CHERUB: Divine Madness - Robert Muchamore

CHERUB: Divine Madness - Robert Muchamore

1. GAS

It was half-seven in the morning, but James had already been in the dojo for ninety minutes. Six pairs of kids were spread over the padded floor, wearing sweaty kit and a mass of protective padding.

Exhausted from a brutal twenty-minute sparring session, James bowed to his training partner Gabrielle, before grabbing a plastic bottle off the floor. He tipped back his head, opened his mouth wide and squeezed out a jet of high-energy glucose drink.

As he tried to swallow, a palm slammed into his back and he stumbled forwards, crashing into the springy blue floor with juice dribbling down his chin. Miss Takada ground James’ head against the mat, using a sixty-year-old foot with gnarled yellow nails and sandpaper tough skin.

‘Wa ru one?’ instructor Takada shouted. Her English was awful, but luckily she stuck to pet phrases that James knew by heart.

‘Rule one,’ James replied awkwardly, as the foot squished his lips out of shape. ‘Always be alert; an attack can come from any direction at any time.’

‘Be alert, stay alert,’ Takada tutted. ‘Drink quick, not glaring at ceiling like fool. Get off my floor. You dishonour my floor.’

James dragged himself up, keeping a wary eye on his teacher.

‘OK,’ Takada shouted, clapping her hands to get the attention of the whole class. ‘Final exercise. Speed test, little balls.’

A few of the shattered teenagers mustered enough energy to moan. There were only ten days of CHERUB’s six-week advanced combat course left, so everyone knew how to play: six students lined up against the wall at each end of the dojo, Miss Takada would throw out ten mini-soccer balls and the two who didn’t make it into the changing room with a ball had to forsake breakfast and run twenty laps around the outside of the dojo. It was a violent game and even wearing protective gear, broken bones weren’t out of the question.

Takada reached into a net filled with balls and threw out the first three. Twelve teenagers charged forwards, as they bobbled across the floor.

James sighted one rolling fortuitously towards him, but Gabrielle was faster and bundled him out of the way. As James ploughed into the floor for the hundredth time that morning, Gabrielle ripped the ball out of reach.

She managed three gangly steps, before coming under attack from two boys who’d started from the other end of the room. One hit Gabrielle head first, butting her in the stomach, while the other slid in with a two-footed tackle. Gabrielle groaned in pain as she hit the deck, but managed to hold on to the ball by tucking it under her chest.

The boy who’d butted Gabrielle tried to lever her into an arm lock, but caught a padded elbow in the face for his trouble and crumpled backwards in a heap.

While battle still raged over the first three balls, Miss Takada tossed in two more. James was exhausted, but the prospect of laps around the dojo gave him enough motivation to spring up and take a lunge. This time he judged it right and plucked the ball from between his legs without breaking stride.

James was thrilled to see less than fifteen metres between himself and the archway into the boys’ changing room. He leapt over a flying kick, picked up speed and could almost taste a cooked breakfast in the campus dining room. But three paces shy, the dream was shattered by a bulky sixteen-year-old called Mark Fox.

Mark had ham-sized fists and a twenty-centimetre height advantage over James, who got bundled into the padded wall before spinning out and adopting a fighting stance. It didn’t seem fair facing off an opponent who was so much bigger, but advanced combat training was meant to be realistic and the real world isn’t fair either.

James tried to visualise himself as the plucky underdog, who could come off best like in some kids’ movie. But the illusion didn’t last. Mark moved ruthlessly, spraying James with flying sweat as he landed a left-right punch combo, followed by a knee in the ribs. James crumpled up as Mark tore the ball from his grasp.

‘Later,’ Mark grinned, looking smug as he swaggered towards the archway.

The padded blows had only knocked the wind out of James, but he’d landed awkwardly and bent back some fingers. He stood as soon as he’d caught his breath, but his face was screwed up in pain. Six kids had now made it into the changing rooms; three more were almost there with no opponent in sight.