While browsing through the spectacularly disorganised TARDIS library, Anji finds a wooden box containing an old book...
The tale begins with a Prince riding to a castle blocked by a Scarlet Hedge, on a quest to wake the sleeping Princess. He has been told to stay true to his course, but when he sees something fall from the sky he is curious and investigates. In a smoking crater he finds a box which whispers to him, tempting him with all he desires, but when he opens the box this is just what he gets -- all of his desires, all at once...
Space miner William Brok has just found a quantum white hole, hidden from the galaxy by a dark nebula and orbiting around an unnamed world, but before he can take advantage of his discovery, his star drive’s warranty expires and he is left stranded in space. He is rescued by the ship Bonaventure, but must give up salvage rights to its captains. There is one captain for each species on the mission; the human captain is Christina Morgenstern, the abanak captain is Wulfstan Timtangle, and the vuim-captain’s name is unpronounceable by humans. The abanak resemble friendly pink hippopotami and are excellent traders; the vuim are a quasi-insectoid species suffering from a genetic disorder which will soon kill them all. Brok sees a vuim die of the disease shortly after his arrival, and his efforts to save it are noted with gratitude by the other vuim. In the meantime, the captains launch satellites to stake their claim to the white hole and the unnamed world which they label WHO-1. As they can’t broadcast through the nebula they can’t report their find; but seven bundles of quantum energy were recently expelled from the white hole, and Christina decides to lead a team to the planet to collect them, for proof and profit. The Vuim-Captain leads another team to the uninhabited side of the world in search of other forms of mineral wealth, while Timtangle remains in charge on the ship.
The TARDIS materialises on the planet, and the Doctor, Fitz and Anji emerge to explore -- only to find a forest blocking their way back to the TARDIS when they turn around. However, Fitz soon finds a vellum parchment directing them to the Goblin Market outside the walls of the local town. As they set off, they meet an old Crone trying to cross a stream, and the Doctor helps her across though she nearly chokes him in the process. Satisfied, she gives him helpful advice and then vanishes into the distance, impossibly quickly. By the time the travellers reach the Market, it’s too late to find help and get back to the TARDIS before nightfall, and the Doctor thus opens his own stall, labelling himself “Doctor Know-All” and offering diverse services in order to learn the local customs and earn enough money for a place to stay. He’s fascinated when he and his friends meet a woman whose husband is a sheepdog by day; they seem to have landed on a world where fairy tales come true.
The Doctor sends Fitz and Anji out to learn what they can while he tends his stall. Anji just wants to get back to the TARDIS as quickly as possible, and when she meets a hideous old witch with a box which grants wishes, she negotiates a deal; in exchange for the box she will help to organise a household of six sisters. Unfortunately, she’s overlooked a small clause on the contract, and thus finds herself bound into indentured servitude for six days, one day per sister. A black coach appears from nowhere, sweeps Anji up and drives her to a country manor where she and an ogre named “Stupid” are the sole servants to six hectoring, spoiled sisters. Anji finds herself physically unable to leave before her time is up; what’s worse, as she is now a servant, the box will only grant wishes to her mistresses. She tries to trick them into wishing her free of her contract, but every attempt backfires and she is forced to give up for fear of making things even worse.
Fitz saves an old man from being run over in the street, and the old man gives him a wolfskin cloak to protect him from the cold. Fitz takes shelter in the nearby pub, where he sees the witch bragging about how she tricked Anji; however, he’s getting the hang of how this world works and refuses to bargain with her for details. By the time he gets back to the Doctor’s stall, however, the Tailor King’s guards have dragged off the self-advertised “Doctor Know-All”, who must prove himself by waking the sleeping Princess or else face the King’s wrath. Fitz is then approached by the princes Ansel and Gilfred, who intend to seek an audience with the Fairy Belesia at the Castle of Sighs in order to learn how to wake the Princess and win her hand. They need someone to tend to their pack animals, and Fitz may find answers to his own dilemmas at the Castle of Sighs; he thus agrees to accompany them.
