Behind the Scenes of “The Tomb of the Ophidian Scepter”

Hooray! My newest flash fiction story, “The Tomb of the Ophidian Scepter,” is available to read for 24 hours on Havok today. It’s based on classic adventure, Indiana Jones-type stories of powerful artifacts, supernatural guardians, and lots of action. If you’ve already read it and want to know a little about how it came to be, this post is for you!

Like my previous two stories for Havok, this one was written specifically for this month’s theme—in this case, recover. From the beginning of brainstorming, I knew I wanted to interpret this in terms of recovering a treasure. And fortunately, I had already written a story in a similar vein last year to provide inspiration … and maybe a few other elements.

That other story was “Sword of the Stones,” which was published in Havok’s “Extraordinary Exploits” issue in April 2018. You can read more about writing that in this post, and many of the elements mentioned there were repeated in writing “The Tomb of the Ophidian Scepter.” In addition, I thought it would be fun to feature the same main character on a new mission in a different location.

“Sword of the Stones” takes place in a ruined cathedral, which felt like it would be a European location. Wanting “Ophidian Scepter” to take place in a different region, I settled on the Middle East. (As I understand it, the type of mummification the story references is pretty specific to Egypt, but I don’t want to commit the story to taking place anywhere particular in the region.) This choice, in turn, influenced the majority of the new elements (setting, guardian, partner, and artifact, in that order).

By setting, I basically mean the idea to set the story in a tomb. Originally, I considered a story with a lot of exploration. But since I still wanted to have a battle as well as the search for an artifact, I figured those two elements would use much of the word count. That meant the tomb would likely be a large chamber. Thankfully, Havok editor Cathy Hinkle pointed out that the environment could use a little more description, so the final product is a little easier (and more interesting!) to visualize.

As for the guardian, a mummy seemed like the natural choice for a tomb in the desert. But since undead mummies are no strangers to this type of story, I wanted to make it a little more intimidating. That’s how the sickles grafted on in place of hands came into play. A cut line actually referenced that the main character’s impatience is the only reason the mummy was activated to protect the scepter.

Changing the main character’s partner was another nod to Indiana Jones and The Librarian, but I also like the idea of different regions having specialists researching arcane artifacts and tracking down their resting places. In fact, the idea to name her Miriam was less of a nod to Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and more from wanting her to have a name originally from the same region (Miriam is a Hebrew name). Since I was working with a higher word count than I aimed for in “Sword of the Stones,” I wanted her to have more of an active role in this story—and I’d say that worked out

Regarding the artifact, brainstorming powers was more of a challenge at the beginning because I didn’t think it would necessarily be used in the story—I wanted to focus more on the recovery than the treasure itself. That said, I did think it would be fun to name it using an uncommon word. “Ophidian” is one that I’ve learned (and retained) recently. And (in case you didn’t know or haven’t looked it up yet), it basically means snakelike. That idea leant itself to being paired with a scepter, which matches very nicely with the Rod of Asclepius—instrument of the Greek deity and modern-day symbol of medicine. With that connection made, it only seemed right for the artifact to convey supernatural healing powers. Just goes to show what a difference the right name can make!

After that, the story started to fall into place. I had a loose outline of the main beats (fight, trapdoor, retrieve scepter, fight part 2), and started writing based on that. As I wrote, I realized that the scepter might actually be an effective weapon against the mummy. On one hand, it would restore the monster’s hands. But it could also mess with the magic-mummification that allowed the mummy to fight in the first place.

That meant thinking through how the scepter would work—even if I didn’t have room to explain it in the story itself. So if that question was bugging you at the end of the story, you’ve come to the right place. The scepter heals any wound, basically restoring tissue/organs/whatever is damaged through magic (the magic itself I can’t explain—roll with it). The mummy is animated by magic, which not only allows it to live, but also retain a connection with the organs that have been preserved (stomach, liver, lungs, and intestines in Egyptian mummification). The brain’s been ripped out, but the magic that enables it to be the scepter’s guardian takes care of movement. When the scepter touches the mummy, it starts superseding the magic that keeps the mummy animated. This heals the mummy’s wounds, which is why the sickles fall away and its hands regenerate, but it can’t physically take the preserved organs (enchanted to stay in the same condition as the mummy for millennia) and put them back in the mummy’s body. The mummy effectively turns into a couple-thousand-year-old person missing certain guts, which is why it keels over.

And that pleasant image is likely the best way to end this behind-the-scenes look. If you enjoyed the story or have any more questions, feel free to comment here or on the post on Havok’s website. If you’re reading this after the story’s 24 hours have passed, you can always become a member and get full access to every flash fiction story they’ve published, plus the ability to vote on which stories are selected for their anthologies! As always, thank you for reading!

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