The chapter opens with commentary on the song “The Ballad of Am Bass” that points out that poetry doesn’t always have enough room to include the truth. The narrator tells the reader to think of this whole book as a metaphor if it makes them more comfortable, given that religions are metaphors by definition anyway. Religions are vantage points from which to view the world, just as Lookout Mountain offers a view over the surrounding area.
The chapter opener suggests that this entire book cannot be both mythology and truth, though Gaiman has been blending real locations with these supernatural elements. The narrator offers a way out of reconciling these things, telling the reader to stop expecting truth and think of the metaphorical shades of religion as its strength, rather than wondering if religions are literally true or not.
The Old Gods gather at the foot of Lookout Mountain, arguing about when to attack. Some say to strike now, when it is least expected, while others advise waiting for a more advantageous time. Finally, one of the Morrigan cuts through the noise and says that it is the time now, whether it is a good time or not. The other gods agree.
The Old Gods seem to following some unspoken rules when it comes to their plan of attack, reaching back into the old mythologies rather than creating a new strategy for this present moment.
The narrative returns to Shadow, who is still in the underworld. Shadow is in the “Nothing” that Mr. Jacquel showed him, when Whiskey Jack’s voice breaks through the darkness. Whiskey Jack asks if Shadow has found his tribe, and Shadow says that he found his family but not his tribe. Whiskey Jack invites Shadow back to his house for a beer and Shadow suddenly finds that he is in Whiskey Jack’s house. They go outside and sit at the top of a hill near Jack’s mobile home and watch a waterfall.
Spending time in the place of “nothing” ensures that Shadow really did die, rather than just spending time in the underworld. Now he can be truly resurrected, with all of the knowledge that he learned while dead intact. Shadow now knows who both his parents are, but he still doesn’t fully know his heritage. There are still clues that Shadow has yet to discover his identity as the King of America, or his Native American ancestry.
Shadow comments that Whiskey Jack’s home is in a new place. Whiskey Jack asks if Shadow remembers Harry Bluejay, his nephew, calling the boy the best poet in America. Unfortunately, Jack says, Harry was diabetic because of too much processed sugar in his food, and he slipped into a coma while driving and died. Whiskey Jack then decided to move up north away from white men, their diseases, and their civilization. Shadow asks if they are really here, or if he is really still on the tree. Whiskey Jack just answers, “Yes.”
Harry Bluejay represents another group that has difficulty adapting to the circumstances of modern American life, as many Native Americans succumb to health problems such as diabetes, which didn’t exist on American soil before the arrival of Europeans and the subsequent development of American consumerist culture. Whiskey Jack laments these changes, and tries to return to the land and live off it the same way he used to. It’s unclear whether Shadow is dreaming this experience or not, but given the “real” nature of his dreams, Whiskey Jack suggests that it doesn’t matter (especially since Shadow is technically still dead anyway).
Shadow asks if Whiskey Jack is a god. Whiskey Jack says that he is a “culture hero,” someone who can mess up and is not worshipped. Whiskey Jack says that his people learned early on that America is no land for gods, so they give thanks to a creator spirit and worship the land for giving them food and shelter instead of making up gods to worship. Shadow comments that the gods may not belong here, but they are still going to war. Whiskey Jack says that it will not be a war, but a bloodbath. Shadow suddenly sees everything that is going on in the big picture—the gods’ war is just a two-man con. Shadow walks back to the door of Whiskey Jack’s mobile home, says goodbye, and walks through the darkness back to the sun.
Culture heroes help people learn important lessons about how to live with the land rather than demanding worship or sacrifice. Whiskey Jack explains that the land really is the most important thing in America, as it is both wiser and more helpful to humans than gods are. Shadow is finally able to put together all the clues, using what he knows about Odin gaining strength through sacrifice, Czernobog’s comments that blood is the sacrifice that lasts the longest, and Wednesday’s penchant for two-man cons. Wednesday is working with the other side somehow.
Meanwhile Easter walks past the site where there used to be a farmhouse and up to a huge silvery tree. She steps through the old bones at the foot of the tree and starts to loosen the ropes that hold Shadow to the tree. Horus (as a man) helps her, and they lay Shadow’s body down in the meadow. Horus, at Easter’s request, then turns back into a hawk and flies up into the sun. A single sunbeam shoots down through the cloudy sky and focuses on Shadow’s lifeless body.
The Norns’ farm seems to shift through time at a different rate than the rest of the world, having completely disintegrated back into the land in the time it takes Easter to arrive at the world tree. The sun, focused by Horus and his control over the sky, has the ability to restore life to Shadow, explaining the life-giving powers of the gold coin that represented the sun.
