Winter Guard #3

Issue Date: 
December 2021
Story Title: 

Ryan Cady (writer), Jan Bazaldua (artist), Federico Blee & Fernando Sifuentes (colorists), Virtual Calligraphy's Ariana Maher (letterer & production), Toni Infante (cover artist), Phil Noto (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: 

The Winter Guard arrive at Chernobyl, the capital of the Vampire Nation, invited to attend a dinner by Dracula himself. At the same time, Alexei Shostakov and Yelena Belova arrive at the Vampire Nation. Dracula talks to the Winter Guard about Alexei Shostaokv, before Alexei and Yelena join the Winter Guard in the banquet hall. Dracula reveals that he invited Alexei, and Alexei regrets not assuming that the Winter Guard would be here. Dracula reveals he is in possession of one of the Snowblind hard drives. The Red Widow is anxious to retrieve the drive and give it to her superiors, while Alexei is determined the information on the drive be released to the people. Dracula claims to have safeguarded this drive for decades, before Alexei reveals some of his history as the Red Guardian, and how he came to be involved in Operation: Snowblind, and the deadly secrets it contained. The information which could be used to cripple the rich and powerful, was stored on four hard drives, and left in four different locations, including one with Dracula. Dracula then asks Red Widow if she figured out which member of her team betrayed her to help Alexei, and offers to  reveal her identity to the rest of the Winter Guard. Red Widow is taken aback by this, but Dracula does not make good on his threat. Yelena then tells Dracula that Alexei is a fool to trust him, and boasts that she is going to topple oligarchs, autocrats and vampires alike. Dracula warns the heroes that their nation will falll, and Alexei declares that they will build a new Russia. Dracula returns the hard drive to him and offers him safe passage through his lands. Alexei and Yelena begin to run, while Dracula sets a horde of vampires upon the Winter Guard. While her teammates fight the vampires, the Red Widow goes for Dracula – she almost slices her sword into him, before he holds up the remote used to disable the Crimson Dynamo's armor. Dracula tells her Alexei used it on the Crimson Dynamo, and that he knows how he acquired it. As Alexei and Yelena clear Dracula's castle, they race to a chopper waiting for them. At the same time, the Winter Guard has fled the vampires, and as Alexei and Yelena climb the ladder to the chopper, Alexei kicks Yelena off, leaving her to fall into the clutches of the Winter Guard.


Full Summary: 

Chernobyl, the capital of the Vampire Nation, in the Reception Chamber of Vlad Drakul. The Lord of the Vampire Nation stands at the end of a long banquet table, while attendants go about their business. 'Ahhh, welcome. So good of you to accept my invitation' Vlad remarks, opening his arms to welcome his guests. He raises a goblet and states that this is truly an auspicious gathering. 'The fates of nations, the outcomes of wars – what else might be determined around a table such as this?' Dracula asks. He states that he has always considered it impolite to discuss politics before dinner, and asks his guests to come sit. 'I won't bite' he adds, before informing the Winter Guard that they are all his honored guests. The mysterious Red Widow, the god Perun, the glamorous Laynia Petrovna a.k.a. Darkstar and her brother, Nicolai Krylenko a.k.a. Vanguard, the bear-mutant Mikhail Ursus a.k.a. Ursa Major and the wicked Chernobog move into the Reception Chamber. Ursa asks if this is obviously a trap, and whether they have diplomatic immunity. 'What did I say about jokes? Just stick to the mission parameters' the Red Widow snaps. 'The Winter Guard thanks you for your hospitality, Dracu – er, Lord Drakul' Vanguard responds.

The Winter Guard take their seats at the other end of the table. The Red Widow sits directly at the head of the table, opposite Lord Drakul. Darkstar and Vanguard sit to the Widow's left, while Chernobog, Ursa Major and Perun sit to her right. The Winter Guard have three objectives: to debrief the informant (Prince Vlad Drakul III) regarding the true goal of Project Snowblind; to uncover what connection – if any – the informant has to the fugitives Alexei Shostakov and Yelena Belova; and to avoid a diplomatic incident with the Vampire Nation... while keeping Winter Guard casualties to the acceptable minimum.

