Within the former boundaries of the Empire of Splendour, there are many different types of creature that can change shape between human and animal. Here are some of the more well-known categories:
These are animals that can take the form of humans and walk amongst them. People say that they are half-spirit. Their shape-changing is under their control. The goals of an individual nai-nek-chai can vary considerably, from altruism, through greed, mischief to more destructive aims.
Nai-nek-chai are as intelligent as any human, but all tend to retain a little bit of animal in their behaviour. This usually manifests as a tendency to think with their stomachs but there are often specific traits depending upon the animal. A cat nai-nek-chai, for example, may be fastidiously clean and put on an unflappable air. A crow nai-nek-chai will hoard shiny objects. In their human form, nai-nek-chai also display physical traits similar to their animal form. A bear nai-nek-chai will be large and hairy, a rat nai-nek-chai may have a long nose, beady eyes and rapid movements.
Although broadly categorised together, the nai-nek-chai do not band together as a race. Those from more sociable animals may associate with humans or animals of their type. Others may be lone drifters. Nai-nek-chai exist as all racial types of humanity, and perhaps as some of the non-human race as well. Sages think that the Nai-nek-chai may be descended from either Shempa-laksu or Nai-hempashu mating with normal humans.
These are beast spirits, usually malevolent that possess innocent humans and take over their bodies once in a while. Although most possession by shempa-laksu is accidental, once in a while a sorcerer will summon one up on purpose. Sometimes the goal is to set the shempa-laksu on an enemy of the sorcerer, but it is not unknown to deliberately allow a shempa-laksu to possess oneself. If a sorcerer's will is strong he or she can control the spirit and gain powers from it, appropriate to the animal type (typically heightened speed, strength or senses). If the sorcerer is not strong-willed enough, the shempa-laksu takes control. Such results are told as cautionary tales to all young magicians who feel the temptation of power.
Like nai-nek-chai, shempa-laksu are of varying animal types but there are some (the more powerful ones) who are a fusion of bestial characteristics. When a shempa-laksu is in control of a body, it controls the shapeshifting.
This is a Vaartan name, meaning "Totem People", and these are found mainly in the taiga of Vaarta. A few live on the fringes of the Empire, but they are an ancient and primitive culture mostly driven out of civilised lands.
Novodnolaki are humans who worship a variety of animal totems (varying between tribes) and can sometimes take on the form of their totem. Examples include wolf, bear, reindeer, wooly rhino and mammoth. They are, in many ways, similar to someone possessed by a shempa-laksu except in the case of novodnolaki the interaction between human and spirit is mutual and cooperative. The ancestral totem spirits are treated with respect by the novodnolaki and thus are willing to do their bidding. Anyone who shows disrespect is susceptible to unwilling possession by the totem to teach them a lesson.
These are "greater" animal spirits who belong amongst the Ten Thousand Immortals. They are believed to be the Divine Ministers in charge of animals, and there is one for each species. Sometimes they walk the mortal realms disguised as an animal of their subject race. Mortals who are kind to them may gain a boon, mortals who are cruel may be punished. Such belief is a common deterrent in the Empire to stop a man beating his horse, for example, in case that horse turns out to be the nai-hempashu of horses.