Chapter 1: Eaten Alive

"Tonight for sure."

"Hmm?"

"We'll beat him tonight. I just know it."

Kagome had often seen that overconfident smile on Inuyasha's face, and she hoped it wouldn't spell doom the way it usually did. The situation wasn't exactly a desirable one: she was hidden behind a clump of bushes on the outskirts of a wooded grove. Inuyasha and Shippo crouched on either side of her. The sliver of the waning moon cast a faint glow over the scene.

"Why did we have to wait until dark?" Shippo whined.

"Stow it!" Inuyasha chided, dealing Shippo a quick blow on the head. The little fox-demon's eyes welled up with tears of pain and frustration, but he did not cry out. Even Shippo understood how crucial it was to conceal their position.

"I hope Sango and Miroku are alright," Kagome whispered, trying to change the subject.

"They'll be fine," Inuyasha assured her. He let out a soft laugh. "Naraku won't know what hit him!"

"Please, Inuyasha," Kagome begged, "don't underestimate Naraku. He always has a trick or a trap."

"And don't you underestimate me, Kagome. Do you honestly think I can't destroy him?"

"It's not that..."

"Then what's there to worry about?"

At that moment, a nauseating demonic aura crept over them, emanating from the grove.

"Any moment now," Inuyasha grinned, unsealing the barrier of Tessaiga's scabbard by pushing the guard upward with his thumb and grasping the frayed hilt with his other hand. Even in the dark, Kagome could see the excitement in Inuyasha's golden eyes, like a predator anticipating its next kill.

As Kagome peered through a sparse area in the bush's branches, she caught sight of him. Naraku. As usual, he wore a smug expression, as if he was appreciating an inside joke – which he probably was.

"There you are, you sick bastard." Kagome had never really approved of Inuyasha's foul mouth, but even she had to admit that Naraku deserved it.

Inuyasha perched on the balls of his feet, like a cat ready to pounce. Pushing off from the leaf-strewn carpet of grass, he leapt into the grove, sword drawn.

"Naraku!" he yelled as he brought Tessaiga's blade down toward his enemy's head. Several feet in the air, however, Inuyasha slammed against a demonic barrier. Regaining his balance as he landed, he turned to face Naraku.

"A barrier, huh? No problem. I can deal with that in no time!" Tessaiga glowed blood-red as Inuyasha held it over his head, ready to strike with the Wind Scar. Before he could deliver the blow, however, a strong gust of wind distracted him. Kagura landed in front of her master, fan extended - ready for a fight.

"You sure don't play fair, do you, Naraku?" Inuyasha jeered.

"When dealing with a pathetic obstacle like you, Inuyasha, I feel no need to exert myself," Naraku replied flatly.

Inuyasha's eyes burned with loathing. Charging toward his foe, he swiped Tessaiga in a horizontal arc, but Kagura unbalanced him with a flick of her fan and sent him stumbling off-course. Kagura raised her arm to attack Inuyasha's exposed back, but a shout interrupted her.

"Hiraikotsu!"

An enormous boomerang hit Kagura full-force, knocking her to the ground. Still hidden in the bushes, Kagome and Shippo watched as Sango and Miroku appeared on the scene and slid down from Kirara's back. Sango caught her weapon with one hand, spun it twice, and held it at the ready, while Miroku pulled out several sutras from within the folds of his robe.

For a moment, their sudden entrance seemed to glow with all the grandeur of a successful surprise attack. Then, Sango stiffened, eyebrows raised and eyes wide.

"Monk..." she growled threateningly. Instantly, Miroku's hand jumped back from where he had been caressing Sango's hip. He laughed slightly, but his reaction came too little, too late. A second later, Sango's hand had left a red welt on Miroku's cheek, making it look as if the lecherous monk was blushing on only one side of his face.

In the time they had taken to squabble, Kagura had risen to her feet again. She glanced at Naraku for approval, then moved to the side to fight the newcomers.

Seeing his opportunity, Inuyasha channeled the Red Tessaiga's power and sent a wave of energy toward Naraku's barrier, which shattered from the impact of the Wind Scar. Unfortunately, the attack missed Naraku by centimeters.

"A typical display of brawn," Naraku teased, "all strength and no aim."

"Doesn't matter. I'll hit you this time! Wind Scar!" Inuyasha threw all of his weight into the Tessaiga's swing, so much so that he sank onto one knee in order to avoid falling into his own attack. When the light of the Wind Scar faded and the dust cleared, Naraku lay scattered in indistinguishable pieces on the forest floor.

Kagura's head whipped around instantly. An expression of pure joy seized her as she clutched at her heart.

"You... you actually did it," she breathed in awe. "You killed Naraku."

"Heh!" Inuyasha gloated. "Wasn't that hard, really."

Kagura relaxed, closing her fan. "In that case, I no longer have any quarrel with you, so I'll be on my way."

Soon, Kagura was drifting away on her enormous magic feather. Kagome and Shippo slowly emerged from their behind their bush and joined the group. After a few moments of silence, Miroku spoke.

"That was far too easy."