Christina is accompanied to the planet’s surface by Alex Volpe and the abanak Tento, but while their ship’s instruments register solid land, the landscape transforms into a lake of mud and swallows their scout ship. Their radio won’t transmit back to the Bonaventure, and they are forced to set off on foot, looking for higher land. Brok begins to fear for their safety when they fail to report back, but Timtangle, while seeming sympathetic, refuses to risk any other landers on a rescue mission. Meanwhile, the vuim try to land on the other side of the planet only to find the landscape literally retreating from them. The vuim-captain eventually tires of the game and crashes straight down onto the landscape, stunning it; he and his people then cut free a sample of the worldstuff and experiment with it, to find out if it is organic and how it has made a perfect replica of the landscape of Earth. When they try to disintegrate part of their sample, they detect no change apart from a quantum flicker, which suggests that the sample is pulling in raw material from elsewhere with which to renew itself. Elsewhere on the planet, an ancient crystal tower shatters, dwarves’ beards turn white and gemstones vanish.
The Doctor is sent to the chambers of the King’s former magician, whose skin became the Tailor King’s new leather pants when he failed to wake the Princess. In the magician’s chambers, the Doctor finds a crystal table with a gnome inside. The gnome, Inexplicable Blessing Wottlewort, tells the Doctor of the “skyfallings” and shows him the Prince who found the first one; he now lies in the castle babbling of impossibilities. The Doctor, sensing that the “skyfallings” pose a real threat to this world, smashes the glass to free Inex, who promises to transport him to safety once he’s had a chance to rest. The Doctor also rests, and wakes to find that during the night Inex has taken him away from the castle -- either magically, or by carrying him out wrapped in a bedsheet. They are then confronted by the terrified Alex Volpe, who has been separated from Christina and has seen an ordinary forest hut literally eat Tento alive. The Doctor calms him down, and gives him the TARDIS key as a gesture of trust, promising to help him learn the truth of this world and escape.
On the path to the Castle of Sighs, Fitz, Ansel and Gilfred meet an old Crone -- the same one whom the Doctor helped earlier. She begs them for food, but the princes claim they have none and ride on. Furious, Fitz tries to give the Crone some food, but the bags are indeed empty; he thus gives her the crust of bread remaining from his meal at the pub. A snowstorm blows up from nowhere and forces the princes to seek shelter, and when they find a convenient hut in the middle of the forest they ignore Fitz’s concerns and enter. Pixies emerge from the forest and provide Fitz with warm lanterns to save the horses and his donkey from the cold -- but while they seem to be addressing their comments to Fitz they react in scorn when he speaks to them directly. Later events will suggest that they were in fact speaking to his wolfskin cloak.
Fitz decides to join the princes in the hut, but while they spend a warm and comfortable night there’s a price to be paid; the next morning, the hut locks its doors and informs them that one must stay to feed it. Ansel and Gilfred agree to draw lots, but rig the contest so Fitz will lose and flee before he can stop them. However, the wolf-cloak speaks to Fitz, reminding him that the hut promised to take the last to leave; thus, Fitz leaves the living cloak inside the hut and escapes, and the hut chokes on the wolf hairs and spits the cloak out. Fitz sets off for the Castle of Sighs once again, but finds a pack of wolves attacking Ansel and Gilfred; his cloak allows him to speak the wolves’ language, and he convinces them to spare the princes in exchange for their horses. However, Ansel strikes a wolf dead with his sword and he and his brother ride off on a single horse before the pack can stop them. Fitz must give up his donkey as amends for the broken bargain and continue on foot. Ansel and Gilfred, meanwhile, conclude that Fitz set the pack on them as revenge, and plan to report him to the Duke of Sighs as an evil sorcerer who must be executed.
Alex has had the night to calm down, and he now finds the Doctor too suspiciously good to be true. His tracker indicates that there’s a source of white-hole energy four hundred metres up, which he thinks is a fault until the Doctor points out a Giant’s castle in the clouds. Furious with the Doctor for being so apparently open and friendly, Alex flushes the TARDIS key in the restrooms of the local inn, only to find it inside the fish he’d ordered for breakfast -- a fish which was caught and brought in yesterday. As they set off for the Giant’s castle, the Doctor suffers an attack of some kind, but dismisses his chest pains as unimportant; Alex, however, isn’t convinced that it was a real attack, and suspects that the Doctor is a corporate rival who may have conspired with Inex to murder Tento.
