Convincing Howl to stand up and go after Sophie was a much easier job than Michael thought it would be, but convincing Howl that he would not need any company for that was downright impossible.
"Look at the bright side," said Howl, walking around the living room energetically, wearing a dark brown shirt and checkered green pants, both borrowed from Michael. He had worked a spell to make them his size, but the pants didn't turn out very well, so his ankles were left exposed in an almost ridiculous fashion. He didn't seem to mind it too much. "As a token of my appreciation for your company and friendship in such dark times, I'll teach you some interesting bits of greatly advanced magic while we are on our journey."
"I've learned advanced magic already," said Michael, sitting on an armchair with his usual anxious look. He was starting to regret ever opening the door for Howl. He watched while the other wizard stopped walking to glare dubiously at him, bending over to get something from the floor. It was with a certain surprise that Michael recognized the dry wart powder left from the ruined anti-acne potion. "Oh, about that..."
"If you were so fluent in advanced magic, you wouldn't be wasting your time with something as ordinary as anti-acne potions, now, would you? Sounds like I left a hole in your, I dare say, brilliant education, Michael, my friend," Howl said unimpressedly, throwing the powder over his shoulder. It turned into a bunch of small moths as soon as it touched the wall. Michael watched in awe as they flew above his head, and only after a moment took notice that Howl was kneeling before him, an alarmed look in his eyes. "Michael, please, for all that is and isn't sacred," he begged in a hurried whisper. "Look at me. A lost, miserable man, down to his knees like a damned soul, begging for his most loyal friend, the only one he would trust his life with, to help him in times of trouble. Begging you, Michael. I am begging you!"
Michael gulped at the idea of Howl trusting his life with him. "You don't need me..." He began, but was interrupted.
"You're the only one who can come with me, Michael. Calcifer is unable to do so and honestly, I don't think he would even if he could. My sister wouldn't do much but blame me, tell me she doesn't need to take care of a grown-up man when she already has kids to raise." Howl paused and frowned. "Hell, when did I become surrounded by such difficult tempers? Either way. If I go on this alone, I'll probably end up crazy in no time. Do you want that to happen?"
The idea of Howl going crazy was also gulp-worthy. "No, I don't, trust me... But I can't go either."
"No? How not? Give me one good reason, one single good reason for that. Go."
"Martha is pregnant," Michael said readily, deadpan. He thought it was actually pretty obvious. Howl merely waved a hand.
"Why, that is no problem at all! Hopefully we won't take too long, and she can go live with her mother for the time being. Problem solved. Anything else?"
"But I don't want to..." Michael's voice trailed off and he looked uneasily at the stairs. He meant to say he didn't want to miss the birth of his first child, or leave his lovely Martha on her own for the instance. But Howl thought he meant something different.
"Listen, I understand you've become a domestic husband who doesn't want to step outside and face the dangers of this big wild 'Marthaless' world, but this is not something we're doing for fun, Michael," Howl said solemnly. "This is deadly serious. And trust me, if Martha ever left you for good and you needed help fixing your marriage, I would be the first to volunteer. You know it very well."
Michael figured he really meant it, but didn't say a word. His hesitant eyes betrayed him, however, and not only Howl noticed it, but he also attempted at one final strike, putting on his most pitiful face.
Finally, Michael closed his eyes and let out a defeated sigh. That was all Howl needed to hear to open a wide, genuine smile.
"I knew I could always count on you," he said, quickly standing up. "Pray tell, do you happen to still have the seven-leagues boot I gave you as a loving wedding gift?"
Michael nodded quietly and stood up to search for the boot in his room. It was once again clean, for Howl had worked up a spell to remove the green slime in order to avoid Martha's rage, but even so it was quite a hard task to find the boot, hidden inside an old box under a pile of clothes. He might have taken a little longer than he had to, though; he was thinking on how to tell his wife he would have to leave her alone for a while. The thought of his lovely Martha having to go through the pain of giving birth without him being there to hold her hand it made him feel like a truly awful person.
Once he had the seven-leagues boot in hands, Michael marched to their spare room only to find Martha patiently folding the sheets of the bed where Howl was left after the unfortunate slime attack. When he softly called out "sweetheart", he was sweating and more anxious than ever.
