“Plans with Toby?” Thomas asked as he locked the front door of the clinic. Tabby was scurrying around, ostensibly putting things in place for the following day, but appearing to just be messing up the organization of Sugarberry’s work space.
“Not tonight!” she cheerily chirped, slamming a file cabinet drawer shut. Most ponies would not be so elated at the prospect of time away from their sweetheart–but Tabby was not most ponies. “I’m working on an article review for the cyptozoology journal.”
“Oh? What’s the topic?” Thomas asked.
“Morphological Differences and Natural Selection in Hodagus nemus,” Tabby carefully recited. “I skimmed it last night–real amateur stuff. I have a scathing review planned,” she said with relish.
“What are hodags doing in a cryptozoology journal? They’ve been discovered,” Thomas observed.
“The journal covers any species not entered into the Academy of Science’s Taxonomy Guide prior to 1953. Hodags weren’t officially acknowledged until 1961,” Tabby explained.
“You do know your hodags,” Thomas said.
Suddenly, there was a frantic knocking from the front of the building. Exchanging a look, the two unicorns went to investigate.
“It’s an emergency!” a stallion standing outside on the stoop shouted through the glass door.
Thomas swiftly opened the door. “What’s the matter?”
The tall stallion, tan with green hair, entered the building. In his hooves he held a cloth bundle. “I need golgi berry extract, stat!” he announced, looking at the staff expectantly.
Thomas frowned; he hated being told what treatment to use. “Do you mean goji berry?” he asked, stifling annoyance. “And no. It’s a largely unstudied supplement–”
“No, golgi!” the stallion impatiently interrupted. “It’s named for the flower’s flattened pile of pouch-shaped petals resembling a cell’s Golgi complex!”
“I’ve never even heard of that,” Thomas said skeptically. It was another nonsensical folk medicine, no doubt.
“It’s a real thing,” Tabby assured him, but that didn’t give the veterinarian faith in its efficacy.
“What kind of operation is this!” The stallion exhaled in exasperation. “It’s the only known cure for hypopisis petechialis!”
“May we see the animal?” Thomas cut to the chase, gesturing at the bundle.
Reluctantly, the stallion peeled back a fold of the cloth in his hooves, revealing a petite feline face with leafy ears folded over its face. The creature yawned and stretched.
“It’s green,” Thomas stated, disbelieving. (You might say… a doubting Thomas.)
“And it’s got a cute little flower growing on its nose,” cooed Tabby, nonplussed at the unusual creature. “Where did you get this?”
“Where do you think?” The stallion looked at her piercingly.
“It’s not from a kitten tree, is it?” Tabby peered back at him. “Is it for real?”
“That can’t possibly be a thing,” Thomas argued.
“Acatchinole catulus, yes,” the stallion stated with authority. “It exists, all right. I’ve just come from one.”
Undiscovered animals were one thing. A cross-kingdom hybrid was quite unbelievable, Thomas thought.
“You’re a cryptobotanist,” Tabby said, regarding the researcher with great reverence.
“Darn right I am,” he stated proudly. “Glade Cottonwood’s the name.” He lowered his voice. “I expect you’ll exercise discretion in this matter. The last thing I need is nosy ponies snooping around, ruining my research.”
“You can count on us,” Tabby assured him.
“Perhaps you can elaborate on the health emergency you alluded to,” Thomas suggested, opening the door to the exam room.
“You see this rash here?” Glade said, laying the bundle down on the table and unwrapping it fully. “It’s definitely hypopisis.”
The flower kitten had no fur, just a soft, waxy skin textured with veins. Its sides raised and lowered with the unmistakable beating of a heart. Upon closer examination, it became apparent that much of its skin was covered in a fine rash of raised bumps. It appeared listless and sleepy.
“Does she have a name?” Tabby asked, as always concerned with the truly pertinent information.
Glade shrugged. “I’ve been going with Chlory.”
“Oh, like for chlorophyll! I get it!”
Could this merely be a hairless feline of unusual coloration? Thomas considered as this chatter happened in the background. The pink flower nose was difficult to explain as a mammalian feature, but could perhaps be a structure akin to the star-nosed mole…
“I’d like to try hydrocortisone–” Thomas began, but was cut off.
“You don’t have experience with zoological-botanical hybrids, do you?” Glade snapped. “That would be a waste of time. It’s golgi berry extract or nothing.”
“Let me call Dr. Martingale,” Tabby offered. “I bet he has some.”