The Duke of Sighs has announced a ball at which he shall choose his bride, and when the sisters receive his proclamation they order Anji to spin them fabric from the flax in the attic and make them six beautiful ballgowns. Anji knows she will never be able to complete the task in a day, but the sisters’ ogre, whose real name is Bricklebrit, takes pity on her; she has never treated him cruelly, and he wishes he could help her. The wishing box promptly causes his gran to appear from nowhere and spin six ballgowns from the flax in a single night. But then the ball is cancelled. While riding alone in the forest the Duke had wished to himself that he could find a woman as graceful, witty and handsome as he, to take as his bride; a white hart thus appeared to him and showed him the image of two women, one dark and one fair, who have come to his land from far away, and who pose a puzzle which will lead him to his bride. The messenger who delivers the news to the sisters’ home soon realises that Anji, with her talk of faraway galaxies and Zen rock gardens, must be the dark maiden of the Duke’s vision.
Christina, lost in a cornfield, encounters a sphinx who has fortunately lost its appetite after failing to answer the riddles of the blue box which the wodewose, wild man of the wood, found in his forest. Christina proceeds to the woods, where a sparrow speaks to her, asking for her help; overwhelmed, she promises to help when the need arises, and the sparrow thus gives her the three answers to the wodewose’s riddles. The wodewose then confronts her and leads her to a strange blue “police box” which has appeared in his wood; he can’t answer the riddles its existence implies, and wants her to explain it. When she can’t, he poses his own riddles, and she gives the sparrow’s answers; he realises that she’s cheated, but gives her three golden acorns anyway, as he’s desperate for help to explain the skyfallings. Christina continues on through the woods and emerges by the sisters’ home just as the Duke of Sighs arrives to take Anji to his castle. Upon seeing Christina he realises that she’s the fair maiden he seeks.
The Doctor, Inex and Alex arrive at the Giant’s castle, where they escape from giant rats by climbing the tapestries. The second storey of the castle is much smaller than the first, and the Doctor suspects that the Giant’s size varies according to dramatic convenience. They find the Giant sleeping in his treasure chamber, but just as Alex locates the white-hole energy bundle -- another wishing box -- Inex realises that the Giant is only pretending to sleep, to lure them closer. While the Doctor tries to save Inex, Alex flees with the wishing box, and once free of the castle he throws away the Doctor’s key, refusing to remain beholden to him. However, when he next turns to the wishing box, it’s open and closed at the same time, and every condition between. Alex is overwhelmed by visions of all of the possible pasts and futures he could have had, including those in which he is dead, and one in which he kept the key and found the wishing box empty. As he searches for the key, he experiences his own death many times over, and when he finally finds the key in the hands of the wodewose, he agrees to return it to its owner, desperate to be freed from his condition. The wodewose thus changes Alex’s appearance. Soon afterwards, an abanak away team finds the abandoned wishing box, but they pay no attention to the fox prowling about and whining at them.
The Giant apparently eats Inex and then turns on the Doctor, but the Doctor inadvertently kicks an abscess in the Giant’s mouth, and as the Giant writhes in agony the Doctor agrees to serve him in exchange for his life. The Giant agrees to take him on, but the Doctor soon defies the Giant’s orders and explores a forbidden part of the castle. There, he finds the Master-maid Janet, the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, sold into slavery by her six cruel sisters. If the Doctor serves the Giant for a week, the spell over Janet will be broken. However, as the Doctor tends to the Giant he sees strange circular holes appearing in the Giant’s teeth -- the effect of the vuim’s work on the other side of the world -- and under hypnosis, the Giant speaks of evil boxes full of wishes and promises. Fearing that the world faces a danger greater than anything he faces by refusing to play by its rules, the Doctor convinces Janet to help him escape before his time is up. She uses her spells to trick and delay the Giant, but knows that he will not give up his pursuit so easily, and thus stays on the beach near the Castle of Sighs while the Doctor continues on. She tells him not to pause for anything, but to send one of the Fairy Belesia’s fairy steeds back to the beach for her. However, she’s seen the way he looks at her, as if his regard encompasses the whole world and more, and she knows he will betray her despite his best intentions.
