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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.

The Scarlet Tropes:

  • 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.
  • Ambiguously Evil: Pelias. He doesn't do anything malicious within the story, is only ever helpful to Conan, and his aid proves instrumental in defeating Tsotha-lanti. But he is a wizard in a setting where Magic Is Evil, and his spells involve animating the dead and consorting with demons, which makes him shifty, and even Conan hopes to never see him again when all is said and done.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Big Badass Battle Sequence: The Siege of Shamar in Chapter Six is one of Howard's most extensive and detailed battle sequences, with Conan and his ragtag Aquilonian army riding to the rescue of the beleaguered city against a combined army from Ophir and Koth that outnumbers them by a huge margin.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: Tsotha-lanti is probably the reigning champion of this trope in fantasy literature. The mad sorcerer has Conan, King of Aquilonia completely at his mercy after paralyzing him in the first chapter, but instead of killing him opts to cart him back to Khorshemesh to gloat to him and then offer to buy him off. When the barbarian predictably refuses, Tsotha has him tossed into his dungeons to be eaten by a giant snake. Even this would have doomed the barbarian for good, as the only ways out of it are through a door that cannot be opened from inside by even the strongest demons imprisoned down there and a well that is implied to lead to hell itself. However, Conan is able to escape because he stumbles upon and rescues Pelias, another mortal enemy of Tsotha-lanti whom he opted to imprison and torture down there instead of just executing, and whose magic powers are just what Conan needs to be able to escape. Their unlikely alliance is the only thing that puts a stop to his Evil Plan, which up to that point was going completely perfectly. Few villains before or since have been able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory quite like Tsotha-lanti. At least he has the courage to admit his own stupidity once he sees the results.
  • 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. He started as a barbarian but now he can't simply leave his throne to another tyrant.
  • Child by Rape: Tsotha-Lanti's purported Back Story. Demonic rape at that.
  • Continuity Nod: Rinaldo, the poet who was one of the co-conspirators in The Phoenix on the Sword, is mentioned as having visited Tsotha-Lanti’s dungeons and written a song about the horrors he saw there.
  • 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.
  • Creepy Good: Pelias is nothing but helpful and respectful to Conan, but his powers are so unholy and terrifying (such as casually using an Animate Dead spell to escape a dungeon) that Conan wants nothing to do with him afterwards.
  • 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: Ophir and Koth ally together to conquer Aquilonia.
  • Enemy Mine: Pelias and Conan share a common foe in Tsotha-lanti and are mutual prisoners in his dungeon, which is all the reason they need to work together even though in normal circumstances, they would likely be enemies.
  • Eunuchs Are Evil: Shukei the eunuch is the warden of Tsotha's dungeons, and is mentioned as being a Torture Technician very good at flaying people.
  • 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. He didn't even build it, Pelias gives a brief version of its history that boil down to "very bad things happened here for a long time".
  • Feathered Fiend: A giant eagle sent by Pelias attacks Tsotha's horse, allowing Conan to catch up with him.
  • 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.
  • Hoist Hero over Head: Inverted when Conan raises Arpello over his head near the end of Chapter IV, before he throws him off the tower to his death far below.
  • Horrifying the Horror: The horrible things in the dungeons stay well away from Satha the giant snake. Satha in turn flees from Pelias.
  • 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.
    "What I would not give for a flagon of wine!"
  • 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.
  • Lotus-Eater Machine: Pelias has an expression of utter idiocy while trapped by Yothga.
  • 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. He states that the roots are deep into hell.
  • Noblewoman's Laugh: An Eldritch Abomination produces this.
  • Offered the Crown: Arpello claims this. He proposes to be the interim ruler since he has the former family blood only for the time the council adapts but while Torcero and Prospero aren't fooled the merchants and citizens are desperate enough to offer him the crown.
  • 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.
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner: When Conan is dropped off at the towers of Tamar by Pelias' summoned creature and easily overpowers Arpello, he lifts the insurgent prince over his head and growls, "Take your plots to hell with you!", as he hurls him to his death fifty meters below.
  • 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. Tsotha is also the true power despite the two other villains being king. When he blinds Amalrus temporarily for forgetting his station, the soldiers just stand there while the other king gets himself a drink.
  • 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.
  • 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?".
  • Self-Made Man: Conan makes a point to call out Amalrus and Strabonus for seeing him as a red-handed barbarian who shouldn't be king. Conan killed his way to the throne while the two kings had their fathers do it then inherit it without lifting a finger barring poisoning their brothers.
  • 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, Conan is the only man standing from his cavalry.
  • Straight Edge Evil: Tsotha-Lanthi has little desire for wine and drugs, he is half-demon and thus doesn't have the same cravings. This contrast the black arts sorcerer Pelias who enjoy a good cheer and is also how he got captured with strong wine.
  • Succession Crisis: Triggered by Conan's disappearance. He had no sons and barons were quick to go back to their fief to secure their home and attack the one next to them, mercenaries started looting and Arpello ended up seducing the mob to go back to the feudal regime with him as the closest relatives of the whole dynasty. Then he barely hides his contempt and makes things worse but it's too late as the mob ousted Torcero out already.
  • Swamps Are Evil: Where you get your Eye of Newt.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: Develops because of the new king.
  • Torn Apart by the Mob: Arpello's forces' fate once Conan returns to Shamar and takes back his throne.
  • Turn Coat: Amalrus begged Conan for a cavalry and the king himself to boost morale in his battle against Strabonus, in truth he switched sides and lures Conan into a trap.
  • 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.
  • Vocal Dissonance: Following the sound of what sounds like the weeping of a girl captive down the halls of Tsotha's dungeon, Conan instead finds some freaky looking tentacled blob... thing. Once it stops "sobbing" and instead emits feminine cackles and gives chase, Conan turns back the way he came, preferring the company of the giant snake instead.
  • 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.
  • The Worf Effect: Happens twice to Conan. It starts with him being utterly defeated on the battlefield due to a ruse by his enemies, with his forces being slaughtered to a man and him being captured after Tsotha-lanti paralyzes him with a poisoned needle. Later, while roaming Tsotha's dungeons, Conan encounters two separate eldritch abominations that cause him to flee in terror without even trying to put up a fight. It's only due to his luck and Tsotha's Bond Villain Stupidity that Conan makes it out of this one alive.