Cletus left Europe on a boat with a group of men going viking. A man named Leif captained the ship of thirty-five crewmen from Norway toward Greenland. Leif searched for a land west of Greenland that only one other ship had ever found. Twenty years prior, a man named Bjarni found a land covered in wheat and grapes after a storm threw his vessel off course. Leif had bought Bjarni’s ship for his own search and hired men to join him.
Leif followed Bjarni’s return route in reverse. The boat landed on a rocky, barren island. Leif stayed for a night before setting out to sea. After a day, the party found a land covered in lush forests, but no wheat or grapes. After two more days at sea, Leif found a land whose streams brimmed with salmon and lands covered in wild grapevines. Leif decided to encamp on the land for the winter. He divided the men into two groups. One group stayed to build a settlement while the other trekked inland to explore the forests.
Cletus accompanied the group exploring the land. He ditched the group as soon as he could. Cletus discovered native people a day’s walk inland. The natives took a strange liking to Cletus and welcomed him into their homes. The night Cletus arrived, the natives held a celebration that seemed to be in honor of the caveman. The natives fed Cletus a strange, green goo and forced him to smoke from a large pipe.
Cletus found himself in a field of beautiful flowers. The natives and the cold winter forest disappeared, replaced by meadows and brilliant blue skies. Massive statues dotted the landscape. Ominous cliffs rose into the sky on the far east and west horizons. To the north and south, thick mist eventually swallowed the far off edges of the valley. Cletus walked into the mist. Whispers and unintelligible voices drifted on the wind.
A man in beautiful, white robes approached Cletus in the mist. The dark-skinned, curly-haired man grabbed Cletus by the shoulders and said, “Hello, friend, do you believe in the five pillars? Do you follow them?”
“Of course not. No one here follows the five pillars.”
The man scoffed and disappeared into the mist. Cletus continued to walk.
Slowly, the mist cleared. The valley had vanished. Cletus walked in a giant hall filled with massive tables. Warriors and monsters of every kind lined the tables, including countless familiar faces. At the end of the hall sat five stone thrones. Cletus marched past the feasting tables and approached the stone thrones. “Where am I?” Cletus asked Buddha.
“You’re in a special place,” Jesus said from his throne.
“A place you shouldn’t be, my little monkey friend,” Buddha said.
“WELCOME TO THE VALLEY OF GODS AND HEROES,” boomed an old, naked man on the center throne.
Cletus scanned the other two thrones. An old, one-eyed man in a cloak with ravens nested on his shoulders sat on one throne. Jupiter filled the final throne. Anger burned in his blue eyes. A massive pink scar covered the center of Jupiter’s torso.
“I’m sorry I killed you,” Cletus said to Jupiter. “At least you got better.”
“You can’t kill an idea, ape,” Jupiter said with a chuckle. “And indeed I got better.”
“Who’re you?” Cletus asked the naked man.
“YOU KNOW WHO I AM,” the naked man shouted at Cletus. The words boomed in Cletus’s head despite the man never opening his mouth.
“Yahweh,” Cletus said with a nod. “And you?”
The cloaked man leaned forward. “I am Wodan,” he said. “I am the All Father, and despite what these idiots tell you, this used to be Valhalla. I fear as more men begin believing in the naked war monger and his son, less of my great mead hall will remain.”
“Chill out, old man,” Jesus said.
“What is this place?” Cletus asked. “Valley of Gods and Heroes? What is that?”
“It is our true realm,” Jupiter said. “This is our piece of the spirit world where we exist outside of myths and minds of men. All gods, heroes, folk tales, and superstitions throughout time exist in this plane.”
“Why am I here?” Cletus asked.
“You aren’t,” Buddha said. “At least not wholly. Only your mind has come to us. Your body is elsewhere.”
“Sorry, brother,” Jesus said, “but you really have no place here. You must leave. Return to your physical form.”
“How the hell do I not belong here?” Cletus asked. “Am I not a hero? You all know the things I’ve done. I’ve lived thousands of years. I’ve killed numerous gods. I hunted monsters. I ruled multiple, prosperous kingdoms. Why do I not belong?”
“IT IS MOSTLY YOUR OWN DOING,” Yahweh said. “PEOPLE DO NOT REMEMBER STORIES TOLD OF CLETUS THE CAVEMAN.”
