Paris, where Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. the Black Widow crouches over the motionless body of Tony Stark. ‘Still no heartbeat. No respiration. C’mon, Tony - wake up - it’s Natasha Romanoff. The Black Widow’ the former leader of the Avengers exclaims. ‘You’re not going to let a little beating finish you, are you?’ she asks, before slamming her fists down on his chest: ‘C’mon, Tony - BREATHE!’ she shouts, before pressing her ear to Tony’s chest: ‘Nothing. Still nothing’.
The Black Widow removes her bracelets and declares that she owes Tony, and is not letting him off this easily. She holds the bracelets, charged with energy, over Tony, knowing she cannot control the voltage, not with her widow’s stings cracked open. ‘But I can’t see any other choice!’ Natasha declares as she slams her bracelets down on Tony’s chest, hoping to jump-start him. Tony’s eyes go wide and his mouth gasps open, spluttering blood. ‘Oh, thank God. Thank -’ Natasha remarks, before Tony grabs her wrist, telling her that he needs his armor.
‘You’re not serious. You need a hospital, not your armor, and I’m going to get you to -’ the Black Widow begins, before Tony tells her that his armor is in the briefcase which was kicked into the river. Still crouched over Tony, Natasha tells him that she doesn’t think he understands. ‘You’re wounded - broken ribs, internal injuries - a probable concussion. If I don’t get you to a doctor - and fast - you could die!’ she exclaims. ‘Armor…’ the determined Tony whispers. Natasha narrows her eyes and frowns.
Moments later, the Black Widow swims to the bottom of the river, the briefcase in her sights. Natasha recalls how she had been hunting a mystery man - a man who she recently discovered is the Mandarin. But while Natasha was hunting him, he was also hunting her. Natasha thought she was staying one step ahead of him, but the Mandarin had her offices bugged by the Spymaster, and knew where she would be practically before she got there. The Spymaster then discovered her secret-identity, and he and his espionage elite caught up to her in Paris, this being the result.
An instant later, Natasha, dripping wet, is handing Tony his Iron Man armor, telling him that she didn’t chase those thugs off so he could finish the job himself. ‘Don’t do this’ she exclaims, asking Tony to let her take him to a doctor, adding that she knows an excellent doctor right here in Paris, one who is very discreet. Still weary and bleeding, Tony replies ‘Maybe…later…know you…don’t like this…but knew you…wouldn’t fail me. Wouldn’t deny…what could be…dying…wish’. Natasha holds the Iron Man helmet and points out that there are others - the Avengers and the Fantastic Four. ‘They’re not dying - not hanging onto life by a threat. Whatever this is about - they can handle it!’ she exclaims.
Tony puts on his helmet and replies that it is about the Mandarin, and that the Avengers would be great. He asks Natasha to give them a call as they can help. ‘Why, Tony? Why so insistent? Why can’t you let it go? Just tell me why!’ Natasha exclaims. Tony clicks the Iron Man helmet into place, and coughs. ‘Oh, now there’s a compelling argument’ Natasha mutters, while Tony tells her that he just has to do this. ‘Follow if you can’ he declares, blood splattered around the mouth-opening of his armor.
‘And like that, the invincible Iron Man flies again’ Tony thinks to himself as he takes to the skies, while admitting that he doesn’t feel terribly invincible. Tony’s head throbs and his throat is raspy and hoarse. He cannot find a position that doesn’t send his broken ribs digging into him. As he flies across the Paris sky, Tony finds himself thinking about what Natasha said and wondering why he is doing this. ‘Why can’t I let it go?’ he asks himself, after all, the Mandarin is not the first foe he faced, and Tony wasn’t the first to oppose the Mandarin’s plans, either. ‘But somehow…’ Tony thinks as his mind wonders back….
Flashback imagines, narrated by Iron Man:
The Mandarin was the scion of a wealthy family and a highly placed official in the Chinese government. But when the new regime cast him out, he went in search of power - and found it - in the form of a crashed alien spacecraft - and ten rings of indescribable power. Wielding them, the Mandarin could defy even the Chinese armed forces. Tony recalls how he first encountered the Mandarin at the request of the Pentagon, which was concerned about his power.
