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The Coal Elf
cover art © Ural Akyuz



Ember Skye is not another spell casting wizard or vampire groupie. She is a fed up teenage Coal Elf with a big ashy chip on her shoulder.




Chapter Excerpt




The Coal Elf

YA fantasy


Maria DeVivo




Chapter one


Ember knew that if she closed her eyes long enough, she could feel the warm sun beating down on her face, its heat intermingled with the frosty nip of a breeze that kissed the pointed tips of her ears.

And if she tried very hard, she could smell that scent again -- the smell like white and gray-- if color had an aroma. A smell that reeks of wetness in the air and ice patches on the ground and sloshing half-frozen dirt between her toes. The smell that indicates the clouds are just heavy enough to burst open their icy insides. Smells of Home.

Once upon a time.

She knew if she squeezed her eyes a little tighter the colorful light orbs that flickered behind her closed lids would transform into the hundreds of butterflies flitting about the garden in her courtyard. Their iridescent wings catching the thin rays of light from the sun as it melts its way off the horizon, moving in and out and back and forth against that gray and white smelling wind.

Before Ember could peacefully escape into another daydream memory, the siren sounded, rousing her from her thoughts of Home, signifying the end of yet another workday in the Mines. She opened her eyes to the darkness surrounding her and focused on the line of light coming from the lantern beside her. Ember dropped her pick-axe to her side and wiped the crown of tiny salt droplets from her forehead with the back of her dirty hand. The smell of coal dust from her sleeve wafted into her nostrils. Burnt dirt and dry rock. Smells of Home. Now. Not so once upon a time. She tried desperately to inhale deeply and eliminate the ash smell, but it was even a conscious effort just to breathe in the slightest amount of air and feel satisfied. Most of the time, her breaths were filled with dirt and dust and particles of ground-up rock. Each inhalation covered the back of her throat with grit. She had been coughing up blood the last few days. Such was the life of a Coal Elf.

You'd think I'd be used to this by now! she thought to herself as she wriggled her small body from side to side to loosen her work gear off her shoulders. The rough material of her jumpsuit scratched the insides of her sweaty thighs and the deep cups of her underarms. It itched. Badly.

With the thoughts of her comforting daydreams shattered by the end-day siren, her mind now focused on getting back to her cozy den, getting out of these clothes, and diving into the sea of blankets adorning her bed. She longed to close her eyes again, but this time for a long, restful sleep. A second bell told her it wasn't going to happen. Not now. Not tonight. Not with the Quarterly Meeting to attend. Not with the deep ache in the center of her chest and underlying rattle in her lungs. No. No rest for the weary. No rest for a Coal Elf.

Six elf-years in the Mines had probably distorted the real memories of her childhood. Daydreams. Memories. Wishes. Call them what you will, they certainly felt extremely real to Ember. There was one particular day, though, that she knew she could never forget.

The day of her ninth elfyear birthday.

She had been playing outside in the snow drifts outside the courtyard of her family's sprawling manor in Tir-La Treals. It was a lovely wintery afternoon with a light flurry of snow dusting over the rooftops. Life was good for Ember, charmed. The rest of her family was gathered in the grand living room of their palatial estate, anxiously awaiting the letter from the Boss's Council that would state what Life Job the youngest Skye child would be assuming. Ember's father was once a toy maker, but years of superior work moved him quickly up the ranks. Now he was regional manager for the entire parish. Mother, too, was well-respected in the community as head costume designer. Her creativity and keen eye for fashion made her the most prominent figure in the industry. Ember's older sister, Ginger, was following Mother's path and apprenticing with the Master Designer Team. Because of this, the assumption was that Ember would somehow be involved in the toy making guild like her father. This would not have been Ember's first choice for a career (as if any elf had one), but she was comfortable enough with the idea knowing she would have much to learn from her father. Life was good, charmed.