“Indeed,” said Wodan. “People remember tales of Hercules, Gilgamesh, Roland, King Arthur, Reynard, Robin Hood, Son Wukong, and Samson. All those men, those incarnations of you, exist here. Just as the rest of us, they were created by the belief and imaginations of people who heard tales of your deeds. You, Cletus, are real regardless of belief and worship.”
“If I don’t belong here, maybe I should just go.”
Cletus stomped away back into the mist. As he wandered into the fog, Cletus noticed small creatures flying around him. Cletus ignored the small, bulb-headed beings as he continued to walk. Massive statues of men and monsters still littered the valley. Cletus wondered if the statues had been gods that people stopped believing in. Cletus read names on the statues’ bases. Some names Cletus found familiar, especially from his time as Son Wukong and Gilgamesh.
While Cletus wandered from statue to statue, he did not notice the swarm of tiny creatures forming around him. Without warning, the things attacked Cletus, engulfing him. He swatted at them, but they held onto him. Cletus cursed the spirit world as he tried to tear the monsters off. The caveman struggled, but eventually the creatures carried him away.
The bulb-headed monsters flew Cletus deep into a volcano. The creatures abandoned Cletus in an enormous chamber. “They are called thetans,” a hoarse voice said.
Cletus barely saw a bald man with massive eyes and a ridiculous cloak chained to the volcanic wall. “They are called thetans,” the man said again. “They are lost and cannot find their bodies. Long ago, I kidnapped them from their planet. I destroyed their homes and bodies with nuclear bombs. I stole and confused their souls so they could never return home. Some of them trapped me here in this electronic cage.”
Cletus began screaming, but he had no clue why. As he screamed, Cletus awoke alone in a forest. The native village had disappeared, and winter had passed. Collecting himself, Cletus set out into the forest.
Cletus woke before dawn. He milked his pale, blonde cow. Cletus fed his ox and his horse. While Cletus shoveled out his stables, a horseless carriage pulled to his cabin. Armed men stepped from the carriage followed by a man who looked like a fat eagle. Cletus set his work aside to greet the men.
“What do you want?” Cletus asked.
“Do you know who you’re talking to boy?” the fat eagle asked.
“Do you? Don’t fucking call me boy. You’re whole lifetime is barely an afterthought to me. I’ve got two fingers on my left hand, but I could beat your ass with just one of them before your two thugs could draw their pistols. I’ll ask you again, what do you want?”
“I am William McKinley,” the fat eagle said. “I’m the President of the United States.”
“What do you want, fat ass?”
“There are records, you know,” McKinley said. “Secrets kept that only the President can know. There are documents of a wild man, like a red ape. This man can’t die. This man fought in practically every war this country’s been a part of. Supposedly this man lived with coyotes in the desert. He’s bigger than a mountain, logged an entire forest with one hand, can lasso a tornado, has a blue ox, and has a horse so wild it bucked his wife all the way to the moon. According to Lincoln, this caveman is the greatest military tactician to ever live. Grant claims the Union would have lost the war without him.
“Now, of course as an educated man, I assumed all these stories are nonsense. Tall tales and folklore. Then, a few weeks ago, there are reports of a man appearing from nowhere at a steel mill who caught a fifty-ton crucible in midair to keep it from killing anyone.”
“Get to your point,” Cletus said.
“There’s a war going on, and your country needs that wild man. I’m putting together a regiment, the First Volunteers Cavalry. I need that wild man to lead those men. Will you come?”
“I’ve got seven fingers, one eye, and a wooden leg. What the fuck can I possibly do to help?”
“Just think about it,” McKinley said. “If you decide to help, there’s a meeting point in Arizona for the Volunteers. Right now the unit’s being led by Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and Colonel Leonard Wood. However, I think the regiment could use a Brigadier General.”
“I’ll think about it,” Cletus said. “Get the fuck off my lawn.”
Eventually, Cletus made his way to the meeting place in Arizona. Thanks to Roosevelt, the regiment remained well stocked with weapons and supplies. The regiment traveled by train to Florida and boat to Cuba. Most of the men arrived in Cuba, but most of the horses did not. During their first armed conflict against a Spanish fort, Cletus took an artillery shell to the torso. Cletus died in the sand, gasping and alone.
