The group have ventured to the town of Barent, the farthest point north on their collective map. It’s a tourist village, sustained entirely by the scores of people coming to visit and stargaze. Being almost literally at the top of the world, it offers the clearest views of the night sky, and it’s said this is the closest you can get to the stars with your feet still on the ground. They disembark from their train in the early morning, getting some odd looks from their fellow sightseers thanks to their adventuring gear (each is decked out in what they consider appropriate for the weather, knowing they’ll be trudging farther afield than your average person there on vacation). Serra, our druid, pets a Samoyed tied up outside a tavern under the auspices of getting to know it well enough that she can transform into it later. Everyone else seems pleasantly oblivious of the attention they are getting; nobody is openly antagonistic or gawping, but there a lot of double-takes. Mostly the quartet are happy to have left behind their respective old lives, separated by many miles of railroad track.
The chance to stargaze is scuppered somewhat when they learn that the observatory, Barent’s main attraction, is currently closed. Usually there is good business for sherpas leading people the couple of miles walk north of town to the building, one of great scientific repute, but apparently it is not open for tourists this season. Being an adventurous (or possibly reckless) bunch, the group head on regardless. After hiking for a period the path they had been following began to disappear beneath the freshly-fallen snow, and they were funneled into a valley with high, sheer walls of ice they can not see beyond. In front of them they are faced by a lake of ice floes: clearly, at one time, this was a solid ground of ice, but something has broken it apart. After weighing up the situation, they realise the only way to get to the other side of the valley — and solid ground — is across the floes.
Whilst everyone else is tentative, considering other ways of crossing, Fi throws caution to the wind and leaps across to the closest floe, landing dead in the centre and balancing perfectly, the floe more than strong enough to support her weight. Roe follows suit, after having caught sight of hoof tracks scattered in no obvious path across the ice, whilst Elinor decides on an unorthodox use for the cauldron she carries with her: adapting it into a rowboat she propels using her broom as a paddle. Having previously attempted to prod one of the floes with her stick and almost falling in, Serra opts for transforming into a duck (one of the only birds she has experience of in her swamp home), and surveys the scene from above. She confirms that a straight line across the floes is the only real path, and also catches sight of a pile of gold coins at the other side. From her literal bird’s eye perspective, she also detects movement a few yards ahead of the rest of the group, as something is causing the floes ahead to bob up and down.
The provenance of the movement becomes clear when Elinor brings her broom up from the water and finds a semi-translucent blue worm wrapped around it. She curses it to become allergic to humans, and instead of attacking her it retreats back into the water. Fi legs it to the other side, skipping gracefully from ice floe to ice floe, and reaches solid land safely on the other side of the valley; however, the sound of her escape attracts the attention of one of the three worms headed towards Roe. Seeing that another is leaping out of the water straight for Roe, Fi casts Burning Brand and scorches it in mid-air, a pile of ashes falling to the ice before her partner’s feet. However, she had to lean one of her legs out onto a floe to steady herself and get her aim right, leaving her susceptible to a worm which emerges and wraps itself around her extended thigh. Meanwhile, Elinor has to contend with two more worms who have been attracted by the light and sound of her cursing the first worm, one of which flings itself out of the water and attaches itself to her shoulder, drawing blood. Still circling above in duck form, Serra tries to help by transforming into a dog and hitting the floe next to the cauldron, but rather ungracefully crashes straight into the water next to Elinor. Collecting herself, she is helped into the cauldron and attempts to bite the worm biting Elinor, but misses as it wriggles and chomps the air instead. Elinor curses the worm to believe her shoulder tastes nasty, so it loses interest and slinks back off into the water.
Meanwhile, Fi punches the worm wrapped around her leg, which responds in turn by biting her. One more punch is enough to finish it off and see it plopping back into the icy water below, limp and lifeless. Roe still has one to contend with, which ends up wrapped around her arm. She tries to slice it off with the help of Baxter, her canine companion, pulling it taut between his teeth, but he loses grip just as she goes to slice it. In retaliation, the worm bites Roe’s arm. Sensing she could use a hand, Elinor curses the worm with the same allergy spell as before, causing it to come out in hives and slink, coughing and spluttering, back into the water. Serra returns to her duck form and flies across, allowing Elinor to swing by in her cauldron and pick up Roe and Baxter, ferrying them to the other side where everybody meets up. By this point Fi has already collected the gold coins Serra spotted previously, finding them curiously warm to the touch; if she hadn’t been wearing clothes, she gets the sense it would have been uncomfortable, possibly even painful, to hold for an extended period. She pops them in her pocket. Elinor offers a healing potion to Roe who, having had a bad experience with some of the witch’s “products” in the past, declines.
