Winter Guard #1

Issue Date: 
October 2021
Story Title: 

Ryan Cady (writer), Jan Bazaldua (main story artist), Djibril Morissette-Phan (preludestory artist), Federico Blee (colorist), Virtual Calligraphy's Ariana Maher (letterer & production), Toni Infante (cover artist), Kim Jacinto & Nolan Woodard; Ken Lashley & Juan Fernandez; Todd Nauck (variant cover artists), Winter Koifman (special thanks), Kat Gregorowicz (assistant editor), Sarah Brunstad & Alanna Smith (assistant editors), Tom Brevoort (executive editor), CB Cebulski (editor-in-chief)

Brief Description: 

Yelena Belova is being interrogated by Captain Marvel regarding the Winter Guard's abduction of She-Hulk. Yelena explains that she is not an ally of the Winter Guard's, but Captain Marvel is not convinced. Russian soldiers surround the interrogation facility, and Yelena uses the moment to make her escape. She is then found by the Black Widow, and they depart for the Black Widow's San Francisco base. The Black Widow wants to know how Yelena became caught up in this mess, after learning the Winter Guard attacked Avengers Mountain, and that her own ex-husband was in Russia with Yelena. Yelena explains that the two of them had mutual interests which became complicated. The Black Widow informs Yelena that Ursa Major has been killed, and asks her what she knows about the Red Widow, who apparently killed him. Yelena doesn't know much – doesn't even know if the Red Widow is human. Three weeks earlier, Yelena makes her way into a Russian Federation Combined Arms Checkpoint on the Ukrainian border. She takes out several soldiers, before meeting with Alexei Shostakov, the Red Guardian. The Winter Guard are aboard their mobile command center called the Uragan, headed towards the border facility to arrest Alexei and Yelena. The Red Widow speaks very critically about Alexei and Yelena, and notes that the Security Council considers them high priority threats. The Winter Guard aren't too sure about this assignment, with Darkstar pointing out that they are not mercenaries, and Crimson Dynamo reminding the Red Widow that he leads the team, not her. Perun decides that this assignment is beneath him, while Ursa Major plans to get drunk. Most of the team leave the conference room, except for Darkstar, Vanguard and Crimson Dynamo, who discuss their current troubles with the direction of their team. At the border facility, Alexei and Yelena witness the Winter Guard's arrival by the Uragan, and Alexei holds up a small hard drive, which is what he retrieved from the border facility. Yelena asks him if he is sure that drive is worth it. The Winter Guard begin their attack, as they start to search for Alexei and Yelena. Darkstar teleports into the building, and is followed by Chernobog, who seems to have a strange interest in her. Yelena surprises Ursa Major and they fight in the snow. Yelena tells Ursa Major that she and Alexei are on a mission to help the people of Russia, and reminds him how he helped her once, and offers to help him, this time, suggesting he look into Alexei's last assignment – Operation Snowblind. Vangaurd find Alexei and they fight. Alexei isn't impressed by Vanguard's use of a shield, and knocks him out a window, before the Crimson Dynamo blows up the part of the facility that Alexei is in. The Winter Guard surround Alexei, who then presses a button on a remote, which causes Crimson Dynamo's armor to go out of control, and he starts attacking his teammates. Vostok tries to help him, but is injured in the porcess. Alexei rushes to an escape plane waiting nearby, and the Red Widow follows him – but she is shot by Yelena. Darkstar teleports up to the Crimson Dynamo and attempts to help him – but then his armor explodes. Yelena sees the explosion as she and Alexei take off in the plane, and tells him that they don't kill heroes. She asks him where the remote came from, and if he has a spy in the Winter Guard. When the smoke from the explosion clears, the Winter Guard discover that Darkstar is fine, but Crimson Dynamo is not moving.

Full Summary: 

An Avengers Secure Holding Facility, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. 'Say it again' Carol Danvers a.k.a. Captain Marvel declares. 'If you're telling the truth – look me in the eyes, Yelena Belova, and say it again' Captain Marvel continues, as she stands in an interrogation room, with Yelena Belova a.k.a. the White Widow, sitting before her. 'In do not know what happened to Jennifer Walters in the Red Room' the White Widow responds, adding that whatever Captain Marvel's outdated intel has her believing, she is no ally of the Winter Guard. 'Now, why do I have trouble believing that last bit?' Carol snaps. 'You think I am acquaintance of every Alexander Sergei and Maksim in tights, Captain Marvel? Russia is very large country. Americans sometimes forget this' Yelena smirks. 'Dammit, Yelena!' Carol shouts, slamming her fists into the table, denting it. 'It's been three days. You have answers – and I need them' Carol declares.