Then the envelope was delivered and her father called out to her in his "serious" voice that stopped her playing and commanded the family's attention immediately. Mother gasped as she silently read the words of the parchment over her father's shoulder. Her eyes grew wide with fear and shock and she nearly fainted. As Ginger watched Ember's Nanny Elf, Carole, mouth the words "Coal Elf" to herself in disbelief, she nearly doubled over with wicked sister laughter.

Father sat Ember down on the candy cane striped sofa next to the low flamed fire in the hearth and hung his head low. In his hands, the official letter from the Boss's Council seemed to ooze between his fingertips like a foul and toxic substance. The letters of the gold embossed paper spilled out and over and in-between the creases of his chubby hands. When he told her, he practically whispered the news to her as if in shame and disgust. His dark brown eyes never once looked up from the floor – a clear sign that his heart was breaking from having to deliver the news to his youngest daughter.

"This is what the Boss wants for you," he mumbled as he lovingly placed his hands on her knees. "Your mother and I never imagined you would end up o'er there in the Mines, but apparently the Boss has got it all figured out."

And that was it. Her ears didn't quite understand the magnitude of what was happening to her. She was brought up, as all elflings were, to believe and obey and to never question, but Ember was not a typical elfling. Her curiosity and natural instinct to question often got her in trouble. Now, her father had told her she was destined to be a Coal Miner. She had to accept that. Her father said it was the Boss's plan. She had to accept that as well.

This was how life was for her people. All throughout the Pole, elflings her age were being assigned their Life Jobs, handpicked by the Boss himself. That was their tradition. In their ninth elf-year, all elflings were assigned their Life Jobs. It was the way. It gave the elflings one last year of elflinghood before their apprenticeship began. Pretty little Melody Grubbins, from across the road, was being assigned Chorus Leader of Lollipop Troupe #5. Cynnamon Stixx of Tir-La Dunes was being told by her father right at that same moment that she would be apprenticing at the Gumdrop Bakery as a Cookie Elf, and Hattie Candlewick was being patted on the head by her mum after she so gleefully announced that Hattie would be a Tree Decorator!

Ember Skye was just informed that she would be a Coal Miner. She had to accept it. What else could she do?

No one ever dared go against Santa Claus.

Barkuss came bustling behind her and tapped her on the shoulder. His round face seemed to glow as his smile curved around his nose.

"Ready for the meeting? Last one of the year!" he sang in his sing-songy voice.

Ember rolled her dark blue eyes. "You can't be serious," she scoffed. It never failed to amaze her how Barkuss always seemed so eager to work, eager to please, eager to do his job. Barkuss was happy about the last Quarterly Meeting of the year, happy about his job collecting coal and his darkened ash-filled den, because this was all he knew. This was all he had. Barkuss was born and raised in the Mines and he didn't know anything else. Not like Ember, who had seen the sun and tasted melted snow on her tongue and danced beneath the pregnant branches of the Nessie Fruit trees. Barkuss was a true Coal Elf. He and his brothers were Ceffles, or Coal Elves for Life, a fact he delighted in often. He had never been to the surface, and had no interest in going there.

Regardless, Barkuss was a funny elf with what would have been red hair had it been cleaned properly. At twenty-elfyears old, he was always smiling and cheerful. He was a Coal Collector and he took tremendous pride in the work he did. His incessant boasting and flamboyant stories often made him the butt of many of the other elves' jokes. Ember had to admit Barkuss could be a little too much at times, but in the end, he was a good friend.

Barkuss blew a gust of breath upward to wisp away a stray lock of ashy red hair from his eye. "Oh, c'mon, girl!" he exclaimed as he clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth.

"No, no, no," she interrupted as she waved her hand back and forth in the air. "It's not even funny, Barkuss. It's seriously the same meeting every four months. Doesn't it bother you? Don't you get tired of the same old boring nonsense?"

"It's what we do, E! Why go against it, right? Ain't no sense in that. Ain't nothing go'n change nothing! Pick up your stuff! I don't wanna be late!" Barkuss gave her one last pat on the shoulder and headed out.

He can't be right. Not about this.

