Author's Note: I wanted to apologize for how long I've taken to update this story. Going forward, I promise to do my absolute best to be more responsible and update in a more timely manner. Thank you to everyone who stuck around. I'm sorry that this chapter isn't even close to good enough to make up for the wait.
It takes several moments before she gains enough control to gather her skirts and regain her footing. A feeling of immense calm settles over her as her eyes take in Niklaus's stained tunic—bloodstained, she reminds herself. Bloodstained because of actions not taken and promises left dishonored. Grim determination pounds in her veins, every thought of Mikael and the tentative family peace gone. That can be worried about after a different sunrise. Today, now, it is about protecting her boy.
She sees the expression Elijah wears, a combination of anger, suffering, and unabashed fear. Despite all of that, she takes solace in the fact that she can still read the unspoken plea written into every line of Elijah's face—a reminder that the very hallmark of a good mother is knowing what her child needs when even her child doesn't, so perhaps she has not failed as a mother for all her children. Which is exactly why she knows he needs saving just as much as Niklaus, needs liberation from the suffocating responsibility of having another's trust, life, and soul placed into his young hands.
Only Niklaus can grant Elijah that. But she can grant him Niklaus, and she hopes that maybe that can save them both.
All of this runs through her mind in the seconds it takes her to stand, and it's then that she reaches her decision. "Remain with Niklaus. I will return with my herbs."
Elijah does not understand the full meaning of her magic, but she knows he has pieced together enough over the years to have a sufficient idea. It's not an idea he is particularly fond of. But he is desperate.
They all are.
Which is why she cannot claim to be surprised when his next words are merely: "Will they work?"
"They must," she replies, because that is all the guarantee she can give. "But magic does not come without a price." Dahlia taught her that.
There's another heartbeat of tense silence before Elijah nods, shifting his arms around his brother so the blond rests on his lap instead of being slung haphazardly over his shoulder.
Magic does not come without a price. But as she stares at Niklaus's body, limp, and Elijah's face, haggard and haunted, no price seems too high.
Her arsenal of magical tools is vast, an endless collection of dusty books and herbs and bizarre spells. But a healing ritual for an unconscious child—that kind of power is akin to the level required to bring someone back from the dead, and even she cannot use an inanimate source to generate energy for such a task. She must use herself, then. The realizations settles within her bones that she will most definitely die from the energy loss of sustaining the spell to save Niklaus while also accessing the power for that spell from within herself.
Strangely, she still feels nothing but calm.
Gathering the necessary supplies from her storeroom, Esther returns to her sons.
"Hurry," Elijah begs even as she enters the room. He's gently rocking his brother now, muttering a string of platitudes under his breath that she can't make out. They do no one any good, but she doesn't ask him to stop. "Has he been gone too—" Elijah's voice breaks off, cracking before finishing the sentence, but she understands the meaning behind his question.
"Long enough that I need to...siphon energy from a living source to heal him." She wants to lie to him, but she can't bring herself to. That doesn't mean he needs to know the whole truth, however.
In the light of the room Elijah looks almost ghostly, but she doesn't miss the pained look that flashes across his face at her words. "Use me," he says after several moments.
"No, Elijah, I will draw energy from myself." She can't lose him too.
There's a short huff of breath from her son before he shakes his head. "You should be more concerned about losing Niklaus," he retorts sharply, and she wonders how he could tell exactly what she was thinking. He continues in a calmer tone, "You cannot draw energy from yourself and also perform the spell. It would kill you."
She doesn't know where he learned of this, but he's right, of course. Her eyes dart briefly to Niklaus's unmoving form before coming back to focus on Elijah. "Very well," Esther says, with a sinking feeling like she is signing away Elijah's life. Even still, and she hates herself for it, something like relief flutters in the pit of her stomach. Numbness made her calm earlier, but she doesn't think she could've killed herself for her blond-haired son when it finally came down to it. There are no such reservations in Elijah's mind—she can tell the moment his gaze locks with hers—which both scares and humbles her at the same time. "Very well."
