The chapter opens with an excerpt from Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s poem “Unguarded Gates”: a long list of exotic gods brought to America by immigrants. Shadow can’t process what he is seeing as he rides the carousel, looking at Mr. Nancy but also seeing a bejeweled spider and an extraordinarily tall man with a feather headdress and a young black boy and a small garden spider overlaid on Mr. Nancy’s body. He turns his head to Czernobog and sees there a small dark thing with coals for eyes and a dark-haired prince wearing a bearskin and riding a creature with blue swirls all over its body. Wednesday rides his wolf, now detached from the carousel, over to Shadow, and tells Shadow all his many names and titles – including Odin, the all-father. Two huge ravens come and perch on Wednesday’s shoulders. Shadow doesn’t know what to think, but remembers the Buffalo Man telling him to “Believe everything.”
Aldrich’s poem names the many peoples who brought new gods to America, though Gaiman uses it with a far more positive connotation than the original. Where Aldrich saw this diversity as a threat (to him, America’s “gates” should be guarded), Gaiman sees it as an asset. The godly visages of Mr. Nancy, Czernobog, and Wednesday finally appear, taking different forms that have arisen through the centuries as legends about these gods have morphed and changed. Their current forms are simply how modern Americans choose to view them, without knowing their godly pasts. Shadow is reminded that he must accept all of this overwhelming mythology, rather than picking one form as the “true” face of each god.
Shadow suddenly finds himself in a large hall with a thatched roof and a fire burning in the center of the room. Mr. Nancy mumbles about how cold it is in Wednesday’s hall, which is called Valaskjalf. About ten people sit on benches against the walls, and Wednesday angrily whispers that there should be many more here. Nancy brushes past him to start off the meeting with a story. He opens by acknowledging that their gathering is few, and may seem powerless, but then tells a story about the time that he, a spider, stole Tiger’s balls and blamed the monkeys for the theft. The moral of the story is: just because you’re small, doesn’t mean you have no power.
In Norse mythology, Valaskjalf is a hall with a roof made entirely of silver, where Odin can oversee the whole universe. As Wednesday is attempting to impress his guests right now, it makes sense that he would choose a location for their meeting that best suits him. Though it is not said here, Shadow later finds out that this hall is part of the “Backstage” of America where the mythical foundations of the country are laid bare. But for all Wednesday’s preparations, the Old Gods are too weak and set in their ways to respond to his call to action. Mr. Nancy uses his particular talent for story-telling to bring the few people that are here together and remind them that they still can accomplish mighty things with enough belief and effort.
Wednesday stands up and walks into the firelight. He gives a speech about the coming storm, and the loss of power that all the gods have faced in America. Now that they, the Old Gods, have little influence, New Gods are arising to take their place. Wednesday thinks that the Old Gods should band together and fight against the New Gods. A woman in a red sari, Mama-ji, stands and protests that Wednesday is just looking for his own glory, and that the New Gods will not stand the test of time. She thinks that they should wait for the New Gods to become obsolete again, like what happened with the gods of railroad and iron. Other gods agree with Mama-ji.
Wednesday finally makes it clear that the gods live off of human belief, and are in trouble in America because so many Americans follow new gods of technology or other modern things, so there is no belief left for the Old Gods. Wednesday’s references to a coming storm echo Sam Fetisher, Shadow’s fellow prisoner from Chapter One who also sensed a storm coming. Yet Mama-ji makes it clear that Wednesday is trying to cause this storm, like Shadow caused the snow storm for the bank robbery, by getting enough gods to believe that there’s a fight coming so a fight actually happens. Mama-ji acts as the voice of reason that would let time take care of the New Gods in the way it always has, keeping only those strong enough to endure.
The fire in the hall goes out, and Mr. Nancy tells Shadow to be careful not to use the word “god” once they get back to the House on the Rock. The group then magically returns to the room with the carousel, and Shadow asks if everything in the hall really happened. Mr. Nancy tells Shadow to hush. Wednesday directs Shadow to take his car and shuttle the other gods, now in mundane human forms, to a restaurant near the House on the Rock. On his second trip, Shadow drives Mama-ji and a young man with a chest shaped oddly like a barrel, who hums the entire way to the restaurant (Alviss).
Shadow still isn’t sure whether he should believe that the men he is working for are gods at all, somewhat explaining why Mr. Nancy is wary of sharing their identities freely. America does not accept gods now, and would simply think that these people are crazy. The Old Gods must take on mundane human forms in order to fit in and avoid showing the few humans who do still believe in them how far they have fallen.
