Russia, where the Winter Guard, Russian national super team are currently engaging a large army of mercenaries in battle. Among their number are Josef Petkus a.k.a. Steel Guardian, Laynia “Darkstar” Petrovna, Nicolai “Vanguard” Krylenko, Fantasma, Powersurge, Vostok and Illyich Lavrov a.k.a. Sibercat. The red-haired woman fighting alongside them is Natasha Romanoff - the Black Widow. The Winter Guard do not like her very much. Russia trained her and shaped her into the finest spy on Earth, but she left Russia, defecting to the West. Steel Guardian stares at the Black Widow as she unleashes a “widow’s-bite” on the enemy, overlooking any grudges today, as against the Mandarin’s invading army, thewy need all the help they can get.
More help arrives - at the request of the Black Widow, this time in the form of several of the Avengers - Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America, Wanda Maximoff a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch, Vance “Justice” Astrovik and Angelica “Firestar” Jones. ‘All right, Avengers -form up!’ Cap shouts, telling Justice and Firestar to take the flanks, and asking the Scarlet Witch to stay central. ‘You called us in, Natasha - and the Russians cleared us. What’s the situation?’ Cap asks his former teammate. ’It’s the Mandarin, Captain America! He -’ Natasha begins, but everyone looks up and Cap tells her to never mind, as he can guess the rest - and with that, the Mandarin’s massive dragon-shaped base soars low to the ground and begins unleashing weapons from its mouth, attacking the Russian army.
Cap turns to Wanda and tells her that he knows they have not figured out how she is able to channel Wonder Man, bringing him back from the dead, and he knows she does not like doing it - ‘Say no more, Cap. There’s a time and a place for everything, and against something like that, my concerns have to take second place!’ Wanda exclaims Wanda casts her hands into the air - normally when she does this, probability ruptures - but now, the air explodes with ionic energy - energy that swirls and coalesces - into a familiar face - that of Simon Williams a.k.a. Wonder Man. ‘All right, Wanda - I’m here. Who do I hit?’ Simon asks.
Moments later, Darkstar, Justice, Firestar, Wonder Man, Vostok and Powersurge fly towards the Mandarin’s base. Justice exclaims that he recognized Sibercat, Fantasma, Vaguard and Red Guardian on the ground - ‘But Newsweek said he’s called the Steel Guardian now, I think -’ Vance remarks, and points out that Darkstar, Powersurge and Vostok are up here. ‘So where’s Iron Man?’ he asks, adding that his locator beacon was cut off a while ago. ‘And no offense to any of you Winter Guarders - but he’s the one we came to help!’ Vance exclaims. Laynia looks at the young mutant and tells him to save his energy to break into the craft above them. ‘The last we saw of your armored comrade - that is where he was headed!’
Inside the Mandarin’s battleship, Tony “Iron Man” Stark wakes, finding himself clamped to a wall. ‘It’s getting so I hate waking up’ Tony tells himself. ‘Of course, getting beaten to a pulp by the Spymaster’s espionage elite, without benefit of my armor - and getting slammed around by the Mandarin’s “Dragon of Heaven” will do that to a guy’ he thinks to himself. Tony’s head swims, and he has a hard time focusing. He knows he has broken ribs and has what feels like serious internal injuries. Tony has barely regained consciousness when he feels himself slipping back into soft velvet blackness.
Suddenly, Tony’s armor pumps cold air at his face - jolting him alert with an agonizing start. ‘But how -?’ Tony wonders, before seeing the Mandarin standing before him. ‘A thousand pardons, old foe. But I was growing bored watching you loll about like an insensate thing - and I could think of no better way to rouse you!’ the Mandarin declares, adding that he also didn’t know a better way to demonstrate also that Iron Man’s armor is completely under control of his new command rings, as indeed is everything aboard the Dragon of Heaven. ‘But -’ Iron Man begins, though the Mandarin interrupts: ‘Ah, but I forget my manners, don’t I? Do forgive me. Have I told you yet how I survived our last encounter? No?’ the Mandarin exclaims. ‘Please - indulge an old man’s ramblings, as I correct that most grievous oversight…’
Flashback illustrations, narrated by the Mandarin:
The Mandarin tells Iron Man that when they last met, he was controlling the mystic Heart of Darkness - or so he thought - and was using its magics, intending to destroy technology and turn the world back to a feudal state - beginning with China. ‘For all my success, I was deluding myself about the nature of power. Power, no matter how great, that commands you, rather than you controlling it - makes you a slave - not a master - and that was my downfall’ the Mandarin recalls.
