Ultimate Blade: Chapter Twenty-nine prologue

 

Angel Grove, two weeks ago

 

Zayden stumbled through the woods. He wanted to warn Ken about the true nature of King Form. He wanted to help his friend resist that power.

 

But he could barely resist the primal, bestial power of the Joker that clouded his mind and flooded his body. That power, those feelings, overwhelmed Zayden.

 

The teen collapsed and howled, and he transformed into the Joker.

 

The monster took over completely and screamed with a mindless, blood-thirsty roar.

 

Chapter 29: Kamen Rider Blade

Grasp for Humanity

 

Joker stalked across the docks south of the Glimmering Coast. He moved with his back hunched and hands clawed. His breathing sounded guttural and strained. He was a monster.

 

Young Ava cowered backward as the monster moved towards her. She’d been visiting the docks with her classmates during a field trip, but they were separated when the Joker attacked.

 

“Leave her alone!” a voice called from behind.

 

Ken ran to the scene to face off with the Joker. He still hoped to save his friend and help Joker return to his human form: Zayden. But the sight of the Joker stalking towards Ava cast doubt.

 

“He doesn’t even recognize Ava anymore…” Ken whispered as he armed his buckler.

 

The buckler wrapped around his waist as he stepped into his transformation pose.

 

“Transform!” He flipped his buckler, which spoke the command: “TURN UP”

 

The buckler emitted a blue energy field. The teen walked through the field, which activated his armor.

 

The Rider attached his Rouze Absorber to his left gauntlet. He slid the Queen of Spades into the absorber: “ABSORB QUEEN.” He swiped the King of Spades through the Absorber’s slot. “EVOLUTION KING”

 

Blade’s cards burst from his buckler and circled around him while glowing with golden light. Then, the cards shot towards him and splashed across his entire suit of armor from the legs up with bursts of light, transforming him into a powered-up mode of golden armor with blue trimming. With a final flash of golden light, Blade stood in his King Form.

 

Kamen Rider Blade walked slowly towards Joker. The Joker snarled and snapped its jaws at the sight of the Rider. But Blade didn’t let the display dissuade him.

 

“This isn’t really you,” Blade said. “Remember, you don’t want this form. You want to be human, right?”

 

Joker snarled and charged at Blade. The Undead carried two twisted daggers in reverse grips. The monster swung a quick pair of strikes Blade dodged.

 

Kamen Rider Blade stepped back to gain distance. “I don’t want to seal you, Zayden. You’re my friend…”

 

Blade dodged a dagger and used his sword to parry another strike. The Joker hacked at Blade relentlessly. And Blade let the attacks force him back as he blocked and parried the blows. Their blades clanged and sparked against one another.

 

“Listen…” Blade pleaded, but the Joker continued his assault.

 

The Undead chopped his daggers. Blade blocked the weapons and sidekicked Joker backward. The blow sent the villain staggering, but he stayed on his feet.

 

Kamen Rider Blade took advantage of the distance and ran to Ava. He helped her to her feet. “Run…” he told her. “Now…”

 

Ava scurried to safety, and Blade turned just in time to parry the Joker’s daggers.

 

Blade parried a second swing. Then a third. Kamen Rider Blade shifted his stance and bashed his hilt across the Joker’s head. Joker hissed with annoyance and slashed upward, striking Blade against the chest with a burst of spark.

 

The opponents didn’t notice two onlookers from the lower docks. A woman dressed in a white dress stared upward. Her eyes looked almost cat-like, colored yellow. She called herself Taiga, the human form of the Tiger Undead.

 

“Joker…” she said at the sight of the villain. “I heard he developed a human mind…now he’s simply a beast.”

 

Nicolas stood near her, saying nothing.

 

Above, Joker hacked his daggers. Blade held his sword in a left-handed reverse grip. He swung the blade to block each blow, then used his right hand to punch the Joker across the head. The blow knocked the monster several steps backward.

 

Joker slashed upward. But Blade dodged and punched the Undead across the head.

 

Nicolas watched the battle with growing interest. Ken…why is it, once again, you’re the one’s who’s become stronger?

 

Joker slashed at Blade. But Blade caught the villain by the wrist and bashed his pommel against the villain’s chest, knocking him back a step.

 

“You’ve got to stop this, Zayden,” Blade pleaded.

 

The monster slashed its dagger, but Blade parried the blow and punched the Undead against the face.

 

“I said stop!” Blade said.

 

The Rider didn’t notice Ava hiding behind the nearby shrubs and landscaping. She stayed low and watched, unable to take her eyes off the battle. Her curiosity wouldn’t let her. Deep inside, she knew these Riders and monsters had something to do with Zayden.

 

The Joker stabbed at Blade. Blade dodged, throwing the Undead off balance as his momentum carried him forward.

 

The Undead snapped around and hurled a pair of green energy blades.

 

Blade lifted his sword and blocked the blades with massive bursts of spark that kicked up dirt and gravel.

 

The shockwave blew the dirt and gravel into the nearby landscaping, and into Ava’s eyes. The girl coughed and stumbled backward, falling off her feet. She rose to all fours and looked towards the battle. But her vision blurred, even as she squinted.

 

The Joker lunged with a high slash Blade ducked to avoid. The Rider rose to full height and leaned back to dodge another slash. Then Blade pushed forward and punched the Joker’s chest. He punched again. And then a third time, knocking the Joker back several steps.

 

The Joker growled and hissed with anger and annoyance as he clutched his injured chest.

 

Blade stepped back into a fighting stance. I’ve never seen him like this…he’s so far gone. I can’t let him hurt anyone. I just can’t.

 

Blade slid five cards into his sword’s slot: “SPADE TWO; SPADE THREE; SPADE FOUR; SPADE FIVE; SPADE SIX – STRAIGHT FLUSH”

 

Five cards of energy projected from his sword and splashed across his armor with golden light. His blade glowed with golden energy as he shifted into a fighting stance.

