Winter Guard #2

Issue Date: 
November 2021
Story Title: 

Ryan Cady (writer), Jan Bazaldua (artist), Federico Blee (colorist), Virtual Calligraphy's Ariana Maher (letterer & production), Toni Infante (cover artist), Paco Medina (variant cover artist), 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: 

Aboard the  Uragan, the Winter Guard's mobile command center, Dimitri Bukharin the Crimson Dynamo is connected to life support, while the synthezoid Vostok is connected to a computer system, both seriously injured in battle. Vanguard goes through the team's files, concerned someone betrayed the team, while Ursa Major gets drunk and Perun examines the stock of weapons aboard the Uragan. The Red Widow is in contact with her superiors at the Securiy Council, updating them on what has happened, while Darkstar lies on top of the Uragan as it moves through the Russian wilderness. Her Darkforce energy surrounds her, protecting her as she is lost in her thoughts about what has happened to the team, when suddenly Chernobog passes through the Darkforce, noting how Darkstar has changed her manifestation of the energy, it now appears bright, as opposed to dark. Chernobog claims to be concerned for Darkstar, but Darkstar is simply confused by the old god's interest in her. The Uragan comes to a screeching halt, and Vanguard tells his teammates that his investigation concludes that Alexei sabotaged the Crimson Dynamo's armor without assistance, and that there is no traitor on the team. The Red Widow informs the team that they are splitting up, with Vanguard and Ursa Major returning to Moscow with her, while Darkstar, Chernobog and Perun will go to a village which she suspects is Alexei's next stop. Indeed, Alexei and Yelena are en route to a small village. During the journey, Yelena suggests to Alexei that they make a copy of his hard drive, but Alexei is reluctant to do that. En route to the village, they pass over Moscow, and wearing her new flight harness, Yelena drops out of the plane and flies down into Moscow, where the Red Widow, Vanguard and Ursa Major have arrived. Officials take Crimson Dynamo and Vostok away for medical attention and repairs. Darkstar and the two gods arrive in the village, and Peru notes that a storm is coming. They explore the village, and Darkstar finds a monument to Alexei – this is the village where he grew up. The storm arrives quickly and begins to flood the village. Perun does what he can to keep the damn from bursting. Darkstar set about saving a woman and her child, but a tractor is washed towards them – so Chernobog steps in and helps, surprising Darkstar. When the storm subsides, Perun informs Darkstar and Chernobog that the villagers are saying another hero helped people get to safety at the church on the hill – and at that moment, Alexei can be seen walking away from the church. In Moscow, the Red Widow, Vanguard and Ursa Major track Yelena Belova to an old KGB building. They fight for some time, and Yelena explains to Ursa Major about the data drives she and Alexei are collecting – four of them, which have information on the oligarchs who control them, the monsters who run this world. Vanguard finds Ursa and Yelena talking, so Yelena takes flight before he can stop her. Meanwhile, a soldier at the Moscow Security Council receives a phone call from Lord Dracula of the Vampire Nation, who instructs the soldier to tell the Winter Guard that he has what they are looking for, and that he would be delighted to have them for dinner.

Full Summary: 

'They look so much simpler from down here' Laynia Petrovna a.k.a. Darkstar, glamorous member of the Russian super-team called the Winter Guard, thinks to herself as she lies atop the Winter Guard's train – the Uragan Mobile Command Center – as it speeds across the Russian wilderness. Darkstar is surrounded by a dome of bright light, her Darkforce energies manifesting as a forcefield around her, as she looks up at the star-filled night sky. 'Like they're not racing along at a million kilometers an hour. Like they're not fighting gravity or about to collapse into black holes' Darkstar thinks to herself, realizing that, from down here, it is easy to forget the stars are all ripping each other apart. 'It's so easy to think of the stars as unchanging – untouchable – and why not? From down here, all they have to do is shine' Darkstar tells herself as the Uragan passes by some mountains.

