Hong Kong. A bustling modern metropolis on the brink of the 21st century. Presently under siege by a madman bent on destroying all it represents. Here, now, one small handful of battle-weary heroes prepare to make their stand in its defense. Should they fail - should Hong Kong fall - civilization as we know it shall not long endure. Flames flicker through ravaged streets. Buildings lie in ruins. Civilians who have not been captured run for their lives. ‘This - is not good’ Jim “War Machine” Rhodes, often called “Rhodey” tells his associates in Force Works. ‘Gee, good thing we have you along’ Johnny Walker a.k.a. USAgent mutters. ‘We never would’ve figured that out for ourselves’ Johnny adds, but Iron Man a.k.a. Tony Stark, once again wearing his armor, orders USAgent to shut up, as there are more important things to deal with.
‘The first thing we need to do is -’ Iron Man begins, before Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, interrupts‘- is remember who’s supposed to be team leader here, hmmm?’ Iron Man turns to Wanda, while USAgent declares ‘Yeah, Witch. He can’t -’ but Wanda tells him to button it, and Julia “Spider-Woman” Carpenter tells everyone to cut it out, as they cannot afford to bicker amongst themselves, not now. ‘Not when the Mandarin’s gained the power - to do that!’ Julia exclaims, motioning across the ravaged street, to where the Mandarin has projected a large image of his face into the sky, and he shouts ‘Hear now the will of the Gods! This world must be cleansed! To the corrupt philosophies of science - the decadent spawn of technology - THERE SHALL COME AN ENDING!’
‘Have to admit…Spider-Woman’s got a point’ War Machine mutters amongst the smoke, flames and destruction. Wanda turns back to Iron Man: ‘Now, you had a recommendation?’ she asks. Tony replies ‘Yes’, and announces that the “team leader” should discuss strategies with the rest of the troops, while he reconnoiter the situation. Tony suddenly flies upwards, towards the image of the Mandarin. ‘Blast that stubborn, arrogant, high-handed -’ Wanda begins. ‘Hey, read my book, okay?’ War Machine tells her. ‘You want to complain about his attitude problem - you got to get in line’.
As the Mandarin shouts that the age of reason has ended, that his age shall begin, Iron Man reminds himself that he has opposed the Mandarin man times, battled him, even, on occasion, respected him. ‘He’s tortured me, humiliated me, sought my death in a hundred ways. Despite that, I’ve never truly hated him until today. He’s become everything I despise’ Tony tells himself, while calling out to the Mandarin, asking him to listen. ‘You want to erase everything mankind has worked two thousand years for - drag humanity kicking and screaming back to a new Dark Ages - you’re going to have to go through me first!’ Iron Man warns his arch-foe.
‘Don’t have to wonder why him and Fu Manchu up there’ve been enemies for so long - they’re too much alike to be anything else’ War Machine declares, while USAgent asks what they are doing standing here. ‘We gonna back Shellhead up or what?’ ‘Against that? How?’ Julia wonders. The Scarlet Witch announces that she is not going to commit to an attack until she has a better idea of where the Mandarin is getting the power to - she doesn’t finish her sentence, as her alien teammate called Century shouts ‘PARALLAX!’ and leaps away from his teammates, rushing onwards to the Mandarin.
‘Century! No!’ Wanda calls out, while USAgent and War Machine follow him and pin him to the ground. ‘What’s he so gonzo over that glorified walking stick for, anyway?’ USAgent asks. War Machine replies that he doesn’t know, and explains that Century has been having weird seizures since he left Parallax behind at the Mandarin’s castle. Suddenly, ‘The burning abyss! The praetorite demands exaction! Prepare for the ritual of K’pakght!’ Century booms, before War Machine snaps him out of it: ‘Big Blue! It’s me, Jim! We’re friends…remember?’ he asks. ‘I…please…aid / assist / help me…’ Century asks. War Machine crouches beside Century and tells him that it is going to be okay, somehow.
‘You, of all creatures, cannot stop me!’ the Mandarin tells Iron Man. ‘I have been made by destiny to destroy you and all you represent! The blind, perverse worship of science and technology, the defilement of the natural order of -’ the Mandarin begins, before Iron Man interrupts: ‘Before you dismiss science - have a taste of what it can do!’ Tony shouts as he releases several repulsor rays at the Mandarin’s projection, to no avail. ‘Fool. You cannot begin to imagine the power now at my command! To me, you are less than the lowliest insect - and far more repugnant!’ the Mandarin booms, before, even in his astral projection form, casting Iron Man back with a surge of energy. Iron Man is forced back to the ground, and lands in some rubble.
