hel’fik’s hearth come to life. Their life cycle, with the long period spent growing in the heat of the volcano, lends credence to the idea that they are forged in the volcano to become the near indestructible “Living Coals” of the adult form. There is even a widespread taboo against touching them, as it is believed that if they wish they can burn. The grubs, of course, really can burn at a touch, so there is truth to the belief, though it has been displaced onto the adults because of their brightly coloured threat displays.
The R’unorian children's story of the Vashkoon and the Fire-Iron tells how vashkoons first learn to “tickle” the Tuffchafer into submission and pry it apart. The tale goes that in the early days, Hel’fik’s hearth would burn bright, cooking his breakfast. Vashkoon saw the flames and wanted to steal some of the delicious smelling breakfast of the god. He snuck close to the Hearth, and stared up, hoping to steal any morsels he might drop. But Hel’fik saw the vashkoon lurking at his feet, and didn’t care for this sort of scavenging, pestering little creature, especially as it was the morning and he hadn’t even had his breakfast yet. So he took a few scraps of bread and dropped them into the fire, and poor vashkoon had to watch as they were instantly burnt to a crisp. But still he stayed, hopeful that perhaps Hel’fik would drop some crumbs. Hel’fik grumbled, and tried to discourage vashkoon further. He teased him by dropping a choice lump of pitworm meat. It spat and hissed as it fell into the fire, and vashkoon thought he would faint from the delicious smell, but it was still just out of reach.
By now Hel’fik was nearly finished cooking his breakfast, and he let the flames start to die down. He couldn’t resist teasing vashkoon one last time, though, so he tipped his cup of beer into the flames. They crackled and great clouds of steam rose up, choking out the morning sun. But when they faded, the fire had died nearly to nothing! Quick as a flash, vashkoon dived forward and pulled the roasted, charred meat and bread from the fire, patting and prodding at it, as it was too hot to touch. Realising his foolishness, Hel’fik blew on the coals, and they came to life, trying to crawl away. But vashkoon was determined now. He flipped the coals onto their backs so they glowed in the air, and tickled and prodded at them until his poor fingers were burnt quite raw. But flipped on their backs, the coals could not help cooling in the morning air, especially when vashkoon copied Hel’fok’s trick, blowing on them like you blow on hot soup. The steam cleared, and the fire died down, and the coals became quite cool, though they were now as hard as rock. But vashkoon was clever and had quick little hands, despite his burns. He pushed his fingers into the cracks by the living coals’ legs, and clicked it open like a little box. Inside was succulent roast meat and bread, and vashkoon feasted, and has feasted ever since on stolen crumbs of Hel’fik’s breakfast.