Inside the Uragan, Nicolai Krylenko a.k.a. Vanguard, Darkstar's twin brother, sits in an office. 'It used to be like that for us' Darkstar thinks to herself, referring to she and her brother, who, in the office is reading some files. 'No, no one on the team could betray us like this' Vanguard declares. 'We never looked to a comrade – and imagined a traitor might be looking back' Darkstar tells herself, while in one of the other rooms on the Uragan, Major Mikhail Ursus, in his human form, iis shirtless, and holds up a bottle of vodka. 'We were honored to fight beside myths and legends' Darkstar recalls, while the Slavic god known as Perun stands in a room filled with weapons. 'Hrmm' the gruff Perun mutters. 'We didn't need to do our work in the shadows' Darkstar adds, while, in a shadowy room, the woman known only as the Red Widow has removed her cloak. She can be seen to have short hair, although her face is hidden in the shadows of the room.

Even the monitors which she looks at don't light up the room enough to reveal the Red Widow's face as she appears to be speaking to one of her contacts at the RSC – Russian Security Council. 'Yes, Sir – exhaustively. There's no official record of any “Operation Snowblind”' the Red Widow reports. 'Why is that a relief? If Red Guardian is digging up state secrets -' Red Widow begins, before saying 'Of course not, Sir. I am not questioning orders'. She adds that neither will the Guard, not after Crimson Dynamo – and they will do everything in their power to help capture Alexei Shostakov. 'And if the Red Guardian truly has a traitor among the Guard...that traitor will die beside him' the Red Widow vows.

'Did the night sky change? Or did we just get closer?' Darkstar wonders. 'When did we stop shining... and start tearing each other apart?' she contemplates, while inside the Uragan's medbay, her longtime teammate, the man behind the Crimson Dynamo armor, Dimitri Bukharin, lies motionless in a bed, connected to life support, his body covered in bandages. Beside him, the head of the synthezoid member of the Winter Guard called Vostok is connected to a computer system.

Darkstar sits up, cross-legged, as a voice calls out 'In the time of blood and shadow, when the name Chernobog was a curse and our altars always red with sacrifice...the Darkforce was our domain. Our favorite weapon'. Chernobog suddenly appears, stepping through Darkstar's powers, he grins at her and tells her that he loves what she has done with it. Chernobog then starts to laugh, while Darkstar gets to her feet and spins around to face Chernobog, telling him not to sneak up on her like that. 'We felt your shadows rippling. We were...concerned' Chernobog claims. 'Concerned. Right. Is that why you always hang around me?' Darkstar asks, pointing out that plenty of others can tap into Chernobog's “Darkforce”, and asks him what his fixation is. 'Do you want to kill me? Kiss me? Eat me?' Darkstar asks. 'Our secrets are our own' Chernobog responds. Darkstar pauses, before telling the god that they are not done discussing this.

The Uragan suddenly screeches to a halt, and Vanguard exits the train, announcing that Dimitri is in a stable condition, and that he has finished his investigation. Vanguard informs the Guard that until he finds evidence to the contrary, they must assume that Alexei sabotaged Dimitri's suit without help. 'There is no traitor in the Winter Guard' Vanguage states. 'Suuuure there isn't' Chernobog mocks as he and Darkstar remain on the Uragan's roof. Perun, Red Widow and Mikhail Ursus exit the Uragan and Vanguard tells the team that Red Guardian just wants them distracted, as he knows that he and Yelena Belova are no match for this team at full strength. Red Widow announces that she agrees with Vanguard, to which Mikhail mutters 'Of course you do. Did you write him a script?'

'Enough!' Red Widow snaps, before informing the team that they have new orders, and will be splitting up. She reports that she, Vanguard and Ursa Major will be taking the Uragan back to Moscow, where they will drop Vostok and Crimson Dynamo off for medical attention, and follow up on a promising lead. Red Widow informs Darkstar that she is to take Chernobog and Perun to what she suspects will be Alexei's next stop – a picturesque little village near Nizhny Novgorod, where she has heard that the weather is lovely this time of year.

