Episode the Twenty-Twoeth: Little Dot, Queen of the Sunflowers

By: Mr. E. S. Stranger

Dot gazed out of her bedroom window and sighed. She let the curtain fall back into place and shuffled to her desk. She sat, woke up her computer, and set her phone down in front of her. She pulled up a spreadsheet and made a few entries. Then she tapped her phone and spoke.

“This is Day Sixty-Eight since we arrived on this hot, barren world. Outside temperatures continue to soar above one hundred ten Fahrenheit. What little rain we’ve had has evaporated almost immediately. As I record this, there are no clouds in sight. The sun beats mercilessly on the walls of our shelter. Our machinery continues to cool for a short distance, but to go outside is death. The walls of our dwelling are hot to the touch. I don’t know how much longer our machines will last.

“Meanwhile, my crew shows signs of extreme fatigue and seem to be giving up hope. Officers Funny Bunny and Toona spend their time napping. Officer Frog, who has made multiple excursions in an attempt to find food, seems the most affected; I see him recovering now on the nightstand with a glass of water.

“According to the calendar, this is a Saturday, but in truth I’ve long since lost all sense of time. I begin to wonder if time isn’t really just an illusion after all, if perhaps there really is just one endless moment. My mind begins to drift. Is this all a terrible dream? Why am I here? My hope of rescue fades.”

Someone cleared his throat to her left, and she looked to see her brother standing there.

“Hey,” he said. “Are you done being dramatic for now so we can play Scrabble?”

Dot turned back to her phone. “The natives continue to attempt communication. At times I think I nearly understand them. Am I becoming one of them?”

“I’ll be in the living room,” her brother said. He walked off.

Dot sat for a moment and then stopped the recording and closed the spreadsheet. She stood and went to her nightstand. Frog was sitting in a little bowl of water, looking dead tired.

“How you doing there?” she asked him.

“Okay,” he answered weakly.

“Tough time catching bugs this morning?”

“I waited too long to head out,” he replied. “The sun was up. Rookie mistake.”

“Well, just rest for now.”


Dot glanced over at Toona and Funny Bunny. They still napped. She went out into the living room to play Scrabble.

Her brother had all of the fans going that he could in that space and was drinking juice on ice. She got herself a drink and sat near him to play.

Both she and her brother were good at Scrabble and enjoyed it. This time, however, it seemed all of the words had something to do with heat or discomfort. She thought for a moment that she had broken the pattern when she used the “t” in “hot” to make “table,” which got her a double word score, but her brother immediately added “irri” to the front of it. Worse, that got him a double word score as well.

Once they finished the game, they rested until dinner. Dot’s mother had made sure not to prepare anything that required the oven; no sense making the air conditioner work any harder.

“Why won’t it rain?” Dot asked between bites.

“It’s the heat bubble,” her brother answered.

“The what now?”

“The asphalt absorbs more heat than the desert and warms the air above the city. The extra pressure pushes rainstorms away.”

Dot stared at him, anger in her eyes. “How long has THAT been going on?”

“A long time, I think. It gets worse as the city gets bigger.”

“And I’m just now finding out about this why?”

“Because you just now thought to ask the question.”

“A likely story. Well, now that I know what the problem is, I know what I’m doing after dinner.”

“What do you plan to do, exactly?”

“For now, research.”

Her brother didn’t argue. After dinner, she went into her room and got started studying meteorology, materials science, urban planning, and thermodynamics. It turned out there was quite a bit to know in those fields, and Dot’s eyes began to grow heavy. She got ready for bed, said goodnight to her friends, turned out the light, and lay down to sleep.

She had had a tiring day and was exhausted, so naturally, as soon as she put her head on the pillow and closed her eyes, she was wide awake, her brain attempting to think about everything all at once. For a while her brain was generally agitated. Then her right brain decided the left brain was being controlling and started its own contrary lines of thought out of spite. Smaller regions within each brain then started smaller rebellions. She turned over, scratched her back, and fluffed her pillow. She felt a distortion in the texture of the fitted sheet and smoothed it out. She lay down, closed her eyes, and tried again to rest.

She considered using her book on CD, but she didn’t want to overuse it; it was taking a bit longer each time to put her to sleep, so she worried she was developing a tolerance. Even without its help, she was starting to drowse a bit when she heard the sound.

She didn’t know at first why she had come suddenly alert. Then she heard it, the little pattering sound. Probably one of her smaller friends, she thought, but Toona and Funny Bunny were in their spot, and it didn’t sound quite like Frog.

“Hello?” she said softly. “Frog? Are you there?”

She waited for a response. She held still, nearly holding her breath. Maybe it had been the house and her imagination. Minutes ticked by. She heard no more pattering, and she started to relax again. Someone sneezed nearby.

“Bless you,” she said.

“Thank you,” said a little voice near the floor.

Dot peered over the edge of the bed. A small sunflower stood there, smiling up at her.

“Um,” said Dot, “can I help you?”

“I sure hope so,” said the flower. “I’ve come a long way to find you. Are you really the one?”

“I…um…the one what?”

“The one meant to save us! Oh, I know you are. I’m sure you are. You need to come with me.”

“You mean…now?”


“Um…okay. Let me get dressed first.”

“Very well,” said the flower. “But then we must go. It’s a long way.”

