Sisko and Kira play host on the space station to the leaders of two rival Bajoran factions — the Paqu and the Navot. Sisko has stepped in to mediate their land dispute in an effort to avert civil war. But he and his first officer are surprised when they meet Varis Sul, Tetrarch of the Paqu, and see that she is a 15-year-old girl. Meanwhile, Bashir and O'Brien, in response to an emergency, beam down to a Bajoran village from their orbiting Runabout. Warned that the entire village is in grave danger, they meet Faren Kag, the magistrate, who takes them to a deathly-ill, bedridden older man known as the Sirah, being tended to by Hovath, a young Bajoran male. Learning that the Sirah is the only person who is ill, Bashir and O'Brien are told that if he dies, the entire village will die.
Sisko and Kira bring together Varis with Woban, the large, gruff Navot leader, for an informal discussion about their dispute before official negotiations begin, a talk that only serves to show how far apart the two sides really are, resulting in a frustrated Varis storming out. Jake and Nog see her walking through the Promenade, and the Ferengi boy becomes instantly infatuated with her, telling Jake that he must meet her. Back at the Bajoran village, the Sirah stirs from his sleep, takes O'Brien's hand, and voices satisfaction that the prophets haven't failed. Bewildered by this, O'Brien and Bashir meet with an anxious Faren, who is told that the Sirah is dying of old age. Faren tells them that the Sirah is needed to protect the village from the Dal'Rok, a terrible creature that appears every year for five nights, and that this is the fourth night this year. If the Sirah cannot even get out of bed tonight, the village is doomed.
That night, against Bashir's better judgment, the Sirah walks into the village square and onto his platform. As the Bajorans gather below, the Dal'Rok, a large, ominously rolling energy cloud, appears in the sky, bringing a harsh wind that whips at the village. Above the wind, the Sirah shouts a story about the Dal'Rok, with the crowd below responding as a unit to his words. Particles of white light rise up to the cloud, causing it to shrink slightly. But the Sirah suddenly collapses, the white lights disappear, and all havoc breaks loose as the Dal'Rok lets out a beam of destruction into the panicked village. Bashir and O'Brien run to the Sirah's aid, but the dying man pulls O'Brien close, instructing him to tell the story.
Eventually, the Dal'Rok is driven away. However, the Sirah finally dies. But as far as the villagers are concerned, O'Brien is now the new Sirah. He is at a loss for words. Back on the station, Varis shares with Jake and Nog her frustrations — she has land that the Navot faction wants, but she doesn't want to give it up. The infatuated Nog tells her she can turn this problem into an opportunity if they have something she wants. This prospect gives her thought.
The morning after the Sirah's death, O'Brien and Bashir have no idea how the Dal'Rok was stopped — or what will happen when O'Brien is expected to lead the story again. Faren then leads a group of villagers to O'Brien, who is showered with gifts. Faren stays behind, telling a reluctant O'Brien that he must once again tell the tale tonight. The Bajoran is so secure in his faith, O'Brien knows that nothing he can say will change his mind. He and Bashir choose to uncover what the Dal'Rok really is and try to destroy it before nightfall. Their analysis of a wall destroyed by the energy cloud reveals a neutrino trace — which is odd if the Dal'Rok has no physical substance. But villagers then approach the two, wanting the blessing of the new Sirah. Not comfortable with this, O'Brien goes into the Sirah's chamber, where he encounters Hovath, who was the apprentice of the older man. But Hovath won't answer O'Brien's questions about the Dal'Rok, and instead tries to kill him. Bashir comes in and helps disarm Hovath, who says that O'Brien isn't the true Sirah — Hovath is.
Bashir and O'Brien learn from Hovath that the Sirah allowed him to tell the story one night, but he failed to control the Dal'Rok, and several people were injured. He shows them the Sirah's bracelet, which has mounted into it a fragment of an orb from the celestial temple — it channels the villagers fears and creates the Dal'Rok. The first Sirah did this as a way of uniting the people, who at the time were divided by hate. Having a storyteller helps the villagers to focus their thoughts, which creates the white lights that defeat the energy force. This secret has been kept for years. O'Brien is ready to let Hovath tell the story, when Faren steps in, saying Hovath has already failed, and only O'Brien can lead the people. O'Brien can't find any way out of this.
On the station, Varis — after talking with Nog and Jake again — approaches Sisko with an opportunity — one that may make both sides happy. Meanwhile, in the Bajoran village, O'Brien awkwardly tries to tell a story to the villagers. The Dal'Rok appears, but he can't control it. The villagers begin to panic, but Hovath steps in, calms everyone, and tells the story. The lights appear, and the Dal'Rok is defeated for another year. A relieved O'Brien suggests to Bashir they leave before the villagers change their minds. Back at the station, Sisko and Varis prepare to go back to the negotiating table, sure that she has devised a solution that will please both sides in the dispute. But before they go in, she thanks Nog for his suggestion — with a kiss on the cheek.