Anji and Christina both find the Duke of Sighs to be a vain and pompous man, with a streak of viciousness; when they laugh at him, he selects an innocent woman from the crowd to be their maid and punishes her for their transgressions. The women must pass tests of beauty, wit, and grace, and then he will choose which of them shall be his bride. Anji sends her new “maid”, Rozered, to the sisters’ house to collect the wishing box; in the meantime, she and Christina agree to stall the Duke by throwing each contest. But they’re both competitive by nature, and the Duke’s contests all have cruel stings to them. To win the first contest they must impress their beauty upon the Iron Johann, who has been blind with grief and has worn an iron band around his heart ever since his beloved wife died. Christina can’t bring herself to play this cruel game and wishes for a way out -- and one of the golden acorns in her pocket turns black, restoring Johann’s wife to life. His sight and his joy restored, he cannot choose between Anji and Christina while his beautiful wife stands before him, and as the Duke chose him as a judge he must call a draw.
Fitz finally reaches the Castle of Sighs after a long and arduous journey by foot, only to find that Ansel and Gilfred have bribed the watchmen to ensure that he is imprisoned for sorcery. Gilfred comes to the dungeons to take the wolf cloak away from Fitz, but the infuriated Fitz, perhaps aided by the cloak’s power, attacks him and pursues him through the dungeons. Gilfred finally realises that the cloak contains the spirit of his younger brother Offram, whom he and Ansel betrayed and abandoned in the forest. He begs for mercy, and Fitz reluctantly spares his life -- only to be knocked out from behind by Ansel. But as the brothers prepare to destroy the cloak, they hear the sound of a wolf pack pattering through the castle towards them...
For the test of grace, Anji and Christina must each balance a stack of 500 books on their heads; for each book dropped a servant will be whipped, and for each book they refuse to carry a child will be branded with a red-hot coin. They both take all 500 books, but Christina again wishes for a way out -- and the two stacks of books fall against each other and are supported in mid-air. Infuriated, the Duke states that he shall personally judge the test of wit; each woman must recite a poem, and he shall choose the most transcendent. Anji realises that he’s trapped himself by the rules of his own devising, and she and Christina thus work together; Christina recites “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, and Anji then recites a short poem in words of three syllables or more. As they’d hoped, the Duke is too dim to realise that both poems have the same meaning, and when he chooses Anji, the Fairy Belesia is finally able to break his power and declare the contest null and void. The Duke stole or tortured three wishing boxes out of his subjects, and tried to make their power work for him without actually wishing for anything -- but he slipped up and wished privately for a bride as charming, handsome and intelligent as himself. Thus, he is transformed into a toad and given as husband to the hideous old witch who first tricked Anji into servitude.
The Doctor reaches the Castle of Sighs, but Janet’s six wicked sisters have arrived to protest the cancellation of the ball, and one of them falls in love with the handsome Doctor on sight and tosses him a golden apple which causes him to forget that Janet ever existed. He soon sees through the shallow sister, however, and when he spurns her advances she storms off to turn him in for the reward. When he bites into the apple, he has a vision of a human colony ship crashing on this planet, the memory banks breaking open and the fairy tales and stories within being absorbed into the giant living organism which has taken the form of the world’s landscape. He’s seen this before, in the time engines of the Supremacy, and he realises that the planet itself is alive, an entire organism living in symbiosis with the descendents of the human colonists, who have named it Albert. Now, Belesia -- who, like the wodewose and the Giant Albert, is an avatar of the planet -- has a task for the Doctor and his companions; find the dangerous wishing boxes which fell from the white hole, and take them far away.
But the world faces another danger, for the vuim have seen their sample of worldstuff form an exact copy of the outside landscape, right down to a miniature version of the lander. Inside that lander is another lander, and so on, down to levels of detail which should be impossible by the laws of quantum mechanics. The vuim-captain realises that the organism can be made to mimic anything in existence, and takes the miniature lander to show Timtangle while the other vuim convert the lander into a harvester and begin to scoop up samples of the organism. They don’t realise that the entire organism is connected, and that they are in effect ripping whole parts of a living being away from the rest of itself. Pain and madness spreads out across the world, and members of another abanak away team watch in shock as the suddenly mad Tailor King chops off his serving girl’s hands, believing that she is his daughter and that he’s promised her hand in marriage to the Devil...