At that moment, aboard the aircraft they escaped from the border facility in, Yelena Belova and Alexei Shostakov are continuing with their quest. Yelena looks at a map and tells Alexei that this is not as clever a hiding place as he thinks it is. 'It's not just surveillance – they know you. They'll guess where you're headed. Hell, they might even beat you there' Yelena suggests, before proposing that they make a copy of that first hard drive while they still can. Alexei glances over from where he is piloting the aircraft and tells Yelena that she knows they cannot do that. Looking at the briefcase where the hard drive has been stored, Yelena explains to Alexei that decryption tech has improved a lot since the Cold War, and asks him to at least let her take a look. 'I need assurances' she adds. 'I need to know there's information there that I can use' Yelena tells Alexei, pointing out that there is only so much a girl can take on faith.

Alexei gets up from his seat and reports that they will be in range of Moscow momentarily, and suggests to Yelena that she should get ready, before asking her if she doubts their goals already. 'My goal? Never' Yelena replies as she begins to put some sort of harness and gloves on over her white costume. 'Your methods, on the other hand...I haven't forgotten San Francisco. Natalia could have died. If you hadn't already told me about Snowblind, and what's hidden on thar drive...I might've killed you then' Yelena adds. Alexei looks at Yelena, who suddenly releases the wings connected to the harness, and she hovers above a hatch in the aircraft. 'And here I was worried about flying too close and giving away the dead drop location' Alexei remarks. 'You like?' Yelena asks. She admits that her wing's aren't quite as fast or durable as the Falcon's, but that they are lighter, and quieter – and half the cost. 'What can I say? I love a knockoff' Yelena jokes as she drops down from the aircraft and flies out over Moscow.

The Uragan has come to a stop in Moscow, and soldiers begin to carry the Crimson Dynamo and Vostok from the train. 'Bozhe moi. They're both in pieces!' one of the soldiers exclaims. 'I think I'm getting a cold' Mikhail remarks to Vanguard as the two of them and Red Widow leave the train. Vanguard tells Mikhail to focus, as this is their chance of getting ahead of whatever Alexei is planning.

At that moment, in the aircraft above Moscow, Alexei is singing a song to himself. 'It's true what they say, eh? There's no place like home' he tells himself.

Elsewhere, a portal opens and Darkstar, Perun and Chernobog step out into the countryside. Darkstar tells the gods to fan out, as the Red Widow has good reason to think that their targets will stop here, so they need to search everywhere they can – for any sign of Alexei, Belova or anything out of the ordinary. Perun looks up to the sky and notes that the clouds are out of the ordinary – and growing fast. 'A storm's coming' he remarks. 'There are worse things coming for these peasants than a little rain, old man' Chernobog grins wickedly. Darkstar glances at Chernobog and tells him that he will not harm a soul while they are here. 'But -' Chernobog begins, to which Darkstar interrupts him, flying forward, she exclaims that Red Guardian used to mean something to people. 'He may not be a hero any longer – but we are. They should know – from the moment they see us – the Winter Guard is here to help!' Darkstar exclaims, while Perun and Chernobog follow her.

'Lucky little things' Chernobog utters while crouching behind a fence, and watching two civilians walk by. 'If Darkstar's virtue means we cannot feast on this village's's secrets will have to do' Chernobog exclaims as he seeps into the shadows formed by the two people walking past him, his grinning mouth can be seen sticking out of the shadows. Perun is examining the village, while declaring 'The God of Storms warns of a tempest to come, and they barely bat an eye'. He notices that the village dam appears to be in disrepair, but looks over to where the church stands tall. 'Even in an old place, the old ways are forgotten' Perun remarks. 'Washed away one drop at a time' he adds, as a single rain drop falls onto his hand. Darkstar flies about the village, eventually coming to a stop on a farm. She notes that this is still good land, and wonders why a perfectly workable farm has been abandoned – and then she sees it. 'I can only think of one reason out here. Bad memories' Darkstar realizes, as she looks at the statue of Alexei Shostakov, which states that the Red Guardian was born here. Darkstar suddenly realizes that Alexei is probably not on his way to Moscow.

