Somewhere in New Orleans is a deeply wounded man. Once, as a child, he caught a fish-hook in his hand, and the scars he got while trying to pull it out were more painful than the original injury. Sadly, he’s never learned the lesson this should have taught him. Now something else has come to the city, something powerful, innocent but dark, and deeply wounded -- something he can use to attain his goal. The magician will not hurt a child under any circumstances, but he feels no such restraint when it comes to adults...
The TARDIS materialises in early 21st-century New Orleans, and the Doctor wakes from a terrible nightmare to find a strange bone charm on the floor of his wardrobe. Hoping to find out what it’s doing there, he first takes the charm to a museum of magic owned by the crippled Thales; it’s closed, so he tries the less reputable Maurice Chickley, otherwise known as Chic. Chic promises to study it, but instead puts the rare charm up for sale. When the Doctor next visits him, he finds that Chic has been murdered and the charm stolen. Homicide detective Jonas Rust is assigned to the case, and he in turn calls in Thales to offer a professional opinion on the occult aspects to the crime. Thales examines a photograph of the charm and explains that the runes are meant to summon and control a water elemental. The charm was presumably carved from the original magician’s own bones; all magic requires sacrifice, and by sacrificing such a large part of himself, the magician would acquire incredible power in exchange.
The Doctor warns Anji and Fitz about the murder; whatever is happening here is more dangerous than he’d thought, and now he thinks that the void he sensed hunting him is more than a dream. He doesn’t tell them about the stabbing chest pains he’s been suffering; instead, he rents a room in in the back of an occult bookshop owned by the Wiccan Laura Redpath, in order to keep his friends out of harm’s way. Anji surprisingly turns down the Doctor’s offer to take her to a quiet beach somewhere, though she still isn’t sure why he inspires this level of trust. She and Fitz thus set off to explore the city and look for people who take magic seriously. One such person is Jack Dupre, a would-be practitioner of the dark arts, who leads tours of the city’s legendary places of magic just to convince himself that he’s better than the credulous tourists. At first he seems to be an irritatingly pompous ham, but when Fitz and Anji try to slip out of the tour early, Dupre hands Anji a full red rose which he’s plucked from thin air -- a rose far too full and rich to have been hidden crumpled in his coat.
The Doctor’s investigation leads him to a party at Death’s Door, a Goth hangout and art gallery owned by the artist Teddy Acree and his wife Swan. The Doctor is disappointed by the party, but the reclusive Teddy is fascinated by him, and begs him to pose for a death sculpture. The Doctor is unnerved when Teddy insists that the Doctor would be the perfect image for the Angel of Death, and turns down the offer, even when the desperate Teddy offers to let him pose naked with Swan. The Doctor leaves the party with one possible lead; he’s heard tell of a redneck would-be magician named Vernon Flood, a violent and stupid man with a frail, blind wife. Flood was known to hang around Chic’s in the vain hope of joining the city’s community of magicians. The Doctor and Rust travel out to Flood’s to look for further clues, but find no conclusive evidence linking him to the murder, although there are plenty of contraband electronics goods. In a crawlspace beneath Flood’s kitchen they find the same runes that were inscribed on the bone charm, and pinned to the fridge is a FedEx receipt indicating that Flood recently shipped something to one of the collectors who was bidding on the charm when Chic tried to sell it. When Flood returns and tries to drive them away at gunpoint, Rust releases the hounds which Flood had been torturing and training as attack dogs, and Rust and the Doctor leave as Flood flees from the enraged hounds.
Anji and Fitz continue their research, and hear tell of a mysterious “drowned plantation” -- a manor house which was crushed and soaked as if by a tidal wave back in 1980, although located miles from any water. Ever since that night, the land around the manor house has been dry as a bone. They tell their stories to the Doctor, who decides to investigate Dupre; however, Anji is concerned for his safety, for Dupre seemed to take his beliefs too intensely. Rust asks Anji out on a date; he’s a bit old for her, but she’s flattered by his interest and accepts. They have a nice time out, and Anji asks him to check in on the Doctor later.