'With all due respect, Your Highness, we're here on behalf of the Russian Security Council' the Red Widow states. 'I think what Red Widow means to say is -' Vanguard begins to say, before the Red Widow cuts him off: 'I mean that these are perilous times, and we have no need of your old-world charms. We need your cooperation. Your information'.

At that moment, outside, two figures run amongst the shadows.

'Tch. In time. I am sorry to see your friend Dimitri is absent. Interesting fellow, for a Crimson Dynamo' Lord Drakul remarks. 'Keep his name out of your mouth' Vanguard snarls, slamming a fist on the table. Darkstar tells her brother to be calm, to which Vanguard declares that he is calm – and polite. 'The vampire's the one being rude' Vanguard exclaims. Dracula offers no reaction, only suggests that a lighter topic of conversation is required. But the Red Widow suggests that they talk more about old friends, and points out that the Crimson Dynamo isn't the only Soviet Super-Soldier that Dracula has history with. Dracula knows that the Red Widow is referring to the Red Guardian. 'I would not call him a friend. We often crossed paths during the Cold War. A worthy opponent, in his prime...not that he ever managed to defeat me' Dracula announces, before telling the Guard that he heard Red Guardian and the White Widow gave them quite the merry chase. 'The glorious Winter Guard – outmatched by two mere mortals?' Dracula asks.

The two figures from outside have made it into the palace now – its Alexei Shostakov a.k.a. Red Guardian and Yelena Belova a.k.a. White Widow.

In the Reception Chamber, Chernobog leans over the table and utters 'Watch your words, little shadow. You sit before gods. A king is but a man, however long he lives'. Chernobog then boasts that Red Guardian's time is almost up, and asks Dracula if he would like to join him.

'Chernobog's shadows?' Alexei asks as darkness begins to envelop he and Yelena. 'It can't be!' Yelena exclaims, surprised.

The Red Widow tells Dracula that he mentioned Snowblind, as of he was confident that that alone will hold their attention. 'You can do better that that, Drakul' she suggests. 'Considering your amnesty deal, we could always force -' the Red Widow begins, before Dracula tells her that, fortunately, the Guard will not embarrass themselves or their nation in the attempt. 'The final guests have arrived' Dracula announces as the doors to the Reception Chamber open, and Alexei and Yelena appear. 'And Yelena was worried that we'd be overdressed' Alexei jokes when he sees the Winter Guard.

Vanguard instructs the Winter Guard stand ready, and the team get to their feet. Darkstar readies her Darkforce power, while Yelena remarks that this is obviously a trap. 'Not exactly a fight we can win' she adds, while the Red Widow raises one of her swords. Alexei tells Yelena that this is not a fight at all, and that he is sure their noble host will explain this misunderstanding. Dracula smirks, and states that there is no misunderstanding. 'You are all my invited guests. Subject to my hospitality and under my protection' Dracula adds. Yelena looks at Alexei and asks him if he was expecting the company. 'Perhaps I should have' Alexei replies. The Red Widow asks if everyone is surprised, and turns to Dracula, pointing one of her swords at him, she asks him if he has turned their manhunt into his entertainment, and warns him that is a dangerous game which won't end well. 'It'll end now. I'll extradite them by hand if I have to' Vanguard exclaims as he starts to move towards Red Guardian and the White Widow, but Darkstar tells him to stop.

Dracula finally gets to his feet and declares that there will be no bloodshed here, at least not without his command. He tells the heroes before him that all he wants tonight is for them all to enjoy his fabled hospitality. 'You must admit, I am an excellent host. After all...I've served up quite a delicacy' Dracula smirks as he lifts the lid off a plate on the table – revealing a hard drive. Yelena asks Alexei why Dracula has a Snowblind hard drive. 'He loves to collect his miserable little secrets' Alexei replies as he sits down at the table. Vanguard suggests that it could be a fake, and asks how they could even tell. 'Schemes within schemes' Perun mutters as he takes his seat, warning everyone that he grows weary of these games. 'Yet we have no choice but to play along' Darkstar points out. Ursa tells Darkstar that she now knows what she signed up for.  Chernobog laughs as he sits down, suggesting that this could be fun after all. 'We're beginning to like you, dead man' he tells Dracula, while the Red Widow announces that even she is not cleared to access the data on that hard drive. 'It needs to be in the proper hands' she adds.