 

The Joker pounced and charged his daggers with jade energy. Their weapons clashed against one another with a massive shockwave that burst with light, washing across the pier and surrounding docks.

 

When the light cleared, Blade stood leaning on his sword for balance. And Joker lay across the ground.

 

Kamen Rider Blade pulled out an empty card. He stared at the card, and then at Joker. All he had to do was toss the card. Then Joker would be sealed.

 

Joker’s body rippled and transformed back into the Two of Hearts form. Back into Zayden.

 

Blade lowered his head. Memories flashed across his mind’s eye. He remembered when Zayden rushed to save Ava’s life by defeating the Centipede Undead and capturing its poison, which the girl needed as an antidote to her infection. He remembered standing in front of Garren so he wouldn’t shoot Zayden.

 

And he remembered his words at the time:

 

“No,” Ken said. “Benjamin, I believe in him. You don’t have to trust him. But trust me.”

 

“Move out of the way, Ken,” Garren said.

 

“No,” Ken said again. “He won’t destroy humanity. I know it.”

 

“Move out of the way, Ken!” Garren shouted.

 

“No!” Ken shouted. “I told you, he won’t get to that point. If he does…if he does, I’ll seal him myself.”

 

“Zayden…” Ken whispered.

 

Zayden’s body rippled and transformed back into Joker form as he regained consciousness. The Undead pushed himself to his feet and howled with pain and rage.

 

Blade stepped into a defensive stance.

 

Tiger UndeadSuddenly, Tiger Undead shifted into her monster form, leapt through the air, and tackled Blade to the ground.

 

The Undead rolled aside and stood. “Blade, undo your fusion with the Undead!”

 

“My fusion?” Blade asked.

 

The Rider looked behind the Tiger Undead, but Joker had already fled.

 

“Zayden…” Blade whispered.

 

He flipped his buckler and pulled out his card, powering down his armor with the wave of a blue energy field.

 

Tiger Undead’s body rippled as she transformed back into her human disguise.

 

Ken knitted his brow at the woman. “What are you doing here?”

 

“You’re driving the Joker into a rage,” she said. “If you keep doing that…you’ll inconvenience me.”

 

“What are you talking about?”

 

“You still don’t understand?” Taiga asked. “The reason he reverted back to his true nature so completely?”

 

“How do you even know about him?” Ken asked.

 

“Don’t underestimate the Undead’s knowledge,” she said. “We were created from creatures born of the Great Beast of Hell. The Mogralord. Some of us, like myself, understand all too well what Zayden represents. And that, is the end of everything.”

 

“If you know so much, then tell me why he’s turned into the Joker,” Ken said.

 

“Blame your new power,” she said.

 

“King Form?” Ken asked.

 

“The power of your King Form is unusually close to the power of the Joker,” Taiga explained. “That power has awakened the Joker.”

 

“Then what am I supposed to do?” Ken asked.

 

“I don’t know,” Taiga said. Without another word, she turned and started to walk away.

 

“Wait!” Ken called out as he ran after her.

 

But he felt his legs wobble, and he collapsed with exhaustion.

 

***

 

Nearby, young Ava crawled from the bushes. She rubbed her eyes, wet with tears, and whispered repeatedly. “I can’t see…I can’t see…”

 

Nicolas spotted the girl crawl helplessly. He tilted his head and walked towards her.

 

***

 

Dr. Sarc sat in front of the computer in his secret lab. Benjamin stood at his side and leaned against the table. They had just finished watching the battle between the Joker and Blade.

 

“He’s turned into that form again…” Benjamin said of Ken.

 

“And he was even stronger this time,” Sarc said.

 

“If this keeps happening…how long before he loses his humanity?” Benjamin asked.

 

“It’s hard to say exactly,” Sarc said. “But to stop that from happening…I’ve developed a new Trial.”

 

Benjamin looked to the chamber against the rear wall. He walked closer to the chamber and stared through the viewport. Inside stood the skeletal framework of a new Trial, still incomplete.

 

The young man shook his head. “Unless this thing is as powerful as Ken’s King Form…it’s not going to do any good. If you send something like this recklessly, you’re just putting his life in danger.”

 

“This Trial uses cells from a Category King,” Sarc explained, “with power that surpasses even Chalice.”

 

“Where do you get these cells from?” Benjamin asked.

 

“I’ll show you…” Sarc said.

 

***

 

Dr. Sarc led Benjamin into a small office within one of INET’s corporate buildings. The man walked behind a desk and pressed a red button on the desk’s underside.

 

A secret panel opened on a side wall, and a hidden shelf slid outward. The shelf held two cards.

 

Benjamin opened his eyes wide with surprise. “Are those sealed Undead?”

 

Sarc nodded and lifted a card. He flipped it to face Benjamin. “The King of Hearts. One of the few Undead we sealed before we finished your Rider System. Before we realized that, to harness the true power of the Undead, they need to be sealed in combat. At least...that was true at the time.”

 

Benjamin knitted his brow with concern. “Let me talk to Ken. One more time…”

 

***

 

Megan and Bobby had found Ken and brought him back home. They laid him on the couch, and Megan sat at his side while pressing a cold compress on his forehead.

 

The teen’s eyes opened slowly as he returned to consciousness.

 

Bobby sighed with relief. “You’re awake. Have you considered not scaring us every day by almost falling into a coma?”

 

Ken removed the wash cloth and started to sit up. “How long was I out?”

 

Megan laid a hand on his arm. “You should probably lay back down. Get some more rest.”

 

“I’m fine, really,” Ken said.

 

“That new power of yours wears you out fast,” Megan said.

 

“You mean my King Form,” Ken said.

 

Megan nodded. “Speaking of which…I have something to show you.”

 

***

 

Megan sat in front of her computer as Ken and Bobby stood behind her. Megan pulled up several windows of information on her screen.

