Alden entered the apartment he shared with his girlfriend Rayna. He had just got back from his second patrol on the Gruntfish, and was concerned that she had not answered when he had called from Scotland. She did not meet him at the base, either, so he had to take a taxi.

The place was empty. A sour smell pervaded the apartment, which he traced quickly to the rotting garbage can. A look in the refrigerator showed the milk had expired almost three weeks before. The apartment looked like she had left in a hurry- beds unmade, clothes strewn about, laundry basket full. Anxiously, he looked for their pet kitty, Oscar. The kitty was nowhere to be found. He was worried about the odd-looking kitten they had found when they got the apartment. However, he did find a note on the refrigerator, one he did not see when he first came in.

Opening the envelope, Alden found a note from Ralph Dibbs, the host at the local Helium Club. 'Alden', he read, 'I have custody of Oscar now. I took him when he complained that he had not been fed for two days. Unfortunately, there has been no sign of Rayna for the past twenty-seven days. One item of importance you should know- Ned Carbo escaped from prison fifteen days before Rayna's disappearance. To get here quickly, simply hold this note at arm's length and say 'Take me to the Club'. I look forward to your appearance. R. Dibbs.'

Alden read the note with horror. Knees shaking, he followed the instructions on the note, shutting his eyes as he did so. [This avoided the stunning effects of the transport.] He was aware of the world blinking.

The next thing he knew, he was feeling a rubbing around his ankles. Looking down, he saw Oscar looking up at him. He scooped the blue-black and white kitty with funny ears and nose up and hugged him. "Are you all right, Oscar?" The kitty just purred happily, cuddling up to his big friend.

"Oscar is doing fine in my care for now, Alden." said Ralph, who seemed to come out of nowhere. "Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for Rayna."

Alden's heart turned to lead. "Is something wrong with her? What do you know?"

"Rayna has not been seen for twenty-seven days. I have not been able to find her. However, I do have my suspicions on where she could be." Ralph spent some time outlining his findings, and why he could take no actions personally.

Alden just sat and listened to Ralph, petting Oscar, who did his best to calm down his big buddy. The purring and petting helped. "So, since Ned has allied himself to a rogue magician, and is holed up on the magician's property, you cannot do anything. But I can, right?" he said after Ralph finished his explanation.

"That is correct, Al. By ancient codes of conduct, no magician can harm another while that one is at home, nor may he or she intrude without permission, if the proper shielding spells are up. In this case, I assure you that the spells are in place."

"However, since I am not a magician, I can mount a rescue, correct?"

"Correct again. With some help, you can mount a successful rescue. It is up to you to do the job properly." Ralph told him.

"Okay. I don't have to report in until Monday, and I slept on the plane. Shall we get started on the plans?" Alden said, his tones cool and even. Too even.

"This way, please." Ralph led Alden to the Magic Shop, then into a room behind it. "Pay close attention while I instruct you in the use of these items. Misuse can have harmful effects." Alden paid close attention, cradling Oscar, who watched with similar intensity.

After instruction, Alden asked Ralph to contact a friend of his. "If this goes the way I think it will, I want a little backup. He can be a big help." Alden explained who he wanted Ralph to contact.

"Easily done, and I agree. He can be useful. Also, take Oscar along. Another set of eyes will help." Ralph suggested, looking at Oscar.

Alden looked at Oscar, who stared back up at him. "Okay. I'll take him. Can I borrow a car? Mine is back at the house." He asked.

Late that evening, Alden and Oscar arrived at a large, old manor house. It was set on its own grounds, protected by a stone wall which surrounded the acreage, as well as some magical wards, if Ralph was correct. They had walked [or, rather, Alden had walked. He carried Oscar.] about a mile from where the car was hidden. Oscar jumped up on the wall, and Al took out one of the packets of powder Ralph had given him. He shook the powder over him, which gave him the ability to pass through wards without trace. Some of the powder dusted Oscar as well.

Once coated, they leaped the wall and proceeded not to the manor, but to a large outbuilding. Both of them used every trick of sneaking through the yard that their feline heritage allowed.

At the building, Oscar slipped inside through a small hole, while Alden started looking through windows. It took several tries for him to find the right one. He saw, in a dimly lit room, Rayna. She was inflated to her full extension, about 4 ½ feet in diameter. However, she was not floating, and she looked very stiff and rigid, almost as if she was full of something solid. Her fur looked very ratty, and was falling out in spots and patches. She did not look good.

Then, Alden felt a tapping at his leg. Oscar was trying for his attention. When he looked, he saw a door open in the manor house, and someone walking to the outbuilding. They concealed themselves in the shrubbery, and the man walked right by them, into the building.

