“The Scarlet Citadel” features Howard's famed Conan the Cimmerian in a much later period of his life. Readers discover that Conan is now an older, wiser warrior that has taken the crown of Aquilonia. King Conan receives a message from the king of Ophir claiming that the emperor of the nearby region Koth is threatening his kingdom. Ophir needs Aquilonia's assistance, so King Conan generously leads an army of 5,000 knights to fight Koth's invasion.
Upon arrival, Conan discovers that it was a trap. Both Ophir and Koth's leaders were working together to ensnare the hero. Their secret weapon is Tsotha-Lanti, an evil sorcerer that captures Conan and places him in a deep, multi-chambered dungeon in a high tower. It is here that Conan experiences horrifying creatures that have been created or altered by the “mad scientist” Tsotha-Lanti. His biggest rival is a giant, slithering serpent that seems to guard the dungeon's cavernous hallways.
In an attempt to escape, Conan frees a powerful wizard named Pelias. In a short backstory, Pelias explains to Conan that he was a rival of Tsotha-Lanti before being captured and imprisoned for ten years by the mad sorcerer. As the story continues, there's a prison escape, Conan riding a flying dragon (?), and an epic showdown as Conan and Pelias extract their revenge.
This story is on par with “The Tower of the Elephant” and “Rogues in the House” in terms of pure storytelling excellence. The escapism, extraordinary sense of adventure, and suspenseful dungeon horror are key elements that catapult the story into the higher echelons of Howard's literary showcase. His attention to detail grips the reader with an ominous overtone that promises nothing short of death and bloody destruction. Howard's lengthy paragraph describing Tsotha's castle overlooking the city, its lone road with steep, daunting hills on each side, makes for an impregnable tomb. This description makes Conan's dazzling, unorthodox escape more powerful and entertaining.
As a fan of Conan's younger years – thieving, wandering, soldiering – I neglect to read many of his royalty adventures. As King Conan, “The Scarlet Citadel” is about as good as it gets. This older and wiser hero was just a real pleasure to read and understand. As an aside, this story was adapted by Roy Thomas and Frank Brunner in Savage Sword of Conan #30 (1977) and in King Conan: The Scarlet Citadel (2011). I highly recommend reading the original story and then the comic adaptations if you need more visuals. Howard's imagery is enough, in my humble opinion. Highly recommdended!