DM's Note: As I mentioned before, my players were getting a bit anxious to finish this module. A lot of hints have been dropped about things going on in the "outside world" that have got them excited to move on. I've been playing with this same group of people for many years and we like to play hard and do epic things, which may be because we all know we have limited times we can get together. I have to balance the desire to push forward with the pace of the overall campaign story, which can be challenging. The good news is that, this week, the PCs figured out how to speed-up it up on their own, and were able to bring things to an epic climax and are nearly finished.
The revelation came between two of the players (and maybe a DM hint about re-reading the powers of the Golden Skull). As the party was making its plans for how they were going to safely tackle the Air Node, some ideas were bounced around for how to limit their exposure to elements. The random lightning strikes and blue dragons flying overhead meant they need to get to the caves around the perimeter of the place pretty quickly. Sarril realized he could cast Fly on each of the party members, then hold hands, touch the Air gem (which would make them appear on top of a mountain peak in the center of the demi-plane) and then, instead of climbing down the mountain and running across the open, they could just fly directly from cave to to cave. It was an okay plan, but at the last minute, Sarril remembered that when the gem is inside the skull, he can Teleport Without Error to anywhere within the Air Node he wants. Given that Shan-Ju and Gerard already knew the layout of the place (my excuse for basically handing the players a map), this would allow Sarril to teleport the entire party from cave to cave at-will. The party decided to use this process to bounce from cave to cave, using Detect Magic to sense if the next power gem was present and, if not immediately apparent, teleport to the next cave. They would ignore any monsters they encountered until they had to fight the elemental grue that they knew by now would be protecting the item they sought.
The plan worked perfectly. Looking at the map, the players stated a number and were teleported to that section safely. After a quick Detect Magic, they teleported to the next cave. A few monsters were encountered, but the party teleported away without fighting them, until finally they wound up in a save surrounded by fog, which immediately attacked (Ildris Grues - the elemental grue of air). At this point, the party's AC ranges from 0 to -4, thanks to all of the fantastic gear they have been acquiring on this adventure. Between that, and Gerard the Paladin's Protection from Evil aura, the grue's were unable to hit the party (pretty much most of the things encountered at this point require an 18 - 20 to hit one of the party members), and the party was soon victorious. They grabbed a couple of unidentified magic items from the treasure stash, along with the power gem, and then decided to head straight to the Water Node to repeat the process while they still had their flight spells activated.
The water node proved to be even more dangerous. Although it didn't have random lightning strikes from overhead, it also provided no shelter whatsoever, so every area of the map was open to the sky above, where a family of white dragons were constantly on the hunt. The party randomly picked an area of the map to start with - a floating sheet of ice on the west side of the node. It just happened to be the right place, and they were immediately beset upon by Vardigg Grues (the elemental grues of water). These nasty beasts have an instant-kill on 1 out of 6 hits (they blind their victim, then follow up by drowning them in one round). But to get a kill, they have to hit first, which again, for this party, was nearly impossible. The issue this time wasn't whether or not the party could kill the grues. That was a given. The issue was whether or not they could do it quickly enough, and Sarril familiar reported that three white dragons would be on top of them in less than 5 rounds. Once the party killed the grues, they briefly considered having Jarrus and Gerard fly up to meet the dragons and slay them, given that their current strength spells would allow them to do ridiculous amounts of damage. Then someone remembered that the damage from their cold breath would likely be doubled in this node, and no one had protection from cold. They instead grabbed the gem and teleported away quickly, without searching through the loot first.
Sarril then inserted the last gem into the skull, expecting a magical light show that would open up a portal back home. But no such thing happened. After some consideration, he decided to try messing around with the portals in the Fire Node. Standing inside the portal to the air node, Sarril held the skull to see if he can control where it took him. As he did so, he saw the room around him changing from node to node as he moved between corresponding portals in each node. When he saw the recognizable Greater Temple, he and the party stepped through, finally out of the demi-planes. It was quite an emotional moment for some characters. For Sir Gerard, especially, it had been 6 years since he knew freedom. The party discussed what to do, and decided to return to the ruins of Hommlet to see if Jaroo had returned. Jaroo was, after all, searching for the answer of how to destroy the Golden Skull - or at least he was before the village was destroyed.