“He would,” said Thomas scathingly, earning a sharp look from Tabby.
“I don’t know what your problem with Dr. Martingale is,” she said primly.
“As if you’re not feuding with half the ponies that walk in here,” Thomas retorted, but she did not respond as she was dialing a number on the phone.
After a quick exchange, she announced to the stallions, “Yes, he has some. I’m just going to go over there. Back in a jiffy.” In a flash of light, she was gone, teleported away.
Dr. Martingale’s Office
Tabby appeared in the reception area of Dr. Martingale’s clinic. She had been here occasionally with Tiny, trading supplies. “Hello, I called about the Golgi berry extract,” she announced, approaching the front desk.
“Oh… my, that was fast. Well, it’s around here somewhere,” the receptionist, Millie, said, pushing back her chair and peering at a nearby shelf. She frowned. “Excuse me; let me check in the back.” She disappeared through a doorway.
Tabby leaned on the desk and tapped her hoof impatiently as she studied her surroundings. Millie didn’t run a tight ship like Sugarberry. The waiting room seemed to be mostly used for storage, with stacks of papers piled up on chairs, and half-full coffee cups littered about.
“Here it is!” Millie announced triumphantly, returning and holding aloft a small brown bottle.
“Great!” said Tabby. She took the bottle in her hoof, but frowned. “It’s very light,” she observed, unscrewing the lid and peering inside. “Hey, there’s nothing in here,” she complained.
“Oh, dear, there he goes again, not reporting things when they run out,” Millie said with a long-suffering sigh. “He’s certainly never going to place an order himself. I don’t know what he thinks will happen.”
“You’re sure there isn’t more stored somewhere else?” Tabby prodded.
“I’m afraid not,” Millie said, shaking her head.
“Well, thanks,” Tabby said, a bit shortly, before teleporting away.
More Boring Conversation
Tabby returned. “Sorry, false lead,” she announced. “They’re out.”
“This rash will only get worse and form pustules by morning,” Glade said, frowning. “I’ll have to head to Hayton and see a healer there. Unless…” He looked speculatively at Tabby. “You could just teleport and save me some trouble, and the kitten some discomfort,” he suggested.
“Quite impossible,” Tabby said, looking affronted. “My magic reserves need some time to regenerate after that jaunt to Neighberry.”
Glade’s gaze swiveled to Thomas.
“It’s not in my skill set,” the veterinarian said apologetically.
“Darn unicorns, always with their excuses,” Glade complained, shaking his head. “Can’t figure ‘em out.”
“There is somewhere else we can try,” Tabby put forward. “My old boss Tiny keeps it on hoof… hand. He’s deep in the forest, but it’s closer than Hayton.”
“You sure? I don’t want to waste time on another bust,” Glade said doubtfully.
“I’m sure,” Tabby said firmly. “He keeps very close track of these things.” She consulted a clock. “He’ll just be getting back from rounds around now. And if not, I still have a spare key. He won’t mind.”
“Sure you can still walk, or you need to rest your legs, too?” Glade asked.
“Yes, I can walk,” she snapped.
“Why don’t you leave Chlory here,” Thomas suggested, tugging her a little closer to himself as Glade reached for her. “It will be easier on her than being packed around through the woods.”
“But we could treat her right away,” Glade said, frowning.
“It’s a rough forest path; she would get bumped around or even dropped, and that’s not healthy,” Thomas pointed out. “Her condition is stable enough to hold until you get back.” Despite initial skepticism, his interest in the creature had been piqued.
“Well… I suppose. Keep a close eye on her,” Glade admonished.
“Roast beef on whole wheat… no… make that marble rye,” Vorton deliberated at the sandwich shop counter. “Extra lettuce, hold the mayo. Thanks.” He collected his order and joined his companion at a table in the window.
“Going to the 401K seminar tomorrow?” Blorp asked conversationally as he unwrapped his own sandwich.
“Yeah, I’m thinking about opening a self-directed brokerage account,” Vorton said between bites.
“Too much work,” Blorp said, shaking his head. “I’m going with mutual funds.” Financial strategies were discussed as they continued to eat their meal.
Suddenly, Vorton saw something out the window, and sat up straight in his seat. It was Tabby in the company of an unknown stallion. “Hey, who’s this guy supposed to be?” he asked, frowning.
“Beats me,” Blorp said, shrugging after he had turned to take a look. “Is it suspicious enough to give chase?”
