A Puzzling Easter Egg Hunt

What follows here is a little Easter Egg hunt I've pulled together for you all this year. Ultimately, you need to discover a single word of four letters in length which will be revealed by the puzzle once all steps have been fully resolved.

Happy hunting, and Happy Easter!

It’s taken time to plan for you
A scheme of sorts, a trail of clues.
Something hidden in plain 'sight' -
Come: Hear my tale, and see the light...

A place where one might choose to meet,
Becomes the venue for this feat.
The door's held open, "Welcome, please

I’m either mad or just plain dense...
What I’m encountering makes no sense!
"What is this?!" I to them exclaim.
"What’s the message? What’s the aim?!"

This whole thing seems extremely eerie.
What does it mean...? But then: a theory!
I spot a theme – I then resolve it!

ADORN 48 AIRHORNS 29 AMONG 14 ANALOG 8 ANcESTRAL 14
ANT 0 ANTRUM 20 ART 23 ASPIRATE 9 bAHT 3
BANGLeS 22 BeAT 12 BRAWLER 33 CARtELS 17 CAtS 1
CHARS 1 CHORE 21 CRAtER 1 DEAL 15 DENIAl 28
DOMAINS 21 FINdERS 27 FLOG 19 GENRE 19 GiF 17
GOD 12 GRoAN 3 HASTEN 10 HIP 10 HUMaN 21
HURT 37 KANYE 21 LIBrA 3 LOKI 20 lOTS 21
LOW 21 LYE 21 MAGMA 20 MAIL 11 MaRS 21
MICRoNS 3 MINKs 9 MORE 37 NEED 21 NONE 21
OCHE 12 OCTAvE 3 ORCAS 14 PAGeR 21 pAIRS 17
PAROTIC 3 PELE 52 RANSoM 12 RE 1 ReAP 7
RECIPE 8 REGALIA 2 REIGN 30 RETCHEs 15 RINGTONE 20
ROMANcE 11 SABeR 3 SAWN 16 SHAM 15 ShORE 20
SIP 30 SKELTEr 15 SNAPsHOOTER 3 SNEAK 33 SOlO 20
STAInS 9 STOPlIGHT 21 SWELL 23 SWING 43 TEa 15
TIGHTENS 23 TOGA 19 TONGA 18 TREELEsS 0 yAM 10

Image credits: All images are taken from Wikipedia.

Hint 1:

@HTM has made great progress in their answer, and @user39583 has made a very useful comment, which should be applied. And if those numbers "don't look like indices or an A1Z26 type of substitution", what do they look like?? There is also still one more hidden message in the puzzle which will prove useful...

Hint 2:

If you're still struggling to spot a hidden pattern when looking at the number set components (and have already ordered them as per the now-discovered hidden instruction), you might find it helpful to sort the sets themselves - now, if only there was a way to order them that I'd concealed in the puzzle somehow...

Hint 3:

The 'one more hidden message' referred to in Hint 1 is concealed in the poem - focus on the last line. Note also that as you solve more of this puzzle the poem will only become more and more relevant...

Hint 4:

The final step of the puzzle is indeed a . The final linking answer has more than one connection with this puzzle's executìon and theme. ATTITUDE and KICK belong in the same connecting group.

• @user39583 Thanks for pointing that out - you are indeed correct :) (Thought I'd double checked all of those!) I'll wait until tomorrow before correcting the number, as it will rather give away the next step and it seems you may have worked that out already without it - this should give you a little time to see if you can finish it off first before I open it up again more widely and nullify your advantage!
– Stiv
Apr 10 at 14:42
• No worries about me losing an advantage, I doubt I could finish it off anytime soon :) Apr 10 at 15:18

First, we can identify the people in the image:

Sofía Vergara, Xi Jinping, Victor Hugo, Tiger Woods
John Oliver, Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Joel, Hugh Grant (thanks user39583!)
Chad Kroeger, Heath Ledger, Bristol Palin, Martin Luther
Freddie Mercury, Darryl Strawberry, Betty White, Teen Titans

Next, we

index into each person's name using the numbers in the bottom left corner, using the first name if the person is in a row with a 1, and the last name if the person is in a row with a 2:

Sofía Vergara, Xi Jinping, Victor Hugo, Tiger Woods
John Oliver, Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Joel, Hugh Grant
Chad Kroeger, Heath Ledger, Bristol Palin, Martin Luther
Freddie Mercury, Darryl Strawberry, Betty White, Teen Titans

Taking these letters and adding spaces gives us FIVE OF EACH STRAIN.

