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Literature / The Scarlet Citadel

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"The Scarlet Citadel" is a Conan the Barbarian story written by Robert E. Howard. First published in January, 1933.

King Conan is captured in a deadly trap by King Strabonus of Koth, his former ally King Amalrus of Ophir, and their evil sorcerous advisor (and the true power behind the throne) Tsotha-Lanti. They want him to abdicate his throne in exchange for a pile of gold so that they can annex Aquilonia as part of their growing empire. Conan, being Conan, isn't having this one bit, and tells them all to go to hell. Tsotha pens him in the dungeons of the Scarlet Citadel, intending to feed him to his gigantic snake known as Satha.

Meanwhile, Conan's kingdom is in a bad way, and the people suffer under the rule of Arpello, the puppet king installed by Strabonus and Tsotha. Conan escapes his bonds when a slave's attempt to avenge his brother upon him gets him killed by Satha. After braving the Citadel's many horrors, Conan finds and frees Pelias, a sorcerer and rival of Tsotha, who summons a giant flying beast to take him to Shamar, the capital of Aquilonia, and take it back from Arpello. Having taken back the capital, Conan rides with his army to take down Tsotha's imperial forces, and in a furious battle, Strabonus, Amalrus and Tsotha are all slain.


This story has been adapted in comic form by both Marvel Comics and Darkhorse Comics.

