Cleric Baer ~
Worry not, my industrious new friend! I insist, if coin is tight, payment will not be necessary. As I reminded Old Diem when he reached out to me: The day a bard the likes of Festival Briggs starts making demands, he may as well set up in a tavern and croon to the lushes! A bit on-the-nose, but you get my meaning. You were right to come to me on the subject of locals ~ if there's one thing I understand, it's people ~ you could say I was born with a particular 'knack' for it.
Now then! Eveningshire! You're in luck, friend, because yours truly knows this town backwards and forwards ~ something you learn out of necessity, if you call it 'home'. I did, for a time, and even visited recently! I'll tell you now, try not to take the secondhand stories to heart. You'll find that only one out of every ten rings true, and even then, the cause is often the same.
Nevertheless, judging by the tone of your letter, I'm sure you're eager for me to explain the strangeness reported about the area. Rest assured, I will touch upon these incidents. First, however, it is crucial that I make something abundantly clear...
You see, Cleric, it remains a little-known fact is that Eveningshire has the single largest Changeling population known in Drunkeros. Not terribly surprising if you're familiar with the surrounding territory, all bracken and twisted wood, but I feel this is too important a detail to tiptoe around. I hear you're well-traveled yourself, so you may already be aware of changeling struggles ~ not persecution exactly, but they certainly aren't welcome in larger cities. Not to suggest there are none living in, say, Caer, but you're unlikely to hear from them, is my point. So many are afraid to take up their own identities, living instead as humans or elves, it's rare that they create anything of their own. Changelings, for all the centuries they've spent in Drunkeros, have almost no culture of their own.
And upon being chased into the woods, where Eveningshire now stands, some small bit of color had at last sparked in their minds, and still does today. Slowly but surely, changelings there are learning to step outside of their boundaries, and explore their unique potential ~ and in the presence of humans, no less! Fair enough, not all of them feel so safe as to reveal their true faces, but progress is progress. In Eveningshire, they have the room to at least consider it.
On the subject of the human population ~ nearly equal to that of changelings, if you were curious ~ it appears Eveningshire has proven to assist their kind in broadening their horizons as well! Where outside these woods, you might expect to see a human curse and damn all other races under the sun, the men taking up refuge here appear to have adapted rather well to their pale-eyed neighbors. Of course, there's the little tidbit that the ancestors of these humans were criminals and the like, chased into the woods with even greater ferocity, but there appears to be some honesty amid refugees. I can't say I disapprove of the origin, if the two are living largely in peace today. Gods, the town is one of the few democracies in all of the world! They hold regular elections, of all things! For all intents and purposes, many of the current citizens sound enthusiastic about what they've accomplished in this regard. It's a surprisingly comfortable arrangement, even compared to more "modern" burgs I could mention.
You know, now that I mull it over, I suppose it's possible that Eveningshire's temperament of progress is what contributed most to its hearty academic backbone. The local college, I've been assured, has been making great strides finding the balance between science and magic. One young man bragged to me that they have learned to harness lightning, and can tell it to do work? I can't say I grasped much of his lingo, but it certainly sounded impressive! The last I heard, once the mail routes opened to Eveningshire, there was no shortage of curious and creative souls looking to make their mark at EUMS ~ students AND teachers! Oh! And they have a wonderfully impressive telescope on their rooftop ~ now astrology, *that* I can get behind.
Now then... The stories. Consider the following encounters: You are a foreigner to Eveningshire, unacquainted with the local flavor. You visit the general store on two separate occasions, and on the second, the shopkeep's entire family has been replaced. There's no explanation; the new family insists they've lived there all their lives. Rightfully confused, you exit, and as you step into the daylight you think, for only a moment, that you witnessed a figure pure white rounding a corner. Growing nervous, you turn around, and you swear that mere moments ago the full-grown dwarf crossing the street had been a human child.
At that point, the stories write themselves, don't they? An educated man like yourself, I very much doubt you're taken aback by now. The simple truth, sir, is that you can expect the everyday misunderstanding anywhere in the world ~ the same can be said of Eveningshire, with only the slightest of differences. Mind you, I can't quite speak to the fantastic tales of how changelings and Eveningshire came to be ~ of Dopplegangers descending from the stars like angels, and so on. To be frank I haven't the faintest desire to look into these claims; there clearly aren't any walking around today... That would just be silly.
Of course, there are genuine disturbances now and then, magical and natural, but no more or less than anywhere else. The only way these might startle the uninformed is if they happen to view our unique solution to said problems: Witches, in lieu of the traditional guard element. Yes, I can already hear you pondering, "isn't that a tad extreme?" But no! In fact, the local coven, calling themselves simply "The Watchers in the Woods", maintain a wholly respectful relationship with Eveningshire. Outcasts need stand together, after all! The town provides them with labor and goods, and in turn they supply protection ~ along with the odd remedy here and there.
It's not rare for local women to wish to join their circle, either. My own younger sister, for instance; the proudest I ever saw her was when she was accepted as a Watcher. I found it rather strange at the time, but I can see now how honorable a position its become in the territory, to do the truly difficult tasks and protect your own. To my embarrassment, on my last visit, I wished Lex the greatest of ease in her work, and she gave me a rap on the head for it ~ in her own words, ease would defeat the entire point. Let's go ahead and call that a lesson for both of us, eh friend?
I'm certain I'm forgetting something...
Ah, that's right ~ you had inquired about the rumors of some hooded cult infiltrating the town, and a glowing cloud? Chronicling a history of world religions next, I take it? Well regrettably, the last time I had stepped foot in Eveningshire, there was the barest trace of them left, and from the sound of it they were floored rather handily. Their allegedly sentient cloud had hardly lasted through the harvest season! Disappointing, isn't it? If I were in your place, I wouldn't bother myself with such amateurs; you come across their kind all the time when you live this deep in the woods, take it from me.
And yes, I am aware that Cleric Diem has alluded to the possibility of these being the long-theorized Uthgarian "Cat People". My, how people love to speculate these days. Understand, I might grant him the suggestion of Uthgar in this case, given presence of colored smoke, but I can say with confidence, in all of my travels, I have not seen one shred of evidence of a feline race. If it comes to light that there are any sapient humanoid Cats wandering Drunkeros, I say here and now that I will eat my wonderful hat.
In any case, it has always been my understanding that cats and changelings have a natural affinity for one another. Take a stroll simple around Eveningshire, and I promise you'll find them hard to avoid. Surely I would have caught wind of an entire race of them by now.
But alas, as you can tell, I am once again running low on ink. You would think a bard would know how to properly stock himself by now, but ye gods, not this bard. It appears that my next letter will have to wait until I locate a proper store. So many towns, such little progress... Wish me luck, and I'll return the favor ~ and if luck isn't what you need, then swift page turning, friend!
P.S. Your next letter will likely find me at Fairmire ~ roughly a week's ride out from Eveningshire. I hadn't intended to stay in this podunk town for long, but there's an inventive man here who is currently experimenting with the most delightful of new desserts! I have trails of my own to blaze, but I am determined not to leave until I know his secret!