 

“I’ve been able to look deeper into BOARD’s files on your Rouze Absorber. Turns out it was meant for you to use to fuse with a Category Jack or Category King. Not all 13 Undead at once. What you’ve managed to do…it’s unheard of.”

 

Ken narrowed his eyes and leaned closer to the monitor. “It may be unheard of…but I can do it.”

 

Megan nodded. “You’ve completely surpassed the expectations of the Absorber.”

 

“Speaking of creepy things,” Bobby said. “Chalice and Garren almost have all their cards. Will the same thing happen to them?”

 

Ken’s eyes opened wide as an idea struck him. “That’s it! Bobby, you’re a genius!”

 

“I really hate to argue with that…but why?” Bobby asked.

 

“If Zayden can get all 13 of his cards, maybe he can evolve into a new form like me,” Ken said.

 

Megan knitted her brow. “Won’t that just make him stronger?”

 

“It will make him stronger. Zayden,” Ken said. “He used the Chalice and Human Undead to suppress the Joker’s power before. Maybe now he just needs an even stronger power. That has to be it…”

 

Ken started to leave the office, but Megan called after him. “Where are you going?”

 

“To get Zayden’s cards from Nicolas,” Ken said.

 

Bobby sighed. “Why do you do so much for this guy?”

 

“You don’t even know if this will work,” Megan said.

 

“I have to try,” Ken said. “It’s worth the risk if it means saving him.”

 

Ken ran from the office, left the house, and sped away on his motorcycle.

 

***

 

Bobby’s phone rang shortly after Ken left. He answered and spoke with his older sister Cassie, Ava’s mother. Cassie cried as she explained what happened to her daughter.

 

“Missing?” Bobby asked.

 

“She was at the docks when it happened,” Cassie said between sobs. “Afterward…we couldn’t find her anywhere.”

 

 “It’ll be okay…” Bobby said. “I’ll help look for her, just…just hold on, okay?”

 

Bobby hung up and bolted out the door.

 

***

 

Nicolas sat in the abandoned nightclub he called home. He laid out a deck of cards on a bar table as Taiga walked up behind him. 

 

“Why did you bring the girl here?” she asked.

 

Nearby, Ava tried to walk from a booth but kept bumping into tables and chairs along the way.

 

Taiga shook her head with disgust as she watched the girl. “Losing her eyesight like that…humans are so frail.”

 

“She’s bait for luring the Joker,” Nicolas explained. “Just leave her be.”

 

Suddenly, Taiga glanced over her shoulder and opened her eyes wide. She clearly sensed something, but Nicolas did not.

 

“An Undead?” Nicolas asked.

 

“No,” Taiga said. “Your allies…”

 

“Allies?” Nicolas asked. “The Riders…”

 

Nicolas stood and left the bar. Taiga sat and watched him go. Nearby, Ava leaned out from behind a table.

 

“I know him…” she whispered. “That sounded like Nicolas.”

 

“Behave,” Taiga said. “Just sit and stay out of my way. Or I’ll eat you.”

 

***

 

Ken pulled his cycle to a stop near the nightclub. He hopped off the bike and started running up a wide staircase of stone brick.

 

Nicolas stepped onto the staircase to block the rider’s path.

 

Ken sighed with relief. “Just who I wanted to see. Benjamin told me he found you around here before…”

 

“Are you finally here to settle things?” Nicolas asked.

 

Ken narrowed his eyes, and Nicolas smirked.

 

“Come with me…” Nicolas said.

 

***

 

Megan pulled her scooter to a stop on the side of the road, next to where Bobby parked his SUV. Bobby stepped out of his car, and Megan hopped off her bike.

 

“Anything?” Megan asked.

 

“No,” Bobby said. “I even told the police, but…they weren’t much help. Maybe if I would have brought them donuts…”

 

***

 

Bobby and Megan gave up their search for the day and returned home. They stepped into the house and moved to the office, and to their surprise, they saw Benjamin sitting behind the computer. He had an empty glass in hand.

 

“Thanks for the food…” Benjamin said.

 

“Benjamin?” Megan asked.

 

“Where’s Ken?” Benjamin asked.

 

“You’re still after him…” Megan said.

 

“To help him,” Benjamin said.

 

“Well right now he’s out to help Zayden,” Bobby said.

 

“Joker…” Benjamin said.

 

Bobby nodded. “He thinks if he can get all 13 cards, Zayden can suppress the Joker again. Or something.”

 

“And do you guys seriously believe that?” Benjamin asked.

 

Megan shook her head. “It doesn’t matter what we believe. Ken’s desperate to help Zayden. And we’re his friends…so we support him. Unlike you…”

 

Benjamin shook his head and started walking away.

 

“Benjamin,” Megan called after him. “What are you thinking?”

 

Benjamin hesitated, but kept walking.

 

***

 

Nicolas led Ken into an empty stadium, and they walked through the rows of seats.

 

“What are we doing here?” Ken asked.

 

“I fought here once…” Nicolas said. “I liked the scenery.”

 

He turned and punched at Ken. But Ken sidestepped and grabbed Nicolas by the wrist.

 

“I didn’t come here to fight,” Ken said. “I just want Zayden’s cards.”

 

Nicolas pulled his arm free. “So that’s what you do now? Collect cards?”

 

“No,” Ken said. “I want to give them back to Zayden.”

 

“Give them back?”

 

“If he has all 13 cards, he might be able to suppress the Joker,” Ken said.

 

“The Joker? That’s useless…he’s just a monster.” Nicolas pulled the Chalice cards from his pocket and spread them in his hand. “You want these?”

 

Ken nodded. “Please…”

 

Nicolas shuffled the cards and took a seat. “I won’t just give them up. But maybe a trade? For something more valuable? Your Rouze Absorber…give it to me.”