“I think so,” Vorton determined. “Let’s go!”
Arriving at Tiny’s
Throughout the walk to Tiny’s, Tabby had had the eerie feeling that they were being watched, and once could have even sworn she saw a shadowy figure out of the corner of her eye. Glade didn’t seem to notice anything, though, so she kept those thoughts to herself.
They reached the forest clearing that was Tiny’s base of operations without incident. Tabby frowned, however, finding the cabin door hanging wide open with no one in sight.
“Tiny?” she called out tentatively, stepping inside. Her brow creased in dismay as she took in the scene before them.
“Thought you said he was organized,” Glade commented, observing the ramshackle presentation of tossed-over shelves, instruments, and bottles littering the floor.
“No, this isn’t right,” Tabby said, shaking her head. “Tiny!” she called again, pitch increasing.
A large figure loomed out of the shadows at the back of the room, where the wooden house gave way to a cave opening. “I’m here,” said a deep voice.
Tabby gasped as her former mentor came into focus. “What’s going on around here? What happened to you?” she demanded, seeing that his face was considerably swollen on one side.
Tiny sighed, touching the side of his face gingerly. “This is nothing for you to concern yourself with,” he said vaguely.
“Well, you can’t expect me to leave it at that,” said Tabby mulishly. “Who would pick a fight with you?”
“It’s better that you not get involved.” Tiny passed a hand over his face. “The less you know, the safer you’ll be.”
“Tiny, you know me, and so you know that that just isn’t going to wash!” Tabby said, looking down her nose at him sternly.
“There are people looking for information on… work of a sensitive nature,” Tiny admitted at length. “I let my guard down. It won’t happen again.” Clearing his throat, he added, “What brings you here?”
“Oh, right.” Tabby collected her thoughts. “Well, we,” she said, gesturing at Glade, “were hoping you had some golgi berry extract.”
“Oh, yes, of course. At least… I did.” Tiny looked regretfully around at the spilled and broken bottles surrounding them. “I don’t use it often. What do you need it for?”
“An Acatchinole catulus blossom,” Glade spoke-up.
“Ah, the kitten tree,” said Tiny, looking at the stallion assessingly.
“You never told me the kitten tree was a real thing,” said Tabby, frowning.
“I don’t think it ever came up,” Tiny said, righting a fallen rack. “Why don’t you check over there,” he instructed the ponies.
Nearby, two undetected individuals were lurking in the bushes below a window on Tiny’s shack.
“Did you hear that?” The cloaked woman turned to her partner, eyes gleaming. “A kitten tree specimen!”
“Boss sure would like to get his hands on one of those,” her similarly-garbed partner agreed. (And just like that, the evil Krulotin organization turned into a Team Rocket knockoff.) “You think it’s at the clinic, if she’s involved?”
“Most likely,” the woman determined. “Since she’s not there to defend the place, it will be easy picking. Let’s go!”
“Let’s head around the back. I hear someone coming,” her partner pointed out. And they were off, vanished into the forest.
Meet-up at Tiny’s
“Bihoraway… cinder ginger… ciboulette de lune…” Tabby read off the names on bottles.
“Quiet!” Tiny commanded, looking grim. “Someone is here,” he clarified, listening carefully. He moved to the door, opened it, and found a cloaked figure crouched down over the dirt path.
“The sole imprint is made by Krulotin United issue equipment,” the cloaked man was announcing to his partner who stood behind him.
“Hey, look… it’s The Old Milk House Foundation!” Tabby exclaimed, coming to Tiny’s side. “Only I thought you guys were Krulotin yourselves.”
“We are the Royal Order of Krulotin,” confirmed the cloak, standing and bowing respectfully. “They are Krulotin United. Very different.”
“Well, that’s not confusing at all,” Tabby said, looking at them speculatively.
“You’re not supposed to tell anyone that, Blorp,” the second cloak chided.
“She already knew, Vorton,” Blorp complained. “They used to be part of the Krulotin society,” he obligingly continued, as Tabby was a rapt listener, “but they embraced a different set of ideals, and we were forced to part ways.”
“That’s enough!” said Vorton, irately stomping down on Blorp’s foot.
“Well, everything is fine here,” Tiny interrupted, moving to close the door, “and we don’t need you.”
“Why are you here?” Tabby pressed, inserting herself into the doorway and earning an exasperated look from Tiny.
“When there is trouble, the Krulotin will always be there to assist,” Vorton said evasively. “I mean–The Old Milk House Foundation.”
