The chapter starts with the Canada Bill Jones quote, “I know it’s crooked, but it’s the only game in town.” Shadow finds himself in a rocky landscape with a midnight sky. He feels achy, but nothing near the pain he imagines he should after his vigil. He looks at his clothes and notices that he is wearing the same jeans and white t-shirt that he wore when Zorya Polunochnaya gave him the Liberty coin. As Shadow walks down rock steps, he sees Zorya Polunochnaya waiting at the bottom. Zorya Polunochnaya warns Shadow that he can now have any answer he wants, but he can never unlearn what he finds out here.
Wednesday previously quoted Canada Bill in Las Vegas, the first hint that he had somehow rigged the fight between the gods. In the Underworld, Shadow will find out exactly how. The rocky landscape is reminiscent of both Shadow’s dreamscapes and the Backstage experience, making it clear that the underworld is part of that mythical place “behind” reality. Zorya Polunochnaya appears to warn Shadow of the double-edged sword of wisdom – it gives power, but also involves sacrificing one’s innocence.
The rock path in front of Shadow splits and he knows he must choose which way to go. Before deciding, he turns to Zorya Polunochnaya and gives her back the Liberty coin. Zorya Polunochnaya closes her hand on the coin and then the coin floats above Shadow’s head and becomes a small moon. Shadow asks Zorya Polunochnaya which path to take, and Zorya Polunochnaya gives him the choice between hard truths or fine lies. Shadow chooses hard truths. Zorya Polunochnaya tells him the price of taking that road is his true name. Shadow allows Zorya Polunochnaya to take his true name from his head, and Zorya Polunochnaya points him down the right-hand path.
As Zorya Polunochnaya turns the Liberty coin into the moon, it becomes clear that the coin really was the moon in some sense, watching over Shadow at night and protecting him from harm—and now it lights his way in the underworld. After all the lies that Shadow has endured in his time with the gods, he is now ready to face the truth, no matter how difficult this may be. Zorya Polunochnaya does not reveal Shadow’s true name, but the evidence suggests that it is Baldur from the Norse legends.
Shadow walks down the path, thinking that the Underworld is like the House on the Rock. He sees dioramas of the worst moments of his life, including when he beat the two men who stole his cut of the robbery and was arrested and put in prison. The only saving grace is that Laura’s name is never mentioned at the trial. He keeps walking, almost wishing he had chosen the lies, and reaches a hospital room where his mother is dying. A 16-year-old Shadow sits at her bedside, trying to escape into a book and pretend that this is just another sickle-cell crisis. Shadow wants to shake his younger self and tell him to do something, but he can’t touch himself.
The House on the Rock included strange dioramas of life, as Shadow now looks at these scenes from his own life as if they were simply stories that happened to someone else. But the distance from these scenes does not make them any less painful for Shadow to watch. Unanswered questions about how Shadow got arrested are finally answered (at least in part) as it becomes clear that Laura somehow arranged for Shadow to be part of a robbery that broke down when his partners betrayed him and Shadow took out his rage through violence. Additionally, clues to Shadow’s heritage are given, as the prevalence of sickle-cell illnesses in African American communities makes it more likely (but not certain) that Shadow’s mother was African American. Shadow sees his former passivity and now completely rejects that way of drifting through life.
Shadow keeps walking his path and comes across a scene of his kid-self asking his mom about his dad. Though he knows it will lead to a fight, his kid-self refuses to accept his mother’s desire not to talk about it. He keeps walking the path of hard truths, and finally comes across a scene of his mother as a young woman, dancing in a bar. Wednesday, looking the same as when Shadow knew him, starts dancing with her. Wednesday leads Shadow’s mother out of the bar and Shadow does not follow, not wishing to witness his own conception.
Shadow finally finds out that he is the son of an American woman and Wednesday, the Norse god Odin. This makes Shadow a demi-god, part mortal and part man, as well as a hybrid between the Old Gods conceived in other countries and the New Gods created here. His status as a bridge between these supposed “opposites” makes him uniquely able to understand the position of gods in America.
When the path splits again, Shadow stops to catch his breath. He feels a hand on his back and a smoky voice purrs his name. Bast comes up behind Shadow and explains that one path will make him wise, one will make him whole, and one will kill him completely. Shadow doesn’t know which way to go, so Bast offers to choose for him. Bast reminds him that there will be a cost. Hearing that his name has already been taken, Bast takes his heart, saying that she will save it for later. Bast grabs Shadow’s heart out of his chest and tells Shadow to take the middle path. Shadow asks Bast what gods really are, and Bast explains that gods are the dreams that humanity needs to make sense of life.