From the living room, Howl could hear Michael and Martha arguing loudly. Actually, all he could really hear was Martha's voice, and an occasional "my love, please" from Michael. Martha was shouting things about how it was Howl's fault and Michael had absolutely nothing to do with it.
She is quite right, Howl caught himself thinking guiltily while searching for a proper map among Michael's notes. He didn't think about it too much though; instead, his thoughts traveled back to a much more important matter: if I were Sophie, were would I hide? Knowing her like he did, she certainly would go somewhere he would have trouble finding, or wouldn't dream of checking. She had taken their seven-leagues boot with her, so it was safe to say she was far away from Ingary.
Howl was then distracted by a small wedding picture of both Martha and Michael hidden between the pages of a spellsbook. It did nothing to make him feel any better. In fact, he felt as though his heart had sunk down into a dark abyss.
"Let's get going," said Michael, coming down the stairs hurriedly with a bag in one hand and the seven-leagues boot in the other. Howl quickly stuffed the wedding picture inside one of his pockets for no reason and turned to face Michael; the young man looked as miserable as he could be. "Will you need a map?" He said as he walked towards the door, not looking at Howl.
"No," lied Howl, with a smile. "I know these lands like the palm of my own hand."
When they walked out and Michael threw a last glance at the house, Howl could swear the young man was about to burst into tears, but held on tight.
It was a beautiful Wednesday afternoon and Porthaven was completely decorated with colorful flags and balloons. There certainly was a festival going on, but Howl couldn't quite remember which one.
"So, where exactly are we going?" Michael asked. He had been completely silent for the past thirty minutes, and the sudden sound of his voice made Howl throw him a momentarily startled look, as though he had forgotten for a second the young man was still there.
"Well," Howl cleared his throat. "That's actually a pretty good question. I thought perhaps we could find a Finder."
Michael frowned. "Find a Finder?"
"That's what I said."
"And what exactly are Finders?"
"They find people," Howl said absently, and Michael figured it would be useless to insist. Instead, he let his thoughts drive back to his poor, lovely Martha, sitting alone in their house, and felt even more like an awful person. When he snapped back to reality, they were leaving Porthaven and walking towards the fields. "This is the tricky thing about Finders," Howl said, walking ahead. His exposed ankles seemed more ridiculous than ever. "You have to find them if you want them to find people for you, and you can't ask a Finder to find another Finder. It's against their finding code. Plus, they change address every two full moons."
"Tricky indeed," Michael said. He was feeling tired already. Maybe Howl was right when he said Michael had become a domestic husband. He used to have a lot more energy before. "So we are going to find this Finder in this field?"
According to Howl, the Finder could be found in a small house nearby. They had to do a lot of walking through the field and Howl got lost a couple times, so they walked in circles for a good while. When they reached a cozy-looking yellow house, the sun was driving Michael insane and all he could think of was a glass of cold water. Not even Martha or Sophie were in his mind. Howl, except for the bags under his eyes, didn't seem tired at all; instead, he looked more determined than ever. Michael wondered if a stamina spell had something to do with it or it was all just about finding Sophie.
A few seconds after Howl reached out and ringed the bell, a short young lady opened the door. Actually, she wasn't just short; she was very, very short, like a child. Michael was glaring at her with a puzzled face, trying to figure out if she even reached his knees, when Howl spoke.
"Good afternoon," he said, with a pleasant enough smile. He looked at her much like he would look at an adorable small kid. "You must have heard of me already. My name is Howl Pendragon, and this is my assistant... friend. This is my friend, Michael Fisher. I don't have an audition scheduled with Mrs. Ferston, but I need to see her urgently nonetheless, so would you be a dear and let us in?"
The short lady glanced at his exposed ankles, which didn't make him feel self-conscious in the slightest. Finally, she nodded and allowed them to come in. The house, which seemed very small on the outside, was as big as a palace on the inside, for Michael's wonder. Howl didn't seem any surprised by that. The room where they were standing was filled with a bunch of stargazing objects, and the ceiling was a transparent glass dome. Michael could see the blue sky outside, with a few spots drawn on the glass indicating what he thought were the location of various stars.
"Close your mouth, Michael," said Howl nonchalantly, although there was indeed a very small hint of anxiety in his voice. "They'll think you're some sort of oblivious peasant."
"Is this the same kind of magic we have in the castle?" Michael asked, and the way he looked at Howl resembled the curious young apprentice he once was.