 

Ken hesitated. But he knew what he needed to do. He pulled the Rouze Absorber from his back pocket and handed it to Nicolas. The boy took the device and handed Ken the cards.  

 

Ken pocketed the cards and walked off. He knew he should have had a harder time making the decision to hand over the Rouze Absorber. But at least now he didn’t need to worry about his King Form enraging Zayden or worrying Benjamin. A part of him believed he was better off without the device.

 

***

 

Dr. Sarc returned to his office in the INET building. He immediately noticed the secret compartment opened, and one of the two cards missing — the King of Hearts.

 

“Benjamin…” he said. “Now what are you up to…?”

 

***

 

Ken raced across a mountain road on his motorcycle. Benjamin sped towards him from ahead, coming in the opposite direction. The two riders skid their bikes to a halt and stopped to face each other side by side.

 

Benjamin flipped open his helmet’s faceplate and got right to business. “I hear you’ll be needing the King of Hearts…”

 

Ken knitted his brow. “How did you know about that?”

 

Benjamin ignored the question. “To me…the Joker is a threat. To everyone. Why are you so hell-bent on helping him? He’s an Undead…”

 

“But he doesn’t want to be,” Ken said. “Even if the Joker’s his true form, he wants to be human.”

 

Benjamin sighed and lowered his head. “The Heart’s Category King is already sealed…” He pulled the King of Hearts from his pocket. “I’ll give it to you under one condition…”

 

***

 

Joker stood near a waterfall in the woods and trembled. He fought his own nature. He fought the instincts that screamed at him to attack and kill.

 

The Undead held the Two of Hearts, and with great resistance, slid the card through his buckler: “SPIRIT”

 

His body rippled and changed back to its human form. His heart pounded in his chest, and he immediately shifted back to the Joker with a howling scream of agony.

 

A nearby couple heard the scream while on a hike.

 

“What was that?” the girl asked as she grabbed her boyfriend’s arm for comfort and protection.

 

The Joker heard their voices and leapt towards them to attack. He lifted the couple by their necks and hurled them into the nearby creek.

 

***

 

Benjamin stepped into Dr. Sarc’s office within the INET building. Sarc sat with his chair turned around to face the window. He didn’t bother turning to face Benjamin.

 

“You’ve taken something that doesn’t belong to you,” Sarc said. “That’s put me in a rather awkward position.”

 

“I’m…I’m sorry for that,” Benjamin said.

 

“Further…” Sarc said. “You gave the card to Ken? Didn’t you?”

 

“I did,” Benjamin said. “And he promised to cooperate. This is the proof…”

 

Benjamin pulled out Kamen Rider Blade’s buckler and placed it on Sarc’s desk. Sarc turned around and looked at the buckler, complete with the Ace of Spades. The doctor looked taken aback with surprise.

 

“He gave this to you?” Sarc asked.

 

Benjamin nodded. “And when his business with the Joker is done, he’ll come to us willingly.”

 

Sarc tilted his head. “He can’t transform…but he’s going after Joker?”

 

Benjamin nodded. “He says he knows what he’s doing…”

 

“Well…that’s reckless,” Sarc said. “It’s a good thing Trial F is on its way to meet them both.”

 

***

 

Ken opened his throttle to full and sped down the road. He passed underneath a bridge, and just as he did, Trial F leapt through the air and tackled him from his bike.

 

Ken crashed against the ground and tumbled out of control. He rolled to a stop and rose to a crouch, looking up to see Trial F.

 

Trial F wore a bodysuit of all black, with orange gauntlets and boots. An orange collar wrapped around its neckline. The creature wore a black, silver-trimmed helmet with round, yellow eyes above a gray mouthpiece.

 

“Kenneth Grayson…” the creature said with a metallic voice. “Come…”

 

Ken started to climb to his feet just as the monster lunged. The teen dove aside to avoid the Trial’s tackle.

 

Ken stood, and the monster pounced. The teen grabbed the creature by the arms and twisted aside. Ken roundkicked the monster, but the Trial barely felt the blow.

 

Trial F swung a punch Ken ducked to avoid. The monster swung the back of its fist. But Ken caught the creature by the arm. The monster swung its arm and hurled the rider off his feet. Ken crashed against the street and tumbled across the pavement.

 

The Rider rolled to a stop near his fallen bike. He stood, hopped on the bike, and sped forward.

 

Trial F stepped in front of the motorcycle. But Ken opened his throttle to full and plowed past the monster while speeding from the scene.

 

***

 

Ken pulled to a stop near a creek. He got off his bike and washed the dirt from his hands and face. His cellphone rang, and he answered. It was Megan.

 

“Ken, I have a signal,” she told him. “If you head two kilometers south, I’m sure you’ll run into Joker.”

 

“Got it,” Ken said. “I’m on my way.”

 

“One more thing…” Megan said. “Benjamin stopped by earlier.”

 

“I know, I heard…” Ken said. “Listen…I might not be back for a while.”

 

“How come?” Megan asked.

 

“I promised Benjamin that after I finished with Zayden, I’d go back with him,” Ken said.  

 

“Why would you promise something like that?” Megan asked. “You don’t even know what he wants from you…”

 

“I know. I…I’m sorry...” Ken said as he hung up the phone.

 

***

 

Ken sped south through the woods. He pulled his bike to a stop when he heard what sounded like Joker’s growls, echoing through the air. The rider took off his helmet and stepped off his bike.

 

He looked to the distance to see Joker standing on a hill. “Zayden…”

 

Ken started to pull Chalice’s cards from his pocket. But Joker pounced through the air and tackled Ken. They hit the ground hard and tumbled across the dirt.

 

Ken rolled away from the Joker and stood. “Zayden…Zayden, it’s me!”

 

The Joker climbed to his feet. His body rippled, transforming into Zayden, and then back into Joker. The creature struggled to maintain control, and Zayden struggled to break from that control. That impulse.

 

“Zayden, you have to recognize me,” Ken said.