‘I told you we should’ve backed him up!’ USAgent tells the Scarlet Witch after seeing Iron Man fall. ‘And I told you to button it, soldier! I’ve had about as much -’ Wanda replies, before Spider-Woman shouts ‘Look! Something’s happening!’ everyone turns and looks upwards, as the Mandarin’s astral projection warns Force Works that he shall return, before he vanishes. War Machine remarks that it looks like the big M is running low on steam, to which Century declares that the Mandarin possesses near unimaginable might, but that he is not yet its master. ‘There…may still be time…’ Century reveals.
The Mandarin reverts to his true form. In order to wield power, one must first grasp it firmly. Distracted less by the armored Avenger’s negligible attack than by his own consuming loathing for his oldest foe, the Mandarin feels his grip on godhead falter and slip. Without those bound-less energies to draw upon, his mortal form sinks beneath the weight of exhaustion. The focus and concentration which seemed to effortless moments ago now elude him. He must withdraw to rest…and contemplate what he has experienced. Using the last embers of his flagging will, he employs Parallax to transport himself back to his stronghold, and promptly falls into a fitful, troubled sleep.
Meantime, ‘I imagine that must’ve hurt’ Wanda asks Tony as he pushes himself free of the rubble. ‘As a matter of fact, it did’ Tony replies. ‘Good’ Wanda declares, suggesting that perhaps it will teach him to be a team player from now on. ‘Wouldn’t bet the rent on it’ War Machine mutters. Iron Man announces that Wanda is right, admitting that he let his personal grudge against the Mandarin get in the way of handling the situation. ‘I won’t make that mistake again’ Tony assures his friends.
Shortly, at the Hong Kong branch of Stark Enterprises, Century lies on a table, and War Machine tells him to take it easy and rest. ‘NO!’ Century shouts, declaring that time is fleeting and there is much they need to know if they are to prevail. ‘You know something we don’t?’ Wanda enquires. ‘Yes’ Century replies, explaining that earlier, when he traveled to China, apart from the rest of the group, he sensed power not of this world, it led him to the one called the Mandarin. Century sits up and tells his companions that across distant galaxies, those artifacts which the Mandarin now possess, his rings of power, are known. ‘They have passed down through millennia, with madness and ruin following them’ Century explains.
Century continues, revealing that the rings are cursed to always fall into evil hands which will use them for destruction. He adds that there is another presence at work here, one which occludes itself from all but the dimmest of perceptions. Iron Man announces that the Mandarin had an orb of some kind, and that he referred to it as the Heart of Darkness, and that it glowed with a kind of black radiance. ‘The Thuviskaroth of Cataphylaxis? One Earth? ‘Century gasps, surprised. He announces that for twenty thousand years he thought it had been destroyed. ‘What exactly are we talking about, here?’ Wanda asks. Century replies that he only knows what he has heard in whispered legend and myth.
Century reveals that it is said that the race which created it, upon learning what they had made, committed planetary suicide. He states that it is nothing less than a lens for focusing mystic power drawn from the blackest wells of cosmic evil. ‘And now the Mandarin’s got it. Swell’ Rhodey mutters. Century grits his teeth and declares that there are forces at work here which transcend the temporal patterns of malign destiny. He adds that the Mandarin is a nexus of potentiality, a focal point for vortices of malignant powers, but that, more than all this, the power at his command, what makes him so unutterably dangerous is the very nature of his being. ‘Assuming that any of that mystobabble makes any sense whatsoever, what if - we were to change that nature…?’ Iron Man suggests.
Moments later, in the executive lounge, ‘Su Yin?’ Iron Man calls out as he approaches his companion. Tony thinks to himself that it is strange to see her now, after all that has happened. Tony tells Su Yin that he was sorry to hear about her husband, while he remembers how real his feelings for her seemed, not so long ago. Su Yin turns to Iron Man, who removes his helmet. ‘It’s been good to see you again. I am sorry about what -’ Su Yin begins, as they embrace, and Tony tells her not to be, that it was for the best. Tony realizes that when he looks for his feelings, he finds respect and admiration, but, surprisingly, little passion. He tells himself that is clear to him that what he thought was love, was just the desperate grasping of a dying man.
Tony informs Su that he needs her help, and reveals that there may be a way to defeat the Mandarin. ‘Are you up to -’ Tony begins, but Su Yin interrupts, declaring that if it will defeat that madman, he can have her life if he needs it. ‘Where do we begin?’ Su asks.