But after that, it got personal, and they clashed many times thereafter, as the Mandarin sought to amass power, or to subjugate the world, and bring back what he saw as the glory days of Imperial China. But always, though sometimes only by the skin of his teeth, Iron Man managed to stop the Mandarin. Tony recalls the last time he faced the Mandarin, who had discovered an orb of apparently mystic energy, which he used to turn back time itself in China. Force Works, War Machine and Iron Man managed to break the Mandarin’s power - but not before the Mandarin finally discovered that Tony Star was the man inside the Iron Man armor. However, the Mandarin then died - or so the heroes thought.
Tony tells himself that he should have known better, as when someone hired the Deathsquad to kill Tony Stark, right after Iron Man’s own return from seeming death, and when a mysterious client of the Arms Merchant, buying the hardware for some sort of fortress or battle station sent Dreadnoughts to silence both the Merchant and Stark, and when the forced labor camp run by the Tuatara using engineering and scientists to continue to work on the battle station turned out to be the work of the same man.
‘I should have seen his hand in all this. I should have known it was -’ Tony thinks to himself, before swerving quickly as he almost flies into a large structure holding up power lines. Tony knows that his attention is going blurry and is almost losing consciousness, which is why he wasn’t watching where he was going. Tony tells himself that he will have to do better, for although the construct would not have harmed him, he certainly would not have done it any good. ‘And it wouldn’t do any good to have Iron Man splatter himself all over some Alpine cliff-face’ Tony tells himself, before setting his automatic pilot, locking it onto the location he managed to tap into for a second or two via computer - before letting himself pass out.
Meanwhile, inside Stark Tower, New York. James “Rhodey” Rhoades tells Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts that they are all clear. ‘No more bugs’ he announces after scanning Tony’s offices. Happy exclaims that he doesn’t believe it. ‘I don’t believe we let them bug the offices - screwed up so badly…’ he mutters. Pepper thanks Rhodey for coming, telling him that they didn’t know who else they could trust. James tells Pepper that it was no sweat. ‘What are fiends for?’ he asks. ‘I just wish we’d hear something’ he tells her.
As if on cue, Pepper’s computer informs her that she has an incoming communication. Rhodey and Happy gather around as the Black Widow’s picture appears on screen. Natasha greets them all, before announcing that she has news - ‘Unfortunately, it is not good’ she warns them. And after explanations are made, the Black Widow tells Tony’s companions that she must contact the Avengers. ‘Widow out’. ‘Oh, man! The Mandarin - and Tony injured? Times like this, I wish I was still War Machine…’ Rhodey exclaims. Pepper mutters ‘It’s our fault for not being more cautious - just assuming that he had everything under control’. Happy tells Pepper that Iron Man will be all right, though he doesn’t seem convinced himself.
At that moment, at Avengers Mansion, the android Vision tells the Black Widow that it would seem the vicissitudes of fortune have not been in her favor of late. ‘First the Avengers falling to Onslaught under your leadership - and no arriving too late to save Iron Man’ he exclaims. ‘Vision!’ the shocked Wanda Maximoff a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch gasps. ‘And what exactly do you mean by that, Vision?’ the Black Widow snaps. Justice a.k.a. Vance Astrovik and Angelica “Firestar” Jones stand nearby as the Vision replies ‘Nothing beyond surface meaning - it was an observation, not a value judgment’ he assures her, adding that he is confined to the Mansion in holographic form while his true body undergoes repairs, but will activate Iron Man’s internal locator-chip and all available Avengers will be on their way shortly. The Vision tells Natasha that the Avengers will stop to collect her, and that in the meantime, she should not worry overmuch, as Iron Man is a logical man, and he is confident Iron Man will not push himself past the point of endurance.
Iron Man wakes up from a hazy, unrefreshing sleep somewhere on the eastern edge of Russia’s Ural Mountains, near Chelyabinsk. His injuries are a dull but persistent ache, and his head feels like it has been wrapped in barbed wire. Tony hit’s the chin-toggle that’ll deliver him some water, but all it does is make him feel like he is going to vomit. He looks around to get his bearings, and just like that, he forgets the pain as he suddenly sees a war about to happen down below!
‘What?’ Tony wonders as he sees the two sides rush towards each other on the desolate landscape. On one side, a vast fleet of hi-tech assault vehicles, manned by expensively equipped mercenaries. On the other, the Russian army, aided by their national heroes - the newly rechristened Winter Guard. Iron Man takes a closer look at the heroes down below. ‘Leading the Winter Guard is a man I assume to be the Red Guardian in a new costume’ Tony tells himself, recalling that the Red Guardian is Russia’s answer to Captain America since World War II, and as Josef Petkus charges at and knocks over some of the mercenaries, Iron Man decides that although there have been a number of Red Guardian’s over the years, this one’s battle skill and tenacity make him one of the best.