The Quarterly Meeting was held in the normal spot, a dead end room beyond a small hallway. There, sharp gray rock had been chiseled into semi-circular benches. Ember found a spot on an empty bench away from the others. Barkuss had already sat next to another crew member, and the two were whispering in hushed tones, or as hushed as possible for Barkuss. Ember tried to stifle a cough, but all heads turned toward her as the horrifying rattle sound bounced back and forth on the cavern walls. Barkuss perked up, looked over at her and mouthed "You okay?" under his scrunched up nose. She half-rolled her eyes and nodded. He quickly gave her a thumbs-up and turned back to his conversation.

She set her gear beside her and crossed her legs at the ankles. As Ember scanned the faces of the elves around her, she couldn't help but feel an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. Empty eyes around the meeting hall, never to see the full moon hanging in the night sky, gnarled hands wrapped around tired pick-axes never to pluck a sweet Nessie Fruit from an ice bitten tree, aching legs beneath burlap jumpsuits never to kneel before the grandeur of a freshly made snowman. They looked tired and worn and above all, hopeless.

"The List…" a voice boomed in the entranceway of the meeting hall.


Ember's stomach did nauseated flip-flops at the mere sound of his voice. He was a wretched elf who didn't look like much of an elf at all. Sturd had beady eyes that were too small for his face. And they were red. His ears were exceptionally pointy- probably the pointiest elf ears Ember had ever seen. His teeth were sharp and gnarled, more animal than an elf. He, too, had been born in the Mines, but instead of eating Nessie Fruit like all the other elves ate, it was rumored behind hushed den walls that he lived off the harmless Graespurs, eating their meat and using their soft furs for blankets. Ember shuddered at his demonic visage.

Although there was barely an age difference between Sturd and Ember, in the hierarchy of the Mines, he was her superior. In the Mining Guild there were four positions. The Miners, like Ember, were those who harvested the coal in the assigned area. Right now, Sturd's crews were working Onyx Alley, Crystal Cave, and Raker's Cove, three of the prime mining arenas in the Mines. Above the Miners were the Collectors, like Barkuss. Miners reported their daily stock to the Crew Collectors, who then kept the data on what the crew was producing. They stored and protected the coal. Above the Collectors were the Supervisors, like Banter. They made sure Miners and Collectors were completing their tasks and filling their quotas. They filled out reports and kept data and had to directly report to their Manager. The Managers, like Sturd, were the direct line to the Council, who in turn, were the conduit to the Boss.

Ember's dealings with Sturd extended beyond the Manager/Worker capacity. Ember had apprenticed under his father, Corzakk, her first year in the Mines, and had lived in his den during that time. There were six elf-years of bad blood between them.

Ember didn't like Sturd.

Worse, Sturd didn't like Ember.

"The List," he said again, quieting the last of the whispered conversations in the crowd, "is our life-force. Our entire operation rests on it. We work in accordance with it. For it. Yes, the Land Elves from Aboveground have their own List, but ours is important as well, for without it…"

Same speech as always. Ember said the words in her mind along with Sturd, reciting them syllable by syllable, rhythm and all.

Soon Sturd would be introducing Harold Pennybaker, the head of List Communications. Harold would come out, compliment them on a "job well-done" - read the status updates, spout out the facts and figures for final coal quotas, announce recognition of "fastest elf" and "most productive elf." Everyone would smile and clap. Barkuss would eat it all up.

Ember's musings stopped when an unfamiliar word crept into the script. Her ears perked up when the sound of the word "but" came forth from Sturd's lips.

"But," he repeated the foreign word for emphasis, "Harold has a very interesting piece of information that I think you will much rather enjoy. So, without further adieu, brothers…and sister," Sturd paused as he glared hard at Ember, "I give you Harold Pennybaker."



Chapter Two

The Coal Elves all gave a slight welcoming applause for Harold Pennybaker. Ember watched as he came, half-running, from the hallway to where Sturd was standing in the center of the semi-circle. A smile was plastered on his face, but it was obvious he was not happy to be there. He never was. His smile always dipped a little at the edges every time Sturd put forth his ferret paw to be shaken.