‘You defeated me, infected me with a techno-organic virus - infected me with technology - and the Heart of Darkness rejected me. Rejected me - and imploded, destroying my citadel, my avatars, my dreams of reshaping the world’. The Mandarin exclaims that the implosion would have destroyed him as well, had it not a crueler punishment to visit upon him - with the last flare of its magics, the Mandarin was transported and transformed - turned into a lowly janitor toiling in the Hong Kong branch of Stark Enterprises.
The Mandarin stands close to Iron Man and explains that his mind was clouded, his true memories only surfacing in dreams, he endured unspeakable humiliation for one such as he. ‘But I thank you - and the Heart - for such a valuable lesson’ he tells Tony. ‘A lesson -?’ Tony asks, groggily. The Mandarin explains that he had thought to destroy technology - to erase two thousand years of progress and restore feudalism. But instead discovered that feudalism was not dead, merely as transformed as he. ‘Coolies, masters, magistrates, mandarins - the manual labour of the peasants generated power which flowed ever upward - growing greater at each level, until it rested in the hands of the truly deserving - the noble classes. And nothing was changed. My coolie labour enriched those above me, and above them - until it reached you, Anthony Stark. Feudal lord of a modern age’.
‘Not - lord -’ Tony utters, but the Mandarin continues, admitting that he was foolish to reject what he should have sought to understand. ‘And more foolish still, to rage at the idea of Iron Man, a vassal, as my greatest foe - rather than see beyond him, to my true enemy. I was heartbroken when I learned of your death, Anthony - and jubilant to learn you’d survived’. Exhausted, Tony asks the Mandarin why he sent so many people - the Deathsquad, Dreadnoughts, Hauptmann, Whiplash and the Spymaster - to kill him. The Mandarin smiles, and replies that only half of them were his. ‘This Deathsquad and Hauptmann I’ve never heard of - and Whiplash is beneath my notice’ he remarks, adding that, in any case, he never expected his agents to succeed, merely to prod Iron Man, to herd him toward this confrontation.
Tony doesn’t know what to think - even if he could think clearly. ‘It sounds like the truth, but if so - who sent the others?’ Tony wonders. However he knows in his current state that is not the question to ask now. ‘Then why - all this? Why - Russia?’ Tony asks, still clamped to the wall. The Mandarin sighs and tells Tony that one might ask why not Russia, pointing out that they have been shattered for years, always fragmented, always looking for a strong man to lead them. ‘I shall be that strong man - stronger than any they could find from within - and I shall rebuild them, bringing back the empire of the Tsars - but with a sensibility more fitting to my own traditions’ the Mandarin explains, adding that it will be the power base he requires.
The Mandarin continues: ‘As for the Russians themselves - well, they are a peasant race and sadly ignorant, far inferior to the Chinese. But they are Eastern, at least. And that may be enough’. Tony hears the Mandarin’s words, but there is something about them that does not make sense, and it takes too long for it to come to him. Tony realizes that it is the Mandarin’s attitude - it doesn’t ring true. ‘He doesn’t care about Russia at all - it’s just an outward show, masking what he really wants. This is all about something else…but what?’ Tony wonders.
Elsewhere, inside a command center built a hundred yards deep into the bedrock of the floor of the Potomac River. It is accessible by only one route, and there are only three people in the world who should know of its existence. The woman sitting at the desk in the command center - Madame Masque - heads one of the most powerful crime cartel - and the two men guarding her. Suddenly, the oddly-familiar chuckle Madame Masque hears from the shadows comes as something of a shock - ‘Eh? Who are you? How did you get in here?’ the surprised crime lord asks. ‘My guards -’ she begins, while the intruder points a weapon at her: ‘Are no longer yours. They, along with your position -’ the voice exclaims.