Dot got up and changed quickly from her pajamas into day clothes. She put on her shoes, washed her hands, and followed the flower out of the house.

The street was very quiet. The lamps were on, and the moon shone above. The little flower led Dot across the street to a field next to Dot’s house. Dot didn’t recall having seen that field before. It was darker than the street, being farther from the lamps, and the plants growing there were just slender shadows. Whether they slept or silently watcher her she didn’t know. At last the flower stopped near the back end of it, and Dot saw there was a little field of sunflowers. Most were taller than the one that had brought Dot there.

“This is my home,” the flower said.

“Oh,” Dot replied. “I see. I thought you said it was a long way?”

“Hm? Oh, yes…I suppose maybe it isn’t for a human. I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen a flower travel that far before, though, have you?”

“No, I admit I haven’t. So now that we’re here, why do you need me?”

“I think Esmeralda should answer that question,” the little flower replied. “Psst! Hey, Esme! She’s here!”

Another, taller flower, dimly lit by the distant street lamps, stirred. “What did you say? You found her? Oh! Yes! I see you! Welcome, Little One! What do they call you in your land?”


“Welcome, Little Dot! You must have many questions.”

“Mainly just the one. What is it you need me for?”

“To explain, I need to tell you a story.” She cleared her throat. As she began the story, a gentle musical hum began to come from the other flowers. It was enchanting in a way.

“Long ago,” Esmeralda began, “all the sunflowers of the world were united under one great queen. It was said that when this queen smiled, she lit up the world. The wind and rain consulted her. She was loved by all.”

The music grew a bit ominous.

“One day there came a great evil. The fire demon Tar-Mak arose from the abyss and laid waste to whole fields. None could stand against this evil. The queen, supported by thousands of her loyal followers, fought the demon in an epic battle full of magic, kung-fu, laser beams, and all manner of awesomeness, but the demon managed to cast a spell that banished her spirit. The nations of the sunflowers scattered, leaderless, and have wandered ever since. More or less. As much as plants can wander. Anyway…”

The music took a lighter, more anticipatory tone.

“Long we’ve waited for the day long foretold when the queen would be reborn and come to save our people. For ages we searched. Somewhat. Plants, after all. But we tried. We looked far and wide. And now…”

The flower waited a moment. The music began to swell.

“Now at last the time has come. The queen is found at last. It is you, LIttle Dot! You are the one who will save us! And light shall shine upon us evermore!”

The music ended on a great high harmony. The flowers all looked at Dot expectantly.

“Is all of that true?” Dot asked.

“Well, I…I mean I wasn’t personally there, so I can’t say for sure, but…well, it’s a really good story, and it has great music with it.”

“The music was good,” Dot agreed, and several of the chorus members said “thank you.” Dot waited just a moment. “So…what are you hoping I’ll do, exactly?”

“Ah, yes, very good. Straight to business. First, we must test you to be sure you are indeed the lost queen. Bring forth the sacred waters!”

Another sunflower handed Esmeralda a squirt gun. Esmeralda sprayed water into the air over Dot, who smiled when the water rained down on her, tilted her head back, and tossed it a bit as though her head were dancing in the sprinkle.

“Yep,” said Esmeralda, “you’re the one. Alright, then. The legend says that certain others will be drawn to the queen naturally. They are her servants, and they play an essential role in what’s to come. First, we have the warrior. The role of the warrior is to protect the queen. You may know him by his fierce demeanor, and it is said he rides a great steed.”

“Is that normal for a sunflower?” Dot cut in. “Riding a steed, I mean?”

Esmeralda pulled some index cards out of nowhere Dot could discern. “It’s what the notes say,” she said. “Yes, right here. ‘A great steed.’ So I guess so. Anyway, next is the sage. The role of the sage is to counsel the queen. Look for someone marked by profound wisdom and serenity. Next we have the bard. The bard’s main role is to tell the queen’s tale. Look for someone who is cheery and makes others cheery, and a good singing voice is a plus. Last of all is the companion. This person’s role is to keep the queen company on her journey. Perhaps you have someone in your life who raises your spirits. Someone you find yourself turning to naturally. Someone who’s simply always there.”

“Sounds awesome,” Zoyla said right next to Dot, who jumped.

“Zoyla! How long have you been standing there?”

“A couple minutes. I couldn’t sleep and went out for a flutter. I came over here to see what all the dramatic singing was about. Queen of the Sunflowers, huh? Pretty cool. I was elected Supreme Chancellor of the Chrysanthemums once, but…well, it didn’t turn out well. That’s a story for another time. So what’s your quest?”

“I don’t know,” Dot replied. “They haven’t told me yet. Esmeralda, what is it I’m supposed to do? It’s not anything ridiculous or impossible, like finding a color of the rainbow or anything, right?”

“Um…” Esme started, shuffling through her index cards, “no, no of course it’s not that. Don’t be silly. Pen, please.” Another flower handed her a pen, and she scratched some items off of a couple of the cards. “There. Better. No, no ridiculous rainbow quest. Ha! How very silly that would have been. Ah, let’s see. What else was there…ah! Yes, we’ve got some quests here. Ah—um—“

Esmeralda stopped, flustered, as Zoyla took the notecards and started to look through them. “Just borrowing these,” she said. “It’s more efficient this way. Dot, are you reading these with me?”