Alden was slightly confused- the man looked a bit like Ned, but Ned was a weaseloid furson, not a human. He looked back in the window, then ducked as lights were turned on. Cautiously, Alden looked back up. Oscar slipped away.

Inside, as Alden watched, the man's features twisted and dissolved, revealing Ned Carbo. He shook Rayna roughly, rousing her from her stupor. "Wake up, bitch! Only three more days to live before that foam in you finishes the job!" Alden heard through the glass.

Something snapped inside Alden when he heard that, and he didn't waste any time. Forming his fist into a club, he smashed the window and jumped in. "Over my dead body, Ned!" Alden roared, letting his rage and fury show.

Ned was surprised, but only for an instant. "So you're back early. You weren't due back for a week!" he said as he coiled himself up for combat.

"You should know by now that Rayna has a terrible problem getting dates mixed up." Alden growled as he smashed a pellet underfoot, shielding the area from magical scrying. Ned suddenly stretched himself, reaching for Alden.

However, Alden can stretch as well. Also, he keeps himself very fit, and has lots of yoga training under his belt. Ned was relying on his size and bulk, Alden on his speed, strength, and skill. It was a close match. The two struggled, clawed, and fought for a time, bumping into Rayna, who stiffly rolled to one side against a wall.

The two fought hard, Alden suffering cuts, slashes, and some very stiff blows. Ned was getting his share of punishment as well, bleeding profusely from cuts inflicted by Al's claws. Then, a large blue hand reached in and grabbed Ned around the neck, squeezing hard. Ned struggled fiercely, then went limp.

When Alden managed to pull himself back together, he looked at the being the large blue hand was attached to and said, "Took you long enough, Niagara. You can let go of him now."

The blue-skinned gargoyle let go of Ned's neck, allowing him to fall to the floor like a sack of wet oatmeal. "Yeah. I want him alive when you pull the next trick on him. I want to see this."

Alden gaped in surprise. "How do you know? Did Ralph tell you?"

"In a way." The gargoyle smiled, then his form changed. He literally melted as he shapechanged into a blue-black and white kitty, with funny-looking ears and nose. He shifted back to his normal form. "I'll tell you the tale later. Right now, put the hex on Ned, then let's get Rayna out of here."

"Good idea." Alden took out another package of powder, and dusted Ned with it. The big weaseloid twisted, shivered, and shrank. When the spell was done, all that was left was a Ned-shaped deflated balloon. Picking Ned up, Alden stuffed him into a pocket. He then drank the healing potion, sealing up his cuts.

"You got the permeation spell, right? She's too big for the doors." Niagara asked.

"Right here." Alden removed a spray can from his pocket, and sprayed the wall. The wall took on a misty, not-quite-there appearance. Quickly, the two rolled Rayna out. She was semi-conscious, and she felt like she was made of plastic foam. Her fur cracked and fell off as she rolled. Outside, Alden picked her up and carried her around to the other side of the building, away from the manor. The wall resolidified after they went through it.

On the other side, Niagara made sure he had a firm grip on Rayna. "Can you get me enough altitude to fly her to the club?" he asked.

"I'm sure of that. It's what will happen to me when you do." Alden said as he swallowed two large helium pills. He wrapped his feet around Niagara's chest as he began to inflate.

"But, Al! You'll burst!" Niagara said worriedly.

"I know, Nye. It doesn't hurt me like it does you. I'll just regenerate. It'll take me some time, though, without anyone to pick up the pieces." Alden said calmly. As he inflated, he concentrated on making sure he had a firm grip on Niagara.

Within moments, Alden was a big balloon, and getting bigger and bigger. "Nye, you've put on some weight since the last time we talked, right?" he shrilled.

"Some. I've been growing and working out."

"I can tell." Alden continued to balloon up with helium, bulging up above the building. His pants, which were treated to stretch, kept his legs in shape, so he could hold on to Niagara. Shortly thereafter, they lifted off. Niagara began using his wings, moving them in the right direction in the still night air.

The trio continued their ascent, because Alden was unable to release the helium in him. When they were high enough, Niagara shouted, "Okay, Al! Let go!"

"Take my pants off- we need to get Ned back to the club!"

Niagara managed to snag the cuffs of Alden's pants in his wing claws. "Got'em! See you at the club!" Alden relaxed his grip on Niagara, and he shot up into the air, ascending helplessly and rapidly. He could feel himself relentlessly expanding, getting bigger and thinner as he soared higher and higher. 'I hope Nye's out of range.' was his last thought before he went BOOM.