Cletus lay still in darkness. The sand had gone. The sky had gone. The whole world around Cletus had disappeared. Flames engulfed Cletus and burned away his clothes. Heat scorched his body, boiling away sweat as it formed on his searing skin. The flames vanished.
Cletus plummeted through darkness. He drifted forever. Centuries could have gone by, Cletus would not have noticed. He slammed against hard stone at the end of his fall. Cletus climbed to his feet, stumbling as he realized he was on a stairway. A few steps up, the stairs ended in nothing. Cletus turned and made his way down the stairs.
The bottom of the steps opened into a barren field. A single tree slowly died at the center of the field. A silver disk in the sky that Cletus knew was not the moon lit the wasteland. Statues dotted the rocky earth. Cletus recognized all of them as he walked toward the tree. The name on each statue change, but the image carved into the stone was the same. At the base of the tree, Cletus found a tiny, stone figurine. Unlike the other statues, the figurine’s name matched the image of a man who lived through lies and violence. Somehow, people remembered his story if not his name.
Cletus stared at the statuette of himself, running his thumb over the embossed letters of his name. An owl called out from the scraggly tree. Cletus looked at the owl, meeting its golden gaze. “I bet you were the one that knew my name, huh?” Cletus asked the owl.
Cletus wrapped his meaty fists around the figurine and tried his best to crush the stone to no avail.
“WHO?” the owl called.
Cletus tossed the chunk of stone at the owl. “Shut up,” he said in a cracking voice.
The owl spread its wings and took flight. An explosion of feathers filled the area around the tree. Out of the mess stepped a woman with bird’s legs. Feathers covered her head and neck instead of hair. She pressed her warm skin against Cletus. Golden eyes glared into him as she jabbed a frighteningly long, clawed finger into his chin.
“I asked twice,” the old woman said. “Who are you?”
“I am Cletus.”
“No,” she said, “your true name.”
“My parents used to call me Ukku,” Cletus said. “That was so long ago.”
“No, I want your real name.”
“I don’t have one.”
The owl woman placed her hand on Cletus’s forehead. “You do no longer,” she said. “Choose your path wisely.”
The owl woman disappeared in another tsunami of feathers. The tree and field vanished. Cletus stood in a courtyard full of ash-colored flowers. Two doors stood before him. Cletus chose the door to the left. Darkness filled the tiny hall beyond the door. Cletus could reach out and touch the walls on either side. He began walking along the narrow corridor. The walls lit up around him with soft, blurry light. The lights displayed colored, moving photographs. Cletus walked, observing all the things displayed before him. The first he stopped to watch showed Cletus talking with the owl woman. The next showed his death, followed by a scene of the ship sailing to Cuba.
One scene showed Cletus hiring John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Lincoln in hopes the tragedy would reunite the Union through the loss. Several wars flashed by. Cletus recognized almost all of America’s conflicts. Meetings with Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington popped up as Cletus walked the hallway.
Decades, sometimes centuries, of adventure filled the gaps between major events. Cletus saw his transition from the murderous, treacherous Reynard the trickster to the kinder Robin Hood. Cletus watched himself pull the sword from the stone. Tears welled in his eyes. Cletus missed Merlyn, Lancelot, and Guinevere. Cletus fondly watched himself kill Grendel and the beast’s mother. Cletus watched a crowd of people carry Jesus away. He watched the destruction of the Temple of Dagon, his imprisonment by the Philistines, and all the things he did to earn it.
Cletus watched himself build Rome. Before that, he had been swept away by some strange spell of Prometheus after murdering Zeus. Cletus watched the slaughter of the Olympian gods with weapons of their brothers and sisters as well as the marvelous sword crafted by Hephaestus. Rage filled him at remembering the murder of his brother-in-law. Cletus watched with bliss as he performed his twelve labors for Eurystheus. He saw the meeting with the Oracle after killing Megara. Cletus almost wished he’d chosen Virtue over Pleasure when offered the gifts from Zeus.
Pain filled his chest as Cletus watched Enkidu’s funeral. He saw his travels with the monk Xuanzang and all his time as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven and the Handsome Monkey King.