‘What? This is insanity! You can’t be saying that - doing this! It was I who -’ Madame Masque begins - before the intruder shoots her! Madame Masque falls to the ground, blood pools around her, and the intruder approaches her still body, picking up her golden mask: ‘As I was saying, my late predecessor - your position, your empire, even your name, now - belong to me!’
Back in Russia, the remaining members of the Winter Guard, the Avengers and the Black Widow continue to fight alongside the Russian army against the Mandarin’s mercenaries. ‘Many have invaded Russian soil, invaders - from Napoleon to Hitler! None have succeeded!’ Steel Guardian boasts, before Captain America kicks an enemy away from Josef, telling him to watch it. ‘Push them back!’ one of the soldiers shouts. ‘I saw that you had them, Captain America. My thanks’ Steel Guardian tells his counterpart. ‘But you sound as frustrated as I, at being limited to this role’ he adds. ‘We’re saving lives, Guardian. That’s what matters’ Steve declares. Steel Guardian replies that he agrees, but tells Cap that they both know they are merely supporting the efforts of those above, who fight the true battle, and he looks upwards to the Dragon of Heaven.
Darkstar, Wonder Man, Justice, Firestar, Vostok and Powersurge continue their assault on the sprawling fortress, each releasing their respective power against the underside of the Dragon of Heaven. ‘This stinks! Whatever this ship is made of, it’s resisting my microwave-bursts completely - and Darkstar’s Darkforce constructs, too!’ Firestar exclaims. Justice agrees that it is pretty good against energy attacks, and uses his telekinetic power to latch on to one of the hull plates, ripping it loose - which results in a weapon emerging from the gap, and blasting Justice, knocking him backwards. ‘Okay, okay - it just exposed even more weaponry - good thing I got my teke shield up in time!’ Vance exclaims.
At that moment, Wonder Man and Powersurge use their massive strength to crack part of the underside of the base. ‘We did it! We cracked it! But - sure enough, it’s just fusing together again, like the last two times!’ Simon exclaims. Powersurge remarks that this is ironic, for as though they may both be energy beings, solid matter still stymies them. ‘Of course, you may not see it that way since your form allows you to live a normal life!’ Powersurge adds. ‘Old news, Powersurge! These days my “life” is so bizarre, it’s almost inappropriate to call it -’ Simon replies, before the Dragon of Heaven’s tail sweeps around and knocks them through the air.
Vostok detects this and announces that his compatriots fail against this construct, with both energy and physical attacks, he decides that it must be a sophisticated machine, to be so durable as to have self-repair capacities. ‘But control of machines - even the most sophisticated - is well within the obliterates of Vostok’ he boasts. ‘A simple linking probe should -’ he begins as he tries to establish contact with the Dragon of Heaven, only to cry out in agony as an energy retaliates. He loses control and falls towards the ground. Firestar sees this and flies towards him, ‘Vostok - are you okay? ‘Angelica asks as she catches him. Vostok replies that he is already rebooting his systems, explaining that he tried to control the ship, and it almost controlled him. ‘It has almost unimaginable power. And one datum I was able to gather, during my brief contact - is that your associate, Iron Man, is within!’
Inside, Tony is still having a hard time concentrating - delirium right at the fringes of his consciousness, his senses bleary and dull - even his pain is going pleasantly numb - while the Mandarin still talks to him. ‘But ahh - then my dreaming mind awakened - and I returned to myself! It is a thrill few people in the world can share, I know - but surely Anthony, you are among them!’ the Mandarin exclaims, adding ‘To know that you are superior - in mind, in body, in spirit. Everything!’ He adds that to know that power is your birthright, to know that untold thousands exist on this world for no reason by to serve you - to channel their power through your empire, be it of land or of business - channeling it upward to fuel your glory.