Though Shadow has already sacrificed his body on the tree, and his name and innocence to Zorya Polunochnaya, he has to make one more sacrifice in the underworld. This third sacrifice is the costliest, three being a significant number in Norse mythology. Bast takes Shadow’s heart, the center of Egyptian intelligence and emotion, essentially stealing Shadow’s soul so that it can be weighed later. Assuming that Bast names the paths in the order they appear, the middle path is most likely the path that will make Shadow whole. Shadow gets one last piece of wisdom, finally understanding that the gods are created by humans, but that humans need the gods just as badly to give meaning to their otherwise chaotic lives.
Shadow glances down the first path, recognizing it as the museum of gods that he saw in a dream. He glances down the path to the far side and sees a Disneyland-like funhouse. He then moves down the middle path, the only one that feels right. It leads to a lake in a cavern, and a low flat boat comes up to the edge where Shadow is standing.
Bast may have chosen for Shadow, but Shadow ensures that he himself wants to go down the path she suggested before taking it. It is likely that the first path is the path that would make him wise, sharing all the wisdom of the forgotten gods, and the third path would kill him, as a deceptive fun house would most likely be full of dangers in this book where appearances are always deceiving.
The boat’s pilot is a long, thin man with a bird’s head. The pilot greets Shadow and the voice is familiar. Shadow boards the boat and realizes that the pilot is Mr. Ibis from the Cairo funeral parlor. Mr. Ibis explains that he is a psychopomp, someone who escorts mortals through the underworld to the world of the dead. Life and death are not actually mutually exclusive, he says: more like two sides of the same coin. Shadow begins to wrap his head around the idea that he is dead, as Mr. Ibis tells him that he asked to be the one to escort Shadow. Even if Shadow does not believe in the Egyptian gods, Mr. Ibis believed in Shadow.
Mr. Ibis takes the role of guiding Shadow to judgement, as he did as Thoth to the ancient Egyptians. Thoth had a close association with the sun god Ra, partially explaining why Mr. Ibis likes Shadow so much (another sun god), but Thoth also has a deep appreciation for balance, which Shadow provides by being both light and dark, sun and shadow. Mr. Ibis continues this balance in his description of the relationship between life and death, recalling the gold coin that both gave life to Laura and indirectly brought death to Mad Sweeney.
Mr. Ibis steers the boat to the opposite shore and leads Shadow up to Mr. Jacquel, who looks like a gigantic dog-headed creature. Mr. Jacquel picks Shadow up and examines his soul. Shadow can feel him measuring all of Shadow’s failings and weaknesses, all the things that mortals usually try to lie about and cover. Shadow starts to cry until the examination is finally over. Mr. Jacquel asks who has Shadow’s heart, and Bast appears. Mr. Jacquel then weighs Shadow’s heart on a giant golden scale. Bast explains that Shadow will get to choose his own destination if the scale balances, but he will be eaten by Ammet if the heart is too heavy.
As Anubis, Mr. Jacquel is the final arbiter who judges the dead. Shadow must again face difficult truths about himself and what he has done in his life, as Gaiman shows that most people lie out of a sense of self-preservation so that they do not have to consider all these faults. Yet Shadow makes it through the examination, proving that he can handle the truth and actually use it to his benefit. Again Shadow hopes for balance, as that would mean that he has enough light in him to keep his darkness from overwhelming him. Ammet (or Ammit) was the “devourer” in Egyptian mythology, a crocodile-headed goddess who consumed the souls of the damned.
As the scales tip and turn, Shadow hopes aloud for a happy ending. Bast reminds him that there are no happy endings and, indeed, no endings at all. Finally, the scale balances and Bast sighs that this means another skull for the pile. Relieved, Shadow asks to make his own choice – he wants rest, with no heaven and no hell, just nothing. Mr. Jacquel opens a door for Shadow and Shadow steps through it with a sharp, fierce joy.
Bast’s comment about endings recalls the fact that myths continue to be retold and changed even after they are “finished,” meaning that no mythological character can ever truly end his or her story. Bast’s reference to “another skull for the pile” recalls Shadow’s dream, in which he had to climb a pile of his own skulls from past lives to reach the thunderbirds. Shadow has apparently been reincarnated many times, and will most likely be reincarnated again after this experience. Yet Shadow chooses rest for himself, feeling the joy of making his own decisions even as it means that he no longer gets to live.