Diro's Tomb, Main Level
So the next several sessions consisted largely of expeditions out of Sægen Village to explore the Old Fortress, eight leagues east of the village along the southern coast of the isle. The fortress, they discovered, was not so much a building as a complex of tunnels delved into the cliff-slide, with a narrow path carved into the face of the rock leading down to a good-sized ledge outside the entrance. It was there that the party discovered the black-cloaked men who'd passed through the village two weeks prior: they had set up some kind of excavation site just outside the entrance, with pits and scaffolding and piles of supplies and digging tools.
The players tried to talk at first, but the excavators were tight-lipped. Finally, they decided to simply attack, and after a short skirmish, a few of the suspicious men were slain, one captured, and two others retreated into the dungeon.
They tried to question their captive, who wasn't very forthcoming until Viktor resorted to torture (ah, D&D players with Chaotic characters; never change...). This caused the prisoner to reveal that he and his were low-ranking acolytes and worshipers from the Church of Acrefatum out of Shade Abbey, to the north. More questions revealed that the name "Acrefatum" means "Bitter Fate"---their religion is essentially a death-worshiping cult---and their deity is called Domstag, who is portrayed on all their iconography as a sinister three-faced man. As to the cultists' purpose at the old fortress, their prisoner could only say that it involved either the remains or the restless spirit of General Diro, the fortress's commander in ancient times.
After that, the captive was hog-tied and left in the care of Partrix, the party porter and quartermaster, who set up camp on the stone ledge outside the dungeon-entrance. Partrix was instructed to carry on the torture regimen in a cruel and unusual way: by recounting his life story in every minute detail to the prisoner.
At last, the party plunged into the ruins. What followed were several exploratory forays over the course of the next month, wherein the party explored the first level of the Old Fortress/Diro's Tomb, encountering mostly imps and a few goblins, the occasional undead, lots of mindless dungeon-vermin, and finding much more in the way of rotten old antiques than truly valuable treasure. The dungeon-level's central rooms were a narrow maze choked tight with goblin-kind, and it was actually in trying to penetrate the room which contained stairs down to the next level below that Silverhart the elf met his end, a well-placed arrow fired by a random goblin.
After that, the party decided that it would be prudent to retreat for a while, and to make sure that they explored the main level thoroughly before descending. In another room of the dungeon, the goblins' "larder", they found a few prisoners, both townsfolk from the village and another couple of captured cultists. Also here was the new character rolled up by Silverhart's player: another demi-human, a gnome druid named Connor MacLeary. The party accepted Connor into their ranks (and the two gnomes, Tommy and Connor, after saving each others' lives a few times, quickly became fast friends) and escorted the other prisoners back to town, turning the villagers free and remanding the cultists into the custody of Sheriff Vinter's Goons.
It was at this point that two events altered the course of the campaign. First, Viktor's player had to bow out for a while, which meant that Viktor wouldn't be delving into any dungeons anytime soon. While his player was absent, his character was relegated to a supporting role, guarding the camp with Partrix. The party also discovered, during this return trip to Sægen, that there was some truth after all to Father Onnus's story about receiving visions when he slept in the shine all those years ago.
Viktor and Connor needed had needed healing, and so they both wound up spending in the night in the Shrine of Nereus. While they slept, they both received a vision from the ocean-god, who told them to seek the other "Starsrhines" on the island and become the worthy heroes they both had the potential to be. And then they both woke up filled with divine inspiration---and 1,000 bonus XP each. Naturally, this was incentive enough to get the whole party to sleep in the shrine the following night, and this time Henrik and Tommy received the same vision; Naeyl and Sven and Partrix felt and saw nothing unusual while they slept, and the vision did not return to Connor or Viktor. In the morning, they discovered that Henrik had also gained 1,000 experience points, and Tommy, as an NPC earning half a share of experience, had gained 500.
See the other Starshrines, Nerus had said. Yeah, okay, answered the party. Leaving Diro's Tomb behind for the moment, they decided that this would be a good time to explore the rest of the Lornwood and see if they couldn't rustle up another source of easy XP.