After drawing two identical, intricate sigils on the floor, Esther commands Elijah to lay Niklaus in one and himself in the other. The older boy's hands tremble as he places his unmoving brother on one of the markings, but Elijah remains steady as he does the same with himself. Esther thinks that says something about her sons, but she doesn't take the time to think about it. There is no time left.
Taking the sharp dagger she brought from the storeroom, Esther makes a shallow slash across her left wrist—just deep enough to ooze blood without weakening herself. Then she dips her index finger through the pooling blood and gathers enough to swipe a single, long line down her forearm. Another dip, another line. And over and over until the same sigil on which Elijah and Niklaus now lie is fully drawn on her skin. The smell of blood hits her nostrils as she dabs a cloth at her wrist, instantly reminding her of Niklaus's injuries.
She swallows hard, releasing a deep breath before forcing that thought from her mind.
The three-worded incantation this spell requires flows from her lips awkwardly at first—it has been quite some time since she last practiced magic—but after a few iterations, the words meld into a rhythm that rolls off her tongue easily. With each iteration, her voice rises, power gathering in her veins. Her concentration nearly breaks when she remembers that it's Elijah's energy currently building inside of her, even as he weakens with every passing moment, but she regains her mental footing just in time. At this point, any misstep—no matter how small—would end fatally for all of them.
But if there's one thing she can claim proficiency at, it's the discipline aspect of magic. Dahlia always was one to look for the biggest, boldest spells, but there was a reason Esther did the longer and more intricate ones.
It takes several more minutes until nearly all of Elijah's non-essential life energy pulsates within her. Drawing any more from him could kill her son; already she worries she has taken too much. But Niklaus needs every drop of it, and possibly more, given how long he's now gone without breathing. Even as she feels her way around the boundaries of Elijah's energy, she can tell it may not be enough.
After uttering the incantation one more time, she thrusts her hands out forcefully out in front of herself, toward Niklaus. The hand motion is unnecessary, but it helps her visualize all that energy, that power, leaving her and entering Niklaus. She releases every last drop to her son, even as her own psyche craves the energy for itself to replenish what she lost performing the spell.
The moment all the energy has left her body she sags to her knees, completely drained. Even just being a conduit of the energy transfer was exhausting; she can't even begin to imagine the state Elijah is in. All for the brother he's not so related to after all. Or perhaps for the beatings he can't protect that brother from.
It's a funny thing, guilt.
For several agonizing minutes, she simply waits, reminding herself over and over again that magic takes time, that both her sons will need to recover before becoming conscious. In the background, she hears Rebekah and Kol getting into an argument about—something, something silly that probably means everything to them at the moment—but she can't be bothered to care when two more of her children are lying motionless on the floor. She has far bigger problems to worry about than a sibling spat—especially considering that she can now hear Mikael's heavy step in the house as well.
The disgust, the anger, that she harbored when she first realized the extent of Niklaus's injuries is gone. Her sons might be dead because of what Mikael did, but she can't find any rage or fury to tap into. Even as the image of her husband's sharp, angular face contorting into an expression of pure loathing as he hurts their—her—son swims in her mind, all she feels is empty.
"Esther!" Mikael calls, his tone severe.
Her heart lurches into her throat. Esther reminds herself that Mikael is no threat to her, then suddenly wonders how Niklaus manages to survive without that comfort.
She doesn't think she would be able to.
Gathering her skirts, she stands. He will come in search of her if she delays, and that cannot happen, because if he uncovers what is happening in this room, Esther knows his fury will spare no one. But she cannot leave, because neither Elijah nor Niklaus have yet stirred.
Where is that calmness, that grim determination, that complete disregard for family peace from just a few minutes ago? Mikael's footsteps are coming closer, and she knows she will need every bit of that now. The price of her magic is here, but suddenly, there are some prices she simply isn't willing to pay.