“Sure,” said Dot, and she moved over a bit to read the cards with Zoyla. “Can we get some more light?”

Zoyla absently pulled a lit street lamp from her bag and set it next to them. They examined the cards.

“I’m hoping the quest doesn’t involve much being outside,” Dot said. “Even in the middle of the night, it’s warm out here.”

“Yes,” Zoyla agreed. “My wings have been wilting. Okay, this is interesting. The Tower of the Sun quest. Players needed: one to six. Pretty flexible. What’s this card? Oh! A scannable code for the instructions!”

Zoyla took out her phone and scanned the card. “Thank you,” she said to Esmeralda as she handed that card back. “I think we might have this from here.”

“I had a much longer presentation prepared—“

“We’ll catch it later, don’t worry. Come on, Dot. Let’s get this done.”


“Why not? Looks doable. What else is everyone doing with their time?”


“So not much of anything, then. Since they’re not particularly busy, let’s give them a call. We’ll want everyone for this. Funny Bunny, Toona, Jimi, and your frog.”

“I’ll call Funny Bunny,” Dot said. “He usually has his phones with him.”

She dialed and waited. Zoyla waited. The phone rang. It went to voice mail. She tried again and waited. Zoyla waited. The phone rang. It went to voice mail.

“He’s not answering,” Dot said.

“I have an idea,” Zoyla replied. “D&Z Games hosts a lot of the games he plays. Let’s see…” She tapped her own screen a bit. “Yes, here we go. I’m sending him an alert that the virtual corn he’s growing is ready for harvest. There. Okay, wait ten seconds and call again.”

Dot waited and then dialed Funny Bunny. It rang once, and Funny Bunny answered.

“Uh, what’s up, Dot?”

“Zoyla and I are across the street about to go on a quest. Can you wake up Toona, Jimi, and Frog and come over here?”

“Sure. Just let me take a moment to harvest my corn.”

“Actually, Funny Bunny—“ Dot started, but the call ended.

“He’ll figure it out,” said Zoyla. “They’ll be along in just a bit, I’m sure.” She turned to Esmeralda. “So, you’re what, a spokesperson for the sunflowers?”

“Liaison,” Esmeralda replied.

“Liaison. Fair enough. Listen, I realize that D&Z hasn’t done much to serve the sunflower community, but I feel it’s time we changed that. As of tonight, we’re creating a new division, D&Z Botanical Solutions, that will focus on the unique needs of sentient plant life, and I would love the opportunity to discuss what D&Z can do for you.”

“I’ll have to pass this up the chain.”

“Of course. My card.”

Zoyla handed a business card to Esmeralda. Dot stood, watching her house and patting her pockets impatiently.

“You want to play a game of checkers or something?” Dot asked.

“Sure,” Zoyla replied. Dot sneezed, a flower blessed her and handed her a tissue, Dot thanked the flower, and she and Zoyla played checkers until the others arrived. At last Dot saw Funny Bunny, Toona, Frog, and Jimi approaching. Funny Bunny rode Jimi, and neither he nor Jimi seemed happy.

“You shouldn’t abuse the corn alert like that,” Funny Bunny said. “What if there was an actual corn emergency? I need to be able to trust my information. Thousands of imaginary people depend on the digital corn I grow, and it’s my job to feed them all.”

“I understand,” said Zoyla, “and I wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been important. We’re on a quest.”

“Are there really squirrels?” Jimi asked.

“I don’t know,” said Dot. “Maybe.”

“I was promised squirrels.”

“He was just being lazy,” Funny Bunny replied. “I had to motivate him.”

“Question,” Toona said, raising his hand.

Dot looked over. “Yes, Toona?”

“This quest. Does it have to be out of doors?”

“No. It sounds like we’ll be inside a tower.”

“Thank goodness.” He sneezed, and a flower blessed him and handed him a tissue. He took it and thanked the flower.

“So,” said Zoyla, flipping through the cards, “where is this tower?”

“I don’t know,” Esmeralda said, folding her topmost leaves across her stem. “You’re the smartypants who took my notes. You tell me.”

Zoyla looked from the index cards to the flower. “You’re really annoyed I interrupted your presentation, aren’t you?”

Esmeralda sulked silently, leaves folded.

“Here,” Zoyla said, handing Esmeralda the notes. Esme glanced at them, waited a few beats for effect, and took them.

“Thank you. Yes, the Tower of the Sun. This is where you must go to pierce the Dome of Tar-Mak so that rain may fall once again on this land. Only the true ruler of the sunflowers and her servants may attempt the trials. Be warned: they are not for the faint of heart.”

“This doesn’t sound at all like chasing squirrels,” Jimi said.

Dot turned to Jimi. “You’re the great steed.”

Jimi straightened a bit. “I don’t know what that means, exactly, but thank you. It’s good to be recognized.”

“And Funny Bunny must be the warrior who rides the great steed,” Dot continued. “You do have a fierce demeanor, Funny Bunny.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Funny Bunny demanded.

“It means your role is to protect me. It’s all in the cards. And Toona, I think you might be the sage.”

“Wait!” Funny Bunny cut in. “How come he gets to be the sage? I feel like I deserve a say in this!”