 

The Joker pounced and clawed at Ken. Ken dove for cover and rolled into a crouched position. “I know this is my fault. I did this to you…but I can help make things right.”

 

Ken pulled out the cards of the Heart suit.

 

Joker saw the cards and stopped his advance. He groaned, an odd noise of anger, pain and longing.

 

Ken stepped closer to Joker. But before the teen could hand over the cards, explosions sparked around them and knocked them from their feet.

 

Ken crashed against the ground and dropped the cards. When he looked up, he saw Trial F leap through the air to attack. The teen rolled away just as the monster’s foot stomped against the ground.

 

The teen rolled aside and quickly picked up the fallen cards.

 

Trial F pounced at Ken from behind and grabbed the teen by the shoulders.

 

“Zayden!” Ken shouted as he struggled against the monster. “Use these! Trust me!”

 

Ken tossed the cards at Joker. They slapped against the Undead’s chest and landed at his feet.

 

Trial F grabbed onto Ken and hurled him aside. The teen crashed against the ground and rolled aside, just as Trial F lunged to attack. Ken scrambled to his feet and dodged the monster’s tackle. The monster swung a punch Ken dodged, then swung another punch the teen sidestepped.

 

The Joker struggled against his own impulse and lifted the Ace of Hearts from the ground. Shaking, the Undead slid the card through his buckler: “CHANGE”

 

His body rippled as he transformed into Kamen Rider Chalice and dropped to his knees.

 

The Rider breathed slowly as his human senses started to return. “Ken…”

 

Chalice spotted the King of Hearts and lifted the card. He slid the card through his buckler: “EVOLUTION”

 

His thirteen cards flew from his buckler and formed a line in midair. Then each card shot towards his buckler and splashed across his body. The Rider’s armor rippled and transformed into Wild Mode.

 

The handles of two curved daggers popped from his legs. He pulled the daggers free and leapt towards Trial F. The Rider landed while slashing the monster with bursts of spark. The impact knocked Trial F backward, and Chalice continued his advance. He swung upward and downward, left and right, blades slashing the monster.

 

Chalice swung both weapons through a powerful wide arc. The blow sparked against Trial F and hurled him backward. The monster crashed into the nearby creek.

 

Chalice stepped into a crouched stance as Trial F rose to its feet. The creature turned to face the Rider.

 

“Joker…Chalice…Eliminate.”

 

The creature extended its hand and fired a beam of orange energy. Chalice stepped back and placed his blades together. The energy beam exploded against the blades with massive bursts of spark as Chalice stood his ground.

 

Chalice slashed through the beam, leaned forward, and charged at the monster. The Rider tackled against the monster and hacked relentlessly, slashing with bursts of spark that forced the creature backward.

 

Ken stood nearby and watched. “Chalice, be careful! That’s not an Undead you can seal!”

 

Chalice slashed upward with a burst of spark, whipping the monster into the creek.

 

The Rider placed his blades together to form a bow. His 13 cards flipped from his buckler, pulsed with energy, and combined to form a single card with the word “Wild” written along the side. The card shot into Chalice’s hand.

 

Trial F staggered to its feet.

 

Chalice swiped his card through his bow’s slit: “WILD”

 

The bow pulsed with golden energy as Chalice aimed. The Rider triggered a burst of jade energy that punctured through the monster with a massive burst of spark and flame. The monster’s energy overloaded and exploded with a shockwave that knocked Ken off his feet.

 

Chalice lowered his weapon and took a deep breath. He looked to Ken and walked towards the fallen teen.

 

“Ken…” he said with concern, his voice once again calm and collected.

 

Ken smiled.

 

“Zayden…” he started to say, but he slipped from consciousness.

 

Nearby, Benjamin sped to the scene on his motorcycle. He skid to a halt when he noticed Chalice crouch next to Ken.

 

“Ken!” Benjamin shouted as he hopped off his bike and armed his buckler.

 

“Transform!” He flipped the buckler: “TURN UP”

 

The buckler emitted an energy field. Benjamin ran through the field, transformed into his armor, and lunged at Chalice.

 

Garren punched Chalice, knocking him off his feet. Chalice crashed against the ground and tumbled aside.

 

“Ken!” Garren shouted as he leaned next to the teen.

 

Chalice rose to his feet.

 

Garren armed his blaster and triggered blasts that exploded against Chalice with bursts of spark.

 

Kamen Rider Garren draped Ken’s arm over his shoulder and lifted the teen. The Rider started moving towards his cycle while aiming his blaster back and shooting Chalice. The blasts exploded against the Rider’s armor with bursts of spark.

 

Garren hopped onto his cycle with Ken and sped off, leaving Chalice behind.

 

Smoke sizzled from the Rider’s armor as he watched Garren flee with Ken.

 

Chalice pulled the Two of Hearts from his holster and swiped the card through his buckler: “SPIRIT”

 

His body rippled as he turned back into his human form: Zayden. The teen looked up at the sky and felt the warmth on his skin. He felt none of the Joker’s rage or hunger. He felt…human.

 

The teen smiled.

 

***

 

Benjamin carried Ken into Dr. Sarc’s office and sat him on a couch.

 

“You okay?” Benjamin asked.

 

“Yeah…” Ken said as he regained consciousness.

 

Dr. Sarc turned from his window to face the two riders. Benjamin stood to make introductions.

 

“Ken…this is the guy who’s been looking for you,” Benjamin said.

 

“Ken…” Dr. Sarc said as he walked towards the rider. “It’s good to meet you. My name is Dr. Sarc…Megan’s father.”

 

Ken knitted his brow. “You’re supposed to be dead…” He stood and glared at the man. “Your daughter thinks you helped recreate the Undead. Helped set them free…is that true?”

 

Dr. Sarc said nothing. Ken lunged and grabbed the man by the shirt. “Answer me!”

