Thomas wanders through new territory in this eerie fable, leaving behind small-town demeanors to concentrate on the inner wilderness. Into the hushed, subsistence isolation of the Hemlock family, a nuclear four living miles from anywhere, comes a brown, wrinkled crone who lingers into the harsh winter, barely communicating but clearly ominous. Jen and Arn, the two children, see a vision in her glassy eyes, and this waterfall-mountain-darkclouds scene matches what begins their adventure, ostensibly a search for a vanished cow but, in truth, a more basic quest. Leaving parental terrain, they explore beyond the mountain, Tsuga's mountain, and encounter two cultures in conflict: the People honoring Tsuga, who kill only for food and denounce all forms of slavery, and the Chigai, an archetypal band of masters and slaves, who kill indiscriminately but continue to attract converts with their comfortable meal plans. As in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, this is a struggle which pits good against evil without sacrificing the human qualities of its central figures, even if they are flat and a bit sanctified at the start. Here, however, that struggle has bloodier footwork, with the Chigai's subjugated ""half-wolves"" snarling, mauling, yielding to the ugliest impulses, and the perceptible layering of discovery and experience leading to a rather predictable conclusion. Still, its smoother moments and ecological echoes should appeal to those who take their entertainments along less traveled paths.