The Doctor goes on Dupre’s tour, and finds him to be just as predictably evil as Anji and Fitz had claimed. Dupre may not be able to sense that the Doctor feels nothing but bored contempt for him, but he can sense that the Doctor is a being of power and thus invites him to attend a magic ritual at his home. Before going, the Doctor visits Thales, who seems pleasant enough; however, he’s strangely fascinated and disappointed by the Doctor, and behaves almost as though he expected the Doctor to know him already. The Doctor attends the ritual at Dupre’s home, a Gothic mansion decorated with mummified body parts stolen from the city’s cemeteries; the Doctor finds the decor both horrible and pathetic, and realises that he can learn nothing of use from Dupre. Before he can slip out unnoticed, however, an adolescent girl enters the room and strips down so Dupre can perform an act of sex magic with her, and the furious Doctor steps in and puts a stop to it. Dupre, furious, hits the Doctor and momentarily stuns him, and while the Doctor is unconscious the void from his dreams comes for him again -- and this time, it physically manifests itself as a dark cloud in Dupre’s magic circle. The dark cloud vanishes as the Doctor recovers, and the Doctor takes the humiliated young girl back home while Dupre sits transfixed by his first real brush with power.
The Doctor returns to Laura’s bookshop to consider what he’s learned, which isn’t much. While there he falls asleep again, and the Void returns and nearly catches him. While struggling free he ends up astrally entombed in a crypt in St.Louis cemetery #1. In order to escape, he retreats into his own mind, where he finds a garden blocked off behind a large wall; inside the garden is a little man with a red-handled umbrella, who seems to be taking a hard-won rest. When the Doctor tries to climb the wall, the little man furiously orders him to go away, and the Doctor wakes in tears. Trying to shake off the effect of the dream, the Doctor visits the cemetery, where he finds that the crypt in which he was entombed really does exist. It is the Delesormes family crypt, and when the Doctor next meets Anji and Fitz, Fitz reveals that he’s done some research into the “drowned plantation” -- and has found that it used to belong to a family named Delesormes.
The Delesormes family were once prosperous before a string of bad luck which culminated in the inexplicable destruction of their manor house and the deaths of all family members but for young Alain Auguste Delesormes Junior. The four-year-old, whose name was later anglicised to Alan August, was shipped off to a foster family in New England and died of an infection some years later. The Doctor decides to send Fitz and Anji to Vermont to investigate this lead, but first, he tries using the TARDIS to travel back to 1980 and witness the destruction of the Delesormes manor. There, he hides in a tree and watches through a window as a circle of naked people prepare to conduct an occult ceremony; he’s sworn not to interfere, but breaks this vow when he sees a limping man forcing a small boy into the centre of the circle. Fortunately, he’s still trying to climb out of the tree when the house implodes, struck by a wave of water which springs up from nowhere. The Doctor finds the young boy huddled in the rubble, and stays with him until the emergency services arrive. When he returns to the TARDIS, he tosses his coat into the wardrobe without thinking about it; later, however, he will realise that the boy placed the bone charm into his coat pocket to keep it safe while they were huddled together. As the charm was meant to control a water elemental from another plane of existence, it has a unique relationship with Time, which is why the TARDIS successfully materialised at the manor, where the charm was being used. Thus, although the Doctor put the charm in his wardrobe in 1980 and found it there again over twenty years later, he did so in the opposite order.
The Doctor drops off Fitz and Anji in the small Vermont town where Alan was sent to live after his family’s deaths. There, they learn that Alan was fostered with a poor family who only took him in for the sake of the government stipend. Alan was abused terribly before his death, and soon afterwards, his foster family was brutally murdered. Anji and Fitz go out to see the old shack where the Brownes lived for themselves, and find that it’s been torn apart as if by wild animals. Even Fitz can sense the hatred that went into the attack, and he realises that this was somehow personal. Acting on a hunch, he waits until dark and then digs up Alan’s grave, to find that the coffin contains not a body but a block of wood. They already know that Alan’s father was a magician, and it seems that his son has carried on the tradition, using magic to fake his own death and exact revenge against his brutal foster family. And if what remains of the shack is any indication, then if Alan is behind the attacks on the Doctor, the Doctor is in even worse danger than they’d dreamed.
Back in New Orleans, the Doctor is looking for Rust. He tries first at the police station and then at Flood’s, but there, he finds only Flood and his young, blind wife. Flood drives the Doctor off his property, but the Doctor becomes concerned by Flood’s attitude towards his wife and returns to offer his help. She refuses, claiming that she is bound to her husband and cannot leave. Flood catches them together, beats the Doctor nearly to death and locks him in the crawlspace with his wife. There, the Doctor sees that Mrs Flood has no eyes; she claims to have cried them out in sorrow. When the Doctor shows her compassion again, for the third time, this changes everything; thrice breaks the spell, and Mrs Flood transforms into a wave of water which rushes up into the house and tears Flood apart. The Doctor, appalled, realises that Mrs Flood was the naieen, the water elemental which Alain Delesormes was trying to summon. She did come through after all, but the ceremony went wrong and she became trapped in a flesh form. Somehow, afterwards, she became bound in service to Flood, and although Flood killed Chic and stole the charm in order to sell it, he first copied out the runes in a vain attempt to bring his rebellious wife under his complete control. When the Doctor showed compassion for her three times, this broke Flood’s hold over her; she is now free to return to her home on another plane of existence.