The party spent two days in Hommlet, resting in the ruins of the Temple of St. Cuthbert one night, and in the ruins of Burne's tower the next. They never saw Jaroo, or anyone else for that matter, but being fully rested with all of their spells returned, and the fact that there was an hour left in the game session, they decided to return the temple to face Zuggtmoy herself. And so, off they went on the morning of the 17th Day of Flocktime.
The party snuck back into the temple the same way they have been. With all of the leaders dead, and Iuz pre-occupied, they were able to easily make their way to the ground floor to use the skull to operate the throne that would lower them sealed off third level where Zuggtmoy was trapped. Being experienced dungeon crawlers at this point, they new that the wide steps leading to the west likely led to the big bad, while the smaller doors around the room likely led to other distractions. They were on a mission. The spellcasters hit Jarrus and Gerard with strength spells, and were ready to cast Haste as soon as the battle started. Sarril decided to read his second (and last) Scroll of True Seeing - which of course proved very useful. Sitting at the far end of the room on a throne of gems sat an old feeble crone, who begged the party to leave her alone. She told them they could take the pillars of precious metal that stood at the east side of the room if they would just leave. The party knew this was Zuggtmoy and knew better than to do anything she asked. She then fiddled with some dials on the throne causing a prismatic spray that burned her to ash, but Sarril saw through this illusion, pointing out that there isn't actually anyone sitting in the throne at all. Behind the throne was a purple curtain similar to the one encountered in the greater temple, which the party knew could be burned away, and so they hit it with a fireball to destroy it. Behind the curtain was Zuggtmoy, still in her crone form, but now angry, She immediately transformed into her true fungoid form and appeared within a circle of dirt in the center of the room and began to attack with her large, elephant-like appendages.
Unlike other opponents, this 42 hit die demon queen and lesser deity could actually hit the party members. Her attacks basically consisted of stunning her opponents by hitting them with two of her appendages (which she could do to two people at once), and then trampling them to death while stunned. The amount of damage she could deal was incredible, but with two healers in the party, the fighters were able to keep up. Sarril was able to use Remove Paralysis to counter the stun effect and keep Jarrus swinging twice per round in his haste and strength-enhanced form. At one point, Jarrus and Gerard together were able to deal 90 HP of damage in a single round. But of course, this is the big bad boss, and she had well over 200 hit points, so this continued for a bit. Lucky for the party, Zuggtmoy was still bound inside the temple as no one had broken the seals. This meant that she did not have most of the innate spell-power of a lesser deity (like Finger of Death, Gate, etc.). She did have Fear, which was countered by the presence of a paladin, and Improved Invisibility, both of which she used. The invisibility did make her slightly harder to hit, but that was mitigated slightly by Luapan casting Prayer. At some point, Sarril read a "Detect Invisibility" scroll on Jarrus to give him his edge back.
But Zuggtmoy still had one more trick up her sleeve, and summoned five Violet Fungi to her aid. Violet Fungi have a "save or die" attack that was sure to take out at least one or two party members. But Sarril quickly responded with a Wall of Fire (that Wand of Fire he picked up sure has come in handy) to surround the fungi and cut them off from the party so they can remain focused on Zuggtmoy. After a few more rounds, the damage added up, and Zuggtmoy fell. In her final death throes, she found peace as she realized her essence would return to the abyss, finally free of her entrapment. Her look of contentment turned to horror and she screamed as both her essence and her physical body withered away. It appears she may have been destroyed for good - an act that Sir Gerard stated firmly is a victory for Heironeous. Sarril then tossed three fireballs over the wall of fire to destroy the violet fungi, clearing the room.
And so we ended the session. It is the afternoon of the 17th Day of Flocktime. Zuggtmoy is dead. The Golden Skull is complete with all of its gems - but not destroyed. The Temple of Elemental Evil has been cleared, for now. And Iuz is still out there, ready to come after the party at any time. The group has the next two weeks to think about next steps. . .