This collection begins with an Endless family meeting, wherein Desire taunts Morpheus about his intolerant treatment of a former lover, the African queen ‘Nada’ (“Nada” is “Nothing” in Spanish), whose story formed the prologue to the second collection, The Doll’s House, and Death angers him further by agreeing with Desire, whereupon Morpheus visits Hell to retrieve Nada. As he arrives, Lucifer expels all the demons and damned souls from Hell, abdicates as its ruler, and gives Morpheus the key to Hell’s gates (this episode sets up the basis for the spin-off comic series Lucifer written by Mike Carey).
Word of Lucifer’s abdication spreads to other immortals, who visit the Dreaming to bargain for it: Odin wishes to control Hell to avoid Ragnarök and travels to the Dreaming with Loki and Thor; Anubis, Bast, and Bes offer information in exchange for the key to Hell; Susano-o-no-Mikoto, requests to add Hell to a new underworld controlled by his family; and Azazel arrives with Choronzon and Merkin, and demands the key in exchange for Nada and Choronzon. Order is personified as an empty cardboard box carried by a Djinn-like being, while Chaos appears as a small girl in clown makeup; whereof Order offers to trade the dreams of the newly dead, while Chaos simply threatens Morpheus and gives him a toy balloon. The faerie Cluracan and his sister Nuala appeal to Morpheus to give control of Hell to no one, and Cluracan offers his sister in exchange. Duma and Remiel are set to observe the negotiations (Susano-o-no-Mikoto, Duma, and Remiel later become important characters in the spin-off series Lucifer).
After private negotiations with single divinities that represent each group of gods, Dream gives Duma and Remiel the key; then Dream fights with Azazel, enters inside him and frees Nada, while trapping Azazel in Dream’s realm. Later, Dream apologizes to Nada for what he has done to her, and she is reincarnated as a newborn human child, with permission to enter the Dreaming at will.
Between these deliberations is the story “In Which the Dead Return; and Charles Rowland Concludes His Education”, from issue #25, which takes place at a traditional English boarding-school (and borrows elements from the boarding-school story genre) and is used to illustrate the consequences of Hell’s closure. Although the two main characters in this tale, the ghosts of two school boys, never appear again in the Sandman series, they later appear as “The Dead Boy Detectives” in Gaiman’s Vertigo cross-over story The Children’s Crusade, and in a mini-series of the same name by Jill Thompson.
The collection presents two simultaneous endings: Dream discovers Loki absconding from his punishment, but decides not to reveal it, and also proposes the latter a negotiation to set him free (this has its sequel in the last collection of Sandman). Meanwhile, Lucifer, without his wings, sits on an Australian beach, and grudgingly admires a sunset. In the epilogue, Duma and Remiel have become the new rulers of Hell, and initiate a new regimen of punishment meant to “redeem” the condemned (much to the latter’s dismay).