Easter gently places her hand on Shadow’s heart, then kisses him, breathing air into his lungs. The wound in Shadow’s side begins to bleed and Easter tells Shadow to wake. Shadow wakes, puzzled to be alive again after going through the underworld and facing judgment. Easter asks him if he remembers what he learned, and Shadow says that he does, for now. Easter tells Shadow that the gods are about to fight, and that she has played her part by bringing Shadow back. Now it is up to Shadow to play his part.
Easter’s place as a fertility goddess of rebirth and resurrection gives her the power to bring Shadow back from the dead. He wakes, finally whole after having learned the truth about his identity and the many lies that Wednesday has told. Shadow must now remember these truths and share them with others, doing his part to end the war.
Back at Lookout Mountain, the Old Gods proceed up the side of the mountain as snipers shoot them down from the summit. Meanwhile, Mr. Town and Laura are still driving back to Tennessee. Mr. Town is elated at all that he and Laura have in common, and tells Laura how sad he is now that Mr. Wood and Mr. Stone are dead. Laura confesses that she too was unhappy with her life and decided to go out and have an adventure. Mr. Town thinks he is falling in love with Laura.
The Old Gods fight on, though it looks like the battle will be a massacre. Yet Mr. Town has not yet returned with the stick, meaning that there is still a chance for Shadow to stop the war. Laura uses seduction as a way to control Mr. Town, recalling the ways that gods like Bilquis put sex to work in giving them life. Mr. Town becomes a more complex character here, as Gaiman ensures that few characters are purely good or purely evil.
Mr. Town and Laura reach Rock City and Mr. Town tells Laura to stay in the car while he delivers a stick to his boss. Laura asks for a hug before he goes in, and Mr. Town obliges. As they hug, Laura whispers in Mr. Town’s ear that he must want to find out what happened to Mr. Wood and Mr. Stone. Mr. Town says that he does, so Laura kills him, in the same way that she killed Mr. Wood and Mr. Stone.
Laura again proves herself a formidable guardian for Shadow, fulfilling Czernobog’s curse that Mr. Town would be killed not in battle, but by a woman who has controlled him.
Shadow walks around the meadow, looking at the trees and plants as if seeing them for the first time. Easter waits for him to speak, wary of the million-year stare in his eyes, as Shadow gets dressed in his old clothes. Shadow comments that all of his coins are gone, but he is not upset. Easter leads Shadow to the thunderbird that she rode here on, a bird like a condor the size of a black bear. Horus proudly says that he brought the thunderbird here. Shadow remembers that he once had a dream of thunderbirds and hesitantly touches the thunderbird’s head. Easter tells Shadow that riding a thunderbird is as easy as riding the lightning. Shadow mounts the bird, says goodbye to Easter, and they take off into the sky.
Shadow appears both newly reborn and a million years old, finally in touch with the wisdom from his past lives, yet filled with a conviction to live in the present. Armed with the truth, Shadow no longer needs his coins for distraction or misdirection. He finally touches the thunderbird, overcoming his failure to catch one in his dream. Now Shadow has fully matured and can ride the thunderbird into battle.
Laura takes the ash stick from the back of Mr. Town’s car and walks into the network of caverns that make up Rock City. She goes into a cavern where Mr. World is reading the paper. Mr. World welcomes her as the spear carrier and Laura introduces herself as Shadow’s wife. Mr. World asks Laura why she looks so freshly dead, and Laura tells him about the sisters and their water. Mr. World is shocked that she was able to access Urd’s Well.
Mr. World refers to the stick as a spear, showing that he already thinks of the stick in terms of the weapon that it symbolizes. Mr. World also shows knowledge of the old Norse mythology, odd for a supposed member of the New Gods who professes to hate all the history that the Old Gods carry.
Mr. World asks for his stick, but Laura asks for a cigarette and some answers first. Laura asks why they used Shadow in the plot, to which Mr. World responds that Shadow was simply part of a pattern and misdirection. Mr. World plans to complete the pattern by going back to the ash tree and killing Shadow with a stick of mistletoe when the battle is over. Laura asks why Mr. World wants the ash stick. Mr. World responds that the stick symbolizes a spear, and that symbols are the only things that matter. Lastly, Laura asks what side Mr. World is on. Mr. World says, “the winning side.”
Mr. World echoes the Swedish Odin’s phrasing in Shadow’s dream—saying that Shadow was simply misdirection—thus tying Mr. World even closer to Wednesday. His reference to mistletoe makes it clear that Shadow really is Baldur, as legend says that Baldur can only be killed by mistletoe. This also hints that Mr. World has ties to Loki, the god traditionally blamed for killing Baldur. Mr. World also quotes Loki by saying that he wants to be on the “winning” side.
Laura says she will give Mr. World the stick, turning away from Mr. World to look out the cavern door. Mr. World comes up behind her to take it, and Laura waits for the exact right moment.