Tropes featured in this story

  • Abdicate the Throne: Conan is offered bribes to do this. Conan, being Conan, tells the bribers to go to hell.
  • Affably Evil: While it's debatable how evil Pelias is, he's certainly a jocular sort, quickly becoming friendly and polite to Conan, even stating that he should be pouring their wine, as Conan is a king.
  • Always a Bigger Fish:
    • A man comes to murder Conan, and finds himself feeding the giant snake meant to kill Conan.
    • The snake in question finds itself on the receiving end upon seeing Pelias, and promptly bugs out and doesn't come back.
  • Animate Dead: To get out of the prison, Pelias uses his sorcery to reanimate their jailer and force him to open the door. This creeps Conan the fuck out. It doesn't help, either, that during the whole process, Pelias jovially issues orders to the reanimated jailer as though the latter were a still-living servant.
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  • Bad Powers, Good People: The most charitable interpretation of Pelias. A nice, friendly, heroic character who just happens to know how to do things like Animate Dead and summon Eldritch Abominations.
  • Buy Them Off: Offered to Conan. He does not take it.
  • Call-Forward: Or Call-Back, depending on what order you're reading in. Conan's pirate career is a minor plot point, and this career will be explored in the next published story, Queen of the Black Coast.
  • Cavalry Betrayal: Inverted. An ally asks King Conan to bring himself and one thousand knights to aid in defending from a raiding rival. When Conan and five thousand knights arrive, they find the supposed rivals allied in a combined force of thirty thousand, composed of knights, pikemen, and archers. Conan's cavalry (literal and metaphorical) is overwhelmed by the weight of numbers.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Conan reflects how he learned this on the throne.
  • Child by Rape: Tsotha-Lanti's purported Back Story. Demonic rape at that.
  • Cranium Chase: Tsotha-Lanti attempts that at the end of the story. Of course, the head is held by a powerful rival sorcerer, so his chances of retrieving it appear slim.
  • Crystal Ball: Tsotha-Lanti has one. Pelias says it's a toy, but one which is useful when you have no time for more powerful magics.
  • Deathtrap: Tsotha's dungeons.
  • Decapitated Army: Justified. Strabonus' death at Conan's sword marks the end of his siege, but the army had been well-demoralized by Conan's force up to that point, and Strabonus dying rallied the defenders to counterattack with Conan's reinforcements, showing the besieging army this was a fight they could no longer win.
  • Distressed Dude: Conan, though he gets himself free (with a little help from Satha).
    • Also Pelias, until Conan frees him.
  • The Empire: Trying to capture his kingdom.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: When Satha flees before the sight of Pelias, Conan is notably unsettled by his assertion that the snake "saw his naked soul."
  • Evil Laugh: Pelias. Even though he's on Conan's side.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Tsotha-Lanti. Maybe Pelias as well, but this time the enemy of Conan's enemy is Conan's friend.
  • Evil Tower of Ominousness: Tsotha's citadel.
  • Feathered Fiend: One attacks Tsotha's horse.
  • Fed to the Beast: Tsotha pens Conan in the dungeon of the Scarlet Citadel with the intent of feeding him to his gigantic snake, Satha, and is revealed to have done this to a number of Pelias's apprentices while making him watch.
  • Flaying Alive: Pelias mentions that Shukeli, Tsotha's chief jailer and torturer, did it to a number of his acolytes. Tsotha promises that Conan's Royal Harem will suffer the same fate.
  • Genuine Human Hide: Tsotha promises to write his autobiography on parchment made out of Conan's Royal Harem.
  • Giant Flyer: Pelias uses one to get Conan to Shamar to kill Arpello.
  • The Good, the Bad, and the Evil: Sort of. Pelias isn't outright bad but as a sorcerer he still gives Conan the creeps. Tsotha-Lanti however is definitely evil.
  • Human-Demon Hybrid: Tsotha-Lanti is rumored to be born from a girl who fell asleep too close to some ruins, and woke up in a demon's embrace. A very skilled and cruel dark sorcerer, but the appearance is completely human.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Conan at the end. Given that this story contains some of the creepiest sorcery that Conan has ever had to put up with, one can hardly blame him.
  • Leonine Contract: While Conan is prisoner, one of Tsotha's slaves tries to wheedle promises from him for his freedom, before then revealing that he was the brother of a chief that Conan killed back in his pirate days, and that he will settle for nothing less than Conan's blood.
  • Made a Slave: Conan remembers the markets.
  • Man-Eating Plant: Conan encounters one of these by the name of Yothga in the dungeons. Conan, rather wisely, decides not to pull it up by its roots but to kill it with his sword instead. Pelias, who he rescued by doing this, tells him that if he had been able to pull it up by its roots, he would have found things clinging to the roots against which not even Conan's sword would prevail.
  • Noblewoman's Laugh: An Eldritch Abomination produces this.
  • Offered the Crown: Arpello claims this.
  • Oh, Crap!: The giant snake Satha has a non-verbal version when he gets a good look into Pelias' eyes and "sees his naked soul". Conan describes Satha's eyes as filling with terror before he promptly rushes away from the pair.
  • One-Handed Zweihänder: Conan wields a broadsword thus.
  • Powder Keg Crowd: Started by rumors of Conan's death.
  • Pulling Themselves Together: After Tsotha-Lanti's head is severed and carried away, his decapitated body rises to follow.
  • Puppet King: The villains intend to install one by the name of Arpello. But the people are still loyal to Conan, and when Conan sends him off a building to his death after returning to Shamar via Giant Flyer, it's the sign for the people to take back their land.
  • Religion of Evil: The worship of Set.
  • Revenge: The slave that tries to kill Conan wants him dead because he killed his brother back during his pirate days, when he was known as Amra the Lion. Pelias himself isn't too fond of Tsotha either, especially after he forced him to watch his apprentices get fed to Satha.
  • The Rival: Pelias and Tsotha have a big-time case of this.
  • Self-Made Man: Conan.
  • Seen It All: Conan's reaction to Pelias in eagle form taking off with Tsotha-Lanti's head, and Tsotha's headless corpse pursuing him basically boils down to "figures the blasted wizards are bad news, where's the wine?"
  • Snakes Are Sinister: Satha, the giant white snake and chief among Tsotha-Lanti "pets". Ironically, Conan admits he actually likes Satha the most, as of the monstrosities in Tsotha's dungeons, at least Satha offers merely a swift physical death.
  • Sole Survivor: After the treachery.
  • Succession Crisis: Triggered by Conan's disappearance.
  • Swamps Are Evil: Where you get your Eye of Newt.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: Develops because of the new king.
  • Turn Coat: Amalrus
  • Virgin Sacrifice: When Tsotha learns that Conan has returned and has freed his old rival Pelias, in a Villainous Breakdown moment, he promises Set the sacrifice of five hundred virgins of Shamar if he will grant them victory over Conan's forces. Even Strabonus, Tsotha's ally, is horrified by this.
  • We Meet Again: Conan uses it at the end.
  • What Year Is This?: Pelias asks Conan this.
  • Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Twice over:
    • During the ambush where Conan is first captured, Strabonus desperately wants his archers to shoot Conan, as the barbarian king has slaughtered his finest swordsmen without breaking a sweat. But Tsotha overrules him.
    • Lampshaded later by Tsotha himself when he realizes that Conan has not only escaped his dungeon, but teamed up with his rival sorcerer Pelias.