Carol turns away from Yelena and pinches the bridge of her nose as she informs Yelena that they have records putting her in Russia weeks ago, but that since the best surveillance teams on the planet have no idea how or when she got out, she must be able to understand their suspicion. At that moment, outside the facility, several armed soldiers appear. Captain Marvel glances at Yelena and reports that Black Widow still vouches for her, but her friend the She-Hulk has been kidnapped and tortured, and the Winter Guard is waging war on the Avengers. 'If you're really on our side, then help me' Carol remarks, as the soldiers outside begin scaling the facility. The White Widow reminds Carol that she is not an Avenger, to which Carol asks her whose side she is on.

Suddenly, the facility is blown open, and several armed soldiers enter the interrogation room. 'Wolf Spider Spetznaz – Kremlin special ops. Not my side!' Yelena calls out to Captain Marvel as smoke fills the room. 'Good' Carol replies, before announcing that she won't pull her punches. She starts firing energy blasts at the operatives. One of the soldiers shoots at Captain Marvel, but the weaponsfire blows a hole in the internal interrogation room door. 'There's more of them circling the building!' Carol calls out, before she sees Yelena leap through the interrogation room door. 'No!' Carol exclaims. 'You don't have any weapons!' Yelena dodges the blast from a weapon that one of the operatives aims at her, then she takes the weapon from him. 'There – now I have a weapon' Yelena replies, as she then shoots the operative, then jumps out of a window, landing outside the facility.

Yelena drops her weapon, and as she reaches for it, someone shoots the weapon. 'It's over, traitor' one of the operatives declares in their native Russian, putting a foot on Yelena's back and aiming their weapon at her head to keep her down. 'Red Widow sends her regards' the operative utters, when suddenly, someone on a motorcycle speeds up, and slams the wheel of the motorcycle into the operative, knocking them back. The rider removes their helmet – it's Natasha Romanoff the Black Widow. 'Sorry I'm late. Traffic was brutal' she jokes.

Later that night, at the Web, the Black Widow's San Francisco base of operations. 'The White Widow is in your custody, then?' Carol Danvers asks as her image appears on a monitor. Natasha looks back at the screen and tells Carol that she is worried about Jen, too – but that Yelena doesn't need to be “in custody”. She assures Carol that she and Yelena will debrief, then if they come up with any helpful intel, Carol will be the first one she calls. 'I hope so... She-Hulk's life depends on it' Carol replies, before the screen goes blank.

Yelena enters the room, drying her hair after having a shower. 'Thank you for the rescue, Natalia' she utters. 'I'm starting to regret it' Natasha replies, before asking Yelena if she gets how serious this is. 'The Winter Guard and the Avengers are, like, actively trying to kill each other' she explains. 'I do not answer to the Avengers' Yelena replies. 'What about to me?' Natasha asks her. Headshots of several other Russian superbeings appear on the monitors, and the Black Widow reminds Yelena that she disappeared without a word. 'I kept expecting you to turn back up, until the Guard attacked Avengers Mountain – and I learn you're in Russia... with my ex-husband'. Natasha adds that they just fought Red Guardian, and now he is MIA.

Yelena tells Natasha that she is sorry, that she is not meaning to be flippant, but that she and Alexei had mutual interests in the motherland, and it became more complicated than it should have – but their mission was not supposed to involve anyone else – not even the Winter Guard. Natasha reminds Yelena that the Winter Guard came after her, and are still coming. 'Hence “complicated”' Yelena remarks, adding that doesn't mean she wants the Winter Guard dead. Natasha presses a button on the computer console, and an image of Ursa Major, covered in blood, appears. 'Some of them already are' Natasha reports. 'Mikhail...' Yelena utters, shocked.

