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I read a story around twenty years ago about some kind of powerful artifact. I think it granted wishes. There were no immediate side effects, but if you were to die while still possessing the artifact, you would go to hell or something like that: something much worse than you could hope to obtain just from using the artifact while alive.

The catch was that the artifact could not be disposed of or given away for free: each owner has to sell it to someone else, for less money than the current owner paid, and the buyer must be aware of these rules.

The protagonist of the story buys the artifact relatively cheaply, but not so cheaply that he thinks nobody will buy it.

I remember a sort of twist/lesson to the story:

Nobody would be so foolish as to buy the artifact for one cent, of course, as they could never sell it...but then it follows that nobody would buy it for two cents, for they could find no buyers. And nobody would buy it for three cents, since no buyers at two cents can be found. And so on forever: in a universe of perfectly logical humans, nobody would ever buy this artifact for any price despite its power.

I don't remember the ending perfectly, but

Sometime near the end we meet a haggard fellow who is having a very hard time getting rid of the artifact. I forget if he bought it for one cent and is doomed, or for two cents and has realized nobody will buy it from him. Maybe there's even someone who intentionally gets himself stuck with the artifact, to save a foolish family member?

  • 2
    Interesting variation on the unexpected hanging. – Arcanist Lupus Mar 31 '18 at 6:25
  • @ArcanistLupus I don't think so, really. The unexpected hanging is a paradox, where some reasonable-sounding premises and some reasonable-sounding logical steps lead to an impossibility, and you have to decide what part was in fact not reasonable. This is a more run-of-the-mill proof by induction, with no paradoxes, where the conclusion makes perfect sense and nothing conflicts (except with our intuitive ideas about how humans will behave). – amalloy Apr 1 '18 at 6:02
  • But does it adjust for inflation? – IG_42 Aug 19 '18 at 22:56
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This is The Bottle Imp by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Keawe, a poor Native Hawaiian, buys a strange bottle from a sad, elderly gentleman who credits the bottle with his fortune. He promises that an imp residing in the bottle will also grant Keawe his every desire.

Of course, there is a catch — the bottle must be sold at a loss, i.e. for less than its owner originally paid, or else it will magically return to him. The currency used in the transaction must also be in coin (not paper money or a bank cheque/check). The bottle may not be thrown or given away. All of these commands must be transmitted from each seller to each purchaser. If an owner of the bottle dies without having sold it in the prescribed manner, that person's soul will burn for eternity in Hell.

  • Okay the ending was good – sudhanva Mar 31 '18 at 4:09

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