In a dark alley surrounded by expensive high-rises, two men stood opposite each other. Both men held flintlock pistols, and both had vengeance in their eyes. They aimed at each other in silence. Neither wanted to pull the trigger, but both knew that one of them must. For years, the two men had been at odds, locked in a struggle against one another. But once upon a time, they had been friends.

As children, Albert Hoffin and Charles McKay attended the same school, a magical academy for the offspring of the city’s elite. Lestrange’s Arcane Arts Academy prided itself on producing the brightest magicians of the age, individuals who went on to shape national and international events. Albert and Charles were incredibly adept at the subjects taught at Lestrange’s. They were particularly talented in artificing magical objects. These magically-imbued items wreaked havoc at the academy, most of all because the two boys soon learned they could create more mayhem together than apart.

Their bond came not just from their shared aptitude but from the usual kinds of interests of boys that age: breaking things, putting things together, and otherwise causing mischief. But they were as different as they were alike. Charles was quite competitive. Everything he did seemed to be a race or a competition of some sort. He had to complete his schoolwork faster, had to create the most exciting-looking magical gadget, and even had to walk to and from classes faster than anyone else. Whether he knew an answer to a question or not, his hand shot up fastest. When sharing outlandish stories, his always had to be the largest and most extravagant. Charles believed he was either a winner or he was no one at all.

Albert, on the other hand, was quite content to never compete against anyone for any reason. He needed only to outdo himself and be seen by others as excellent. It mattered hardly at all if his achievements were superior to those of his peers. When completing schoolwork or tinkering with his inventions, he simply did his work at his own pace. If he happened to do anything better or faster than anyone, he barely seemed to notice. The fact that he did often excel, despite no competitive drive to do so, drove Charles mad. And Albert was likewise driven to his own wit’s end by his friend’s need to compete in every matter, no matter how minor.

The two friends destined to duel in the street could not have told you what it was that drove them apart, but the fact was that their schism was inevitable. There were a hundred disagreements, large and small, that could have been the moment that unraveled their friendship. From the moment they met, though, they were destined to be at odds with one another. Their unlikely boyhood alliance postponed that fate, but it also twisted their rivalry into something dangerous.

Soon after finishing their education, both young men were sought after by various companies seeking their magical ability. Had they been more similar in temperament, they may have ended up working together someplace. But Charles being Charles, he ended up an apprentice of one of the most cutthroat artificing manufacturers in the city. And Albert, every inch the inverse of Charles, took employment at a more utilitarian company, one that used magically enhanced tools to build housing and bridges and such.

The years passed, and the paths these two men chose—the paths that they could not help but choose—brought them head to head time and again. Each time, they were less and less old friends; each time, they were more and more old adversaries. On one occasion, the company at which Albert now led research and development was applying for a patent for a type of crane using an ingenious combination of gears and arcana. But upon submitting the application, they were shortly served a lawsuit alleging that Albert had stolen the design from the company where Charles led operations. Despite the fact that the design was, in fact, Albert’s, the legal battle cost the company so much money that they had to forfeit the construction contract they had just won for a major governmental facility. And like clockwork, Charles’s rival company swooped in and took the contract.

These kinds of petty feuds escalated when the war came. All the various manufacturing firms switched the majority of their output to military purposes, which made Albert and Charles the two most important artificers in the country. Their respective companies pushed them to produce increasingly more advanced and deadly arcane weapons of war. The government contracts for these armaments were an incredible prize to Charles and an enticing challenge for Albert. With war raging across the continent, the previously civil tactics they had used to undermine each other turned deadly. Wild magic surges were weaponized between the rival firms, each trying to sabotage the other, and several times these incidents cost factory workers their lives. All in the name of securing the rights to produce the nation’s weapons. Eventually, the feud turned sinister.

Both men had stooped to devious levels to undermine the other. Neither seemed to see the cost of lives. But as it was always going to, their fight hit home. Charles and Albert had both married and started families in the intervening years. This had been long before their rivalry became all that remained of their relationship. Each had been in one another’s weddings and had been there to celebrate the birth of each other’s children. But the war had pushed their quarrel past all moral boundaries. One day, while spending a quiet weekend at home with his family, Charles’s wife was killed when a prototype pistol exploded in his workshop. The firearm had been tampered with, rigged to blow. Albert denied responsibility, as did Charles. But each blamed the other. And that had drawn both of them out, finally, into open confrontation. Charles sent out the formal demand for a duel. Albert, still firmly denying involvement in the explosion, accepted in order to defend his honor.

While neither man could have said what had begun their struggle, they both knew why it was coming to a violent end. And yet, standing in the alley that night, their magically infused pistols trained on each other, neither wanted to pull the trigger. So much history had passed between them, as much good as there was bad. Despite the decades they had spent trying to best each other, they both held a deep fondness for the years they had spent side by side. Looking down the barrels of their weapons, Albert and Charles did not see their adversary as a middle-aged man filled with regret. They saw an old friend, one who had helped them become the very person they were that day. And yet, the blast that had ripped Charles’s wife from the world played over and over in his mind as well. Likewise, Albert held to his conviction that he had not been responsible for the tragedy, that Charles was shifting the blame for his own recklessness.

And so, the two men—friends and foes, allies and adversaries—took a breath in unison and fired.

Originally posted as a response to the following story prompt on “Write a story about two characters who have been fighting for so long, they can’t remember what started it.”