“Well, you’re a little late to stop the break-in,” Tabby pointed out.
“Maybe he’s here for clean-up,” Glade said.
“Uhhh, no, that’s okay,” Vorton said, taking a step back. “Did they find…” He coughed. “…what they were looking for?” he addressed Tiny.
“No,” said Tiny briefly.
“Well, this has been a fun get-together, but time is of the essence,” Glade interrupted brusquely.
“Since they’re here,” Tabby said to Tiny, “they may as well help us find the golgi berry extract.”
“As you command,” said the cloaks reverently.
“I guess you can come in,” Tiny grumbled, granting them access.
“So, Tiny, do you get help from the Foundation, too?” Tabby asked, standing around and watching the cloaks sift through rubble.
“Not if I can help it,” TIny said with a scowl.
“Tiny is a long-time collaborator with the Kru–Old Milk House Foundation,” spoke-up Blorp.
“Right, right, that’s your cover story,” Tabby said, nodding. “So my boss is Atlantean royalty, right? That’s why you’re guarding him?”
“Uh… that’s one of those things we’re not supposed to talk about,” Blorp said, looking uncomfortably at Vorton.
“Remember your pledge,” Tiny said warningly.
“Well, I’m sure we’ll have many more delightful hijinks in the future,” Tabby declared grandly, joining Tiny at his work bench.
Tiny looked over his shoulder to ascertain that they were relatively alone, then said bluntly, “Your new job, do you like it?”
“It’s not like this, but…” Tabby looked around a little wistfully at the mortar and pestle, alembic, and flasks. “Yeah, I like it.”
“And Dr. Fairfax?” Tiny fished. “He’s knowledgeable, competent?”
“Oh, yes, very,” Tabby said with alacrity. “You should see his work with a scalpel. Pure perfection.”
“Hmm,” said Tiny evasively, frowning slightly. The brightening of her face told him everything he needed to know. Still, was it the right path for her? “If you ever feel… constrained… you must let me know,” he urged.
“If you can have things under control, I can have them under control, too,” said Tabby stubbornly.
“I’m not so sure about that,” said Tiny with a sidelong glance. Then their conversation was cut short as he looked at a label and announced: “Ah, here it is.” Mercifully, the bottle had its contents intact.
“Come on, let’s get this show on the road,” Glade said, putting the bottle in the satchel at his side.
“Allow us to escort you back home,” Vorton quickly offered.
“Do what you want, as long as you don’t slow me down,” Glade said with a shrug.
Meanwhile, Thomas was keeping a close eye on his intriguing new patient. Chlory had curled up in a basket and was very sleepy–Thomas wasn’t sure if that was a symptom of the disease, or simply normal behavior for a flower kitten.
Thomas added a note to the diagram he had just sketched of the cellular structure of the creature. One small petal had fallen off her nose, and he was studying the sample under a microscope. As a practicing veterinarian, the opportunities for research were limited, but this incident had reignited his interest in deciphering the unknown and sharing that knowledge.
Not that this was his research, and not that Glade would thank him for poking his nose into it…
Suddenly, Thomas heard the back door latch click. Could they be back so soon?
He peered into the hallway and saw what appeared to be two members of The Old Milk House Foundation entering through the back door; they had never before gained access to the building without being invited, though.
“Can I help you?” Thomas asked cautiously, approaching them as they entered the open area in the back of the building. Something didn’t feel right.
“Where is the chloro kitten?” said one, a female, drawing a sword.
“What do you want with Chlory?” Thomas asked, frowning.
“We’re not here to chit-chat,” said the other one in a masculine tone.
“Look, you may be funding the business,” Thomas argued, “but that doesn’t mean–”
“We’re not afraid of you,” the woman said. “You’re just a burnt-out has-been. Without your protection detail, you’re nothing.”
Ire rose in Thomas. Just because he didn’t have magic, didn’t mean he was completely useless. “You’re not taking her,” he said.
“It’s not up to you.” She gestured at her partner, who skirted the room and headed to the doorway Thomas had come from. The woman cut off Thomas as he moved to intervene, and he found himself held at bay by a sword.
The man reappeared a moment later, Chlory clutched in his arms. “Got it!” he announced cheerfully.
“That’s my patient; I vouched for her safety,” Thomas said, irate. “I won’t allow it.”
“Strong words, but nothing to back them up,” sneered the woman.