Sango nodded. "I agree." Inuyasha's ears twitched in indignation.

"Why do all of you doubt my strength? Is it really so hard to believe that I could take down Naraku with one blow?"

Without skipping a beat, the others replied in unison, "Yes."

Eyebrows furrowed, Inuyasha snorted. "Fine! I'll go make sure that he's dead! That'll prove it!" He stomped off toward the demon's remains, muttering, "some friends you are," under his breath.

Pulling out Tessaiga, Inuyasha began methodically stabbing every putrid piece of Naraku he could find. From the scraps of his words that drifted back to the others, they could tell he was venting by imagining their faces on the bits of charred flesh. When he had finished, Inuyasha turned to his friends, looking quite satisfied.

"There," he pronounced with a smug finality. "See?"

Suddenly, vine-like tendrils shot up from a lump of Naraku's body and wrapped around Inuyasha's sword-arm. Before any of the others could react, the tentacles had wrenched Tessaiga out of his grip and flung him onto his back.

"Inuyasha!" Kagome cried in alarm.

"Stay over there!" Inuyasha ordered. "I'll handle this!"

Nevertheless, Miroku and Sango both readied their weapons. Kirara crouched, a menacing growl building in her throat. Shippo clung to Kagome's leg and trembled. Inuyasha struggled with the tendrils, which thickened as clumps of flesh coagulated. Naraku's head emerged from the shapeless mass, then shoulders, torso, legs.

"How the hell did you survive that?" Inuyasha demanded, outraged.

"Foolish Inuyasha," Naraku smiled, "as long as I possess the Sacred Jewel, I cannot be killed by the likes of you."

Inuyasha drew back his left hand and punched Naraku full in the face. The demon showed little reaction, merely grabbing Inuyasha's wrist before he could deliver another blow.

"Fist-fighting? Really? Once again, you disappoint me, Inuyasha."

With a sudden twist of his hand, Naraku wrenched Inuyasha's forearm to the side. Kagome heard the unmistakable snap of a bone breaking, and Inuyasha cried out in pain. With his other hand still caught in Naraku's tentacles, he now had no way to attack. The demon continued to pull Inuyasha's arm in odd directions, causing several more breaks. The pain forced his knees to give way, until all that held him up was the injured arm Naraku grasped.

"That's it! I won't stand by and watch this!" Miroku yelled, unfastening the wrappings around his Wind Tunnel.

"I wouldn't be so hasty if I were you, monk," Naraku advised, holding Inuyasha's trembling body in front of his own. Immediately, Miroku hesitated. He snarled, then he recovered his right hand.

"How dare you use Inuyasha as a shield!" Sango roared, throwing her Hiraikotsu in a wide arc so as to hit Naraku's back. The demon swatted the weapon away as easily as he would a fly.

"Now that you're all paying attention, we can proceed to the best part." His condescending voice shook slightly with controlled excitement. Whatever he has planned, Kagome thought in desperation, it can't be good.

The writhing flesh that held Inuyasha's right arm began to creep up his shoulder, growing in size until it had wrapped around his entire body. Naraku finally released Inuyasha's wrist, allowing the cocoon to fully encase his prey.

Shippo panicked. "Oh, no! He's gonna try to eat Inuyasha!"

These words spurred the others into action, but to no avail. Naraku side-stepped all of their attacks, continuing to use Inuyasha as a defense.

"You're all too late," he laughed. "Even as you struggle to rescue him, my miasma is slowly but surely digesting that meddlesome half-demon. I admit, I would have preferred his older brother, Sesshoumaru – next to that level of power, Inuyasha is barely an appetizer."

While Miroku, Sango, Kirara, and Shippo darted in and out around Naraku, Kagome ran back to the bushes, where she had left her bow and arrows. As quickly as she could, she took aim at Naraku.

"Take this!" she shouted in defiance, releasing the shaft of an arrow. To her surprise, Naraku did not try to avoid the shot. An instant before it hit, he showed that smile again, as if he was letting them in on a secret joke. Then, he dissolved – whether because of the sacred arrow or not, Kagome couldn't tell. Curiously, the cocoon remained behind, untouched.

"Did we get him, or did he run away?" Miroku wondered.

"It hardly matters," Sango said, hefting Hiraikotsu at the still-present mass of demon-flesh. "We've got to get Inuyasha out of this thing."

They hacked at the thick layers until they broke through. A liquid miasma spilled out, forcing them to jump back as it disintegrated the grass on contact.

"It smells awful," Sango noted, donning her poison-filtering mask. The best the others could do was pinch their noses or hold their breath. The steam rising from the mix of miasma and dying plant life made it difficult to see inside the punctured vestige of the cocoon, but once the reaction slowed down enough for the haze to lift-

"Inuyasha!" Kagome screamed, stepping around the remaining pools of miasma as she rushed to his side.

The others did not follow her; they were too horrified by what they saw.

From where they stood, all that could be seen of their half-demon friend was a hand, hanging limply out of the hole they had made in the cocoon. Much of the skin had been burned away, leaving the muscle and bone exposed to the cruel night air.