“No . . . I didn’t mean it that way,” he stammered. “It’s just . . . you’re so tall.”

“Yeah, methinks we established that.”

“And . . .”

“Lanky. Come to an understanding now, have we?” She pointed down at him. “The little man is short and ugly. Mothball is tall and lanky.”

Tick wasn’t sure he’d heard her right. “Mothball?”

The woman shrugged her bony shoulders. “It’s me name. A bit unfortunate, I’ll admit it. Me dad didn’t have much time to think when I popped out me mum’s belly, what with all the nasty Buggaboo soldiers tryin’ to break in and all. Fared better than me twin sis, I did. Like to see you go through life with a name like Toejam.”

Tick had the strangest urge to laugh. There was something incredibly likable about this giant of a person. “Bugga-what soldiers? Where are you from?”

“Born in the Fifth, I was, but lived in the Eleventh for a season. Ruddy rotten time that turned out to be. Nothin’ but midgets stepping on me toes and punching me knees. Not fun, I can promise ya that. At least I met me friend Rutger there.”

Every word that flew out of the woman’s mouth only confused Tick even more. As hard as it was to believe the sheer size of the lady standing in front of him, the conversation was just as bizarre.

“The Fifth?” he asked. “What’s that, an address? Where is it? Where’s the Eleventh?”

Mothball put her gigantic hands on her hips. “By my count, you’ve done asked me several questions in a row, little man, and none time to answer them. Me brain may be bigger than yers, but you’re workin’ it a bit much, don’t ya think?”

“Okay, then,” Tick said. “Just answer one.”

“Ain’t it in the Prime where they say ‘Patience is a virtue’? Looks like you missed out on that bit of clever advice.”

Tick laughed despite the craziness of it all. “Mothball, I’m more confused every time you speak. How about you just tell me whatever you want, and I’ll shut up and listen.” He rubbed his neck, which hurt from looking up at her so much. His scarf was crusted in snow.

“Now that’s more like it, though I must admit I don’t know what to say now.” Mothball folded her arms, her face scrunching up into a serious frown as she stared down at Tick. “No harm in tellin’ that you’re from the Prime, I reckon, and that I’m from the Fifth, and me friend Rutger’s from the Eleventh I told you about just now. Wee little gent, old Rutger—looks a little like a ball of bread dough, he does. The poor bloke is short as a field swine and twice as fat. You’ll be meetin’ him, too, ya know, right directly if he’s about his business.”

“Wait,” Tick said, forgetting his promise to be quiet, at which Mothball rolled her eyes. “You sound like you know who I am. This is somehow related to the letters I got in the mail, isn’t it?”

“What else, little man? Did ya ever see an eight-foot woman before you got the notes from the Master?”

“Mast—” Tick paused, his mind churning like the snowflakes that swirled around his body. This giant woman had obviously come to talk to him specifically, for a purpose, and yet he’d learned nothing. “Look, Mothball, maybe you could explain everything, from the beginning?”

She shook her head vigorously. “Can’t do that, little man. Can’t do that at’all.”

“Then why did you come here? Why did you step out of the woods to talk to me?”

“To rub ya a little, give ya a bit of confidence, ya know. Me boss sent me. Sendin’ me all over the place, he is, just to help where I can.”

“Help with what?”

“Not sure to be quite frank. I know I can’t talk about the messages, and I can’t tell you anything about the Master or the Barrier Wand or the Realities or the Kyoopy or the Chi’karda or anythin’ else to do with ’em.” She held out a finger as she said each of the strange items as though she’d been given a list beforehand. “Other than that, feel free to ask your questions, since I have no idea anymore what to talk to ya about.”

Tick rubbed his eyes, frustrated. He tried his best to memorize each of the odd words Mothball had said, burning them into his mind for later analysis. “Miss Mothball, it’s official. This is the craziest conversation I’ve ever had.”

“Sorry, little man. Truly I am.” She kicked the snow at her feet, making a huge divot. “’Simportant you figure things out for yourself. It won’t work otherwise. But, er, maybe you’ve seen something, er, strange since you got those letters?”

Tick’s interest perked up considerably. “Yeah, I have. Just a couple of hours ago I saw this smoky, wispy thing that formed into a face and made a freaky sound. Can you tell me about that?”

Mothball’s face lit up despite the scary subject matter of his question. “Ah! Tingle Wraiths! That’s what you’ve seen, I’d bet me left shoe. Scary fellas, them. Now that I can talk about.”

“You know what they are? Where they come from?”

“I ruddy well should! They almost killed me friend Rutger just last winter. ’Ere, did you get a little tingle down your spine when the Death Siren started? Ya know that’s where they get the name from.” She paused. “Ya know, tingle. Down your spine. Tingle Wraith. Get it?”

“Yeah . . . I get it.” If she noticed his sarcasm, she didn’t show it. “But what are they?”

“That awful sound you ’eard is the Death Siren and it only gets louder and louder, I’m afraid. They can’t move more than a few feet or so once their face is formed, but there’s no need as long as you can hear that terrible cry of theirs. Thirty seconds, once it starts—that’s all you’ve got.”

“What do you mean?”

Mothball’s brow furrowed as she wagged a finger at him. “If any man, woman, or child hears the Death Siren for thirty seconds straight, their brain turns right to mush. Nasty death, that. Seen it happen to an old bloke once. His body flopped around like a chicken with its ruddy noggin

lopped off. The poor wife finally let ’im out of ’is misery. Bludgeoned him over the head with a teapot, she did.”

“You’re serious?”