Suddenly, Thomas felt a magical energy coursing through his veins–something he hadn’t felt in years, hadn’t thought he would ever feel again. Without even thinking, a powerful wave of energy emanated from his hoof, crashing through the room and knocking the humans to the floor, as well as forming a large hole in an interior wall.
Chlory was unharmed–how, Thomas didn’t know–and he knelt down to retrieve the flower kitten.
“I thought this one didn’t have magic!” said the female, angrily pushing herself up on her arms.
“Well, apparently the reports were wrong!” snapped the other, brushing hair out of his face.
“Let’s forget this,” snarled the woman. “We’re not equipped for a magic fight of this magnitude.” So saying, she produced a small spherical object that, when thrown down, exploded into a cloud of smoke. When the air cleared, they were gone.
“How… how did that happen?” Thomas asked himself, looking down at his hooves in puzzlement. He was not feeling a bit of magic now, not a single particle. But the evidence that something had happened could not be ignored.
“It’s impossible,” he whispered to himself, dumbfounded. “My magic was completely drained…”
The back door opened again, and this time Tabby came clomping in, Glade behind her… as well as two cloaks.
“Tabby! Get away from them! They’re dangerous!” Thomas warned as she stepped inside.
Tabby frowned. What was his problem? He usually accepted the Foundation cloaks as a matter of course. “Nah, they’re cool,” she said, looking at him strangely. “Hey,” she added, her attention caught by the gaping hole behind Thomas. “What happened here?” She looked at him accusingly.
“Two foundation members came and attacked, and tried to take Chlory!” Thomas summarized, leaving out the whole extent of his involvement. He eyed the cloaks with Tabby suspiciously.
“They were not Foundation representatives,” Vorton interrupted, frowning.
“Was it the Krulotin United?” Tabby asked, looking at Vorton.
“Undoubtedly. But how did they know… they must have been listening in at the scene,” Vorton determined. “Are you unharmed, Doctor?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” said Thomas.
“Who are these guys,” Tabby demanded, “and why are they roughing up Tiny and trying to steal cryptids?”
“The Krulotin United have an extensive genetic engineering program dedicated to the creation of unholy hybrids,” Vorton said solemnly.
“They want unusual DNA to add to their genetic library,” piped-up Blorp.
“Sweet!” squealed Tabby. “I mean, uh… horrifying!” she amended, seeing the Krulotin look at her sternly. “What does Tiny have that they’d want?”
“Classified,” said Vorton briefly.
“Oh! I bet it was that sparkly magical orb thingy he showed me once,” Tabby said, snapping her hoof.
“He wasn’t supposed to show anyone!” said Vorton, greatly offended. “Doesn’t anyone do what they’re supposed to?”
“Anyway, the actual issue at hoof?” Glade reminded them, holding aloft the bottle of golgi berry extract. “I’ll need a wash basin of warm water to dilute the extract in.”
“We’ll send a team out forthwith to assess the damage,” promised Vorton before the cloaks departed.
And after a rejuvenating medicated bath, Chlory was a bit more lively, batting around a rattly ball that Tabby found for her.
“Well, glad we got this straightened out,” Glade said, patting the kitten on the head. His gaze lit on the diagram Thomas had been working on. “Remember,” he said sternly, “this is my research.”
“Just some notes for my own records,” Thomas said hastily.
Glade was silent for a moment, studying the sheets of notes, observations, and diagrams. “Well… this is actually some pretty good insight,” he admitted at length. “I wouldn’t have come-up with the hypothesis that the barbed tail is a morphological adaptation akin to that seen on Tragelaphus arctos.”
“Thanks…?” Thomas said hesitantly.
“You know… I was thinking of finding someone to collab with me on the zoological angle,” Glade forged ahead. “Maybe, maybe, you could work with me on the article. If you were interested.”
“Really? I mean… that sounds like a great opportunity,” Thomas said, tempering his excitement.
“What will you do with her? Does she go back to her tree?” Tabby wanted to know.
“The fruit can’t be reattached once it’s fallen,” Glade said, shaking his head. “She’ll stay with me from now on.”
“So she’ll grow into a tree one day?” Tabby inquired.
“You can read all about it when the article comes out,” Glade dismissed any further questioning.
“Maybe you can find fellow cryptid trainers and battle your pets against each other!” Tabby suggested.
“Why would I do that?” Glade asked, looking at her strangely.
“Oh, just an idle thought,” she said before flouncing off.