 

“Ken!” Benjamin shouted as he pulled the teen away. “You need to just listen.”

 

“Listen?” Ken asked. “He helped INET put the whole world at risk!”

 

“That’s…true,” Dr. Sarc said. “I’m not sure how much Megan told you…but my wife became very ill several years ago. I joined INET to find a way to save her. To find the key to immortality. But…she passed away before I could do anything.

 

“Still,” Dr. Sarc continued. “I believed the Undead held the key to immortality. So I helped set them loose, in hopes of finding a way to bring my wife back.”

 

“Her mother…?” Ken asked. “You went along with all this to save her?”

 

“It’s true,” Benjamin said. “He knows he made a mistake…now he wants to fix it.”

 

Dr. Sarc nodded. “I continued researching the Undead on my own after BOARD’s demise. During that time I learned something…troubling.”

 

“Troubling?” Ken asked.

 

“A flaw in the Rider System,” Sarc said. “It gives its user a limited version of the Joker’s ability to fuse with the Undead. But if the fusion rate becomes too high…like yours, Ken…if you continue transforming into a Rider…you’ll become a second Joker.”

 

***

 

Nicolas sat in his abandoned nightclub and held the Rouze Absorber. He flipped its slot open and shut as he would with a toy he became bored with.

 

Taiga took a seat next to him. “Haven’t you figured that out yet?”

 

“To use it…I need a Category Queen.”

 

“Category Queen?” Taiga asked with a laugh. “You mean me…”

 

Ava sat quietly nearby and listened. She still couldn’t see, so she paid attention to her other senses and did her best to stay brave.

 

She thought of Zayden. And for a moment, she could feel him. Sense him, as if headed her way.

 

“Zayden…” she whispered.

 

She stood and used her hands to feel ahead as she moved towards the door. She scrambled into the hallway and felt the side of the wall as she walked towards the exit.

 

Taiga noticed and stood from her stool.

 

“That girl…” she said with annoyance as she followed.

 

Nicolas started after her. But the cellphone in his pocket rang.

 

***

 

Ava made it outside and nearly fell down the steps that led from the nightclub. She grabbed onto the railing to keep from falling. Her eyes stared ahead aimlessly.

 

“Zayden…”

 

She heard footsteps come from nearby and walked towards them. She bumped into someone and recognized him immediately. “Zayden…”

 

“Ava…” Zayden said as he held her by the shoulders. He seemed somewhat surprised, but at the same time, knew he would find her. “Your eyes…”

 

Taiga stepped onto the stairwell above and looked down at the teen and girl. She stayed just out of sight but watched closely as she knitted her brow. Joker…but right now…I can barely sense an Undead aura from him…

 

Zayden let Ava climb onto his back, and he walked away.

 

***

 

Dr. Sarc joined Benjamin in the secret lab. Sarc handed the teen three vials.

 

“These are Ken’s blood samples,” he said.

 

“I’ll take a look,” Benjamin said. “And Ken?”

 

“He fell asleep in my office,” Sarc said.

 

Benjamin nodded. “Okay then…” he said. “At least he’ll be safe there.”

 

“For now,” Sarc said.

 

Benjamin took the blood samples and moved to the nearest lab table. Ken…I won’t let you become another Joker.

 

***

 

Sarc lied. He had drugged Ken into unconsciousness and taken him away. Further, the doctor arranged a meeting of sorts with Nicolas.

 

After getting the invite by phone, Nicolas walked into the wide, empty lobby of an INET building.

 

Dr. Sarc’s voice came from a pair of speakers near the ceiling. “You’re Nicolas Riley…correct?”

 

“You’re the one who called me?” Nicolas asked.

 

“Yes,” Sarc said. “I have a gift for you…”

 

The lobby doors opened, and a cart slid into the lobby. Ken lay on the cart beneath a white blanket.

 

“Ken…” Nicolas said. “Is he really the other Joker?”

 

“That’s right…” Sarc said through the speakers. “Defeat him, and seal him…and you can gain the Joker’s powers. You can be the strongest Rider…even without the Absorber.”

 

“The strongest…” Nicolas whispered. “Why didn’t Benjamin seal him?”

 

“He’s much too kind for that,” Sarc said. “But you…you’re stronger than Benjamin. Am I wrong?”

 

Nicolas smirked. He walked to the cart and kicked it over, toppling Ken to the floor. The blow knocked Ken awake as his buckler fell to his side.

 

“What the…” he said as he climbed to his feet. “What’s going…what?”

 

“Ken…show me the Joker’s power.”

 

Nicolas armed his buckler.

 

“Transform.” He flipped open his buckler. The belt spoke the command “OPEN UP” and emitted a card-shaped wall of energy that slid across the boy, turning him into Kamen Rider Leangle.

 

“Nicolas…” Ken said as he staggered backward, still dazed.

 

“Transform,” Leangle said as he stalked towards the rider.

 

Kamen Rider Leangle snapped a kick that Ken dove aside to avoid. The teen rolled across the floor while grabbing his buckler. Then he stood while arming the belt.

 

“Transform!” He flipped the buckler. “TURN UP”

 

The buckler emitted an energy field, and Ken dashed through the field to transform into his armor.

 

***

 

Bobby walked into the Jacaranda Café to find Zayden leaning against the counter while looking at his Category King card.

 

“You found Ava?” Bobby asked.

 

Zayden nodded. “She’s at the hospital. Something blinded her, but it’s temporary…she should recover soon.”

 

Bobby breathed a sigh of relief. “Okay, great. It’s a good thing you got over the blood-sucking maniac thing. It was Ken, right? Did he get you over it? ‘It’ being the previously mentioned blood-sucking maniac thing.”

 

“Yes,” Zayden said, his voice calm and smooth. “Ken…where is he?”

 

Bobby shrugged. “He kind of made a promise with Benjamin, that after he helped you…he’d go back with him.”

 

“Benjamin?” Zayden asked.