Tony tells himself that there is something wrong with what the Mandarin is saying, but he is having a hard time focusing still. Suddenly, Tony sees it, by his foot - and it is all he needs to make sense of this - to cut through the haze. It is
A circuit - a sophisticated but minor circuit, and her has seen it before. His mind flashes back to when he saw the circuit being built - by Dr Nigel Dabuta, a surgical micro-assembly specialist from Kenya, working as forced labor in Mandarin’s slave camp.
Tony looks up at the Mandarin and tells him that the power doesn’t work that way, or at least it shouldn’t. ‘The people who worked for me - worked at Stark Enterprises - weren’t slaves! They didn’t work because they were property - they worked there by choice, to better their lives, provide for their families!’ Tony exclaims, adding that employees - not vassals - give their employers their best because they hope and trust that employers will do the same, and they will be rewarded in kind, paid fairly for their efforts. Tony adds that, too often, employees are disappointed - disappointed by people like the Mandarin, who see loyalty as a one-way street and who think they have a right of power, instead of earning it, by winning their employees’ loyalty fairly.
The Mandarin tells Iron Man that he is disappointed, mouthing such populist cant, as if he has been brainwashed by the world’s ignorant rabble. ‘But by all means, go on - and convince me if you can - how there can possibly be any sort of party between those who sweat and toil in the fields and men such as ourselves’. Tony tries to form a sentence - but nothing happens. The air is warm and moist, and he feels like he is sinking into it - and then Tony realizes that it is not just his injuries - the Mandarin has disconnected his cybernetic command systems, flooded his armor with humid air to make him slow and stupid. Painfully, Tony shifts his bruised jaw - hitting the backup chin toggles that will get him back online - and before the Mandarin realizes what he has done - ‘Real - real nice, Mandarin -’ Tony exclaims.
‘ - you can’t even have a conversation without rigging the odds in your favor, can you?’ Tony exclaims as he breaks the shackles from the wall, freeing himself. ‘Dragon’s bones!’ the Mandarin gasps. Although the Mandarin sounds surprised, Tony if not sure if he trusts it. He doesn’t know how much of anything he sees is the truth - or just the Mandarin playing games. Tony puts his blood-splattered helmet faceplate down and declares ‘All right, Mandarin - I’m back in control of my armor, and I’ve locked your ship’s control signals out. Let’s see how you do in a fair fight’ Tony adds. Tony knows that his power level is way too low, but will have to make do.
‘Do you really think force will work, Anthony - in a battleground in which your opponent controls everything?’ the Mandarin asks as he slams some sort of large cylinder barrel-like object into Tony, smashing Tony against the wall. The Mandarin stands smugly and declares ‘There is no such thing as a “fair fight” as you should know by now. But the truly superior man will win through to victory anyway - just as you overcame the tactics I used to dull your mind. Can you win through, Iron Man? Are you the man I hope you are?’ he asks. ‘Can you earn my respect?’ he enquires as several missiles fly down a corridor towards Iron Man.
‘Well, Mandarin, I’ll tell you - I don’t really give a hang about your respect!’ Tony replies as he uses his power to destroy the missiles before they reach him. ‘Ah - nicely played! But a minor accomplishment at best!’ the Mandarin exclaims. Tony knows that the Mandarin is right about one thing, at least. A frontal assault is not going to work, not when the Mandarin commands that much firepower, and with Tony this depleted. But Tony knows there are other ways - there are always other ways. So he ignores the Mandarin’s taunts and breaks free from the remaining shackles, taking flight. ‘What’s this? The Invincible Iron Man - fleeing?’ the Mandarin asks, rubbing his hands together with glee, while Iron Man flies upwards to the ceiling.
Iron Man propels himself forward - smashing through an access panel and into an equipment conduit, figuring out that in a smaller space like this, there will be less room to bring the Dragon’s weaponry into play. And there is less room, all right - but not no room. The Mandarin’s image appears on monitors all through the chamber, ‘Now you think like a general, eh - instead of a foot soldier? You retreat form one battle - your attention on a greater triumph?’ the villain declares - telling him that it is praiseworthy in theory, but not so easy to accomplish. Indeed, Iron Man is suddenly electrocuted by powerful energy.