Toona turned to him. “Fret not, my dear shoestring rabbit. Thine is a noble part to play as well.” He turned to Dot. “I humbly offer my services as your sage.”

“Thank you,” Dot replied. “Frog is the bard, obviously, and Zoyla is the companion. Now that you’re all here, we’re ready for this quest. So,” she said to Esme, “how do we get to this tower?”

Esme glanced quickly at the notes and then cleared her voice. “At the darkest hour of night, when even shadows hide, the wind shall show you the way.”

Zoyla nodded. “Very cool. Is that it over there?”

She pointed to a tower several houses down. Dot and her companions looked at the tower and then back at Esme.

“I…well…” Esme started, fidgeting, “you’re supposed to follow the clues.”

“But that is it, right?”

“I think so.” She consulted the notes again. “Yes, that’s it.”

“Let’s boogey,” Zoyla said. “Oh—I guess Dot’s technically the leader for this one. Dot? Boogey or no boogey?”

“Boogey,” Dot answered.


They walked down the street toward the tower. Funny Bunny spoke up as they drew near.

“I could have sworn that wasn’t there earlier.”

“Ah, my good bunny,” Toona responded, “you did not see it with your eyes, but did you look with your heart?”

“What does that even mean? Dot, can we renegotiate the role of sage?”

“I don’t make the rules,” Dot said.

“Debatable point. And I missed part of this. Why are we on a quest?”

“I’m the reborn queen of the sunflowers,” Dot said. “I have to do this to save them.”

“Oh, that makes sense. A little exposition earlier would have been nice.”

“I’ll do better next time.”

“Thank you.”

Frog started singing some journeying songs, then, interspersed with songs by Journey. It was a short journey. Within minutes, they stood at the base of the tower. They couldn’t see the top. They paused at the door.

“So…” Toona said, “do we knock?”

ENTER said a voice in their heads, and the doors slowly opened. Blinding light poured out. Blindly, timidly, they shuffled in. The doors shut behind them. They crept forward, unsure what lay before them. AT last it seemed the light was bearable, and they saw before them a desk with one man seated on the other side, facing them. He was looking down at something at first but looked up at them as they approached.

“Ah, hello. Welcome to the Tower of the Sun. How can I help you?”

“You can fix the lighting, for one thing!” Funny Bunny hollered. “That hurt!”

“Oh,” said the man, “sorry about that. Any time they do anything with the lights, they end up pointed right at the door. I can imagine that was quite disorienting for you. I’ll put in a ticket for that. How else can I help you?”

“We’re here on a quest,” said Dot.

“Oh! How lovely. Is any one in your party the reborn queen of the sunflowers?”

“Yep, that’s me.”

“Excellent. If I could just have you fill this out with your name and the names of your party members…”

He pulled a form out from under the desk and put it on top. Dot went over and began filling it out. The man watched.

“Frog,” he read. “Is that the frog’s full name?”

“I guess I don’t know,” Dot said. “Frog, do you go by any other names?”

“Never thought I needed one,” her frog replied.

“Just double-checking,” the man said. “Okay, you can skip that part in the box there, but if you could just initial right there and then sign and date the bottom…good.”

He took the form back, stamped it, and threw it in a pile. “Okay, one more bit of paper for you. I’ve got some liability waivers here. I do need a signature from everyone here.”

The others approached and read over the form, and each at last signed. Jimi had some trouble signing with the pen in his mouth but got it at last. The man took the forms and issued them visitor badges, including three miniature ones for Frog, Toona, and Funny Bunny.

“The elevator behind me will take you to the first trial,” the man said. “Is there anything else you need?”

“Do you have a restroom?” Dot asked.

“Good call,” said Zoyla.

The man pointed to his right. “Far wall over there.”

“Thanks,” Dot said, and she and Zoyla went over. The others lingered. Frog spoke up. “Do you have any water?”

“Do you want a bottle of water?”

“No, just a splash. I’m drying out a bit.”

“Oh, of course,” the man said, and he pulled out a spray bottle and sprayed the frog. Frog delighted in the cool mist. Dot and Zoyla returned, and they went to the elevator, which opened for them automatically.

“I like that they’ve thought of all these details,” Zoyla said. “I’ve done my fair share of questing, and it’s rarely this efficient. Or sanitary.”

“Which button?” Dot asked. The panel on the wall didn’t list floors and instead said “First Trial,” “Second Trial,” “Third Trial,” and “Final Trial.” “I would think ‘First Trial’ is correct, but what happens if I press the top one first?”

“I wouldn’t chance this one,” Zoyla replied. “These things can be really finicky.”

Dot pressed the first button. The elevator hummed pleasantly, and the doors opened onto what appeared to be a great arena. Empty bleachers encircled them. In the center was a long wooden beam raised a few feet off the ground.

“Welcome to the first trial,” said a voice to their left. they turned. The man from the lobby stood there.

“You again!” Funny Bunny said. “I knew there was something funny about you.”

The man’s smile was steady. “This is the Trial of Valor. It will test you in battle. The queen may choose a champion to fight for her, if she wishes.”

“Oh!” the frog shouted, hopping up and down. “Pick me! I can be a champion!”

Dot looked over at him. “I don’t know, Frog. I think you might be a different kind of champion. I think the one in the role of warrior is a better choice.”