Thousands of images rushed by as Cletus sprinted down the hallway with tears rushing from his eyes. Cletus ignored thousands of years full of loneliness and desperation as well as years of hibernating in a stone egg. Cletus slowed as he reached the end of the hall. Cletus watched the war he led his people in against the subterranean lizard people. Buddha had been so impressed with his courage and strength that he gave Cletus many magical gifts such as intelligence and immortality. He loved the last few scenes. Cletus watched as he taught a small group of other Neanderthals how to start a fire. Cletus watched himself grow up. The final scene in the hallway showed Cletus his birth. The caveman sat on the cold, stone floor and wept.
Cletus wiped away snot and tears as he exited the corridor. He stepped into another courtyard. Three doors faced Cletus. Faint light shined from the two doors on the sides. Cletus wanted no part of whatever lies or memories those doors had to share. Cletus wanted everything to be over. The center door engulfed Cletus with darkness as he walked inside.
Cletus stepped onto the shore of a small lake. Black mud stuck to his feet as he approached the water. Out on the lake, a muscular old man stood in a boat. “Hey!” Cletus shouted. “Over here.”
Cletus waved his arms about, but the man gave no attempt to respond. The boat slowly made its way to the shore, stopping twenty feet from Cletus. “You’ll have to swim out the rest of the way,” the old man said. “Boat’s old and rotted. I’ll tear up the bottom if I come any closer.”
Cletus nodded and swam out to the boat. He grabbed the sides and tried to pull himself in. The oarsman jabbed him with his paddle. “You got the toll?” the old man asked.
“I’m dead,” Cletus said. “I don’t have anything.”
The old man shook his head. He reached down, digging his finger into Cletus’s left eye and pulled out a large, silver coin. “It’s right here,” the old man said. “Come on up. Your feet’ll get wet. Damn thing’s been taking on water for at least a thousand years.”
The old man helped Cletus into the boat. The two stayed silent as the boat drifted across the lake. Cletus felt like the water watched him throughout the journey. On the other side of the lake, the old man pushed Cletus into the water. Laughing, the old man paddled away.
Cletus waded ashore. Another set of stone steps stood before Cletus. Cletus grew eager at the idea of facing the sort of monster that would need such massive stairs. He ran and leaped up the steps. At the top, Cletus discovered a giant man with skin colored like darkness and the head of a sharp-faced dog. The behemoth grabbed Cletus and squeezed him. With the dog man’s eyes glaring into his soul, Cletus could feel every pain and joy he had ever caused. When it finished, the dog man set Cletus down on the floor. The owl woman approached Cletus and set down a pair of golden scales.
“Where am I going?” Cletus asked. “Is any of this even real?”
“We will know shortly,” the dog man growled.
The owl lady pulled a feather from her head and placed it on one side of the scale. She smiled at Cletus as she tore into his chest to pull out a ruby mass of flesh that pulsated in her hand. The owl lady set Cletus’s heart on the other side of the scale. Cletus had killed and stolen many times in his life. He feared the worst. Cletus felt his heart sink, but knew better as he watched it wobble on the scale. After several minutes of tipping back and forth, the feather and his heart balanced out.
“Now what?” Cletus asked.
“Now, you choose,” the dog man said.
“What do I choose?”
“Whatever you want.”
“I want nothing,” Cletus said. “I just want it all to end. Just nothing.”
“So, you have decided,” the dog man said. “So, it shall be.”
Everything disappeared. Not even darkness remained. Cletus found nothing very soothing. From the nothing drifted a mass of tentacles that wrapped around Cletus. Two bulbs of meat appeared before Cletus. “What are you?” Cletus asked the mass of meat and tentacles.
“I am the true creator of all things,” the mass said. “You’ve chosen wisely, Old One.”
“Why do gods always insist on calling me that?”
“For most of us, it’s true. I won’t even be imagined by anyone until 2005 CE. You’re much older than I am.”
“But you exist now.”
“Nothing exists now. All things are neither now nor then. Existence is relative, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about.”
“Why are you here? I was promised nothing. My heart was equal with the scale.”
“You shall receive nothing. You don’t believe that nothing meant you’d float here endlessly, did you?”
“I assumed nothing meant nothing.”
“No, my boy,” the mass of tentacles said. “There are big things in store for you. Just not you as you are now. You’ll have to be reborn a few more times first.”
Cletus glowed with every color imaginable. The caveman exploded into a burst of thousands of streaks of light. Cletus’s soul became a meteor shower of power and emotion that covered all of time and space.