Back in Moscow, 'What's this lead, Widow?' Vanguard asks as he and Mikhail follow the Red Widow down some back streets. The Red Widow announces that Alexei thinks he is being clever, wants them to follow his scent across the country like hound dogs, lead them to whatever grandiose nonsense he claims to be digging up. 'But his revelations are old news' the Red Widow remarks, while Mikhail sniffs and rubs his nose. The trio enter more back alleys, and pass a woman huddled in an alley. The Red Widow tells her teammates that she and the Security Council believe Alexei is recovering intel from a project called “Snowblind”. 'Never heard of it' Vanguard states. 'No one has. Not in decades' Mikhail sneezes, before stating that he has never heard of it, either. The trio approach a large building, as the Red Widow reports that her intel is scarce, but that “Snowblind” seemed to involve data collection and destruction. 'Secret weapons? Espionage intel? Surely it would all be outdated' Vanguard suggests. 'And yet Alexei risks his life to recover it and claims it will change the world' the Red Widow points out.

As Mikhail examines their surroundings, he notes that this was a KGB facility. The Red Widow claims that it was abandoned years ago, but that the Red Guardian used to meet his Kremlin handlers in the subbasement. She tells her teammates that if her suspicions are correct, then Alexei or Yelena will be stopping by – but as she opens the door to a room, she discovers that they have already been here. 'Probably why they left a note' Mikhail suggests, as he finds some writing on the floor: “Look behind you?” Mikhail reads the note, when suddenly, 'Privyet, Winter Guard!' Yelena calls out as she appears on a railing behind them, and opens fire. Several gas bombs are detonated, knocking Mikhail and Vanguard out.

The Red Widow leaps up to the railing and calls out 'You had one chance at me – and you went non-lethal? Pathetic'. She attempts to strike Yelena with her sword, but Yelena moves backwards. 'Bozhe moi!' she exclaims. 'So you're the Red Room's latest model?' Yelena asks as she begins to climb a ladder onto a higher railing. The Red Widow follows her up, as Yelena tells her that she bets she was top of her class. 'But some lessons you just can't teach' Yelena points out, taking one blow from the Red Widow's sword, before she suddenly grabs the sword's blade under her arm, and holds onto it with her other hand – using her widow's bite energy blast on it, the sword is charged, and sends a shock rippling through the Red Widow's body. At that moment, Mikhail has transformed into his bear form, Ursa Major, and he and Vanguard emerge from the smoke. 'I'll go high -' Vanguard begins. 'I'll go low!' Ursa Major adds.

Back at the countryside village, the rain has begun to pour down. 'Red Widow didn't mention that Alexei was born here' Darkstar tells herself as she continues to look at the statue of Alexei. She then notices that a nearby homestead has been picked clean recently – so if it hid any secrets, they have been stolen, and now, any trace of Red Guardian or his family is gone – except for the statue. 'This storm is no joke' Darkstar decides, before wondering if Alexei was here before they encountered him at the border. Chernobog rises up behind two civilians walking through the rain and via communicator he tells Darkstar that the village officials talked about seeing a strange pllane this morning. 'So he beat us?' Darkstar's voice can be heard asking. 'There's a secret here...we can taste it...' Chernobog utters. Darkstar opens a portal and tells Chernobog that they don't have time to indulge his tastes, before she steps through the portal, appearing next to Chernobog in the rain, as she asks him where Perun is.

