Lurking rays are a whole family of creatures that infest the dark corners of the world, feeding on the weak and unwary. The infant form, known as the executioner's hood, is an unnerving but relatively mild threat for experienced adventurers, while its parents, the male lurker above and female trapper, are far more dangerous. All three types of lurking rays are ambush hunters with similar tactics, wrapping themselves thoroughly around their victims and choking the life from their prey before feeding.
Though somewhat similar in appearance to stingrays or manta rays, lurking rays in fact represent their own unique branch of subterranean evolution—or arcane experimentation. Executioner's hoods are roughly a foot long and weigh 5 pounds, whereas adult lurkers above and trappers can grow to be 15 feet wide, with males weighing 500 pounds and females up to four times that.
Lurkers above and trappers are immune to precision damage (like sneak attacks) and critical hits, and can move through an area as small as one-quarter their space without squeezing or one-eighth their space when squeezing.
When the creature grapples a target, it forms an airtight seal around its prey. A grappled target cannot speak or cast spells with verbal components, and must hold its breath.
A lurking ray starts its life in a juvenile form often called an “executioner’s hood” because of its bag-like shape and the distinctive markings on its back that resemble eyeholes. It measures roughly a foot long as it hangs from the ceiling, and weighs about 5 pounds; when prey wanders below it, the young ray drops down and envelops the creature’s head, suffocating and eventually dissolving and digesting it. During this stage of its life, the lurking ray is extremely susceptible to alcohol, which breaks down the chemical bonds in its skin—it loses this vulnerability as it ages. As it grows, the creature also changes shape: males grow and develop into a shape most resembling a manta ray, while females become squarer and more slablike, growing up to a foot thick. The males find their way to the ceilings, attaching themselves with suckers and tiny tendrils they can release at a moment’s notice, while the females move to the floor, where they achieve their full growth. Both lurkers above and trappers can grow to be 15 feet from tip to tip (though able to stretch up to 30 feet wide if necessary); males can weigh nearly 500 pounds when fully fed, and females up to 2,000.
All lurking rays are carnivorous, preferring the adrenaline-charged tang of living flesh, though they can also subsist for a time on the minerals they absorb through their tentacles from rocky surfaces. Males are less capable of subsisting on minerals, however, and hence have evolved to hunt more actively. While they are poor fliers, lurkers above are excellent gliders, and can drop from a ceiling and silently float more than 100 horizontal feet over the course of a few vertical ones. The strong acids in lurking rays’ stomachs digest any organic material they devour. Nonmagical armor, weapons, lanterns, and other metal items lose much of their integrity in this process, and must be resmelted and reforged before they are usable. Magical items usually suffer no such ill effects.
Trappers use their digestive acids to create a space beneath their body in the floor, allowing them to settle more fully. The underside of a trapper is a dank, warm place, with gooey, viscous materials dripping from the creature’s pores and writhing, prehensile tentacles; while executioner’s hoods are growing underneath their trapper parent, the trapper drools half-digested organic material from these pores, turning this space into a nutrient-rich soup. The muscles of the trapper’s body allow her to control her upper body so that it remains flat even when filled with victims. The trapper’s mouth is located in the center of her body, and she thus prefers to wait until her prey is near the center of her mass to strike. This both prevents easy escape and simplifies her eating. Her maw, toothed like a shark’s, is thin and lipless, nearly undetectable until one is atop it...and by then, it’s often too late.
Although the lurker is not intelligent and generally retains the shape of the manta ray, the female trapper has a cunning mind. She can analyze threats and choose her victims, and her muscular structure allows her a greater control over her shape and appearance. Though not as versatile as a mimic, she can change the texture on her surface to reflect the surrounding area, and can even create a protrusion that, from a distance, appears to be a treasure chest or some other desirable item in order to lure intelligent prey.
Trappers are soundproof, able to create seals against any surface so that potential prey is not distracted by the sound of victims struggling against the young feasting beneath her. While this may be an excellent hunting mechanism, it does nothing to address the fact that trappers are organic creatures, and the muff led sound of one’s footfalls when walking atop a trapper should be an immediate clue that something is amiss. As a result, trappers have evolved to mimic appropriate noises and can cast sounds in nearly any direction; when settling into a new home, a trapper creates a cacophony of sounds up and down the audible spectrum so that she can catalog the ambient noise and create a background of appropriate sounds to fool her prey. A fine sensory network covers the entirety of a lurking ray’s body. Though these senses do not exactly correspond to human senses, they act as darkvision, vibration sensors (both on the floor and in the air), and olfactory centers. They can detect scent trails more than a week old to find the optimal passages for securing potential victims, and wandering lurkers have been known to track prey for days.
Lurking rays fear light and open spaces, and almost never see sunlight or smell fresh air. Those that conquer this fear become even more of a menace, as this freedom allows them a range unthinkable to their subterranean kin.