Next up is Nicolai Krylenko a.k.a. Vanguard, also sporting a new costume. Iron Man knows that Vanguard is a loyal communist party member and a mutant with the power to reflect any force back at its originating point, a power which he uses to great advantage. ‘Taste your own weaponry, Cossacks! Taste it - and DIE!’ Vanguard booms as he deflects the energies of several tanks back to where they came from. Iron Man doesn’t know much about Sibercat a.k.a. Illyich Lavrov, who lashes out at the mercenaries. Tony sees that Sibercat’s catlike agility and ferocity clearly make him an opponent to be reckoned with. Laynia “Darkstar” Petrovna, sporting a new costume, is Vanguard’s twin sister, and also a mutant. As she cages several mercenaries within the Darkforce, Tony notes that it looks like she has gained more control over it since they last met.
Iron Man observes Vostok, an artificial humanoid who can reshape and control machinery, which he does to the mercenaries, turning their weapons against them. The sultry Fantasma is a powerful psychic and illusion-caster, who is using her powers to bring out the mercenaries’ greatest fears: ‘No! No - spiders!’ one of them shouts. ‘Mother - no!’ another declares. Finally, is the nuclear-fueled juggernaut called Powersurge, who met the Avengers once under the name of Surge. ‘You defile the soil of Mother Russia with your touch, invaders - so you shall touch no more!’ Powersurge booms as he throws one of the tanks into the air.
‘But for all the Winter Guard’s power and determination - the mercenary army is slowly but surely forcing them back’ Tony thinks to himself as he moves down towards the battlefield, approaching Josef, Laynia and Nicolai. ‘Iron Man!’ Josef exclaims. ‘Greetings, Red Guardian. What’s your situation here?’ Iron Man replies. Josef tells Iron Man to call him Steel Guardian now, explaining that their government found his old name no longer appropriate for this new era. ‘Vanguard represents his party, while I represent the Motherland’ Josef adds, before he begins to tell Iron Man what is occurring, but Vanguard interrupts before Josef gets the chance. ‘Tell him nothing, Guardian! He is doubtless a spy for the enemy!’ the ever-brash Vanguard declares.
Steel Guardian deflects some gunfire, with his shield as he reminds Vanguard that the Cold War is over, and that Iron Man and the Avengers have been of great assistance to them in the past. ‘We welcome his help!’ Josef exclaims. ‘Pfah! He twists ropes out of you - like always!’ Nicolai mutters, before Steel Guardian explains that the mercenaries attacked from the south, barely five hours ago and without warning. Steel Guardian continues: ‘Foreigners, mercenaries, Kazakhs - even Russians who seek to be on the side of those seizing power. But as yet, we have no idea who is behind them’. Iron Man joins in the battle, unleashing blasts against the enemy as he declares ‘I do. It’s the Mandarin!’
Steel Guardian, Darkstar and Vanguard all turn to Iron Man: ‘The Mandarin? The man who held the Chinese back - single handedly - for years?’ Steel Guardian asks. ‘Bozhe moi!’ Darkstar gasps, before Steel Guardian asks Iron Man if he is certain of this. Iron Man replies that he does not know what the Mandarin wants in Russia, but that he has been tracking him for weeks now. ‘And trust me, it’s him’ Tony declares, explaining that he is going after the Mandarin’s command center, and tells Steel Guardian that if he could spare any of the Winter Guard to help him, he would appreciate it. ‘I’m…not at my best right now’ Iron Man admits.
‘Tss! A trick - to divide our forces!’ Vanguard exclaims. Steel Guardian tells Iron Man that he is sorry, and that while the Winter Guard would welcome his aid, he cannot cede command to him, nor without hard evidence can they abandon their people here. Iron Man takes flight as he replies that he understands. ‘Best of luck here. I’ll continue on alone’ he declares.
Moving higher in the air, Tony passes some clouds, approaching the co-ordinates he had been headed for, his picks up a distinctive energy-signature - the power plant Victoria Snow supplied to her mystery client. Tony knows he is getting closer, but his head throbs in rhythm with the signal, and as the miles pass, he wonders again - ‘Why go after the Mandarin in this shape?’. But he still does not have an answer.