“That’s me!” Funny Bunny said. He brandished his lace caps at the man. “Ready for a fight if you are!”

“I love the enthusiasm,” the man replied. “But you’re not fighting me. You’ll be fighting Bob.”

“Bob? Who’s Bob? Doesn’t sound very tough.”

A gate opened loudly on the other side of the arena, then, and an armored figure rode out on a small steed. On closer inspection, it appeared to be a large squirrel riding a pig.

“Squirrel!” Jimi shouted. “Squirrel friend play!”

“Whoa, there,” Funny Bunny said, tugging a bit at Jimi’s neck fur. “We’ll play with that friendly-looking squirrel soon enough. Hey, strange guy who’s following us, how do we do this? Do we get weapons?”

“If you like,” the man replied, and he gestured to a pile of weapons of various sizes. Funny Bunny eyed them. The squirrel itself looked to weigh about twenty pounds and carried a lance two feet long. Nothing in the assortment of weaponry in Funny Bunny’s size would be a match for that.

“You know what?” Funny Bunny said. “I’ll just wing it. So, I guess I go to one end of that wooden beam over there? Looks like that’s what Bob is doing.” The man said nothing. “Okay, I’m just going to do that. Onward, noble steed!”

Jimi trotted to the end of the beam opposite Bob. The two warriors and their steeds stared each other down across the field. Bob’s war pig impatiently stamped and squealed. Even from that distance away, it looked crazed. Bob sat still as stone. Jimi took a moment to explore the ground around them with his nose. Funny Bunny hummed “Pop Goes the Weasel.”

“I have an idea,” Funny Bunny said. “Jimi, you just have to run past them.”

“I can do that.”

Bob’s war pig pawed at the ground. Bob and Funny Bunny stared each other down. At last the man waved a flag, and Bob’s pig started running.

“Forward!” Funny Bunny shouted.

Dot’s frog immediately started belting out “O, Fortuna!” Jimi started walking forward and gradually increased to a light trot, not wanting to overly exert himself. Funny Bunny tentatively stood, gripping the fur on Jimi’s neck with his lower laces as best he could. Bob drew near, letting out a squirrel’s best approximation of ululation. It sounded somewhat like a cart with a squeaky wheel was coming at them. Funny Bunny got ready.

As Bob drew near, he leveled the lance at Funny Bunny. Funny Bunny waited until the lance was close and leaped onto it, running its full length before Bob realized what was happening. In another second he had slipped under Bob’s plating, and then Bob began to laugh, eyes watering, pawing futilely at the plate armor that kept his hand from reaching where Funny Bunny vigorously tickled him. He involuntarily rolled off his war pig and thrashed about on the ground, out of breath, tears streaming, desperately unfastening his armor. Soon enough, his armor was off, and he was able to bat Funny Bunny away from him.

Jimi stopped trotting about them and looked over to see a squirrel sitting on the ground not far away. His eyes went wide.

“Friend! Play!” he shouted, and he rushed toward Bob.

Bob instinctively reached for a sidearm that was no longer belted to him, glanced around at his armor that now lay strewn in the dirt, gave a panicked squeak, and ran for the gate. Jimi chased him. The squirrel made it through, the gate closed, and Jimi turned to rejoin the others. Funny Bunny hopped back onto his back as he passed.

“Well done,” said the man. “You have passed the first trial. The elevator will take you to the next one.”

“Will you be there?” Funny Bunny demanded.

He smiled. “I’ll see you again.”

He disappeared.

“Well, that’s ridiculous,” Zoyla said. “Where’d he go? A person can’t just come and go without using a door or other device. I’m beginning to think this whole thing is a tad implausible.”

Dot looked over at Zoyla and then at the elevator. “Let’s go.”

They all went back to the elevator, pushed the next button, and rode it up to the second trial. The doors opened. They were in a room about the size of Dot’s living room. Gentle music played in the background. An owl perched on an ornate perch that matched the sofa and armchairs. It sipped what appeared to be tea and gently waved its other wing to the music. As they stepped forward, it turned its head around to look at them.

“Ah!” said the owl. “Just in time. Come, come in. Do sit down. Can I offer you some tea?”

“Yes, please,” answered Dot. Zoyla accepted as well. The others declined. Soon, all but Jimi were seated on either the sofa or a chair. Both were very comfy.

“So,” said Dot, “is this where we need to be for the second trial?”

“Quite so,” said the owl as she poured herself another cup. “This is the Trial of Wisdom. You’ll have to best me in argumentation. I don’t envy you this. I’m not easy to beat; I’m very wise.”

“Wow,” Toona said. “That’s really cool. I’ve always wanted to be wise.”

“Yes, it’s an excellent thing,” said the owl.

“So, like, what’s a thing you know that makes you wise?”

“Wisdom isn’t about what you know. It’s a way of life.”

“Oh, I see. That’s pretty deep. I guess. I don’t know. I’m not as wise as you. How do you do it? Be wise, I mean? Could you teach me?”

The owl sipped her tea. “I can show you the way, but you must take the journey on your own. You see, it’s all about questioning things.”





“Just questioning? Nothing else?”

“Well, they must be the right kinds of questions.”