Shadow gets to the restaurant and waits outside while his passengers go in. Then he overhears a half-familiar voice telling a group of men dressed in suits to “round them all up.” A bag is then thrown over Shadow’s head and his wrists and ankles are bound with tape. Shadow is taken to a small room with no windows and left alone for hours. Finding he still has coins in his pocket, Shadow practices coin tricks to pass the time and keep his attention so that he can’t worry about whether whoever kidnapped him is going to kill him. Eventually, he takes out the silver Liberty coin and just holds it, waiting.
The half-familiar voice belongs to Mr. World, who Shadow will meet again later and again half-recognize (as his cellmate Low Key). Shadow’s coin trick distraction echoes his attempts to keep his mind off of Laura when he was in the Motel America, but this time Shadow actually does want to live. He is starting to wake up to his life and truly care whether he lives or dies. The silver coin promises to protect Shadow, as he grabs it subconsciously, tapping into its power.
At three in the morning, two men in suits come in to Shadow’s cell, one with nice-looking hair and bitten fingernails, and the other with glasses and well-kept nails. The men ask how long Shadow has been working for “Cargo,” which they clarify is their name for Wednesday. Shadow tells the men that he has known Wednesday for three days, and one of the men twists Shadow’s ear painfully, telling him not to lie to them. The two men start a good-cop, bad-cop routine, one asking Shadow to cooperate while the other man punches him. Shadow asks their names, to which they answer Mr. Stone and Mr. Wood.
The two “spooks” who come to interrogate Shadow were inspired by what Gaiman saw as America’s obsession with “Men in Black” and the possibility that the government has a secret spy network. They fall into the classic pattern of having two “bad guys” who work together and are barely distinguishable. Their names also reflect the materials humans first used to make tools.
Mr. Stone gives Shadow a Snickers bar and asks Shadow to explain what happened at the House on the Rock. Shadow refuses to answer, so Mr. Wood starts beating him. Shadow knows that he could take on both men and incapacitate them, but refuses to let his mind go to that kind of violence again. Shadow clutches his Liberty coin until the beating finally stops. Mr. Stone gives Shadow one more warning to cooperate and then leaves Shadow alone in the cell.
The silver coin protects Shadow’s body, but it also protects his soul, keeping him from devolving into violence that he knows would damage his psyche. Gaiman hints that Shadow was arrested for a similar situation in which he beat up two guys.
Shadow falls into a restless sleep on the small cot in his cell and dreams that he is 15 again, watching his mother die. He wakes and wonders if Wednesday has been caught as well, then notices that the Liberty coin is still in his hand and still cold. The coin makes Shadow think of Zorya Polunochnaya, and he is able to fall back to sleep soundly.
Gaiman gives this vague reference to Shadow’s mother, but says nothing about his father. Shadow’s loner persona makes it likely that Shadow is an orphan. The silver coin, still cold as a sign of its magical nature and relationship to the night, is also able to watch over Shadow’s dreams, helping him escape pain there as well.
When Shadow wakes again, Laura is shaking his shoulder. For a minute, Shadow thinks that this entire adventure was a dream and he is at home with Laura, where he belongs. Then he notices that Laura is covered in blood, which she says comes from the guards she murdered. Shadow is disturbed, but Laura says that taking a life is no longer a big deal now that she herself is dead. Laura tells Shadow to leave while he can. Shadow notices that Laura still has the gold coin, now hanging from a chain at her neck.
Shadow still hopes that his life will turn out to be normal, but finding out that his beloved wife (who’s also still dead) has murdered two people ruins any illusion of that. Laura, on the other side of the boundary between life and death, sees little difference between the two. Yet Shadow has woken up enough that he now considers life to be precious, and not worth taking. The gold coin continues to sustain Laura, and allows her to act as protection for Shadow, helping him reap the life-giving power of the coin as well.
Shadow thanks Laura for protecting him, then opens the door in the corridor to find that it leads outside and that he is in an old abandoned railroad car parked in a forest. He asks how Laura found him here, and Laura says that Shadow is a beacon in the darkness for her. Shadow remembers Zorya Polunochnaya’s advice, and asks Laura what she wants. Laura says that she wants to be alive again, fully. Shadow says that he will try to figure that out, but Laura has already disappeared. Shadow sees the sun rising in the east, turns himself towards the south, and begins to walk.
The silver coin was able to protect Shadow enough to survive, but only the gold coin is powerful enough to help him escape from harm altogether. Shadow’s connection with the coin may explain his “beacon”-like shining, though it also may be because of Laura’s emotional attachment to Shadow. Either way, Laura wishes to return to life fully, rather than living the half-life that she now possesses. Aside from helping him escape, the sun also helps Shadow figure out which way to go next.