‘And still you struggle on! Your armor protects you, old foe - your might gives you the power to express your will!’ the Mandarin exclaims. He adds that strength is not enough, telling Tony that he faces greater might, more power, and that only the mind can find the true path to victory. ‘The mind of a warlord! Do you have that, Anthony? Are you a warlord, or just a -’ the Mandarin begins, before Tony wastes a repulsor blast to destroy the monitor. But the attacks still come - lasers, magnetic whirlpools, sonics and more.
And by the time Tony makes it to his target, even his reserve power is nearly drained - but he makes it nonetheless - to the Dragon of Heaven’s engine room - or whatever passes for it - and there, in the center of the beast - is the experimental power core that runs it all - the generator the Mandarin got from Powersource. But as Tony approaches the core, three panels rise from the floor - and three beings emerge. ’We are the Final Guardians, Iron Man’ the first declares. ‘We were designed to face you - and to best you’ the second announces. ‘Face us - and see if you can achieve true victory!’ the third exclaims.
‘Oh, please’ Tony remarks. He would like nothing better right now than to take his frustrations out on the trio, But they are powered by the core - which means that the core is Tony’s primary target. He unleashes a surge of energy against it - and it explodes. The effects are immediate - Tony supposes that it must be a sight to see from outside. Indeed, ‘Good Lord! The ship!’ Captain America exclaims as he looks up and sees a large cloud surround it. Inside though, it is another story, as the Dragon starts tearing itself apart, throwing Tony around like a rag doll, reminding him of his broken ribs. Another of the monitors appears, showing the Mandarin laugh and exclaim ‘It’s true! I had to know - but you are my true foe, Anthony - you are! Not that metal shell you wear!’
The Mandarin declares that a lesser man would have allowed anger to get the better of him, after enduring all those attacks and humiliation - but Iron Man controlled his anger and used it like a sword. ‘You are the one who must be humbled!’ the Mandarin exclaims. Even as the villain says it, Tony can see the structural skeleton of the Dragon of Heaven start to buckle. ‘Nobody’s going to have the chance to humble anyone, Mandarin - not if we don’t get out of this death-trap - now!’ Tony exclaims as he flies to the control room.
Iron Man does not want to leave the Mandarin behind. He is going to save him - if for no other reason than to show him that he is not the same kind of man. But when Tony arrives in the control room, he finds the Mandarin aboard a hover-disc, arms out stretched while debris falls all around, he exclaims ‘Ah, my greatest of foes. We have known each other for so long - but now I truly see you for the first time. It shall be most glorious!’ Tony sees the Mandarin make the smallest of gestures - and the last thing he sees of the villain, he is falling into flame and certain death - before the Dragon of Heaven crashes into the mountains below, dying, with a massive explosion.
Hours later, while most of the Russian soldiers are dealing with the surrendering mercenaries, ‘Still nothing!’ one of the soldiers calls out to his comrade as they search through the debris with a sniffer-dog. ‘Keep looking. We must search every inch of this cursed wreckage until we have located the Mandarin’s body!’ the other replies. Suddenly, Iron Man rises, tangled in cables, and exclaims ‘Oh, you’ll find one. No doubt of that. You’ll find one, and there’ll be enough left to conclusively identify it as him. But it won’t be’. ‘Eh?’ ‘What?’ the soldiers ask, while Iron Man declares that the Mandarin will go back on the confirmed-dead list, until he turns up again, laughing at them.
‘This was never about Russia, it was personal. He was testing me - proving something to himself, and then showing me I can’t touch him. He’ll be back’ Tony exclaims. ‘What is he saying?’ one of the soldiers asks the other, when suddenly, Captain America, Darkstar, Steel Guardian, Justice and the Black Widow approach Iron Man. ‘Are you all right?’ Natasha calls out. ‘Oh, hiya, Tasha. We have - we have to stop meeting like this -’ Tony declares as he clutches his head, then falls to the ground, the last of his power is really gone, and the last thing he hears, is the full, flat clang of his armor hitting a cold metal panel below. ‘Iron Man…?’ the Black Widow calls out.