Soon, in the bio-technology lab, ‘Look familiar, Su?’ Tony asks as they look at a parasite on a monitor. ‘I’m not likely to have forgotten my greatest failure’ Su replies, while Star Enterprises’ Suzi Endo enters the lab and asks if someone wants to fill her in. Tony informs Suzi that these scans are micro-graphs of the techno-organise parasite that nearly killed him, and which now forms the basis of his artificial nervous system. Tony explains that if they were to approach the problem on that level, to alter the Mandarin’s basic cellular and genetic structure, it might make a difference. Su Yin informs Suzi that, in theory, it is a possibility.
Suzi points out that they have the equipment in the labs and announces that she will start rounding up warm bodies to help with the brute lab work. Suzi motions to the Iron Man helmet and tells Tony that she thinks he better put that back on if they are going to have a crowd scene here. ‘Good point’ Tony replies, while Suzi thanks him for trusting her with the whole secret identity thing. ‘You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t one of the best’ Tony replies. ‘Flatterer’ Suzi smiles as she leaves the lab. Su Yin holds up an instrument and informs Tony that she is going to need a techno-organic tissue sample. ‘What is the phrase… “This will hurt you more than me”?’ she remarks. ‘Close enough’ Tony replies.
Meanwhile, the Mandarin sleeps, hours like a succession of black eternities. Dragons plague his dreams: ‘Fool’ one of them shouts. ‘Victory was nearly yours’ another declares. ‘And yet again, at the crucial moment, you falter and it begins to slip from your fingers!’ the dragons shout as they taunt the Mandarin and destroy his new hands. He wakes from his sleep: ‘Gods…merely a dream…no…a warning. I have tarried too long’. The Mandarin gets to his feet and declares that two things yet elude him - complete mastery of the staff Parallax and the indisputable destruction of Iron Man. The Mandarin motions to his Avatars, hidden in the shadows, and shouts ‘While I attend to the former - bring me the latter!’
Back in Hong Kong, inside the lab, Su Yin remarks that it is ironic that they should use science itself to combat one who opposes it. ‘It’s…appropriate, somehow’ Tony replies as he examines something in a test tube, adding that scientific method is about constantly testing hypothesis, questioning their understanding of the way things work and insisting on evidence instead of relying on blind faith. He points out that by their own standards, it is not enough for them to believe their way is better than the Mandarin’s - they have to be able to prove it. Suddenly, there is a loud noise. ‘What’s that?’ Su Yin gasps.
In another part of the facility, several of the Mandarin’s Avatars have returned to Hong Kong - Q’wake, Butterfly, Deluge and Ancestor - and they attack Force Works. Q’wake tells Butterfly to find the one called Iron Man and kill the rest. Butterfly replies ‘Question it not, Q’wake. Deluge and I shall not fail’, to which Deluge tells her to be quiet and follow the lead of Ancestor. ‘Avatars! He’s sent them from China!’ Spider-Woman exclaims. ‘Incoming!’ USAgent shouts. ‘Battle formation’ the Scarlet Witch orders, while War Machine shouts an obscenity.
USAgent slams his photon-shield into Deluge, while Spider-Woman drops a psi-web down on Butterfly, asking Wanda if they have a plan. ‘Yes. Don’t give them an inch’ Wanda replies as she binds Ancestor in a hex-spell. Wanda declares that Iron Man and Su Yin are going to need every second they can buy them. Century and War Machine both take on Q’wake, with Century remarking ‘Fortunately, their grasp of effective tactics is rudimentary at best!’ as he forces Q’wake towards War Machine, who knocks him down.
In the lab, Iron Man announces that they are out of time and will have to go with what they have got, while pouring the substance from one test tube into another. Su Yin points out that it has not been tested. ‘There’s no way of knowing -’ she begins, but Iron Man interrupts, ‘At the risk of contradicting myself - we’ll just have to trust in luck’, as he puts his helmet back on.
The battle against the Avatars continues, and Century shouts ‘Dog!’ as he smacks Lich to the ground. ‘Way to go, Century! That Lich character almost did me in back in Hong Kong’ Spider-Woman exclaims as she drop-kicks on Sickle, which Wanda congratulates her for. War Machine attacks Foundry and tells him that he is lucky he is holding back on these repulsors, otherwise he would be molten lead. ‘Press the advantage! This is our chance to -’ the Scarlet Witch orders, when suddenly, ‘STOP!’ a voice booms.