On the Bonaventure, Brok has become suspicious of Timtangle, and confronts him with proof that he sent more abanak teams down to the planet’s surface, something he refused to do to rescue Christina. Timtangle beats him to a pulp, locks him up and places the ship under quarantine alert, confining all humans and vuim to their quarters so that nobody else will realise the abanak are collecting goods from the planet to sell without sharing the profit.
The Doctor finds himself unable to approach the Duke’s wishing boxes, as they present him with infinite possibilites and try to tempt him to choose one. He eventually realises that as the boxes contain quantum processes which are analogous to thoughts, he can speak to them as living beings. He does so and manages to convince them that this possibility is the best they can find, one in which their own agenda will be met. Belesia provides the travellers with fairy steeds to take them back to the Princess Ebonyblack’s castle, where they will find the answers they seek -- but the sight of the steeds reminds the Doctor of Janet, far too late. He rides back to the beach only to find that Janet has been kidnapped by robbers. On this world every promise, no matter how small, must be kept -- but he has another mission now, and he will have to face the consequences of betraying Janet later.
The abanak away teams have heard of the “wishing boxes”, and deduce that they are like pearls secreted by the planet around the quantum bundles from the white hole. As the organism can be made to create literally anything, and as quantum energy from other Universes does not obey the known laws of physics, this planet could be a treasure trove. Timtangle thus tries to convince the vuim-captain to betray the humans and split the fortune two ways, but the vuim-captain is appalled by this dishonour and refuses. Timtangle thus has him locked up as well. Meanwhile, Brok is rescued by a vuim who remains grateful for Brok’s earlier attempt to save the dying vuim. The vuim and a human doctor get Brok to the medical bay and heal his injuries, but they are all recaptured again when they try to rescue the vuim-captain. Brok and the vuim-captain are thrown into the same cell, and Brok realises that the vuim-captain is starting to show the symptoms of the genetic disorder which will shortly kill him.
As the Doctor, Anji, Fitz and Christina ride on, they see the side-effects of the vuim harvest; madness, destruction and death, and a giant tower of sheer red rock which rises from nowhere and carries the Princess’ tower out of reach. The Doctor suspects that Christina’s people are responsible for this, but before he can investigate, the wodewose’s forest appears from nowhere again and they are reunited with the TARDIS. Anji is reunited with Rozered, who was pursued into the forest by an abanak who tried to take the wishing box from her; the wodewose killed the abanak, but Rozered dropped the wishing box and lost it. The fox which used to be Alex Volpe then arrives, coughs up the TARDIS key and demands that the Doctor help him change back.
Rozered uses the fairy steeds to guide herself out of the forest, while the Doctor uses the TARDIS to travel to the Princess’ tower. He materialises just outside, and while searching for a way in he finds Inex, who is trapped in his scrying glass again and who shows the Doctor that the vuim are ripping the world apart. Meanwhile, Alex tells Christina that he’s found a way into the castle; he will show her if she promises to take away the white hole’s “seedlings”, and to give him her third golden acorn, which remains unused. She agrees, steals the Doctor’s three wishing boxes and slips away, but once she enters the castle she refuses to keep her bargain with Alex. When she tries to take the two wishing boxes inside the castle, however, she is confronted by the survivors of the abanak away team, who have fallen under a mesmeric influence and try to take her three boxes from her. Before she realises what she’s doing she wishes for a way out, and the third golden acorn transforms her into a white cat and the three wishing boxes into the bells on her collar.
Anji slips away to answer a call of nature, and is captured by Bricklebrit, who tries to take her away from the castle, claiming it’s too dangerous for her. She insists that she must help her friends, and strikes a deal with him, knowing that the planet will enforce it. If he helps her to recover the wishing boxes she will try using hers to grant one of his wishes, as long as it doesn’t involve forcing her to fall in love with him or anything of that kind. He agrees, and takes her back to the castle, where he uses one of his granny’s magic spindles to weave thread out of the castle walls, thus opening a way in.