 

Suddenly, images flashed through Zayden’s mind. He saw visions of Leangle swinging his staff against Blade with bursts of spark. As an Undead, Zayden could sense the battles of other Undead, as well as the Riders.  

 

Zayden narrowed his eyes and ran from the restaurant before Bobby could say a word.

 

***

 

Leangle swung upward. His staff slashed Blade with a burst of spark that knocked him off his feet. The evil Rider looked down at Blade and pulled out the Rouze Absorber.

 

“Use it,” he said as he tossed the Absorber to Blade.

 

“What…?”

 

“Show me your King Form,” Leangle said.

 

Leangle smashed a roundkick against Blade, knocking him further back. Kamen Rider Blade spun into a crouched stance,

 

“Stop it, Nicolas,” Blade said. “I don’t want to do this….”

 

Leangle flipped open his belt holster and pulled out two cards: The Five of Clubs, labeled with the Cobra Undead, and the Six of Clubs, labeled with the Polar Bear Undead. He swiped the cards through his staff’s slit. “BITE; BLIZZARD.”

 

The staff emitted two cards of energy that splashed across the Rider’s armor.

 

Leangle leapt forward, somersaulted through the air, and aimed his descent towards Blade. His legs pulsed with icy energy, and he smashed a scissor kick against the Rider, hurling him off his feet.

 

Blade crashed against the floor and tumbled backward.

 

Kamen Rider Leangle swung his staff into a fighting stance and charged. He slashed through an x-shaped pattern that sparked against Blade and whipped him further back.

 

Blade tumbled across the floor.

 

Leangle kicked the Rouze Absorber closer to the fallen Rider. “Use it…or you die.”

 

Kamen Rider Blade pushed himself to his feet. Reluctantly, he lifted the Rouze Absorber and attached it to his left gauntlet.  

 

He slid the Queen of Spades into the absorber: “ABSORB QUEEN.” He swiped the King of Spades through the Absorber’s slot. “EVOLUTION KING”

 

Blade’s cards burst from his buckler and circled around him while glowing with golden light. Then, the cards shot towards him and splashed across his entire suit of armor. With a final flash of golden light, Blade stood in his King Form.

 

***

 

Zayden leaned forward on his motorcycle and sped through the city.

 

Various security cameras spotted him as he drove closer to the INET building, near the secret lab. Sarc hacked the cameras, saw Zayden, and ordered Benjamin to stop him.

 

Zayden drove into a tunnel near the INET building, and when he turned a bend, he noticed Benjamin rush onto the street.

 

Zayden skid his bike to a halt, and Benjamin glared at the artificial teen. “Joker…”

 

“Benjamin,” Zayden said. “Why did you make Ken transform?”

 

Benjamin knitted his brow with confusion. “He transformed?”

 

Zayden nodded.

 

“That’s not possible,” Benjamin said. “We hid Ken here and took away his buckler. We’re trying to stop him from transforming...and turning into you.”

 

“Ken’s fighting inside,” Zayden said. He swerved his bike, throttled forward, and sped past Benjamin.

 

***

 

Leangle and Blade’s fight moved to an upper level of a parking garage attached to the INET building.

 

Kamen Rider Leangle swung the ends of his staff relentlessly. But Blade used his forearms to block each blow with bursts of spark.

 

Leangle tried to advance and press forward, but Blade stood his ground. Kamen Rider Blade grabbed the staff, twisted downward, and punched the evil Rider in the gut with bursts of spark.

 

Blade felt power surge through his veins, and with that power came…hunger. He enjoyed that punch.

 

“Ha!” Blade smashed the back of his fist across the evil Rider’s helmet.

 

The blow knocked Leangle several steps backward, but he staggered and stayed on his feet.

 

Blade stalked forward, grabbed Leangle by the neck, and hurled him against the nearby railing. Leangle smashed against the railing and crashed against the floor.

 

Blade laughed, lifted Leangle, and hurled him onto a nearby stairwell.

 

Nearby, Zayden ran up a stairwell and spotted Blade stalking towards Leangle.

 

“Ken!” Zayden called.

 

Leangle looked over his shoulder towards Zayden. “Stay back…he’s mine.”

 

Leangle swung his staff into a fighting stance and charged at Blade.

 

Zayden dashed towards the two combatants and slid his Ace of Hearts through his buckler. “Transform!” The belt spoke the command: “CHANGE”

 

He rippled and transformed into Chalice just in time to snap a jumpkick between Blade and Leangle. Chalice tackled Leangle and pushed him back.

 

Kamen Rider Blade armed his sword and slashed Chalice’s back with a burst of spark. Chalice staggered forward but stayed on his feet.

 

***

 

Benjamin ran into Dr. Sarc’s office, but he didn’t see the man anywhere.

 

The rider looked to the wall and noticed the secret compartment opened. Benjamin walked to the compartment, now empty of the second card.

 

He knitted his brow. Tell me I haven’t been played…again…

 

***

 

Benjamin ran from the office and into the secret lab, but didn’t spot Sarc there either. However, he noticed the Trial chamber open and empty.

 

He stepped into the chamber to investigate. As soon as he stepped foot inside, the door slammed shut.

 

“Hey!” Benjamin shouted as he beat against the door. But it wouldn’t open. “Hey! Who’s there!

 

Dr. Sarc stepped in front of the door’s view port.

 

“Sarc…” Benjamin said. “What are you doing?”

 

“Your friend Ken’s on his way to becoming another Joker…” Dr. Sarc said.

 

“Then let me stop him!” Benjamin shouted.

 

Sarc stared silently, saying nothing.

 

Benjamin’s face grew pale. “No…” he said. “That’s what you’ve wanted all along. Isn’t it?”

