The lighting is inconsistent throughout the rooms, shadows conceal many hallways and small doors, but it is clear to her that attendance is at capacity and the great festival is a smash hit again this year. Trying to keep to a shadow herself, she steals glances when any of her competition slides through light. She can tell who she really needs to worry about by how slowly they move. Those that seem to flip from light to shadow to shadow with speed are either attending to a contestant’s needs or have made some very poor decisions preparing. For the past few years, her natural beauty has been hard to hide, and that kind of radical transformation will put her over the top, she thinks. There will be no easy way out of this for her, so she will have to try everything. Oh my, there are some grim features on her, she thinks. Almost as if her thoughts are heard, the ghost-grim torso she was staring at slips silently over and back and away. She steps around a small, black, sticky puddle as she moves toward the main event, trying to remain concealed. More poor planning, she thinks, her confidence growing. The presentations portion of the competition is all about preparation before the show: recorded videos, slideshows, sometimes a dance routine or exercise routine – not intended to be art so much as to demonstrate the one-time physical health of the contestant. She had dieted and worked out and kept out of the sun. And she hired a gifted video editor and a photographer famous for his manipulation of light and shadow. As her presentation starts playing on the holograms and screens around the great palace, she thinks she hears gasps of wonder. The up-front money was well-spent. Maybe she has a chance. Other presentations manipulate a great range of media, demonstrating dexterity and imagination and strength. Some of the work is so artful as to disguise perhaps too much the reality of the contestant’s true self. Is that fair? She worries that she has missed some nuance in the rules. The scattered light from the many screens throughout the Hall soon make it impossible to remain hidden. Everyone grows visible. She sees them as they will be when they take the stage. And it begins. Seventy contestants have given everything for this chance, this one accomplishment that will keep memory of them alive for eternity. One at a time, the contestants strip off all adornments and scuttle across the stage, giant video screens showing close-up highlights of stunning scars and deformities. She can hear murmurs of approval from the crowd. This is the most ghastly exhibition so far. Her turn across the stage is uneventful. She moves as well as she can, her limp obvious, the pain difficult to hide in her face. But she is careful not to exaggerate. She has seen the penalty for anyone trying to deceive a judge by struggling more than necessary. Two contestants cannot make it across the stage. A terrible misjudgment by a trainer or a parent, but there will never be higher stakes than this. One can only regret having not tried harder. Of the rest, she has some confidence. She is as appalling as any of them and yet, from the earlier presentations, no one had transformed as much as she. No one had given up so much joy and youth and energy. Only one other girl, Number 42, has a chance and only then because she has left almost nothing of her face. So little remains of the features needed to see and breathe and eat that if the girl doesn’t win, she can’t continue to survive like this. Was this an attempt for pity? That can’t work here, right? Or did it work? “Number 42 is this year’s Hell Queen!” No!!!! How is this possible, she thinks, but holds her emotion inside, scanning the room to make sure no one notices her disappointment. She knows she should be happy for Number 42. The crowd shuffles to the Great Podium and the Great Fire where the winner will be celebrated. She tries to pay attention to the festivities, but she really does feel very sick now and she barely has the strength to lift her head to look at the stage. Until she hears the impossible miracle. “We have an imposter!” She looks up in time to see the King appear to rip the face right off of Number 42. “It is a mask! We have a traitor! A cheat! She will never deserve the Final Blessing! Cast her out, back into society!” Shock rolls throughout the dark chasms and suddenly all is lit up with a blinding light. “Where is Number 56?” “That is me!” she screams and throws her arms into the air. “That’s me!!” Quickly she is pulled and pushed and carried to the Great Podium. “Number 56. We thank you and your family for your Transformation. Are you prepared?” She has no answer. Her whole life has led to this moment. The King nods and she steps from the stage, falling into the abyss, not making a sound. The crowd cheers wildly.