Chapter 1: A Different 6 P.M.

“June 2, Southcloud Province, Nanjiang City, Second High School. Three girls were dabbling with a ouija board in their classroom at 10 p.m. at night. Girl A was found dead in her classroom, while the other two girls were found dead in their own homes the next day. Just before she died, the family of the deceased Girl B received a phone call from their daughter, claiming that there was someone in their home. She didn’t know who it was; she had never opened the doors; and the windows were still tightly shut and locked. She had checked every single one of the doors and windows, and she couldn’t see any signs of a person at home. However, she could still clearly hear the sound of ragged breathing coming from behind her.”

“Two hours before the death of the deceased Girl C, her father received a phone call from his daughter as well, similarly claiming that there seemed to be someone at home. She was doing her homework beside her windowsill, and for some strange reason felt that there was someone looking at her from the other side of her window - almost as though that person were standing motionless, staring intently and silently at her. However, she lived on the sixth storey. Three hours later, she was found lifeless and limp on her table, and her face revealed an expression of extreme terror just before she died.”

Rows and rows of words gleamed in a pair of pristine clear eyes. The owner of these eyes possessed pleasant features and decent appearances. His complexion was smooth, and he touted an air of youthfulness about him. His thick eyebrows looked sharp - but not too sharp - and he had a reasonably ordinary hairstyle with bangs on the slightly longer side. This man stood at approximately 1.75m tall.

With a book standing tall on his desk, he continued to flip through the news articles on his phone as his slender fingers slid dexterously across the screen. His eyes were transfixed on the screen of his phone.

“July 8, Gan Province, Paulownia High School. A blackout struck only the second and third classrooms for exactly three minutes. No other location within the district faced any similar issues. Investigations revealed that there were no issues with the power lines. Later, within three minutes from the end of a period of self-study in the evening, nine students were found dead with smiles on their faces.”

“June 12, …”

Swish… The phone in his hand was snatched away before he could finish reading the next article. Qin Ye lifted his head slightly, taking in his surroundings for the first time in a while.

Westriver Province, Xiajiang City, Qingxi County. Qingxi High School was the only high school in the entire county. A blackboard stood stoically at the front of the brightly lit classroom. It was filled with several eye catching slogans, such as “365 days to the college entrance examinations”. Other messages sprawled glaringly across other parts of the blackboard, reminding students to work hard to improve themselves.

The tables in the classroom appeared somewhat old and dated. The old yellow paint was peeling slightly, revealing the dark brown wooden materials beneath.

The time now was 5 p.m. The last class had just ended for the day, and there were already few students remaining within Classroom 3-2. In fact, apart from him, there were only two other well-built students idling around on their desks to his right.

The student on the left sported a buzz cut. The top buttons of his uniform were undone, revealing a cheap silver chain within that had a slightly lacklustre sheen to them. The student on the right wore a premium-grade uniform. Yet, even though he appeared prim and proper, there was an obviously artificial ruthless and hostile expression on his face replete with a sneer on his lips. Both students were evidently crooked sprouts.

Qin Ye’s heart thumped heavily.

Zhang Yilong, Wang Chenghao - both of them were notorious problem kids in his class. They did everything you’d expect - from fighting to smoking, to even teasing girls. Qin Ye had never mixed with them, and he had consciously steered clear of their way as much as he could. Yet, in his moment of fascination by the news articles on his phone, he overlooked the time and failed to leave with his other classmates.

It was a ubiquitous problem that plagued all schools, regardless of class or status. These hooligans posing as students would make trouble out of nothing, yet the average student could do nothing more than gnash their teeth and curse at them under their breath. School violence was a blemish of the education industry that was a topic of taboo for many.

Click. A cheap plastic lighter lit up.

A stick of cheap, Red River brand cigarette. The pungent smell of smoke caused Qin Ye’s brows to furrow slightly before relaxing once again. Zhang Yilong took a puff pretentiously, before exhaling the greenish-blue smoke smugly. Then, he looked at the phone in his hands and mocked, “Aren’t you a stupid fool?”

“Ouija board… nine female students died tragically… tsk tsk tsk, whoever believes in these things are idiots. How can such news make headlines these days? Don’t the editors have anything better to do?”

“I hear you sell wreaths at home?” Zhang Yilong glanced at Qin Ye. Qin Ye genty pursed his lips, “Return me my phone.”