Leaving the valley, the group are greeted with the site of rolling hills covered with fresh snow in the noon half-light (it’s starting to get dark, because of how far north they are). At the top of the hills in front of them is a domed building of wood and iron: the observatory! But sat at the foot of the hill is a small wooden hut, about the size of a shed. Serra approaches it and recognises it as a bothy, a place for travellers to rest temporarily whilst out in the wildlands, perhaps something she recognises from home. Through the frost-covered windows she can make out a light source of some kind, and the silhouette of a figure. She raps on the door insistently with her stick, once, then again, with no response. She decides to just open the door and walk into the bothy, with Roe and Baxter close behind. They see a figure in robes slumped over at a table, which has a gaslamp on it illuminating the room. There are also four bunk beds against the far wall. It’s small, cosy, but all three are cautious about the figure. Once they have walked in properly, Elinor and Fi join them, the former being the first to approach the figure. As she gets close the figure looks up, revealing not a face, but a bundle of twigs pointing out the hood. Elinor is taken aback, but Serra rolls with it and says hello. Soon everyone is greeting the twig-person, who responds in kind by waving, a “hand” of twig bundles emerging from its sleeve. It soon becomes clear that it cannot talk, lacking all the usual humanoid facial characteristics, before Serra suggests letting it write.
The group conducts a conversation through writing with the twig-person, who reveals that it was the first of its forest kin to visit this place, that it intended to be the first to see the sky beyond what the treetops concealed. Unfortunately, it was attacked by “something very powerful, very bad” at the observatory, although it appears to lack the vocabulary to describe exactly what attacked it. Responding to a request for what it can offer, gesturing to a bindle stick behind it wrapped in a dock leaf, it professes to have little in the way of material possession; however, it responds to a request to illustrate what attacked it with a shaky line drawing of a four-legged creature and a large blob. When Roe asks the scale of each creature, it draws a stick figure (natch) of itself first next to the four-legged creature — suggesting it is the same height as the twig-person — and a very small one next to the blob — suggesting the creature is far larger. On the back of the drawing, it introduces itself as Rowan, and says it was glad to meet what is clearly a driven and powerful group. It then slumps forward, the twigs that made up its “face” collapsing to the ground. In short order the rest of the twigs fall to the ground, leaving a slack robe on the seat. Baxter is expressing a great deal of self control not to seize any of these sticks for himself. Fi has no such compunction, suggesting they use the twigs to build a fire to keep warm, to the shock and horror of everyone else. They compromise on resting briefly, wringing out any wet clothes and collecting themselves before continuing.
Leaving the bothy, the group make towards the observatory. On the way up they find more of the scattered hoof marks, as well as more of the coins, which have sunk deep into the snow and created slush beneath them with their heat. Serra picks them up and hands them to Fi, who puts more in her pockets and a couple in her shoes to warm up her feet, meaning she gives off a trail of steam as she strolls onwards. Upon reaching the observatory they find a front entrance: a large, curved doorway, with a smaller (person-sized) door within it. Rather than bursting right in, Roe and Baxter using their combined tracking skills to follow the trail of hoofprints and gold coins. They lead not to the doorway but around the back, to the dome where the telescope emerges through a slit, which is where the trail ends. To enter this way, the group would have to climb a sheer wall. Serra once again transforms into a duck and soars upwards, where — through the gap — she catches sight of a headless horseman overseeing some sort of work. Around him there are snapped twigs, suggesting this is the place where Rowan was mortally injured previously. There are also shelves of academic texts that have been ransacked, the pages torn out and scattered across the ground in search of something. She returns to the ground and informs the group on what she saw, and they plan their next move.