And so this time, the party circled north around the Lornwood, discovering a glade and pond inhabited by friendly sprites along the way, and it was there that they got directions to another shrine, which they learned was indeed deep in the forest. After another couple days' hike and a few brief (and not particularly violent) encounters with forest-dwelling imps and goblins, they finally found the Starshrine to Jorða, the earth-goddess. Her shrine wasn't so much a building as a clearing in the woods where the tree-branches wound together overhead in the shape of a cathedral's vaulted roof, her altar and holy symbol beneath.
The party rested here, and again, Henrik, Connor, Viktor, and Tommy dreamed in the night---a vision from the earth-goddess, who told them that a great evil was returning to Shade Isle, and they would be charged with stopping it. This time, they awoke to find that the player characters had each received 2,000 XP, and Tommy had gained 1,000. This was enough for the player characters to level up, so they beelined it through the Lornwood back to Sægen Village to train.
There were a few competent trainers in Sægen. Connor MacLeary studied with Father Onnus Eagan, who, in spite of not being a classed and leveled NPC, was nevertheless able to train the young gnome up to 2nd level as a druid. Henrik sought out the assistant of Lauralina DuLell, the village's elvish chemist and apothecary, for training up to 2nd level as a artificer. With Viktor's player absent, the brawler wound up not getting trained quite yet.
It was also around this time that the group decided to add a third man-at-arms to their roster of NPCs, this time hiring a brash huntress by the name of Frieda who carried a bow and a pair of sickles. Although a 0-level normal human like Naeyl and Sven, Frieda would very quickly distinguish herself in the dungeon by virtue of a bizarre knack for rolling critical hits in combat and leaving enemies suddenly beheaded.
So, recap time: the party now consists of two player characters, Henrik (Art2) and Connor (Drd2); and a small stable of NPCs: Viktor (Bra1), Tommy (Exp1), Naeyl (NM0), Sven, (NM0), Frieda (NM0), and Partrix (NO0). This was the band that finally returned to Diro's Tomb to finish clearing it out.
Diro's Tomb, Lower and Upper Levels
The final series of forays into Diro's Tomb were handled entirely by Ryan and by Connor's player, with occasional assistance from one curious player or another who saw is in the game shop and sat down for a single session: this led to the creation of two more temporary party-members, Vlad the sorcerer and Eben the swordsman (Eben was actually his player's second character, after said player's first character, an unfortunate rogue, scouted ahead into the wrong dark room and got paralyzed and eaten by ghouls half-way into the game session.)
The fight with the goblins which had claimed Silverhart's life had also revealed the stairs down to the second level underground. This stair led down to a series of rougher tunnels under the fortress proper, now inhabited by goblins and hobgoblins and a few more undead. There were treasure-vaults worth looting down here, and also a mechanism more or less underneath the dungeon entrance which opened the way up to a small floor above the main level, Diro's tomb.
On their way up from the lower level, the party stopped by the dungeon-entrance and found that their camp had been attacked: Partrix and Viktor had been knocked out and trussed by by an agent of Acrefatum, a quirky assassin by the name of Fergus (C Ftr3) who came equipped with bagpipes, kilt, tam-o-shanter, tartan sash... and samurai swords.
It was a nasty little fight, but the party emerged victorious (and took Fergus's head as a prize and possible bounty), and then they went upstairs. Here, they found a sarcophagus which burst open, and the angry geist of General Diro attacked, while lesser undead (skeletons and zombies) flooded into the chamber from side-rooms. After a protracted fight, Diro was defeated, his minions destroyed, and the treasures of his tomb claimed by the party. This was enough to put a few of characters over the top again, and so they went back to the village for more training, Henrik rising to level three and Tommy finally making 2nd level as an expert. Henrik again trained with the town chemist, Lauralina, while Tommy sought the assistance of his mentor, Felgen the Useless, a crotchety, blind old pickpocket and footpad who mostly spent his days fishing off the village docks.
Their first dungeon cleared, it was time for the players to turn their attention back to the surface-world: to search for more Starshrines and explore Shade Isle's overland paths and wilderness.