Natasha tells Yelena that she knows she was close with Ursa Major, and informs her that it was not an Avenger who killed him. The monitor changes again, this time showing an image of a woman cloaked in red. 'Red Widow' Yelena exclaims. 'Yes, that's  what she calls herself. But she's not like any other Red Room graduate. Not like us' Natasha remarks, while Yelena tells Natasha that she doesn't even know if the Red Widow is human. 'If you know anything that can help the Avengers take her down, before this war takes another life -' Natasha begins, to which Yelena assures her that she will tell her everything. 'I do not know if it will help, but at least you will understand why Alexei and I went home...and why I do not hate the Winter Guard' Yelena declares, rubbing her forehead. 'I pity them' Yelena reveals.

(Three weeks earlier)
The Russian Federation Combined Arms Checkpoint, which is twenty kilometers from Ukraine's Kharvik Oblast border wall. 'A hundred klicks of empty border in either direction, but we have to cross here?' Yelena Belova asks as she looks at the checkpoint through infra-red binoculars. She scales a wall, 'Da, da. I understand' she tells someone that she is in communication with. 'Clearing them now' she reports as she drops down onto the other side of the fence.

Yelena begins making her way through the checkpoint buildings, taking down officers as she goes about her plans. 'Sergeant, did you hear that?' a military officer calls out while making himself a coffee. He turns back to several monitor screens. 'Must be Vanya fooling around again. If he thinks that -' the officer begins, before going wide-eyed, 'Bozhe moi!' he exclaims, when suddenly, Yelena Belova grabs him from behind. 'Wait. Keep this one conscious' a voice calls out. 'The more he sees, the more he'll report' Yelena replies. 'Good. We are not slinking in like smugglers, Yelena. We are coming home' Alexei Shostakov a.k.a. Red Guardian declares as he enters the room, arms folded, he tells Yelena that they will let Russia see their Red Guardian has returned for them.

Meanwhile, inside the Uragan, a prototype mobile command center, where the Winter Guard are meeting. The expert assassin known only as the Red Widow stands before the team, as images of Alexei and Yelena appear on a screen. The Red Widow is also the liaison between the Winter Guard and the Russian Security Council. She tells the Winter Guard that they must all ironically be familiar enough with the phrase “never meet your heroes” because today, they will be arresting one. She declares that Alexei Shostakov was the USSR's failed response to Captain America, and declared missing in action near the end of the Cold War, only to resurface in the United States after rotting away for years in a prison.

The Red Widow announces that approximately eighteen hours ago, Alexei overpowered a border checkpoint full of soldiers and crossed onto Russian soil, with the aid of known defector, Yelena Belova, who the Red Widow adds is also known as the White Widow, the Black Widow, and the Red Room's second biggest mistake. She tells the Winter Guard that drone footage suggests they are headed toward the decommissioned Koschei Air Station, where there is an attached KGB facility that once served as the Red Guardia's base of operations. 'What they want there is anyone's guess, but that's a problem for our interrogators' she remarks.

The Red Widow informs her teammates that the Security Council considers Belova and Shostakov high priority threats. 'Their apprehension or elimination trumps whatever other leads you were currently chasing' she tells them, before making it clear that this is not an excuse to flex costumed egos, not an investigation, either – but a manhunt. 'Any questions?' she asks. 'Not that the Winter Guard makes a habit of questioning orders' the Red Widow adds. Seven super-powered begins stare back at at the Red Widow and say nothing. Chernobog, the Slavic god of blood and darkness. Mutant twins Layania Petrovna a.k.a. Darkstar and Nicolai Krylenko a.k.a. Vanguard, who wears the Red Guardian costume. Perun, the Slavic god of storms, Major Mikhail Ursus a.k.a. Ursa Major the mutant bear, the synthezoid called Vostok and Dimitri Bukharin a.k.a. Crimson Dynamo, who suddenly breaks the silence by reminding the Red Widow that he was put in charge of this team, not her. 'Easy...' Vanguard tells his teammate.

Darkstar tells her brother that Dimitri is right, and reminds him that they did not reform the Winter Guard to become mercenaries. 'Didn't we already have a Red Room full of perfectly capable assassins? Seems like a waste of resources' Ursa Major exclaims. The Red Widow turns to leave the room, and tells the Guard that she will be sure to share their concerns with the Security Council – after they have brought these traitors back to Moscow. Several members of the Guard get up and leave the meeting room. 'All of us against two of them? It'll be a bloodbath' Ursa Major remarks, deciding that there is no point in being sober for it. Perun decides that “the werebeast” as he calls Ursa Major, is right, and boasts that this is beneath a god such as him. 'Our kind of work, then' the frightening Chernobog grins, revealing his mouth full of razor-sharp teeth.