If there was one thing Ember admired about Harold, it was his plump rosy cheeks. He looked healthy and glowing and alive! Coal Elves were much different from the Land Elves. They were thinner and their muscles were taut against their skin. Layers of coal dust caked onto their hands and faces creating thick gloves and masks that hid many scars, sores, and wrinkles. Their once blond and sandy brown heads of hair were permanently transformed black and gray. Instinctively, Ember pressed the back of her hand against her own face to feel its contour. She huffed when her brain registered the hollowness of her emaciated cheeks.

Not healthy. Not glowing. Barely alive.

Ember noticed Harold quickly wiped his hand on his black pant leg after Sturd had grasped it in a firm handshake. She tried to muffle a chuckle, but instead a coughing spell crept up into her throat. Eyes turned on her, admonishing her to keep quiet. Barkuss bit his bottom lip in concern. Harold Pennybaker's mouth formed an "oh dear" shape. Sturd glared. Again. The coughing finally ceased, and Ember raised her hand to signal the meeting could proceed.

"Good evening, everyone!" Harold began with his cheery voice. Ember could hear the phoniness dripping in every syllable.

The elves all mumbled back incoherently and unenthusiastically.

"So," he continued, "this is the last Quarterly Meeting of the year, and I'm sure you're all anxious to hear the final numbers." He paused, maybe hoping for some sort of response from the crowd, but, met with dead silence, he continued on. "Well, then," he huffed as he straightened out his tie and motioned to Sturd, "Mr. Ruprecht here has stated that I have some interesting news."

Sturd nodded his head in agreement.

"And, yes, I actually do," Harold continued. "Everyone has done a fabulous job this entire year. We have one last four-elfmonth stretch until the Big Night, and the Council is extremely impressed with your progress. Goals have been met, quotas filled. There's enough coal stored away for many elfyears to come. Your efforts have not gone unnoticed, and I applaud you for your work and dedication." Harold started clapping and a few of the workers followed suit.

"Things in the human world are also at an all-time high. After much review, deliberation, and calculation, the Council and I have established that this year we are going to have a Light List!" Harold raised his fisted hand in the air in a triumphant gesture, but the Coal Elves just looked at one another in confusion.

Sturd explained. "A Light List means we can all ease up a little in the Mines. Breaks will be extended to an hour, and days will end an hour earlier."

Like light bulbs going off in a collective brain, the elves started to hoot and holler and cheer.

Light List? There were always rumors circulating throughout the Mines. Coal Elves were always saying things like, "Oh boy! If we work real hard we might get a Light List!" or "Man, oh man! Let's pound out this here cavern so the Council will reward us with a Light List!" The Light List rumor always started right about this time, the end of August, with only four months left to go before the Big Night. Ember remembered how the first year she heard about a "Light List" she had gotten so excited and giddy. Come to think of it, she'd worked harder and faster after the insinuation of "lighter work" was injected. And now it was actually happening! An actual elfyear with a Light List. Lies? Lies to drive them to work harder faster, more diligently now?

Lies seemed to be a mainstay in Ember's life. Conversations between her mother and father had always amounted to some sort of fabrication for Ember in the long run. Shortly after her Life Job assignment, Ember remembered overhearing her mother and father arguing heatedly in their bedroom.

"Being a Coal Miner is strictly reserved for male elves. Plain and simple!" her mother had sounded distressed. Their voices sounded muffled as if underwater, but the sounds and words and syllables all came through clear to Ember as she pressed her pointy ears to her bedroom wall.

"I know, I know," her father responded wearily, defeated, "but there are plenty of girls who…"

"Of course, there are plenty of girls who reside in the Mines!" her mother interrupted. "But they are there for very specific purposes! Mining not being one of them! A Coal Miner? This is unheard of! This is outrageous! Girl elves do not work the Mines! Plain and simple!"

"So, what should I tell her?" he asked, wearily, defeated.

"I don't know!" her mother huffed. "And I honestly don't care! You'll think of something. You're better with her than I am!"