“Oh,” Toona said, nodding. “That makes sense. The wrong kinds of questions wouldn’t be wise at all. I get that. I think I can do this. I ask questions all the time. What kinds of questions do you have to ask?”

“One must ask why we believe things, and what the true natures of things are.”

“Ah, okay. I almost understand that. Let me try. Why do you believe you’re wise?”

“Very good,” said the owl with a short nod. “In answer to your question, I believe I am wise because I ask good questions.”

“Oh, okay. Okay, so, why do you believe you ask good questions?”

The owl hesitated for a moment. “I ask questions that get at the heart of things. That really dig deep. Now, let’s begin the trial.”

“Um,” Toona said, raising his paw, “I”m sorry to delay things, but I’d like to clarify. I would really like to be wise like you.”

The owl sighed. “Very well. What else would you like to know?”

“So, these questions,” Toona went on. “Who answers them?”

“Well, that depends on the question. Some questions can be answered by just thinking about them. But the most interesting questions have no ready answers.”

“Oh, I see. If someone does answer the question, is that person wise, too? Is there credit for answering?”

“Wisdom isn’t about having the answers. As I said, it’s the habit of asking the right questions.”

“Ah. Huh. So how does this test work? Do we ask questions?”

“I’ll start with a question, and one of you gets to give an answer. Then I’ll force you to defend your answer, and we’ll see how you do.”

“Oh, no,” Toona said with a smile, “you can’t fool me. To show how wise we are, we have to ask questions, not answer them. I remember what you said. But how does one know what the right questions are?”

“Let’s begin the trial.”

“Excuse me,” Zoyla cut in. “I believe the bear asked you a question.”

The owl glared at Zoyla. She spoke again to Toona.

“The right questions are the truly interesting ones. The ones that make you stop and think and realize how little you know.”

“Oh, that’s good,” said Toona. “I know a lot of those. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t know. Like if I melt really creamy chocolate and then freeze it, is it automatically chocolate ice cream? And oh! If someone’s whole face is covered in hair, where does the beard officially end? I think it’s at the eyes, but I don’t know.”

“None of that is important!” the owl snapped. “Now could we please—“

Zoyla cut in. “I don’t believe you said the questions had to be important.”

Toona turned to Zoyla. “You’re right. I don’t think that was a rule. Thank you.”

“Any time,” Zoyla said.

Toona turned to the owl. “Do the questions have to be important? How do you know they’re important?”

“Important questions are the ones that we need answers to.”

“So the answers are important? I thought the questions were.”

“The questions are important because they’re about interesting things. Things worth knowing about.”

“Okay, so it is important to know things. This is confusing. I can see why people fail this trial. Does anyone ever answer the important questions you ask?”


“Oh, that’s terrible. What with it being so important and all.” Toona leaned forward a bit. “How does that make you feel?”

“Why is that important?”

“Well, I’m a caring bear, you know. My foot says it all. I think. Plus I need clinical hours for my therapy program at D&Z University, and my supervisor is right here—“

He indicated Zoyla, who waved.

“—so I thought I may as well. So, how does it feel, asking all those important questions and getting no answers?”

“Well,” the owl responded, a bit thoughtfully, “it’s rather frustrating sometimes.”

“I can imagine. What’s one of the questions you ask?”

“Well, one that I ask a lot is, why do anything at all?”

Toona sat back a bit. “Whoa. That does sound like an important question. And you never get an answer?”

“Not a very clear one,” the owl replied, eyes now far away. She focused then on Toona. “What about you? Why do you do what you do?”

“Oh, I don’t know, really. Things just sort of seem to make sense at the time.”

“Ah. I envy you.”

“Well,” Toona said, “what you have can’t really be all that bad. Sitting in this comfortable room with hot tea, being all wise.”

“Yes, it is nice, I suppose. It can get tiresome at times, of course. All the asking of important questions, and the trials. Oh, the trials! No one ever passes, you know. No one. And sometimes, I just wish…I just wish…”

Toona leaned forward, listening closely. The owl’s eyes were far away again. She continued.

“I wasn’t always just a wise old bird in a tower, you know.”


“Yes, there was a time, long ago, ages ago, that I thought it might be great fun to be a lumberjack.”

“Really? How interesting.”

“Yes. My parents disapproved, of course. And all the neighbors. I lived in a forest; everyone around me said it was madness to want to cut down all the trees. I figured out how to do it. Let me tell you, that’s not an easy thing for a small owl. But I managed to knock down our big tree. None of the others understood, of course. They all said I was crazy, that I’d done a horrible thing, that I was banished, and so forth. Banished. For realizing my excellence! It got me thinking. That’s when the questions really began. Why do we always have to live in those trees? Why not move into a house? Why not do what feels right? It’s the power of it, you see. The feeling of raw power when you manage to fell a giant that’s grown there for hundreds of years. None of the others understood. They’ll see, though. They’ll see in the end. Some day, I will return, and I’ll chop all the trees down, and then they’ll see.”

She paused. The others listened with bated breath. Frog fidgeted nervously. The owl’s eyes refocused on Toona.

“So, anyway, long story short, I ended up here. I think, and I conduct trials. The end. That’s it for me, now.”

“So,” Funny Bunny said, “you just gave up on your dream? Just like that?”

“Sad,” Toona chimed in. “So very, very sad.”