Darkstar, Vanguard and Crimson Dynamo remain in the room. 'We may not like answering to her, but -' Vanguard begins, to which Crimson Dynamo declares that he did not agree to lead a hit squad. 'Say what you will about Belova, but Alexei was a national hero' Dynamo adds. 'He's not a hero. The Red Guardian we grew up idolizing is long dead... if he was ever worth idolizing in the first place' Vanguard suggests, before proposing that the three of them are the ones who should bring him in. 'Well...we wanted Russia to have “Avengers of her own”' Darkstar points out. Dynamo tells her that he had hoped for less emphasis on the “vengeance” part. 'Besides.. .the Avengers would've flown' Dynamo adds.

Shortly, at the checkpoint facility, 'It's the Winter Guard... and quicker than I would've liked. Dimitri and his damn trains' Yelena remarks as she looks through some infra-red binoculars. 'The enter Guard? After two old traitors without a super-power between them?' Alexei asks. 'Wouldn't have taken Crimson Dynamo's joke of a transport otherwise' Yelena replies. Alexei holds something up and tells Yelena that they will only stay long enough to make an impression, as they have what they came for – the first of many. Yelena asks Alexei if he is sure that hard drive is still worth all this. 'Ha! “What the pen writes, the ax cannot erase”!' Alexei quotes, before asking Yelena to stall the Guard for a little while, and he will prepare their exit strategy.

Outside, all eight members of the Winter Guard are present and accounted for. Crimson Dynamo tells the team to spread out. 'We have our orders – whether we like them or not' he adds. Perun grunts and frowns, so the Red Widow glances over to him and suggests to him that if he still thinks this mission is beneath him, then he can go wait in the train. 'Otherwise...give us a little fog of war' she asks him. Perun raises his powerful ax above his head, and thunder boom as the sky grows dark and a thick fog envelops the facility. Ursa Major rushes forward, sniffing the air, he announces that he has their trail. Crimson Dynamo wonders what the point in leading the Guard here was – an ambush, or perhaps some Cold War weapon Alexei stashed away. Darkstar offers to do a room-by-room search, and her brother tells her to be careful. 'This place feels haunted' Vanguard remarks. As she steps through one of her Darkforce portals, Darkstar tells her brother that she is not afraid of ghosts.

Vanguard notices a hatch in the ground has been moved, and lifts it up. 'Someone opened this hatch recently -' he begins, before an explosion bursts forth from the hatch. Vanguard is able to shield himself, while Crimson Dynamo appears overhead and puts the flames from the explosion out by releasing a foam from his armor. 'Booby traps? Stay alert!' he warns everyone, while Perun suddenly stands on something and is knocked backwards by a blast.

Inside the facility, Darkstar has entered a large abandoned room. “KGB” signs can be seen on the walls. She begins to explore the facility, when suddenly, out of the shadows a figure emerges – 'Chernobog!' Darkstar exclaims. 'Did we startle you?' Chernobog asks. 'No more than usual' Darkstar remarks, before asking 'Since you're here though, remind me – you're the God of Blood, Darkness and what else?' Darkstar puts her hand on a framed painting, as Chernobog answers her question: 'Secrets'.

At that moment, Ursa Major lumbers through the fog. 'Is that you I smell, Yelena?' he calls out. 'Can hardly recognize it with Alexei's stench all over you' Ursa Major adds. 'Surprised a drunk like you has any sense of smell left!' a voice calls out. Ursa Major growls and spins around, claws at the ready – but there is no one there, just a statue of a man, a relic of times past. 'You're the unrecognizable one!' Yelena suddenly exclaims as she emerges from the fog, leaps at Ursa Major and knocks him backwards. 'They tortured you. Left you to rot in a gulag. Now you crawl back to play super hero?' She asks him as she flips herself backwards through the air, then lands on Ursa's shoulders and shoves her hands into his neck, shocking him with her widow's bite.