The Doctor returns to the city, where he finds Rust in a state of shock, apparently stunned by Flood’s brutal murder. Swan Acree then visits the Doctor and begs him to visit the Nightmare of Horror, a haunted house designed by Teddy for Jack Dupre. Teddy hopes that when the Doctor sees the full extent of his artistic vision he’ll finally agree to pose as the Angel of Death. The Doctor reluctantly goes along, but is kidnapped from the middle of the tour; none of the tourists intervene, as they assume it’s a stunt performance. Dupre has realised the truth, or at least part of it; the Doctor is a being of power, whom Dupre can use to summon the forces of evil at last. Teddy has agreed to help Dupre lure the Doctor into a trap, in exchange for a glimpse of the powers which he’s been trying to capture artistically all his life. The Doctor warns Teddy that the shock will be too much for him to handle, and gives Dupre one last chance to reconsider what he’s doing, but neither will listen. Dupre carves runes into the Doctor’s skin, anoints him with oils, and sprinkles protective circles of graveyard dust around himself and Teddy. He then summons a demon, but at the last moment the Doctor blows a gap in the dust circle around Dupre, and instead of consuming the Doctor, the demon goes for the person who summoned it. The demon departs after consuming Dupre, but Teddy’s eyes have been opened for good, and he flees in terror, seeing the Doctor as a monster.
Teddy trips a silent alarm in the Nightmare when he flees, and two policemen investigate and rescue the Doctor. There’s still no sign of Teddy the next day, and Swan becomes frantic with concern. The Doctor takes Rust to the Nightmare, believing that Teddy must be hiding somewhere inside, and even though Rust somehow locates Teddy in the house, Teddy flees at the sight of him. Teddy goes to Thales’ museum for help, believing that his mystical third eye is now permenantly open, but he sees Thales as a monster as well. He sees the truth of things now, just as he always thought he wanted -- but he may never be able to close his third eye again. He returns home to Swan, but finds no comfort there; and, later that night, he is visited by the magician, who presumably knows that Teddy can now see his secret. The magician tells Teddy to face the truth about himself; why does he think that his art is so obsessed with death? Teddy understands what the magician is telling him, and commits suicide.
Anji and Fitz return to New Orleans by plane and tell the Doctor what they’ve learned. He advises them not to worry Rust with the details, and sends them away while he ponders what’s happened. That night, however, he is visited by the Void, and this time, it takes him. When Anji and Fitz find him missing, the concerned Anji calls in Rust, but Rust seems too exhausted to concentrate on the investigation and Anji is humiliated when she realises that she’s taking advantage of his affection for her. She and Fitz visit Thales, seeking someone who will share their concern for the Doctor, and Thales is surprised when they admit that the Doctor was the one who first found the bone charm which has been causing so much trouble. Once Thales learns this, he seems certain that the Doctor will find his way out of whatever trouble he’s in, and Anji and Fitz leave him, somewhat comforted by their talk.
The Doctor, trapped by the magician, has an apparent waking dream; he’s in New Orleans in the 1970s, somehow there without quite being there, and something is trying to make him shoot a man walking down the street. The Doctor resists, and the man gets away. The Doctor then wakes to find himself in a child’s bedroom; this is Alan’s childhood bedroom from the manor house, and Alan, the magician who’s been hunting down the Doctor, has frozen it in Time as he once knew it so he can speak to the Doctor on familiar ground. To the Doctor’s sorrow, Alan is the man whom the Doctor knows as Jonas Rust. After faking his own death and murdering his cruel foster family, Rust joined the homicide department in order to gain access to the bodies of the dead, and thus the body parts he required to complete some of his spells. Magic works by sacrifice, and although he’s not shied away from killing others, he’s given up much of his own life for his work, which is why he appears to be in his fifties when he’s actually less than thirty years old. He blames himself for the failure of the ceremony and the deaths of his family, and he’s been trying to complete his father’s work ever since -- unaware that the naieen was under his nose all along in the form of Mrs Flood.
The Doctor realises that the man Rust tried to have him kill in the 1970s was Rust’s father, but that Rust was unable to bring himself to go through with it. He also realises that Rust is drawing on the Doctor’s own powerful psychic aura -- or “artron energy”, as he now remembers it’s called -- to maintain the time spell. The Doctor turns this against him by using his own body rhythms to force Time back into its proper phase, and they appear in the Delesormes manor on the night of the disaster. Rust sees it all happening again, but when he rushes forward to stop it, his appearance frightens his younger self, who flees from the circle, thus breaking the spell and causing it all to go wrong.
