Season of Mists opens with Destiny, one of the Endless and brother of Dream, musing about his eternal purview. A destiny is not a straight line; rather it is a series of choices that create the contours of a path. As such, moving forward means bearing the weight of past choices. And so, because fate demands it, Destiny calls a family meeting of the Endless--a meeting in which Desire makes some cutting remarks about Dream's relationship with Nada, a human woman whom he loved but would ultimately reject him and be sentenced to Hell. (Remember when I said that the events of "Tales in the Sand" would factor into the future of the series?) Desire's blatant attempt to get under Dream's skin works effortlessly; he confers with Death, who confirms that what he did to Nada was unjust, and finds himself moved to enter Hell to free her. Of course, this figures to be easier said than done, as Dream's last visit to Hell to retrieve his helmet left Lucifer nursing a grudge against him.
And so Morpheus descends to Hell, expecting a fight. What he finds is far more treacherous: Lucifer has expelled demons and damned alike and is abdicating his lordship over Hell. As a parting "gift," Lucifer gives Dream the key to Hell, making its stewardship his problem.
The expulsion of the damned from Hell leaves Death with a problem: souls she had previously separated from their earthly lives are now free to go back to their old haunts, as dramatized in the digressive story "In Which the Dead Return; and Charles Rowland Concludes His Education," a Gothic-satirical take on the turn-of-the-century boarding-school genre. Amid the horrific and comedic antics of ghostly bullies, headmasters, and the like, the unlikely duo of a newly-dead schoolboy and his long-deceased chum muse on the nature of Hell. Perhaps it isn't a metaphysical place of punishment, maybe it is a metaphysical state we inflict upon ourselves.
This idea is evident in the actions of the ghosts at the boarding school--they repeat their past crimes and punishments seemingly without considering any other options granted by their new-found freedom--and also rings true in Lucifer's account of the damned; according to Lucifer, the dead were under no compulsion to go to Hell upon death, and the form of their individual punishments are manifestations of what they feel they deserve.
But if Hell is a state of being, what of Heaven? Curiously, the "Silver City" doesn't seem to possess that nuance--which becomes a point of contention when angels are sent to vie for the key to Hell.
(I've made the executive decision to start breaking these posts about the Sandman collections up into multiple parts, as they were getting a bit unwieldy and long.)