"The size illusion? Not exactly," said Howl. "What Mrs. Ferston did here is very basic. Actually, even you could do something like that with a few instrunctions." Howl ignored how Michael's smile melted away. "The magic I used on the castle is a lot stronger and much more complicated. I had to use the strongest illusion spells multiple times. Mrs. Ferston can only dream..."
"One second! I'm coming!"
He was interrupted by the weirdly loud sound of steps, and a few seconds later a messy old Mrs. Ferston waltzed into the room from a door neither of them had noticed before. Mrs. Ferston was a tall and skinny old woman in a dark green dress with a permanently startled gaze and particularly fast for someone her age. She looked at the two men rather confused for a moment, but soon her lips curled up into a wide smile.
"Oh my!" She said, all smiles and wide shiny eyes. "If it isn't my dear, dear Howl. Charming as ever. What brings you here? And - goodness grief, my dear! Whatever happened to your pants?"
"They are all right, mrs. Ferston," Howl said. "It's a new fashion in Porthaven. But we are not here to talk about fashion. I need your help, and I need it as urgently as possible."
"Oh, do you?" Mrs. Ferston sat by the desk before them. Michael noticed a bunch of golden coins spattered over it, and wondered how much a finding would cost. Nothing Howl couldn't pay, he thought. "Do you need me to find a girl in particular, Howl, my dear?"
"I need you to help me finding my wife," Howl said with great emphasis. "Sophie Pendragon."
"Your wife?" Mrs. Ferston blinked at Howl with her wide startled eyes. "Oh dear! What happened? Was she kidnapped?"
Silence filled the room, and Michael glanced at Howl hesitantly. The older wizard's face was unreadable.
"Yes," he said at last.
"Oh dear, oh dear!" Mrs. Ferston quickly fetched one of the stargazing objects - a particularly odd and small telescope - while accidentally sending a bunch of papers to the floor. Michael felt the urge to reach out and organize them, but held himself back. "Kidnapped! What a disaster! Sophie Pendragon, you say?" She asked, using the instrument to look at the blue sky above. It took her a minute to scan. "No. No Sophie Pendragon anywhere here."
Howl closed his eyes briefly, with quite a painful look on his face.
"Try Sophie Hatter," the wizard muttered.
"Sophie Hatter," repeated Mrs. Ferston, scanning the sky once more. "Sophie Hatter, Sophie Hatter... Sophie Hatter... Oh! No, no Sophie Hatter here either."
Howl and Michael exchanged a quick puzzled look.
"No Sophie?" Michael asked. "Does it mean she is..."
"Mrs. Ferston," Howl interrupted, with a hint of frustration and impatience in his voice. "You are a well-trained Finder. And, as a well-trained Finder, you are supposed to find people. What is this now?"
"My dear Howl," said Mrs. Ferston, setting the telescope down. "I am a well-trained Finder, but I'm not a Superior Finder. I can only find people who are located within a certain region."
"And what region would this be, may I ask?" Howl said, more and more impatient.
"Why, this world, of course," Mrs. Ferston said sweetly.
When Michael glanced up at Howl again, his eyes were as wide and startled as Mrs. Ferston's. Michael wasn't quite sure of what the Finder meant when she said Sophie was nowhere to be found in this world. He jumped to the conclusion that she was probably dead, but Howl, while shocked, didn't see to be the "my wife died" kind of shocked. It seemed to Michael he was the "you've got to be kidding me" kind of shocked.
"So you're saying she is in another world?" Howl said, but didn't give Mrs. Ferston time to answer. Instead, he brought both hands to his face and let out a loud growl of frustration. "She is in another world! God damn!"
"I'm so very sorry, my dear," Mrs. Ferston said. "Kidnappers these days... so daring! Would you want me to fetch the..."
"No, I would not, thank you," Howl said. "Where can I find a Superior Finder?"
"You can't, my dear. They are all dead, and we haven't found another one yet. It's against our finding code to find other Finders, you know it."
"Oh, that's superb!"
For a moment Michael thought Howl was going to burn the whole house down, but he didn't. Instead, he thanked Mrs. Ferston a bit too aggressively, paid her and dragged the confused Michael outside with him.
"Howl," Michael said, "what did she mean with that?"
"She meant that not only I might have made a big mistake, but Sophie is also a stubborn, reckless, devil-may-care woman who lives with the single purpose of making my life a hell."