Father had tried so hard to sugar coat this whole debacle by assuring Ember everything would be okay. "You must be a very special little elf, Ember," he cooed to her. "The Boss doesn't very often choose girl elves for the Mines. He must have some big plans for you." He smiled as her patted her blond hair.

"But, I don't understand!" Ember cried. "Why is this happening to me! Did I do something wrong? Am I a bad elfling? Will I ever see you and Carole, and Ginger, and Momma again?"

She threw herself onto the floor at her father's feet, curled her knees to her chest and sobbed uncontrollably.

"Ember," he said, "Listen to me. Of all the elflings, the Boss chose you…YOU!" He gripped her shoulders and brought her back to her feet. "Stop your crying right now. You have to be strong. Do you really think the Boss is going to make a girl elf work in the Mines? He'll probably set you up in a nice cave where you'll have to take care of all the workers. It'll be a piece of cake! Trust me! You'll be cooking and sewing and singing all day long. Like a Nanny Elf, except you'll have to take care of all the worker elves and not just one elfling. You'll probably get to come back to the manor on weekends and for holidays. When you get there, they will honor you with a big party. A big induction. That's what happened when Ginger took her Life Job. The Big Man was there and everything! Now wipe your eyes. There, there. See, everything is going to turn out candy canes and lollipops!"

The meeting was breaking up. Coal Elves were dispersing and Ember swore she heard humming of some old familiar Christmas songs escape their lips. At least they were happy. At least they were buying the lie. She scanned the room. Harold Pennybaker was gone. Escaped to the Catta-car to make his way as quickly as possible to the Mouth. Typical. Sturd was gone, too. Barkuss bopped up from behind her and tugged on her shoulders.

"Isn't this great?" he exclaimed with a toothy grin.

"Yeah, I guess so," she responded with a shrug.

His eyes narrowed. "Oh, c'mon, girl! This is exciting! We've always talked about a Light List, but now it really happened! Wanna come back my way and have a bite to eat?"

Ember stood up and flung her pack over her shoulder.

"No, thanks," she replied softly. "I'm going to bed. I'm exhausted."

"Okay," Barkuss said as he raised eyebrows in a "whatever" look. "Catch ya later, girl!" And he flounced down the hallway.

Ember bent down and reached for her lantern. As she righted herself, her head felt fuzzy and a tickle grew within her chest. A coughing fit was soon to follow, but she sensed the familiar metallic taste rising to her throat. With one forceful cough, out spewed a half-cup's worth of blood. As it splattered on the floor, she noticed it was a deep dark red, and out from the scarlet pool slithered a thin white worm. Her fears were confirmed.

Great, she thought, just what I damn need! Coppleysites. Again!



The Coal Elf Copyright © 2012. Maria DeVivo. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.   




Author bio

Maria DeVivo is a native New Yorker that has had a lifelong love affair with 'the pen.' A graduate of St. John's University with a BA in English Literature, she has a passion for all things mystical and mythological. She has taught seventh grade Language Arts since 2000, and in 2010, designed the curriculum for an academic elective class entitled Folklore where she has been able share her passion and knowledge on concentrated topics such as folktales and mythology to her students.

Having grown up in a large Italian/Irish family of five children (where Maria falls as the oldest, and of course, wisest) the mystery and wonder surrounding holiday traditions were a main staple of her upbringing. At the age of seven, when her mother finally admitted the "truth" about Santa Claus, Maria became somewhat of a "Santa-phile," an obsession that has rooted its way deeply into every fiber of her being. She's one of those people who cry when Santa makes His grand appearance at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Couple that obsession with a spark of creativity for all things dark and twisted, and her debut novel The Coal Elf was born.

Maria resides in Florida, with her husband, Joe, and daughter, Morgan.

TTB titles:

The Coal Elf Chronicles
  The Coal Elf - book 1
  The Rise of Sturd - book 2
  Above the Ash - book 3

Author web site.





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Maria DeVivo, author of The Coal Elf, has upcoming author events in both Florida.







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