The next thing Alden knew, he was on a bed at the club. Ralph was waiting for him. Handing Alden a robe, he said, "Come along- I need your help to fix Rayna." Alden threw on the robe and followed Ralph.

They went to a room where Rayna waited. Niagara, as Oscar, was perched on her, purring noisily under her chin. "To save her, I need some of your blood. She is filled with a rigid foam, which is slowly changing her into the same substance. The spell that was placed on the foam will allow it to dissolve only with a serum made from your blood. The transformation takes thirty days to fully take effect. Fortunately, her confusion with the calendar made Ned put the spell on her a little late. He thought he had more time.

"Now, sit here and relax." Ralph commanded. Alden did so, and Ralph, with a needle and tube, removed 100 cc's of Alden's blood. He proceeded to recite a spell, and the blood changed to a clear, golden liquid. Ralph then poured the liquid down Rayna's throat, after chasing Oscar off her.

Nothing happened at first. After a moment, Rayna's rigid body began to shudder and convulse. A white foamy liquid started coming out of her mouth, and she slowly shrank. Ralph caught the liquid in buckets as she expelled the stuff from her. Alden leaped up to help. Soon, she was back to her normal size, but not shape. She was still rather stiff, at least her skin was. Ralph had Alden pick her up and take her to the bed Alden had woken up in. Oscar trotted along, following them.

"She will need to sleep for a day or so, recovering. She will need lots of massage therapy to restore her skin tone, and it will be some time before her fur grows back. She will be all right here.

"Now, if you two will come with me, we will take care of our remaining problem." Ralph said in a very cold voice. "Niagara, shift back to your natural form." The kitty changed to a gargoyle and followed them.

They went outside, where a small helium tank stood. Ralph reached into his pocket and removed Ned's limp form. He put the hose from the tank into Ned's 'mouth' and filled him up until he was a big balloon, struggling against the hose that held it down. Ned's eyes opened as he filled, growing wide with alarm.

"Your sentence, for nearly killing one who has done no harm to you, is to float around the world for the rest of your days, unable to deflate, never to touch the earth again. You will never burst, or fly higher than you can stand to breathe. Remain what you are, a toy balloon.

"Who am I to do this? A magician, far more powerful than the fool who aided you. He will never find you as you float away." Ralph's voice was far harsher than either Alden or Niagara had ever heard.

Ned could only watch with panic-filled eyes as Ralph removed the hose, because he was too full of helium to move. Slowly, he floated up into the pre-dawn sky.

As they watched Ned drift away, Alden glanced at Ralph, and saw something different than he had ever seen in the basset before, a furson that was far older than he appeared to be normally. The image lasted a split-second, then Al saw the same Ralph he had known.

When Ned had drifted out of sight, the three went back inside. Around them, the usual activities of the Helium Club went on. Somehow, nobody noticed them.

As Al and Nye sat down to breakfast, Al asked, "Why did you stay with me as a cat for so long without showing yourself, Nye? It's been years since we last met."

Niagara looked slightly embarrassed. "Well, I have never forgotten you, after you found me in the woods the first time I went balloonie, when I had punctured myself on that branch. I remembered how kind you were, patching the hole and re-inflating me.

"Well, I needed a place to hide. I sought you out, and when I found you, I thought the best way to hide both me and you was to adopt the form of a cat. This way, nobody could report a blue gargoyle living out here. Bound to attract attention.

"You treated me well, Al. For which, I thank you. Rayna doesn't know, but Ralph did. When she was taken, I could not do anything to help, because Ned showed up with two goons and a magician. If I tried to intervene, I probably would have lost.

"Ralph showed up two days later, and took me in. I've been helping out here at the club, and I've learned a lot more about being a balloonie. Girls love me when I'm blown up."

"I'm sure they do." Alden said. After a pull from the coffee mug, he continued.

"You're welcome to stay with us for as long as you need to. I like you as Oscar." Alden paused, then went on. "Now I know why you liked rubbing up against me, and all the other things you did. You were thanking me as a cat would."

Niagara nodded. "Had you fooled, didn't I? Someday, I'll tell you how I got this amulet. It's what enables me to change shape and form." He said, holding it out. Some thoughts went through Alden's head then, but he didn't let Nye see them.

"We're going to have a time helping Rayna recover. I'll be glad to help, in my own way." Niagara said solemnly.

"It will be welcome, friend. Welcome, indeed." Together, they got up from the table and walked to Rayna's room, Nye shifting when he was out of sight of the crowd.