Like the Old Gods waiting for the right moment, Laura also understands that timing is key when deciding how to defeat Mr. World.
Shadow’s thunderbird ride is joyful and electric, as they are tossed through the storm and the lightning. Shadow tells the bird that he once had a dream where he tried to take a thunderbird’s feather, and the thunderbird nods that people used to take thunderbird feathers to prove their manhood and smash open thunderbird skulls to find the stones that grant resurrection.
Now that Shadow is fully alive and has understood what it means to sacrifice himself, he learns the cost of bringing someone back from the dead—sacrificing the thunderbird’s life and giving nothing in return.
Meanwhile Laura grips the stick tightly and waits for Mr. World to get close enough. Mr. World cautiously comes right behind Laura and reaches his arm around her, wary that she will throw the ash tree stick down the mountain. Feeling Mr. World’s chest against her back, Laura says, “I dedicate this death to Shadow,” then stabs the stick through her own chest and into Mr. World’s. The stick becomes a spear, slicing open Mr. World’s lung. Mr. World tries to stab Laura with his pocket knife, but she does not care. Mr. World slips in his own blood and both Mr. World and Laura fall to the ground.
By dedicating this death to Shadow, Laura gives Shadow power as an entirely new god, rather than simply the reincarnation of Baldur. Laura’s belief in Shadow is the key factor in his success, and the sacrifice of her own body (but not her soul, as Laura is already dead and damage to her body doesn’t kill her) is the price that she has to pay to kill Mr. World. As when the stick pierced Shadow’s side while he was on the tree, Laura’s symbolic motions turn into real violence as the stick becomes the spear that it represents.
The thunderbird lands in the Rock City parking lot in the middle of a rainstorm. Shadow sees Mr. Town dead in his car, and knows that Laura has been here. Shadow hears thunder, and wonders if it is the thunderbird returning home or atmospheric discharge or both. He hears a voice yell, “… to Odin,” and he rushes into Rock City.
As Shadow still considers whether these myths have a place in realty, he concludes that a myth’s truth doesn’t matter as long as someone believes it. It seems as though Shadow is too late, having arrived after someone managed to dedicate the deaths to Odin anyway.
Shadow then hears Wednesday’s voice telling Shadow that he has done everything exactly right, drawing everyone’s attention when Wednesday needed it and giving him the power of the sacrifice of a son. Shadow responds, telling Wednesday that the whole thing was just a crooked set-up for a massacre. Wednesday agrees, saying it may be crooked, but it’s the only game in town.
Wednesday claims Shadow as his son, then uses that power to attach more meaning to Shadow’s sacrifice, as Wednesday knew that Shadow was his son but chose to bind Shadow to his vigil anyway. Wednesday will go to any lengths to achieve his power, even causing the death of his own son. He then forces others to go along with his plots through trickery and deception, acting as if that is the only way to reach success.
Shadow asks for Laura and Loki. Wednesday doesn’t answer, so Shadow walks farther into the caverns and finds Loki, who is lying on the floor covered by a blanket. Loki rasps at Shadow that he is too late, and Shadow explains that he knows all about the two-man con that Loki and Wednesday were pulling, as Loki has been Mr. World this whole time, setting the Old and New Gods against each other for his and Odin’s own gain.
Mr. World’s true identity is finally revealed, as Loki (true to his character as the Norse god of tricks and disguises) actually had two false identities throughout the plot. Shadow sees the con as another in Wednesday’s list of two-man cons, where Wednesday incited the Old Gods and Loki instigated the New Gods, all the while planning to betray them both.
Wednesday then steps out of the shadows and explains that he had to do it to bring all the Old Gods together. Shadow calls him a Judas goat, betraying the Old Gods, but Wednesday proudly corrects Shadow. He says he was betraying everyone in order to cause a big enough blood sacrifice to restore his own former power. Wednesday explains that he feeds off of deaths that are dedicated to Odin, and Loki feeds on chaos, making this battleground a huge source of power for them both.
A Judas goat is a specially trained goat used for sheep herding that leads the sheep to slaughter while its own life is spared. Similarly, Wednesday leads the Old Gods into battle while intending to take all the power for himself, though Wednesday also had to sacrifice himself in order to make the plan work. Odin and Loki would each draw power from this battle through the blood and chaos that it spreads, as those are traditionally their sources of sustenance in the old myths.
Wednesday and Loki commiserate to each other about the details of their plan, from finding Shadow to making sure he didn’t have a wife to go home to any longer—they just didn’t account for Laura not staying dead. Loki pants and falls forward, and Shadow then notices the pool of blood and the wound in Loki’s back that was previously hidden by the blanket. Wednesday tells Shadow that Laura killed Loki, but that the coming battle will revive him. Shadow says that rigged games are the easiest to beat. He then says goodbye to his father and leaves the cavern.
