"Is everybody ready?" Mrs. Smithwick asked the three eight-year-olds. They were about to set forth on a grand adventure and a childhood rite of passage (at least for well-to-do urban children), so it was important to make sure that they were ready. Proper preparation now was a parent's best weapon against being awakened at four in the morning by a child in need.

Three heads bobbed up and down eagerly.

"I have the snacks, and a waterskin," her daughter Jenny was the first to reply, holding up a small sack and the leather water-bag. She'd been made responsible for food since her kitchen was closest to the adventure site.

"I have books, cards, a game, and Emmy," Marcia Tempranillo said. She'd obviously been put in charge of the entertainment, for once the initial thrill of the expedition wore off. The presence of the doll was probably more of an emotional concern, but her friends did not question its inclusion.

"And you, Cress?" Mrs. Smithwick asked the third member of the group.

"I brought a shovel," said Cressidor Blan-Virgine," holding up a small spade. "And I have one of Mama's glowy balls." She held out a small glass sphere that shone with soft yellow light. "That way we'll be able to see. And Shuck's here, too!"

She patted the dog sitting next to her on his side and he gave a friendly wag, thumping his tail on the floor. This made a vase on one of the side tables rattle, because Shuck was, as Mrs. Smithwick understood it, large for his breed. Since that breed was "barghest" and normally ran to a quarter-ton of flame-tongued, red-eyed, demonic black hound, that was extremely large indeed. "Look down at Mrs. Smithwick" large.

The fact that he was nearly as protective of Cressidor's friends as he was of Cress herself was one reason why Mrs. Smithwick felt confident letting the girls stay out all night on her own.

Jenny's older brother, though, did not share that sentiment.

"What are you guys, scared to go out in the spooooky dark backyard without a dog to protect you?" he mocked.

"What do you think we are, babies?" Jenny shot back.

"Yeah! I'm only bringing him because Mama and Mother won't let me have a campfire." That was a definite rule for their expedition: no lit flames.

"So what's that got to do with anything?"

"Well, how else are we going to toast the marshmallows?"