'It needs to be in the people's hands!' Red Guardian exclaims, standing up. 'For now, it is in my hands' Dracula points out. Dracula claims that when he heard Red Guardian was back on Russian soil, he knew he had returned for the hard drive. Dracula reveals that he has safeguarded the hard drive for decades. 'This bauble, like his mission – all but forgotten. Yet somehow valuable enough to make the White Widow his ally. Enough for your Security Council to demand overwhelming force, risk its most powerful assets...all while telling you nothing Dracula remarks. 'Nothing more than they needed to be told' the Red Widow snaps. 'And yet, I would prefer to hear the whole truth' Dracula states, asking Red Guardian to tell them his war story. 'It is not a triumphant one. I am not too proud to admit that' Alexei responds, before he begins his story....

(Flashback images)
'Red Guardian may have been a symbol...but Alexei Stostakov was merely a man'. His history – it is clouded with lies. He married Natalia – but she was lied to. The world was lied to. They – his superiors in the Soviet Union, lied to him – and he let them. He remembers marching in a parade with the Crimson Dynamo – benevolent falsehoods inspired their dream of a better world. But Alexei was not naive enough to reject a little necessary evil. So he battled monsters – including Count Dracula – and traded blows with Earth's Mightiest Heroes, like Hercules and Hawkeye. He faced the cost of their dream, and believed it worth paying.

It was then that he was assigned to Operation Snowblind. His handler, in those days, was General Yuri Brushov, and according to the General, his role was simple – to keep what was buried, buried. On one occasion, Alexei parachuted into a facility. He knew that Snowblind was the work of isolated cells of analysts and technicians, with no cells having contacts beyond Brushov. Who did Brushov report to – no one knew. At the time, the Kremlin was determined to digitally preserve every scrap of useful information. Brushov's people embraced a counter-philosophy, though: Keep what is buried, buried. Snowblind took advantage of the chaotic archiving process to destroy phyiscal evidence and edit archives, one analyst at a time, and all to eliminate “dangerous” state secrets, or so Alexei was told. No expense was spared – custom data drives, Vanko-Tech encryptions, all of it. Once the truth was scrubbed clean from the world, all that remained were the project's analysts and a handful of data drives – it was Alexei's job to ensure every last trace was destroyed.

Entering the facility, he found a female analyst going about her business. But she had no military training. He had meant to disarm her, but he failed, shooting her in her stomach. He held her in his arms as blood pooled around them. The analyst had made four imperfect copies of the drives that could only be decrypted all together. He didn't know why – maybe she was a whistleblower, or maybe she was an idealist. She touched Alexei's face as she died. Alexei wondered if her dedication to the truth was so powerful that she would risk her life – risk the prosperous future they dreamed of building – in pursuit of it. He wondered why burying the sins of the past wasn't enough to safeguard the future. He realized he was naive as the woman's blood continued to pool around him. He felt that he owed her – and so he broke protocol.

But as he examined the data, Alexei did not find tactical secrets, dangerous technology or even evidence of darker necessary evils. Operation Snowblind was nothing but a criminal cover-up. Doctored bank statements, Hydra mission reports, secret alliances and false flags – and not just from the USSR. There was documentation on the oligarchs and corporations who would build themselves into billionaires by the dawn of the 21st Century.  Red Guardian knew that if this was leaked, his dream for Russia's future was dead. But he wondered what assurance he had that that future would ever arrive. He set the facility ablaze and departed with two briefcases – and then turned over decoys to General Brushov – who promptly destroyed them in a fire. Alexei never thought that Brushov doubted him.

Red Guardian was loyal to a fault – who would suspect this symbol – their falsehood embodied – of failure. Alexei needed to hide the real drives until he knew how to use them. So, he stored one in officers' storage at the air force base where his death was faked, one at the party's administrative office, where he once made small talk with a young ballerina named Natasha Romanov, one in the basement of the church his grandfather helped build – abandoned, but left standing, and the last, he placed in the hands of the most self-invested monster he could think of – because the leverage it offered would be too valuable for him to surrender. Then, not long after, he and Brushov were sent on their first “official” assignment together – to defeat the Avengers once and for all.