Born of eggs spawned in lightless caverns, protected by their all-covering mother, infant lurkers spill forth in batches of 20 to 30 at a time. Upon hatching, they are translucent, crawling lumps of protoplasm, yet within a week, nourished by the regurgitated matter that drips from their mother’s underside, they attain a darker hue, and begin to move quickly. Their mother no longer provides half-digested streams of food to them; instead, she drops small, cave dwelling creatures—dead at first, then living—so that the young can practice wrapping themselves around their prey. The prey grow steadily larger and more dangerous, until the mother decides that the young are strong enough to fend for themselves. Trappers nurture all immature lurking rays in their vicinity, whether male or female, and help protect the young from juveniles and lurkers above.
After a month, the young executioner’s hoods climb the sides of their mother’s wallow and spread out through the nearby environs, sensing the scent trails of others of their kind and moving to new, untainted hunting grounds, where they hang from the ceiling, scraping off minerals with which to feed themselves and dropping onto live prey. Along the way, these small creatures eat and are eaten by the other denizens of the darkness, including adult males—lurkers above are cannibals. They generally only eat adolescent males, however, and instead herd immature females toward their own lairs, so that the females will be nearby when they’re ready to mate. Only a few lurking rays survive to adulthood. Those that survive establish new hunting grounds. The males climb to the ceiling and become “lurkers above,” gaining the ability to fly (though most prefer to glide, as their ascents are awkward, flapping affairs). Females stake out a patch of ground or floor and begin dissolving it with their powerful stomach acids. When the lurkers above have matured enough, they begin to seek out others of their kind to breed. The female devours the male to fertilize its eggs, and the cycle begins again.
Female lurking rays are keenly intelligent, yet their personalities and philosophies are rudimentary at best. Instead, almost all of a trapper’s powerful brain is taken up with memory storage. A trapper has a near-perfect remembrance of any sensory detail it has encountered in its life, from the texture of a given stone to the whining voice of a hobgoblin meal several years ago. These memories are used to help the creatures blend more perfectly into their surroundings. What little cognitive power is left over allows them to piece together the languages of other creatures around them, and to simulate a spoken language despite having none of their own. Trappers who have been sated with gifts of food have occasionally been known to communicate with humanoids, and some have traded services with nearby colonies of underground dwellers. These are always relationships of convenience. Once such a bargain has been struck, trappers usually encourage other lurking rays to move quietly into position, ready to strike when the trapper releases a wave of scent. Such bargains may last for months, during which the trapper and its young protect the entries to the city in exchange for the lives of any invaders.
Executioner’s hoods can be caught and tamed, and sometimes earn their name as a torture device employed by evil nobility. Those that escape usually destroy the households of their masters and flee to more hospitable environs, such as sewers or abandoned houses.
On their own, any of the three varieties of lurking ray can be fun one-shot encounters, catching the party by surprise. Yet when all three are combined, it’s possible to turn an easy trick into a full campaign.
The primary desire of lurking rays is to feed, reproduce, and expand their territory. As a result, they make perfect candidates to infest old ruins, dungeons, or city sewers, perhaps moving into a previously safe area and preying on the innocent inhabitants. You might have the PCs stumble across a series of unexplained murders in which the victims’ heads were dissolved, only to later discover that the attacks are the work of a clutch of executioner’s hoods. Alternatively, a trapper might be attempting to help her young overcome their natural aversion to sunlight, the better to prey on the surface world. A trapper’s intelligence might allow her to be bribed into guarding a particular treasure or location—while plotting an inevitable betrayal—or a group of lurkers might infest a city in an attempt to mate with the captured trapper at its heart. Whatever the situation, lurking rays are best used as ambush creatures, striking from darkness.
Lurking rays have no concept of value beyond food and territory. Executioner’s hoods leave their victims’ remains and belongings where they fall, and can often be tracked by the trails of their victims. Lurkers above and trappers make an effort to keep their hunting grounds clear of debris that might frighten away prey, but occasionally leave something shiny on the floor, having discovered that humanoids will frequently stop to examine such an item.
The most common variant of the lurking ray is the aquatic lurker below. When in motion, the lurker below is almost indistinguishable from a manta ray, and creatures that live near shores, reefs, or the bottom of the sea may fall prey to it. The lurker below has the aquatic subtype and a swim speed of 40 feet rather than a fly speed, but is otherwise identical to a lurker above. The aquatic trapper anchors itself to reefs, and sprays its young into the open water rather than protecting them. She creates lures resembling food or treasure that she jerks forward on invisible strands, guiding creatures into range of her toothy maw.
Up to 5% of lurking rays are hermaphrodites that can self fertilize, though they reproduce less often and in smaller batches than their single-gendered kin. This variety lacks light sensitivity and has no fear of open spaces, allowing it to encroach into more pastoral settings, establishing lairs in hillsides near towns and cities. Of the lurking ray’s variants, none are worse to behold than the Great Mothers. These are trappers that have grown to incredible size and lived for a hundred years or more. In some cases, these behemoths trace their routes back to where they were spawned, then track their mothers’ paths, and so on back to a quasi-mystical place where other trappers are gathered. They then proceed to pool their memories and experiences, attempting to rise above their individual sensations into an all knowing, malicious godhead. A Great Mother is a trapper with the advanced creature and giant creature simple templates.