At the same time, the Mandarin views the carnage in Hong Kong through the Heart of Darkness. ‘Crush them! Destroy them! Bring me Iron Man!’ he shouts, when suddenly, he looks concerned, as he sees who shouted ‘STOP!’
Iron Man drops down amongst his teammates and announces that the war has gone on too long, and that it is clearly a battle they cannot win. ‘He’s crazy! We were kicking their butts!’ Walker shouts, but Spider-Woman tells him to hush, explaining that she thinks Tony wants them to play along. ‘Are you listening, Mandarin? It’s over. Spare my people, and I’ll surrender’ Iron Man calls out. ‘Yesss! Bring him to me!’ the Mandarin shouts. The Avatars surround Iron Man, and Butterfly tells him that the master awaits him. ‘Then get on with -’ Iron Man begins, before they vanish.
They re-materialize in China, and due to the anti-tech field surrounding the Mandarin’s castle, Tony’s armor is immobilized once again. He tells himself that if this plan does not work, he cannot expect to live long enough to see the consequences of failure. ‘So. To what do I owe this sudden change of heart, my oldest friend?’ the Mandarin enquires, announcing that he finds it extremely suspicious. ‘An attempt at some devious subterfuge, perhaps?’ he asks. Iron Man tells the Mandarin that he doesn’t blame him for being cautious. ‘I’d be if I were in your position’ he adds, before telling the Mandarin that the truth is, he has seen what he is doing is right. ‘When you blasted me from the sky, you…humbled me’ Iron Man explains, while the Mandarin listens intently.
Iron Man tells the Mandarin that he realized the waste he has made of his life, all the years trapped inside this armor, a slave to technology, thinking himself its master. ‘I…would be free of it’ he announces, adding that he would spare others his errors. The Mandarin replies that he finds it unconvincing, to which Iron Man tells the Mandarin that his helmet is not locked. ‘Look into my eyes, and see the truth’ he suggests. The Mandarin replies that he shall, and lifts the faceplate up, adding ‘As I said before, I would see your face - when you die!’ and with that the Mandarin looks into Tony’s eyes, before smacking him backwards. ‘FOOL!’ the Mandarin shouts. ‘Did you truly think I would fall for whatever pathetic scheme you’ve conceived?’ the Mandarin asks.
The Mandarin stands over Iron Man and declares ‘Even if you spoke the truth, I would not suffer you to live!’ He begins to say something else, when his form convulses, and he keels over. ‘What…what have you done to me?’ the Mandarin demands as he begins to age rapidly. Iron Man gets up and informs the Mandarin that he has been infected with a techno-organic virus, revealing that the outer surface of his faceplate was coated with it. Tony explains that he was not sure, until this moment, that the organic element would allow the virus to wok within the anti-tech field. Tony informs the Mandarin that the virus is speeding up his metabolism exponentially, aging him at an accelerated rate. ‘In other words…your time is up, Mandarin’ Tony declares.
‘No…it…cannot be’ the Mandarin utters. ‘Infected by science…I’ he remarks as he turns to his Avatar, Deluge, and touches him - causing Deluge to scream and shout ‘It burns! It burns!’ before the Avatar is torn apart. ‘My own Avatars…turn to ash at my touch…I am tainted…unclean! UNCLEAN!’ the Mandarin shouts, his form withered, he falls to the ground, and crawls towards the Heart of Darkness. ‘Gods…I beseech thee…help thy servant…’ he calls out as he presses his fingers to the Heart of Darkness. Two forces as mutually exclusive as matter and antimatter touch as the Mandarin’s hand brushes the Heart of Darkness. The magical energies bound within react with unspeakable violence to the sudden collision of science and sorcery - collapsing the intricate web of mystic constructions upon which the Mandarin’s power has been based.
The Heart of Darkness soars from the Mandarin’s fortress, and the resulting implosion is swift and total. Of the Mandarin, his citadel, his creations, even the Heart of Darkness itself - nothing remains. Amidst the ashes of his works, all that endures are his bittersweet enemy - and the products of the science he sought to destroy. Iron Man looks around. Parallax lies nearby, in the ruins of the Mandarin’s fortress.