Ansel and Gilfred burst out of the forest, nearly mad with fear, and throw the wolf cloak onto the Doctor’s campfire -- but their younger brother Offram emerges from the flames, alive once again. Gilfred stabs himself to death in despair, and Ansel flees into the woods, where he is set upon by wolves. The young Prince Offram tells the Doctor and Fitz of the grottos where he and his brothers used to play as children, which open up into tunnels beneath the castle. In the tunnels, the Doctor is reunited with Janet, who was left here by the robbers as bait for the Beast which lives beneath the castle. As the Beast approaches, the Doctor realises that Christina has stolen his wishing boxes, but Janet shows him one which the bandit leader claimed to have found -- presumably the one which Rozered lost in the forest. The Doctor uses the box to search for a future in which he and his friends all survive, but he can’t find one, and he thus merges three futures together, leaving an insane three-headed Beast to fight with itself while he and his friends escape.
Back on the Bonaventure, the dying vuim-captain gives Brok something which he took from the miniature lander -- a miniature version of himself, which stepped out of the miniature at the same time the captain stepped out of the actual lander. As a product of the worldstuff, the miniature vuim can grant wishes, and when Brok touches it all he wants is freedom. The miniature takes this wish and reaches out to the worldstuff which the vuim have harvested and brought to the Bonaventure. Suddenly the quiescent worldstuff goes on the rampage, driving the vuim and abanak back up through the ship’s corridors.
The Doctor and Janet are separated from Fitz and Offram when the stairs collapse between them. While Fitz and Offram climb the rest of the staircase, Janet reminds the Doctor that the fairy steeds are still at his service, and he summons one and rides it straight up the sheer wall of the castle. All of the travellers thus arrive in the Princess’ bedchamber, including Anji and Bricklebrit. At first they assume the dead body in the corner of the room to be a retainer left by the Tailor King to watch over his daughter, but then it rises and speaks to the Doctor, who recognises it as the remains of the Prince who found the first wishing box. The white hole is alive, and the seedlings are its spawn -- and the white hole will not leave this Universe until its knows its progeny are safe.
The seedling which has possessed the Prince summons the mesmerised abanak to it, and takes the power from their two wishing boxes into itself, as well as the power from the box which Janet had given to the Doctor. It then demands that the Doctor make a single wish, one which will change the Universe and allow the seedling to live in the fracture between what was and what can be. The Doctor refuses to impose his personal idea of utopia upon the galaxy, but he knows that even if he destroys this seedling, the white hole will continue to spawn until one of its seeds is successful; he therefore agrees to make a single, small wish, just enough to give the seedling a chance to live.
The cat which used to be Christina arrives in the chamber, and the Doctor adds the silver bells from its collar to the seedling, putting all of the “skyfallings” together at last. He then has Inex contact Timtangle, and offers to make a deal with him; stop torturing the planet, and the Doctor will give up his single wish. Timtangle refuses to negotiate, and goes on record as stating that the planet launched an unprovoked attack on his people and that he is just trying to rescue its human colonists from slavery. He thus threatens to use the Bonaventure’s nuclear engines to burn the planet out continent by continent until it surrenders. The Doctor therefore offers up his wish, but not to Timtangle; possibilities unfold, and the vuim-captain is suddenly on the bridge as well, capable of making a wish for himself. When he does so, the worldstuff on the Bonaventure thus vanishes, its mass given up to cure every single vuim in the galaxy simultaneously. The white hole vanishes as well, its work done, and the seedling vanishes into the fracture between realities, where it will bloom in a hundred millennia’s time. Timtangle is placed under arrest by the vuim-captain; later, he will face his own people for imperilling the abanak’s public facade of friendly businessmen.
The Princess Ebonyblack’s curse has been lifted, and she and Prince Offram are wed. Alex the fox will now live with Rozered, while Bricklebrit admits that he wished only to be the kind of person whom Anji could love. The Doctor frees Inex, who becomes Ebonyblack and Offram’s new major-domo. The planet refuses to change Christina back into a human, and Brok thus takes her aboard his own ship, having traded his share of the expedition’s profits for full repairs. The planet also refuses to accept the vuim-captain’s apology, but he promises to keep its secret and will impose this upon the rest of his crew. The Doctor will continue to go everywhere there is, see everything there is, and do what he loves.
The tale ends with the six wicked sisters receiving their come-uppance, as each of their magic dresses kills its wearer according to its nature. Anji puts aside the book, irritated by the fairy-tale ending, and leaves wishing the library could organise itself for once -- and the box glows, and the library books rearrange themselves.