'I tried to warn you!' Perun's voice can be heard over the communicator. He's waist-deep in water, holding his ax above his head, he announces that the storm is too strong, and that if he can't hold it off any longer, he will have to redirect the flood, and then the dam will burst! Some civilians nearby are watching as Perun keeps the waters at bay. 'Is that Thor?' one of them asks. 'Run!' a woman calls out as the water speeds towards her and a little girl – then suddenly, Darkstar appears and throws a protective forcefield up around them. 'I can hold back the water – but that tractor!' Darkstar utters as a large tractor is hurled towards them by the water. 'I'm sorry, I can't -' Darkstar begins, before the woman asks her to save her daughter. Darkstar takes the child and starts to teleport away, while at the same time, 'Fret not, mother – the Winter Guard is here to help' Chernobog announces as he pulls the mother to safety, then teleports over and joins Darkstar. 'You...rescued her?' Darkstar remarks, surprised, before deciding that everyone is acting strange today.

Back in Moscow, 'Belova! Last chance to come quietly. Tell us what Alexei is planning!' Vanguard calls out as he races across a rooftop, following Yelena as she makes her mistake. 'He was right about you, Nicolai. This shield is a bit much' Yelena responds as she reaches the edge of the rooftop, and Vanguard hurls his shield towards her – barely missing her, as Yelena drops backwards, rebounds off the side of the building across the alleyway, then back to the KGB figure, then she lands awkwardly on the ground below. 'You wouldn't understand anyway' Yelena calls out. 'But would I?' Ursa Major asks as he looms over Yelena. 'You will – when you see what's on these' Yelena remarks, holding up a hard drive. She informs Ursa Major that it is one of four hard drives made during Operation Snowblind. 'This is how we fight back, Mikhail' she urges him.

'You know what it is to dirty your hands on some oligarch's orders, then suffer on his behalf. Soldiers, spies, super heroes – whether we cheat or play fair, the monsters that run the world are the only real winners. But with Alexei's intel, I can -' Yelena begins, when suddenly, 'Ursa! What are you doing? Grab her!' Vanguard calls out as he drops down from the rooftop, landing nearby. 'Huh?' Ursa Major begins, while Yelena begins to run. She taps at some controls on her harness, while Vanguard and Ursa Major begin to chase her. 'I had her cornered!' Ursa calls out, before Yelena begins to fly upwards, out of the alley. 'When did she get those?' Ursa asks. 'Damn it!' Vanguard  exclaims, before hurling his shield towards her. Yelena dodges the shield again, and tells Mikhail to think about it – to think about how he is working for – and who they all work for. 'Until next time!' she calls out asshe flies away.

Back in the countryside, the rain has subsided, while Perun, Darkstar and Chernobog stand near a river that has formed. Perun tells his teammates that the villagers are saying that some other super hero helped people get to the church on the hill before disappearing. 'We came here for nothing' he remarks. But Darkstar tells him that she doesn't think so, and that they came here to help – because even if that was Red Guardian here earlier, he couldn't save everyone. Up at the church, civilians gather outside and wave goodbye to the Red Guardian, who wears a cloak to cover his face as he walks away from the church, remarking that this is a parlor trick compared to what is coming. 'Today I save a village, but soon...I save a dream!' he boasts, adding that he has just one last coffin to dig up.

At the Security Council offices in Moscow, a soldier receives a call. The person calling announces that he wants to pass a message to the Winter Guard. 'Who is this? How did you get this number?' the officer replies. The caller holds up a hard drive and suggests to the officer that he informs the Guard that he has what they seek. 'If your heroes tire of chasing Alexei Shostakov across Russia...they are welcome to visit Chernobly'. There, in the Vampire Nation, sitting on his throne, while vampires scatter around him in the shadows, is Vlad Dracula, and he announces that he would be delighted to have the Winter Guard over for dinner.

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

Vlad Dracula

Security Council officer

Story Notes: 

Crimson Dynamo and Vostok were both injured in Winter Guard #1.

Chernobog comments to Darkstar that he “loves what she's done” with the Darkforce. This is most likely in reference to the fact that historically, Darkstar's powers have always manifested as black energy effects, while now, her powers are manifesting as bright, glowing energy effects.

One has to wonder why Darkstar simply didn't teleport herself, the mother and the child away when the tractor was crashing towards them??? Other than development for Chernobog.

The vampire nation was established in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in the Ukraine in Avengers (7th series) #17.

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