 

“A human who transforms into the ultimate Undead…” Dr. Sarc said. “If I could analyze the cells of that human? I could unlock the secret of immortality…”

 

Benjamin narrowed his eyes. “You’re using him…you used me…”

 

“I sent the Trials to hunt him down. To push him into his King form,” Dr. Sarc said. “He just needs pushed a little farther…then his secrets will be mine. I can use those secrets to revive my wife. To revive your girlfriend, Emma.”

 

Benjamin glared at the villain. “I believed in your work because I wanted to save Ken. Not because I wanted to play god.”

 

“If I unlock the secret to eternal life…You’ll be happy again, Benjamin,” Sarc said. “So will I. And so will Megan…”

 

Benjamin armed his buckler. “Transform.” He flipped the buckler. “TURN UP”

 

The belt emitted an energy field Benjamin charged through while transforming into his armor and bashing down the door. The impact hurled Dr. Sarc against the nearby lab table.

 

Kamen Rider Garren moved towards Sarc. But the villain snapped around and bashed the back of his fist across Garren’s helmet. The blow knocked Garren against the wall.

 

Sarc looked at his fist with surprise.

 

Garren pushed himself to his feet. “How…how did you do that?”

 

Dr. Sarc ran from the lab.

 

***

 

Chalice grabbed onto Blade from behind, and Leangle moved in from ahead.

 

Blade knocked Chalice away, slashed Leangle, and slashed Chalice with a burst of spark.

 

Kamen Rider Blade growled and slashed at Chalice, but Chalice ducked. Blade twisted his grip and slammed his sword against Chalice with a burst of spark, knocking him back several steps.

 

Blade pressed forward and swung wildly. Chalice managed to dodge most blows. But some slashed against his armor and forced him backward.

 

Nearby, Kamen Rider Garren ran up the stairwell and spotted the battle.

 

“Ken, stop!” Garren shouted as he dashed towards his friend. “Sarc’s using you!”

 

Blade swung wide, and his sword slashed Garren with a burst of spark that hurled him off his feet.

 

Chalice dashed towards Blade. But Kamen Rider Leangle tackled against Chalice. Chalice kneed the evil Rider in the gut and pushed him back.

 

Kamen Rider Chalice pulled the King of Hearts from his holster and slid the card through his buckler: “EVOLUTION”

 

His thirteen cards flew from his buckler and formed a line in midair. Then each card shot towards his buckler and splashed across his body. The Rider’s armor rippled and transformed into Wild Mode.

 

Leangle charged. But Chalice knife-hand chopped the evil Rider in the faceplate, knocking him to the ground.

 

Chalice focused on Blade. Ken…what’s happened to you?

 

Blade turned to face Chalice and lifted his sword into a fighting stance. The Rider stood like a monster, hunched over and mindless, his breathing guttural. He stalked towards Chalice with lumbering steps.

 

“Come,” Chalice said. “Even though you’re being driven by the Undead…you will not kill me.”

 

Kamen Rider Blade snarled, charged and chopped his blade towards Chalice’s head. Chalice didn’t move or flinch.

 

And Blade stopped his sword an inch from his opponent’s helmet.

 

Kamen Rider Blade snarled, a part of him trying to drive his weapon through his opponent’s head, and a part of him trying to hold back.

 

Blade staggered backward and growled with pain and annoyance. He leaned back, looked upward, and screamed with rage.

 

The Rider dropped his sword and crashed to his knees. His buckler emitted a field of blue energy that washed over him and powered down his armor.

 

Ken collapsed. He breathed heavily as his senses returned, and his emotions started to calm.

 

Chalice slid the Two of Hearts through his buckler. “SPIRIT”

 

His body rippled and changed into human form.

 

Ken stood and looked to Zayden with concern. “Zayden…are you okay? Did I hurt you?”

 

Nearby, Garren stood and powered down his armor. He smiled at the sight of Ken checking on Zayden.

 

“Always worried about other people…even at a time like this,” he said.

 

Zayden looked to Ken with reassurance. “I was driven by the Joker…but I evolved into something new. Something stronger. I’m sure you’ll do the same…”

 

“Thanks…”

 

***

 

Dr. Sarc drove from the lab in a panic. His heart pounded in his chest. He felt his pulse thunder through his neck.

 

The man loosened his collar and tie. “What’s…what’s happening…

 

***

 

Nicolas walked from the INET building after the battle between Ken and Zayden.

 

Benjamin ran towards the boy to catch up with him, and Ken and Zayden followed. “Nicolas…wait!”

 

Nicolas stopped and turned to face the three riders. He looked distant. Lost.

 

“Don’t run…” Benjamin said. “Not again…”

 

“After all this time,” Nicolas said. “I’m still the one who loses to you three…”

 

Nicolas turned and ran.

 

Before Benjamin could follow, Ken winced and grasped his chest. The teen collapsed to one knee.

 

“Ken…” Benjamin said.

 

Ken shook his head. He took a deep breath and stood. “I’m fine…at least I will be.”

 

“You don’t have to fight anymore,” Benjamin said. “Ken...what’s happening to you. It’s my fault. I let Sarc…”

 

“Don’t blame yourself,” Ken said. “I can master the King Form. I know I don’t have to fight anymore…but I will. I’m a Kamen Rider…”

 

***

 

Dr. Sarc staggered into the lower chambers beneath the destroyed BOARD base. He collapsed onto the floor and breathed heavily.

 

Footsteps sounded from the other end of the corridor. Sarc looked up to see Tennoji, his former boss and head researcher overseeing the Undead Project.

 

“Tennoji…” Sarc said.

 

“You don’t look well, Sarc,” Tennoji said.

 

“What’s…what’s happening to my body?” Sarc asked.

 

“Your true form is awakening,” Tennoji said.

 

“True form? I’m human. I don’t-”

 

“The human named Dr. Sarc died just as his daughter believes,” Tennoji said. “You have his memories. You have his appearance. But your true form is modeled after one of his earliest creations. Your true form, is Trial B.”

 

To be continued…Chapter 30