“Yes,” the owl replied, eyes downcast. She looked up at them. “But what was I to do? Unappreciated, banned by my family and former friends…I’m a failure.”

“Nonsense!” Toona exclaimed. “You haven’t failed until you’ve given up. You can do this!”

“Do you really think so?”

“Of course. I believe in you. Do you believe in you?”

The owl puffed up. “I believe in me.”

“Say it one more time.”

“I believe in me!”

“All right! Now what are you going to do?”

“I’m gonna be a lumberjack!”

“Yeah! And how did we do with this trial, incidentally? Not to minimize your personal victory.”

“You pass. Thank you. Feel free to stay and enjoy your tea if you wish. I must be going.”

She got up, opened a window, and flew out. The rest sat.

“Umm…” said Frog, “is anyone else a little concerned about what we may have set in motion there?”

Zoyla took one last sip and set her cup down. “It’ll be fine. Ready for the next trial, Dot?”

Dot set her cup down as well. “Sure. I guess this means Toona really is the sage, then. Who knew?”

Zoyla looked over at Toona, who was straining to read his foot. “Indeed.”

They went to the elevator. Dot pressed the Third Trial button, and up they went.

When they emerged, they were in what appeared to be some sort of lounge, complete with tables, chairs, mood lighting, and a stage. Frog jumped up and down in excitement.

“It’s a karaoke bar! I don’t see anyone here, though.”

The room indeed seemed empty apart from Dot and her companions. They stopped and listened. The only sounds were their breathing and the sound of a solitary cricket.

“Well,” said Frog, “I don’t see or hear our next trial judge, but I hear a snack.”

“Oh! Uh—hello,” said a little voice. They looked about to see who it was. “On the stage,” it said again. “Center stage, hopping up and down.”

“It’s the cricket!” Dot said. The rest looked. The cricket was there, waving at them.

“Yes,” said the cricket, “it’s me. I’m judging your third trial. Yep. I’m doing that.”

“Oh,” said Frog. “Sorry about the snack comment.”

“Oh, it’s perfectly alright. You are a frog, after all. Can’t deny that. So. Shall we?”

“Absolutely! Which trial is this?”

“Which? Oh, right! Which one is this? Trial of Soul, I think. I mean, I know. Trial of Soul. Is there a soulful individual among you?”

“Me!” shouted Frog, hopping up and down in excitement. “Oh, pick me!”

“Step forward, traveler,” said the cricket. “Join me on the stage. Let the karaoke battles begin!”

“Hooray!” shouted Frog.

The battle between them was intense. The cricket seemed to have an edge with respect to Beatles songs, hard rock, and various forms of postmodern techno and electronica, but Frog shone when it came to upbeat pop, swing, classical, and all manner of ballads. He was in the middle of a passionate rendition of “Con Te Partiro” when he felt a tap on his shoulder and stopped singing. The cricket and the others were staring at him.

“The duel is over,” said the cricket. “It actually ended a couple songs ago. You won.”

“I won?!” cried the Frog. “Yay! Excellent! So we can move on to the final trial?”

“Absolutely,” the cricket replied. “Just mosey on over to the elevator, and I’ll take care of the details.”

Toona raised his hand. “I was actually kind of enjoying that song.”

Funny Bunny responded. “I’ll download it for you. Let’s boogey.”

Dot nodded. “We should get going. Good job, Frog.”

Her frog beamed. “Thanks, Dot.”

“So,” said the cricket cheerily, “I guess you won’t be eating me for a snack, then?”

The frog hesitated a moment, eyeing the cricket. Then he smiled broadly.

“Nah, I couldn’t do that do a friend. Put her there, Brother.”

They traded hand slaps, and Frog joined the others at the elevator. Jimi sighed.

“This is the last time, right? You know I don’t like small spaces.”

“This is it, I think,” Dot replied, hitting the button for the final trial. The doors closed.

Back in the karaoke bar, the cricket heard a sound from backstage and hid. A man came out, looking flustered.

“Sorry I’m late, everyone,” the man said. “Traffic was horrible. Ready for the third trial?”

He realized the room was empty. He looked all around and glanced backstage again.

“Huh,” he said. He grabbed a walkie-talkie from his belt. “Front desk, this is the third judge. I’m on site. What’s the twenty on that questing party? Over.”

“Headed up to the final trial,” a voice replied. “We just got your approval. Is there a problem? Over.”

He looked at his watch. “No more incidents, Stu,” he said to himself. “You need this job.” He thumbed the walkie. “Negative, Front. No problem.”

He gazed about one more time and walked out. Once the sound of his footsteps had faded, a cricked chirped in the room once again.

The elevator doors opened, and Dot and her friends stepped out into what looked like a private library. It was cozy but lined with books, games, and puzzles. A table and two chairs were in the center. The man from the lobby was there. He smiled at Dot.

“Welcome to the final trial, Dot.”

“Good to be here,” she said. “Who are you? The mysterious stranger?”

“No,” said Toona. “Definitely not the mysterious stranger. Just an unknown person.”

“I am no one of importance,” said the man. “Please, sit. You have a trial to complete.”

“What’s the point of these trials?” Dot asked. “I haven’t had to do anything myself so far.”

The man nodded. “The strength of a leader is not just in herself,” he said, “but in those she leads. You have chosen your companions wisely. But this last test is for you.”