Alexei states that he suspects he and Brushov were to die in the line of duty, and while Brushov did, he assumed that everyone associated with Operation Snowblind died similarly. 'If...if this is true, Alexei, then -' Darkstar begins, before the Red Widow stands up and interrupts her by exclaiming 'Delusions of grandeur and fantasies, nothing more. A traitor – by your own admission'. But Dracula points at the Red Widow and remarks 'Much talk of traitors from you, Widow' before asking her if she ever uncovered the renegade in her own ranks. 'Which member of the Winter Guard helped destroy the Crimson Dynamo?' Dracula asks. Red Widow's eyes can be seen beneath her cowl – and they go wide-eyed. 'Another lie from Alexei, meant to – how could you possibly know that?' she asks. 'My dear, would I really invite any of you into my home and leave a single stone unturned?' Dracula replies. He tells her to forget Snowblind's secrets, as his are dangerous enough. 'Should I start by telling your allies who you are under that hood?' Dracula suggests. 'You're bluffing' Red Widow replies. 'Bet your life on it?' Dracula asks her – but the Red Widow falls silent.

'Now that we all understand each other... shall we discuss the fate of this trinket?' Dracula asks, referring to the hard drive on the plate in front of him. Dracula remarks that he does have some obligations to the ever-generous Russian government. 'But my hope in bringing you together was to find a mutually beneficial -' Dracula starts to say, before Yelena interrupts him: 'Rubbish' she exclaims. '...Pardon?' Dracula asks, annoyed. Yelena tells Dracula that if Alexei actually trusts him, then Alexei is a bigger fool than she could have imagined. 'Your plans benefit you, and no one else'. Yelena exclaims. She declares that Dracula brought them here to play them, to torture them, and maybe gain a little leverage along the way – but that he will just give the drive to whoever he can best put to use. 'Oligarch, autocrat, vampire – you're everything I intend to destroy' Yelena warns him. 'Yelena!' Alexei shouts, but Dracula tells Alexei that Yelena has the right of it. 'You bargain with the devil, and expect to play the angel?' Dracula asks.

'But devil or not... the deal has been struck. Your prize in my hands, to be bestowed or destroyed on my whim' Dracula points out. 'Your whim? Lives are at stake – hell, nations are at stake!' Vanguard exclaims, asking Dracula if he would make himself an enemy of the whole world. 'And you, Alexei? Where does your dream stand tonight?' Dracula asks. Alexei responds by announcing that he will do what he was too weak to do before – decrypt the drives and share all of their secrets with the world. He announces that corporations will collapse, governments – including their own – will buckle under the weight of the revelations. 'But our people will burn with the truth...and they will build a new Russia from the ashes' Red Guardian declares. This causes Dracula to smile, delighted. 'Extraordinary' he utters, before stating that he has heard enough.

Dracula stands up and turns to get something to drink from the back the Reception Chamber, while announcing that he returns to Alexei Shostakov that which he entrusted to his care in good faith, and he grants him amnesty and safe passage through his lands. 'What?' Vanguard shouts, while Alexei reaches over and takes the hard drive. Alexei and Yelena get up and start to run, while Ursa Major calls out to Yelena, asking her to wait. 'This is a mistake, Drakul!' Red Widow exclaims. Alexei tells Yelena that they need to move. 'We need to discuss -' Yelena begins. Dracula is about to sip his drink, when he answers the Red Widow: 'Mistake? No. A mistake would be a member of the Winter Guard assaulting one of my guests -' and at that moment, Vanguard hurls his shield towards Alexei, who turns around and catches it before it strikes him. 'Nice throw. The Russia of tomorrow will need heroes like you' Alexei tells Vanguard, while Dracula points out that his security team will have to respond in kind. Vanguard's shield clangs against the tiled floor when Red Guardian drops it, and countless vampires rush into the chamber at Dracula's command.