Wednesday and Loki tried to manipulate every aspect of Shadow’s life after prison, finally accepting the blame for killing Laura – adding dark significance to Wednesday’s lament “if it could have been but any other way” when he first met Shadow on the plane. Laura’s death was not in fact inevitable, but another cog in Wednesday machine. Yet Laura is able to redeem herself by becoming Shadow’s protector, as Shadow’s own power as a sun god flowed through her and allowed her to kill Loki. Shadow now sees that he can disrupt Wednesday’s plan just as Laura did, because Wednesday’s strict adherence to pattern makes him easier to predict once Shadow knows all his tricks (just like in his checkers game with Czernobog).
Rock City is deserted, and Shadow knows that he has to get Backstage in order to find the battle taking place. He pushes through the thin membrane of reality and finds himself still on the top of a mountain, but at a peak that has been distilled to the true essence of a mountain. Frozen lightning stretches across the sky, and Shadow can feel the energy in this place. He realizes that people’s belief is the motor for everything, making the entire world turn.
Now that Shadow knows his godly heritage, he can access Backstage at will and presumably exist there comfortably for a while. The frozen lightning suggests that time has been suspended and Shadow still has a chance of interrupting the battle before it starts. Shadow comes to the same epiphany that Atsula had, recognizing the huge role that human belief has in shaping the power of the gods and thus all of human history itself.
The Old Gods and the New Gods stand arrayed on the mountain top, making a sort of arena for themselves. Shadow recognizes all of them, now able to see their true natures. He can tell that the New Gods are scared that their time is already over, despite their bravado and arrogance in the face of the Old Gods. Shadow walks calmly into the center of the arena, hearing the voice of the Buffalo Man encourage him.
Shadow, through his experience in the underworld, now has the same knowledge that Odin earned through his vigil, and uses that knowledge to see the true natures of all the gods. The Buffalo Man, Shadow’s spiritual mentor, shows him that he is on the right path by stopping the battle.
Shadow tells the Old Gods and the New Gods that they are both deluding themselves. Every god is eventually forgotten and ignored in America, existing only at the whims of a fickle people. He tells them a story about an old god who, depending on sacrifice and war, was forgotten in America and had to make a living as a grifter. That god became partners with the god of chaos and deceit, and together they planned a con that would renew them both to their former glory – a battle between the gods where all the blood and death would be dedicated to them.
Shadow uses the powerful force of the truth to cut through all the lies that Wednesday and Loki have told to the gods. Furthermore, he pushes the gods to see their true place in the human psyche, recognizing that all this turmoil came from Wednesday’s fear that he would be forgotten and die. Shadow frames this as a story, allowing the gods to see the universal themes at work in their experience.
One of the Old Gods protests that Odin really did die, and Shadow agrees that Odin’s death was part of the plan. Someone else asks who Shadow is, and Shadow replies that he is Odin’s son. Shadow then reveals that Mr. World never existed at all. He ends by saying that he would rather be a man than a god, as men don’t need anyone to believe in them to keep going. Suddenly the frozen lightning bolt cracks in the sky and the arena goes dark. Shadow realizes that the gods are leaving, one at a time and then by the hundreds. A large spider, Mr. Nancy, scuttles over to Shadow and tells him that he has done well.
Shadow shares with the gods the truth that they are fundamentally vulnerable, despite their great power and their perceived rule over human lives—because it’s actually humans who grant them existence. This acknowledgment convinces the gods to leave the battle, restarting time and ensuring that Wednesday and Loki will not return.
Mr. Nancy, now in human form, escorts Shadow back to the normal Rock City. As the gods begin to clean up their injuries, Shadow goes to find Laura. She is lying on the ground in a cavern in a pool of blood. Shadow kneels and tenderly touches her face. Laura greets him in a weak voice and Shadow explains that he stopped the battle, and he thanks Laura for killing Mr. World.
Shadow still cares deeply for Laura, expressing gratitude for her sacrifice in a way that the other gods usually don’t.
Laura asks if Shadow found a way to bring her back to life. Shadow says that he did, but Laura says that she has decided that she doesn’t want to come back after all. She wants to move on. Slowly, Shadow reaches up to the gold coin that Laura has worn around her neck. He says, “I love you” one last time, then makes the coin disappear. Laura truly dies, going still at last. Shadow stands, sensing that the storm has cleared and that it will be a beautiful day.
Laura has concluded on her own that it is better to accept death than continually steal power from others to stay alive. Shadow takes back the gold coin that granted Laura temporary life and gives her a chance at reaching peace at last. The storm that’s been foretold since the start of the novel has finally cleared.