“No test for me?” asked Zoyla. “No anvil-dropping test or flying test or asset manipulation test?”

“You’re here to support her,” the man said. “She needs the strength of her closest companion for the trial.”

“And what is the trial?” Dot asked. “For that matter, what are the stakes here? I know I’m somehow supposed to save the sunflowers.”

“If you can prove you are the true queen,” said the man, “you can pierce the Dome of Tar-Mak and bring the rain. However, if you lose, your banishment will continue for at least another lifetime.”

“Oh. I see. That sounds serious. What do I have to do?”

The man gestured to a nearby shelf. “On that shelf there are a number of possible challenges. You must choose one, and you will compete with me.”

“Okay,” Dot said, and she got up and went over to the shelf. Five seconds later, she grinned. She pulled a box off of the shelf and brought it to the table. “Monopoly,” she said.

Zoyla brightened. “Oh! I’ll be banker!”

The man nodded. They set the game up and chose their pieces. She chose the dog; he chose the cannon. They rolled the dice, and he took the first turn. He bought Connecticut Avenue, much to Dot’s disappointment, but she remained undeterred.

The game went on for what must have been hours. The tides of wealth went back and forth, but at last Dot gained the upper hand, and she emerged in the end with all properties in hand.

“I win!” she said. Funny Bunny stirred from his place on Toona’s fur.

“What? Is it morning?”

“I don’t know what time it is,” Dot said, “but the game’s over. Is that it?” She said this last to the man, who smiled.

“That’s it,” he said. “You can proceed. What you need is past the far door.”

“I don’t understand. That was so arbitrary. I love a good game of Monopoly, and a good karaoke duel, and watching a stuffed bear debate an owl, and watching Funny Bunny tickle a squirrel into submission, but what does any of that have to do with being a queen?”

“It’s that you committed to it without asking what was in it for you,” he said. “Like a true leader, you did what your people needed you to do just because they needed you. Plus I enchanted the Monopoly dice so that any ordinary player would lose. Even reborn, your magical sunflower power is strong.”

“That actually makes a lot of sense,” Zoyla chimed in. “D&Z Research Institute has been studying flower power for some time now. This is consistent with many of our findings.”

“So,” said Dot, “I just go through that door over there and…what? What’s on the other side?”

“The latest in weather manipulation technology,” the man replied. “And technically, it belongs to you. It will obey your commands.”

“So I could tell it to cool everything down?” Dot said.

“I wouldn’t recommend straining it too far. But it can pierce the Dome of Tar-Mak and bring back the rain. This is why you are here. And with that, I leave you to it.”

He stood and walked to the elevator. Dot and her companions went to the far door.

“Here goes,” Dot said, and she opened the door. The room inside was mostly bare except for a crystal about the size of her head sitting on a pedestal about chest high. It glowed a cheery yellow and shifted to sky blue as they approached. “Cool,” said Dot. “I don’t see any controls, though.”

“Thought-based, probably,” Zoyla replied. “This is excellent. D&Z has been studying crystals for a while as well. Turns out, crystals really are inherently powerful and useful. Especially in vortices. Are we in a vortex right now?” She licked her finger and held it up. “Yes, I think so. I suggest putting your hands on it and concentrating.”

Dot put her hands on the crystal, and immediately it was as though she could directly sense all of the air currents for miles around. The heat bubble was there; she sensed it.

“Let’s pop that bubble,” she said, and with her mind she sent her sunflower energy up and stabbed through the dome. Clouds gathered, and rain began to pour down. She let go of the crystal and looked around at everyone. “Let’s go home.”

They went to the elevator and went down to the lobby. It was empty. They stepped out of the building to see the sunflower standing there who had summoned her before.

“You did it,” said the sunflower, beaming. “We’ll have water again for a while. But there’s so much more to do. Will you come back to the Realm of the Sunflowers and rule over us once again?”

Dot looked around. “That sounds nice,” she said, “but right now I like just being Dot. Maybe later.”

“As you wish, my queen,” replied the flower. “We eagerly await your eventual return.”

With that, the flower turned and ran off faster than Dot had ever seen a sunflower do.

They hurried home. The rain came down. Dot was happy with it at first after the summer heat, but she didn’t want to be wet, either, so she walked quickly. The only one who seemed to want to take his time was Frog, who hopped about merrily.

They got home, Dot toweled Jimi off, and then she changed into her dry pajamas and went back to bed. Frog slipped out to play a bit more in the rain.

The next morning, at breakfast, her mother and brother mentioned how wonderful it was the rain had finally come.

“You’re welcome,” Dot said, smiling. Her brother looked at her quizzically and kept eating.

It rained off and on all day and into the evening. It let up around bedtime, but the clouds stayed. The air was very moist. Dot got ready for bed as usual, turned off the lights, and fell into bed with a contented sigh.

A minute later, a sound disturbed her. A high-pitched whine. Her brain knew it right away, and her skin crawled. It was near and coming nearer. She would have to get up and find it. The sounds stopped, then, and she heard the sound of a tiny swallow.

“Thanks, Frog,” she said.

“Any time,” Frog replied. “Mmm. That one was plump.”

A bit less easily, then, Dot rested, closed her eyes, and slowly went to sleep.