The following day, at Stark Enterprises Hong Kong branch, USAgent, War Machine and Century are standing around the Pegasus Hex-Ship which is being repaired. ‘Thata girl! Keep those self-repair systems running and we’ll have you back up to speed in no time!’ Johnny exclaims. The Scarlet Witch tells Spider-Woman that USAgent sure seems happy to have the Pegasus back from China, while Spider-Woman remarks that it looks like they have each survived in one piece. Suzi Endo stands near the Recorder, who states that he has spent a significant interval off-line and was unable to record events. ‘Query: What transpired here during that period?’ the Recorder asks. ‘Let’s just say that the Mandarin believed that there are fires humans shouldn’t play with, and he was right. Unfortunately for him, he was wrong about which ones’ the Scarlet Witch explains.
The Recorder asks about the status of the subcontinent China, to which Wanda replies that it is back to normal, or so it seems. ‘When the Mandarin went…wherever he went…all of his temporal alterations were erased’ Wanda declares, adding that if people remember this at all, it will be as little more than a strange waking dream. Holding some files, Suzi announces that she will need Tony’s signature on these authorizations if she is going to get the cybernetics division back in order. But before Suzi can leave the group, War Machine suggests that they can wait a few minutes, as Tony is kinda busy right now.
In the lab, Tony has his hands on Su Yin’s arms and tells her that she could stay here, as Stark Enterprises can find a good position for a brilliant neurosurgeon. Su Yin thanks Tony, before telling him “no” as she has to return to her homeland and rebuild her life. She glances away as she farewells Tony and tells him that she will think of him often, before she walks away Tony watches her go, when War Machine and Suzi appear. ‘You gonna be okay?’ Rhodey calls out. ‘Yeah. Thanks for asking’ Tony tells his friend, to which Rhodey replies ‘What friend are for, man’.
Suddenly, a janitor walks past the trio, pushing a cleaning cart. ‘Something about that guy…could sweat I’ve seen him before…’ Rhodey remarks. Tony signs the papers Suzi has for him, while Suzi tells Rhodey that she doubts it, as he was just hired this morning. ‘Chu something, I think his name was…from the mainland’ Suzi explains. But the janitor does not hear the others. His mind is far from this place, lost in dreams…dreams of conquest, forever to be unfulfilled….
Suzi leaves Tony and Rhodey, and Tony tells Rhodey that he has the Mandarin to thank for one thing. ‘Because of him, I’ve seen that I was wrong about you, Jim’ Tony announces, adding ‘You are still the same man I gave that suit to’. Tony remarks that whatever Rhodey has done with it, he must have believed in what he was doing. ’I’m just sorry that it took…all this…for me to see that’ Tony declares. Rhodey replies that Tony is not the only one here who has been a butthead, and points our that Tony has been apologizing for months, now. ‘Except I wasn’t listening’ Rhodey admits. Tony tells his friend that he has missed him. ‘Yeah. Makes two of us, man’ Rhodey replies as they shake hands,
Tony asks Rhodey if he would consider taking his old job back, and knocks his fist against Rhodey’s re-modelled armor, some of which falls to the ground. ‘@#%* piece of junk. Next time, I’m buying an import’ Rhodey mutters. ‘Can’t have that. Bad for business’ Tony replies as they walk side by side down a corridor, before suggesting they go home and he will see what he can do about getting that suit repaired. ‘That’s mighty white of you, Mr Stark’ Rhodey replies. ‘Don’t thank me yet, Mr Rhodes’ Tony tells him. ‘Wait until after you see the bill for parts and labor…’.
Three days later, at Stark Enterprises main offices, Tony walks towards his office, while dozens of employees surround him. ‘Sir, I need you to sign -’ one of them calls out. ‘repaired most of the damaged hydroponics wing -’ another begins. ‘-as soon as poss-’ a woman shouts, waving files around. ‘Mr Stark!’ a man calls out, while another woman declares ‘- Trump says that if you don’t call him back today he’ll -’. Stark addresses none of them, and a woman suddenly steps between him and the staff. ‘All right, people. Take a number and sit down. Mr Stark will be with you shortly’ she snaps, smiling at Tony, who acknowledges her, and thinks to himself that when it comes to keeping the wolves at bay, nobody can touch Mrs Arbogast.
In his office, Tony pulls out a large bottle of bourbon and thinks to himself that as formidable as Mrs Arbogast is, there are some demons he has to face down on his own. He sits in his chair and looks at the bottle of alcohol, telling himself that, for years, he has kept a bottle in his desk drawer. ‘I knew if I could resist that one, I could resist them all’. Tony tells himself that he kept the demon caged, until VOR/TEX let it out. ‘Now…it’s wide awake again. And thirsty…’. Tony reaches for the bottle, and places it back in his drawer, slamming it shut. He boasts that is two battles he has won today, but the harder one begins again tomorrow.