Soon, the sounds of warfare are just a distant rattle as Tony makes his way above the clouds: ‘Holy cow!’ he gasps as he sees a MASSIVE terrifying dragon-shaped air-base. Tony knows that this is what the Arms Merchant, Powersource, the captive scientists and many more all built. ‘This is what I’ve been hunting all this time. This is my quarry’ Tony thinks to himself, seeing that the base is at least a mile long - probably longer considering the tail. The base thrums with power, due to both the massive anti-gravity generators keeping it aloft, and to the weaponry it bristles with. Taking it all in, Iron Man suddenly feels very small. But then, the base reacts, the head tilts as if scenting the air - it has picked up Iron Man’s presence.
And sure enough, it attacks - a couple of shaped plasma charges are fired at Iron Man. He feels a stabbing pain as he dodges his broken ribs bent out of shape as he twists away. ‘Time to see if it can take it as well as dish it out’ Tony decides as he unleashes a repulsor ray at the giant dragon. Naturally, the base can take the ray, and Tony knows that the Mandarin is not going to put this much work into a battle station without making it impervious to his repulsor rays. Tony looks for another angel, a weak point that he can strike at - but as he searches around the outside of the base, keeping an eye on the plasma cannons, he no longer sees the massive tail - which suddenly whips around and strikes Iron Man, sending the hero careening through the air.
‘Leave it to the Mandarin to build a flying dragon with a functional tail’ Tony thinks to himself, before his vision fades to gray from the impact, and almost passes out. But Tony forces himself to twist and the pain from his ribs jolts through him, waking him up. ‘It’s not - not that easy - Mandarin!’ Iron Man exclaims, before a barrage of weapon fire rains down upon him. ‘Okay, so maybe it is’ Tony tells himself. He dodges as well as he can, but his reaction time is off, and he feels sluggish and stupid, while the dragon’s fusillade knocks him around like a rag doll in a tornado.
Iron Man tells himself that, in a way, he is in over his head, but he knows he cannot flee. He won’t. The Avengers will be here soon, and he has got to do whatever he can before they get there. Missiles are fired at Iron Man, who manages to dodge them, but barely. Tony tells himself that he cannot take it on one-on-one, and needs to get inside the base, reach the crew that is piloting it. He manages to get himself up against the side of the base, too close for the cannons or the tail to reach him. He catches his breath and flies upwards, latching on to the side of the base - only to receive some sort of electric shock.
The jolt is enough to cut through his armor’s shielding. It stuns him for a few moments, and he begins to free-fall, completely blind. Tony clutches at his helmet, and suddenly, he’s coughing blood, and his vision returns - just in time. ‘Oh’ he utters. ’Great’ - as the massive mouth of the dragon base clamps down on him. ‘Well, I’m inside. That was the idea, wasn’t it?’ Tony thinks to himself. He is a little shaky on his feet, but heads down the dragon’s throat, looking for a control station, for the crew. But all he finds, wherever he goes - is emptiness.
‘Hello? Hello?’ Iron Man calls out. ‘I’d have figured on being swamped by soldiers by now. Or ensnared in some sort of trap. But this - I don’t know how to take it. There’s nobody here’ Tony thinks to himself. Without anything to react to, to focus on, Ton’s damaged body starts reasserting itself - he needs to concentrate to stay conscious. Even so, he slips and falls a few times, but he forges on, until suddenly, a voice calls out: ‘Greetings, my old enemy. Welcome to the Dragon of Heaven!’. Iron Man spins around - ‘Huh?’ he asks, before seeing the Mandarin loom over him. ‘It has been too long’ the Mandarin declares. ‘MANDARIN!’ Iron Man gasps.
The Mandarin remarks that Iron Man is obviously injured, but still reacts belligerently, confidently. ‘You think your armor more than a match for me, but have you not yet learned where the Mandarin walks - he controls all?’. With that, the Mandarin twitches his fingers, ever so slightly, and Iron Man is knocked backwards. ‘The world around me goes insane’ he thinks to himself. Wherever he turns, a new attack. Whenever he tries to dodge, whip-fast tentacles clutch at him, holding him fast, they come rapidly, leaving him no chance to move, no time to think - before a large pillar-like device slams down on him, pinning him to the floor.
In the end, it is too much. Tony struggles, fights against it - but his body betrays him. His armor survives the barrage from outside - but within him, a swirling maelstrom of red and black - of pain and dizziness rises from somewhere in his chest and engulfs his brain - causing Tony to pass out at the Mandarin’s feet. ‘Well, well. I had expected this to be more difficult -’ smirks the Mandarin….