Ursa throws Yelena off of him, and she lands in the snow. 'What would you have me do? Where would I go?' Ursa Major asks. He claims that he is not fit to frolic on Xavier's island like other mutants, and at least this gives him a chance to do some good for his people. 'And you're what? Playing bodyguard?' Ursa Major then asks Yelena as he drops down towards her – but she holds his jaws open with her bare hands, keeping him at bay as she informs him that she and Alexei have a chance to do more good for the people than a hundred super heroes. 'The information we're after -' she begins, but Ursa Major interrupts her, remarking that he didn't realize assassins could be so gullible. 'You helped me once, so let me help you!' Yelena tells Ursa Major, suggesting that he look into Red Guardian's last assignemnt. 'As about Operation Snowblind' she tells him. 'Eh?' Ursa Major begins, when suddenly, 'Ah, damn you -' he mutters as Yelena detonates some explosives, which blow up in his face, and enable her to slip away. 'Trust me, Mikhail' Yelena calls out.

Back inside, 'Hmm. Full of surprises' Alexei remarks, as Vanguard enters the room he is in. 'Red Guardian! Enough. I don't know what you think you've accomplished here...but it's over. I'm bringing you in' Vanguard declares. 'Ha! So this is my latest replacement, eh?' Alexei asks, turning away from a briefcase on the desk in the room. 'You cut quite the heroic figure. Though the shield's a bit much' Alexei remarks, referring to the Captain America-like shield that Vanguard carries. Vanguard ignores that comment and instructs Red Guardian to hand over whatever is in the case and surrender. 'No... I don't think I will' Alexei responds. Vanguard leaps forward to attack Red Guardian, whose fist clangs against Vanguard's shield. Red Guardian then hurls a boomerang towards Vanguard, but Vanguard is able to dodge it. 'Ha! Nice trick, but -' Vanguard begins, before the boomerang suddenly darts back, and smacks him hard enough to force him forward, causing him to fall through a large glass window. 'I told you the shield was a bit much. Always preferred the boomerang' Alexei remarks as he stands at the smashed window and looks down below.

An instant later, the part of the facility where Alexei stands explodes, and Alexei is shunted out, landing on the ground below. Clutching the briefcase, Alexei pants, catching his breath. 'Well, now...that's the spirit!' Alexei exclaims as Crimson Dynamo and Vanguard close in on him. 'Red Guardian – Alexei. Stand down. Now' Crimson Dynamo orders him. 'You couldn't stop Belova?' Red Widow asks Ursa Major as the two of them join Vanguard and Dynamo in surrounding Red Guardian. 'She's resourceful' Ursa Major mutters. 'You're a half-ton bear with anti-espionage training and three black belts' Red Widow snaps. 'She's very resourceful' Ursa Major replies. 'No more skulking around' Perun calls out as he joins his teammates. 'For once we're in agreement. Time for blood' Chernobog announces as he and Darkstar step back through one of Darkstar's portals. 'Enough, both of you – the fight's over' Darkstar utters. 'I dunno. I can fly and he still managed to throw me out of a building' Vanguard replies.

The Winter Guard completely surround Red Guardian, who holds the briefcase and looks at the Crimson Dynamo, telling him that he really would be on his side, if only he had the time to show him. 'Plenty of time on the trip back to Moscow' Crimson Dynamo suggests as he raises his arms, transformed into some sort of weapons blasters, at Red Guardian. Holding a small device in one of his hands, Red Guardian announces that, thankfully, some of the Guard were more easily convinced. 'How do you think I've stayed one step ahead of you all day? You've got a traitor of your own' he claims. 'Don't believe me?' he asks. 'Have a demonstration' he tells them, as he presses a button on the device in his hand, which suddenly causes Dimitri Bukharin to lose control of the Crimson Dynamo armor. 'What the hell – how's he doing this?' Bukharin asks as a remote override engages the weapons, and the armor begins blasting the other members of the Winter Guard, striking Perun and Vanguard. 'No! I can't control it!' Bukharin calls out, while Darkstar looks on in horror.