'Yessss! Come fight, dead men! Fight and die again!' Chernobog calls out as he engages the vampires. Ursa Major roars as he leaps into battle, too. Darkstar cuts her way through the vampires by striking them with her Darkforce, while Red Widow uses this opportunity to jump up onto the banquet table, and runs towards Dracula. 'The old hierarchies are toppling, the geo-political landscape is being rearranged...and soon it will be time for us to rise' Dracula utters, recalling that he said much the same when he faced off against Krakoa, and decides that he was not wrong. He stands up and turns his back on the Red Widow, who puts the tip of her blade at the back of his neck. 'This is insane. Even for you' the Red Widow remarks. 'Hardly' Dracula tells her. As Chernobog, Perun and Ursa Major tear through the vampires, Dracula states that he fulfilled his promise to Alexei, and decides that perhaps in doing so, he merely hastened the destruction of an old enemy at the Widow's hands. 'Or perhaps he will succeed. Perhaps his revelations will destroy a few governments, a handful of tiresome billionaires. You know the value in cutting away the chaff from the wheat, Widow'.

Dracula then holds up a small remote. The Red Widow recognizes it, and Dracula confirms that it is the weapon Alexei used on the Crimson Dynamo. 'And I know exactly how he acquired it' Dracula claims. The vampires close in around Vanguard and Darkstar. Vanguard hurls his shield into the swarm of vampires, while Darkstar continues to blast them with the Darkforce. 'So tonight was all about leverage?' the Red Widow asks, her blade pressed to Dracula's neck. She tells him that he wins, and asks what his terms are. 'Don't feel too bad about your performance, my dear. When you've played as long as I have, you never truly lose' Dracula responds. Perun slices a vampire in two with his ax, while Ursa Major bites down on one of them.

Alexei and Yelena reach the outdoors, and Alexei reports that the chopper is on autopilot, but they have a chance of reaching it. 'Alexei, listen to me!' Yelena calls out as she runs alongside him. 'All your cat and mouse nonsense. All your vaunted talk of dreams and redemption. How could I have been so blind?' she asks.

Back inside, Darkstar, Vanguard, Perun, Ursa Major and Chernobog regroup as another swarm of vampires looms before them – when suddenly, Dracula instructs his minions to hold. 'Just a misunderstanding, my children' he tells the vampires, before suggesting they escort the Winter Guard to the border.

Alexei and Yelena have reached the chopper, which flits above them, a rope ladder can be seen hanging from it. 'You've convinced yourself that you're on some populist crusade, but it's all ego, isn't it?' Yelena asks. She tells Alexei that it isn't about Russia's redemption, it's about his own. 'And it's damned us!' she exclaims. Alexei begins to climb the rope ladder and tells Yelena that a people's dream may begin with one man – but that it mustn't end there – no matter the cost. Darkstar, Perun, Vanguard and Chernobog can be seen flying from Dracula's castle, while Red Widow rides on Ursa Major's back as he races forward. Alexei tells Yelena that he is sorry, but that he has to see the rest of this through alone. 'What?' Yelena asks, before Alexei kicks her off of the rope ladder. 'How did Captain America phraise it? I am loyal to nothing but the dream' Alexei announces, while Yelena lands on the ground below with a thud.

Yelena rubs the side of her body that she hit the ground with. 'When I get my hands on him -' she begins, before the Winter Guard appear. 'Do not worry about Alexei' Darkstar tells her as she hovers in the air. 'He is still our prey' Chernobog grins, while the Red Widow, swords at the ready, informs Yelena that as far as she is concerned, this is the end.

Characters Involved: 

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

Vlad Dracula

(in flashback images)
Red Guardian II/Alexei Shostakov
Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff/Natalia Shostakov
Crimson Dynamo

Hawkeye, Hercules (both Avengers

General Yuri Brushov
Soviet authorities

Story Notes: 

Crimson Dynamo, along with Vostok, was injured in Winter Guard #1, hence their absence from the meeting with Dracula.

Ursa Major's comment to Darkstar about now knowing what she signed up for is very odd considering she has been in the business of heroics – and dealing with Russian officials – for years.

Alexei fought Hercules and Hawkeye in Avengers (1st series) #44.

Presumably the Crimson Dynamo in the flashback scenes is Dimitri Bukharin, given they have shared history.

Dracula and his forces attacked Krakoa over the course of Wolverine (7th series) #1-12.

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