“Bloody hell...” “Return it to him.” Before Zhang Yilong could finish speaking, Wang Chenghao sat aggressively on the table, placing one foot on the chair and glared at Qin Ye with a slightly raised eyebrow, “This kid’s got a temper, doesn’t he? Do you think you’re like that fatty in our class? Can’t even let out a muffled fart even after a beating?”

“F**k!” Zhang Yilong blew out a breath of smoke onto Qin Ye and turned his head around. The phone flew through the air with a parabolic trajectory, and Qin Ye casually grabbed it in his hands.

“What’s up?” Qin Ye placed his phone into his pockets and asked as he forcibly suppressed the anxiety in his voice.

“Nothing… nothing much.” Wang Chenghao glared at Qin Ye for a few seconds before jumping off the table and placing his arm around Qin Ye’s shoulder, “Little Pasty White, there’s really nothing much. But you see… today, Zhang Yilong and I are on cleanup duty. However, we’ve got something urgent to attend to. You… aren't you willing to extend us a favour?”

Qin Ye’s gaze quivered as he surveyed the classroom. Everything was a mess, and even the blackboard had not been cleaned.

“What are you guys going to do?” He added, “Under the school’s regulations, everyone absolutely must leave the school before 6 p.m. Haven’t you heard the announcements that have been playing at half hour intervals over the last three days? Those found flouting the rules will immediately be expelled. I don’t have time for this nonsense.”

Before he finished speaking, Wang Chenghao’s arm tightened slightly, and his voice deepened to an imposing boom, “Hmm?”

Qin Ye was unable to finish his sentence.

Wang Chenghao leaned closer and spat some smoke directly at Qin Ye’s face, causing Qin Ye to cough several times. Wang Chenghao continued disdainfully, “What’s the meaning of this? Don’t you know that your brother’s already asking for your help nicely?”

“6 p.m…”

Before he could continue, Qin Ye felt the arm around his shoulder flex immediately, constricting his neck. Qin Ye’s disposition paled, and he forcibly suppressed what he was about to say. Zhang Yilong was already walking back with a broomstick in his arms, and he shoved it into Qin Ye’s arm as he bellowed imperatively, “Sweep!”

The command echoed in the still surroundings of the classroom. Qin Ye gnashed his teeth as he wrested free from Wang Chenghao’s grasp. Seething, he muttered, “I’ll… sweep. But you must all help out. Otherwise, we’d never finish by 6 p.m.”

“Are you seriously such an idiot?” Wang Chenghao spat out more smoke as he snuffed out the cigarette forcefully, “6 p.m. means 6 p.m.? So what if I don’t leave at 6 p.m.? They ask you to leave and you leave? Are you a fool?”

“Don’t be a bloody idiot. You’d better relish the face I’m giving you right now! I’m only asking you to sweep because I approve of you! How dare you continue to mumble and grumble there?! Sweep!!”

Qin Ye drew a deep breath, before continuing, “Don’t you find it strange?”

“The number of supernatural occurrences reported in the news has increased quite substantially since last week. But this kind of thing had previously been completely taboo in the entire country!”

“Furthermore, even the Ministry of Education has dictated that all classes must end at 4.30 p.m. School used to end at 5.30 p.m. in the past! And they’ve time and again reminded everyone to be home by 6 p.m. Even if you’re not home, you’ll have to be with others at all times!”

“Then, there’s still the school’s announcement that has been played on repeat day after day. Do you really think that the school is just pulling a prank on you?”

Overwhelming silence.

Zhang Yilong and Wang Chenghao stared at Qin Ye as though they had just seen a ghost. Then, several seconds later, they burst out into an uproarious laughter.

“Hahahahaha! Hahaha!!!” “This is too damn funny!”

“What time and age are we living in now? Are there still any fools who believe such things?” “I’ll be damned… I can’t take this anymore… I really can’t! I’m dying of laughter!” “The school’s rules were actually used to interpret today’s uninspiring headlines? I’ll be damned! This is pure genius!”

The two laughed like toads, gasping for breath as they leaned on the table. Qin Ye remained completely expressionless as he watched the two, before finally adding, “Today is the 15th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar.”

“So, what are you trying to say?” Wang Chenghao wiped off the tear in his eyes as he responded.