'You bastard! What have you done? Vanguard shouts as he leaps at Red Guardian and slams his shield into him, knocking the older hero backwards. 'Heh. You can try to stop me or you can help young Dimitri – but you don't have time for both' Red Guardian responds, as Vanguard looks up to see Crimson Dynamo hovering above the checkpoint, energy blasting from several points on his armor. His armor tells him that system integrity is only at twenty percent, and Dimitri can be heard shouting within the armor. 'Hold on! We'll get you out of there!' Darkstar calls out as she manifests several Darkforce fields to protect her teammates from the Dynamo armor's energy blasts. At that moment, Chernobog rises up towards Dynamo, when Perun suddenly comes between them, 'She doesn't need your help, fool!' Perun declares, while Chernobog responds by hissing at his fellow god.

Ursa Major growls as one of Dynamo's blasts strike him, then suddenly, Vostok emerges from the fog and tells Bukharin to hold fast. 'If I integrate my system with your suit's -' Vostok begins, but the armor's computer reports that the endgame protocol has been engaged. 'Dimitri!' Vostok exclaims as the Dynamo armor grabs Vostok by his head, and suddenly, begins to tear apart his synthezoid body. 'No, no, no, please, God!' Bukharin calls out, telling Vostok that he is sorry, while Vostok begins to scream.

'Ha!' I've already faced the best the Red Room can throw at me' Red Guardian calls out as he rushes towards an aircraft positioned nearby. 'Please. Compared to me – your ex-wife's practically a pacifist!' the Red Widow responds as she leaps towards Red Guardian, her swords at the ready. 'Yelena, I need -' Red Guardian calls out, before a blast is fired at Red Widow, knocking her backwards, away from Red Guardian. 'Let's move, Alexei – I don't like that look in her eye' Yelena calls out as she stands at the aircraft, holding a smoking gun, while the Red Widow narrows her eyes beneath her cloaked face. 'Right. Leave the Guard to lick their wounds...while they still can' Alexei suggests. The Dynamo armor's computer reports that the power core is unstable, and that a full meltdown is in effect. 'Run! Run!' Bukharin calls out to his teammates.

Darkstar turns to her brother and instructs him to contain as much of the blast as he can, before she steps through one of her portals. 'Laynia!' Vanguard calls out, too late, as Darkstar teleports behind Crimson Dynamo, and starts pulling his armor off of him. 'Another second – I can pull you out if I -' Darkstar begins, before the armor explodes, sending fiery smoke up into the dark sky, while down below, the other Guard members are protected by some form of force field.

'What the hell was that?' Yelena asks as she pilots the escape plane. 'We didn't come back to Russia to kill its super heroes' she declares. Alexei tells her that they came back to enlighten them, which is rarely a painless process, and that it was no different with Snowblind. Yelena tells Alexei to enlighten her, and asks him where the remote came from – and if he really has a spy in the Guard. Alexei opens the briefcase. 'Maybe yes, maybe no. All in due time, Yelena' he replies, pointing out that what is important is what every member of the Winter Guard is also wondering – who is the traitor, and who will they strike next?

At that moment, when the dust settles, Vanguard, Ursa Major, Chernobog and Perun gather around as they find Darkstar kneeling over the unmoving Dimitri Bukharin and the remains of the broken Crimson Dynamo armor.

Characters Involved: 

Chernobog, Crimson Dynamo V, Darkstar, Perun, Red Widow, Ursa Major, Vanguard, Vostok (all Winter Guard)
Red Guardian II/Alexi Shostakov
White Widow/Yelena Belova

Black Widow
Captain Marvel VI

Wolf Spider Spetznaz operatives
Military officers

Story Notes: 

The scenes with Captain Marvel and Black Widow talking with Yelena takes place between Avengers (7th series) #46 and #47.

She-Hulk was taken by the Winter Guard in Avengers (7th series) #46.

Ursa Major assisted Yelena Belova in Tales of Suspense #103-104. Shortly after that, and off-panel, Ursa Major was imprisoned in a gulag, where he developed alcoholism. He was freed in Avengers (7th series) #10 to rejoin the reformed Winter Guard. It should be noted that between those two events he appeared as an active member of the Winter Guard in Weapon X (3rd series) #20-21.

Although Nicolai Krylenko has predominantly been known as Vanguard throughout his heroic career, he took the costume and mantle of Red Guardian in Darkstar & the Winter Guard #3, returning to his Vanguard codename in Avengers (7th series) #10, while continuing to wear the Red Guardian costume.

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