The Doctor and Rust phase back to the present before the manor is destroyed, and the Doctor tries to convince Rust that it wasn’t his fault at all; his father should never have risked the life of his innocent son for his own benefit. But Rust’s family were Creoles, descendents of black slaves -- which is why they had their run of “bad luck”, as the townspeople cheated and took advantage of them, and nobody would defend them. Rust will not listen to a man with no memory who dares to claim he understands Rust’s pain; instead, he hijacks the Doctor’s artron energy, and forces him to travel astrally to Lyon in France, where, the magician Pierre Bal is hoarding the bone charm he bought from Flood. Bal once devoted his life to hedonism until the sacrifices he had to make for his magic overloaded and burned out his senses; now the only joy he takes is in ruining others’ lives, and he purchased the bone charm mainly to keep it out of his rivals’ hands. But with the Doctor on his side, Rust easily penetrates Bal’s defenses, and this time, the Doctor is unable to stop Rust from forcing him to tear out Bal’s heart. After all, what’s one more death when the Doctor has caused so many others? Rust knows the Doctor’s secret now, but he won’t tell; he doesn’t hate him that much...
Rust leaves the Doctor in the swamp to be guarded by swamp spirits until Rust returns from Lyon with the charm. But the Doctor doesn’t trust the monstrous bogles, and indeed, as soon as Rust is out of sight the bogles attack the Doctor, trying to tear him to pieces. He is transported out of their clutches, however, and finds himself in a beautiful forest cottage, within sight of the sea, in an idyll existence on another plane of time and space. He realises the danger inherent here, and refuses to eat or drink any of the food or water provided to him, as that act would bind him to this state forever. Finally, his saviour Mrs Flood arrives in person, and tries everything she can to tempt the Doctor, her own saviour, to stay here with her. But he refuses; like her, he has unfinished business on Earth, and he must return to the pain of normal existence to help those who need him. Though angry and upset that he has rejected her, Mrs Flood allows the Doctor to return to the TARDIS, which still waits for him in St.Louis #1.
Anji has been avoiding Rust due to her embarrassment, but the waiting gets to be too much for her, and she and Fitz go to Dupre’s to investigate. There, they find that Dupre’s magical supplies have been cleared out -- and although Rust earlier told them that he knew Dupre was missing because of the newspapers piling up on his porch, there are no papers to be seen. Anji realises that Rust lied, and if he lied about one thing how many others has he lied about, and why? She and Fitz return to the TARDIS, hoping to use its symbiotic links to track down the Doctor, but to their surprise the Doctor himself walks in out of the pouring rain. He too is surprised to learn that only a day has passed since Mrs Flood took him away; on the other plane it seemed to be much, much longer. By now, Rust has had enough time to get to Lyon and back, and the Doctor thus sends Anji and Fitz to the airport to see if he’s still there while the Doctor looks for him at his home. There’s no sign of Rust at his house, but something obvious then occurs to the Doctor. Rust never mentioned the Doctor sheltering him as a child, and when the Doctor and Rust saw the ceremony from the inside they saw young Alan flee out of the house before it was destroyed. So who was it that the Doctor sheltered?
Guessing the truth, the Doctor confronts Thales, who reveals that his “crippled” legs in fact have no proper feet. When an elemental takes on flesh it doesn’t always get the form exactly right, and Thales’ body has also aged much more quickly than is usual, while Mrs Flood, the other elemental, didn’t age at all. Before the Doctor can do anything for him, Rust arrives, having used the Void to track down the Doctor once again; it’s hammering at the windows now, a vast emptiness drawn to the void within the Doctor himself. When Rust realises that Thales is a naieen as well, he appears triumphant; at last he will correct his father’s mistakes and take Thales’ power for himself. The Doctor begs Rust to reconsider, but he won’t; he’s gone too far and done too much evil to stop now, and he can’t accept the Doctor’s forgiveness when he can’t forgive himself. So instead, the Doctor opens up the window and lets the Void into the room.
As happened to Dupre, the monster goes for the one who summoned it, drawn to the emptiness in Rust and consuming him. The Doctor nearly surrenders to the Void as well, but Thales holds him back, knowing that he does not belong to the void, whatever he may fear of himself; Thales gave him the charm because he sensed the Doctor could be trusted. The Void returns to nothingness, and the rain floods into the room -- and Thales vanishes, as Mrs Flood rescues her son from his flesh trap. At peace, the Doctor takes Anji and Fitz a few months forward in time, to witness the burning of the bonfires on Christmas Eve, an ancient celebration of the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.