Qin Ye shook his head and spoke solemnly, “Mid-seventh month, ghosts run amok. The gates of Hell open, and the ghosts are free to roam the streets at night. This happens to be one of the three major ghost festivals, the Hungry Ghost Festival.”

“Puhahahaha!!” “Hungry Ghost Festival, hahaha! Bloody hell, I’ve not heard that in such a long time! No wonder you run a wreath shop!” “Hahaha, Brother Wang, that’s not a wreath shop, it’s a funeral parlor! You don’t know shit… I really can’t take this anymore, I’m dying of laughter! Hahaha!!”

Qin Ye grimaced bitterly.

Regardless of whether others believed in the supernatural, it didn’t change the fact that he was one in this line of business, and he would much rather err on the side of caution and believe that they were real. But what about now?

How many people were there who still believed in such things?

He picked up the duster silently and began to clean the blackboard. Wang Chenghao and Zhang Yilong were still guffawing on their desks, and it was evident they had no intention to help out to begin with. Instead, they picked up another cigarette and continued to make fun of what Qin Ye had said earlier. Qin Ye vaguely overheard some derisory phrases such as “stupid idiot” “looks just like a ghost…” and the like.

Time trickled by. Qin Ye had no expectations that the two other students would help him out at all as he continued to sweat profusely from the menial work. They were drawing close to their graduation, so not only was the blackboard covered in all forms of scribbles and marks, there were also innumerable sheets of rough paper used for calculations and other tattered practice papers scattered all over the floor. There were even broken pencils, bits of erasers and other stationery strewn around. It was a complete mess.

“Whew…” He finally straightened his back after what seemed like a long time. Yet Zhang Yilong simply called out impatiently to him, “Can’t take it anymore? How long more are you going to take? Why is something so simple like sweeping the floor taking you such a long time?”

As soon as he finished speaking, the school’s speakers coincidentally began to blast its usual announcements.

"Fellow students, it's 6 p.m. again. Once again, the school solemnly reminds all students to leave the campus within ten minutes. This is the final warning. Any students who are caught flouting these rules will immediately be subject to expulsion. The school disclaims all liability and responsibility in the event of your breach of the school’s rules."

Qin Ye stood up. The announcement echoed throughout the cold corners of the school. Yet, Wang Chenghao and Zhang Yilong were simply indifferent.

“To all students who are still on campus right now, please leave the school by 6.10 p.m. Additionally, kindly avoid any locations with mirrors or rooms that have not been opened for a long time.”

“This is a further reminder that you should not approach the old school building either. Construction works are currently in progress, and these warnings are for your own safety.”

“All personnel on duty are reminded to be deployed in groups of five. The school guarantees that electricity will continue to be supplied to the school throughout the night until 5 a.m. All security personnel are to leave the school compound with immediate effect. There is no need for night patrol.”

What Qin Ye and the others didn’t know was the fact that the exact same announcements were being made across the entire country of Cathay, spanning 23 provinces, 661 cities, 1636 counties and 41636 towns and villages.

At this very moment, in a country with over one billion citizens, apart from exceptional areas that had no access to electricity, all taxis, cars, trains, televisions, radio channels were playing neither news nor music - even the hottest stars and artistes had to give way to the most important announcement. For the next five minutes, the same announcement would play over and over again on repeat.

“Attention, all citizens… kindly refrain from leaving your homes after 6.30 p.m. Please secure your homes…” “Attention, all members of the county, kindly ensure you have put up at a suitable lodging by 6.30 p.m. Those who are sharing rooms or premises are reminded to ascertain your roommate’s identity as well. Additionally, please ensure that you are not alone in your room after 6.30 p.m. You are to remain in groups of three at the very least…” “Attention, all villagers…”

For no apparent reason, Qin Ye suddenly felt chills go down his back.

Then, for some strange reason… as soon as the announcement began playing, they felt their surroundings suddenly become cold and chilly.

It was a peculiar chill. The coldness did not come from the air about them. Instead, it was a netherworldly chill. It felt as if the chill came from within, almost as though someone who had been dead for a long time were leaning in close to their necks, breathing out the stale, cold air from his nostrils, sending goosebumps creeping all over a person’s skin.

“Run!!” Without anything more, Qin Ye grabbed his schoolbag and motioned to leave.

Unfortunately, his schoolbag appeared to be caught by something - it remained completely motionless on the table.

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