This implies that the words in the table below the image

can be sorted into 16 groups of five words each, like in a connect wall. This is also clued in the poem in the line "I spot a theme – I then resolve it!" - here, the "themes" are the 16 groups we must find.

In fact, each word in the table

can be anagrammed to form words and phrases that belong in one of 16 categories:

1. Elements in the periodic table: ADORN, DEAL, GRoAN, NONE, RINGTONE -> RADON, LEAD, ARGoN, NEON, NITROGEN
2. US presidents: AIRHORNS, ANTRUM, CRAtER, DOMAIN, RECIPE -> HARRISON, TRUMAN, CARtER, MADISON, PIERCE
3. Fruits: AMONG, GiF, PAGeR, PAROTIC, ReAP -> MANGO, FiG, GRAPe, APRICOT, PeAR
4. Countries in Africa: ANALOG, KANYE, MAIL, REGALIA, REIGN -> ANGOLA, KENYA, MALI, ALGERIA, NIGER
5. Cities in the UK: ANcESTRAL, bAHT, LYE, RETCHEs, SWELL -> LANcASTER, bATH, ELY, CHEsTER, WELLS
6. Colors: ANT, CARtELS, CHORE, GENRE, MICRoNS -> TAN, SCARLEt, OCHER, GREEN, CRIMSoN
7. Chinese zodiac animals: ART, GOD, ShORE, SNEAK, TOGA -> RAT, DOG, hORSE, SNAKE, GOAT
8. Academy Award for Best Picture winners: ASPIRATE, CHARS, STOPlIGHT, SWING, TIGHTENS -> PARASITE, CRASH, SPOTlIGHT, WINGS, THE STING
9. NFL teams: BANGLeS, MaRS, SABeR, STAInS, TREELEsS -> BeNGALS, RaMS, BeARS, SAInTS, STEELERs
10. Greek letters: BeAT, HIP, MAGMA, SIP, TEa -> BeTA, PHI, GAMMA, PSI, ETa
11. Birds: BRAWLER, LOW, OCTAvE, SAWN, SKELTEr -> WARBLER, OWL, AvOCET, KESTrEL, SWAN
12. Books of the Bible: CAtS, DENIAl, HUMaN, HURT, RANSoM -> ACtS, DANIEl, NaHUM, RUTH, RoMANS
13. American TV shows: FINdERS, lOTS, RE, SHAM, SNAPsHOOTER, -> FRIENdS, lOST, ER, MASH, THE sOPRANOS
14. NATO alphabet: FLOG, LOKI, OCHE, ORCAS, TONGA -> GOLF, KILO, ECHO, OSCAR, TANGO
15. European capital cities: HASTEN, MINKs, MORE, pAIRS, SOlO -> ATHENS, MINsK, ROME, pARIS, OSlO
16. UK prime ministers: LIBrA, NEED, PELE, ROMANcE, yAM -> BLAIr, EDEN, PEEL, cAMERON, MAy

Next, user39583 found that the lowercase letters in the words in each column of the table

anagram to "once resolved sort sets alphabetically." So, we follow these directions and include the numbers associated with each word:

1. Elements in the periodic table: ARGoN, LEAD, NEON, NITROGEN, RADON = 3, 15, 21, 20, 48
2. US presidents: CARtER, HARRISON, MADISON, PIERCE, TRUMAN = 1, 29, 21, 8, 20
3. Fruits: APRICOT, FiG, GRAPe, MANGO, PeAR = 3, 17, 21, 14, 7
4. Countries in Africa: ALGERIA, ANGOLA, KENYA, MALI, NIGER = 2, 8, 21, 11, 30
5. Cities in the UK: bATH, CHEsTER, ELY, LANcASTER, WELLS = 3, 15, 21, 14, 23
6. Colors: CRIMSoN, GREEN, OCHER, SCARLEt, TAN = 3, 19, 21, 17, 0
7. Chinese zodiac animals: DOG, GOAT, hORSE, RAT, SNAKE = 12, 19, 20, 23, 33
8. Academy Award for Best Picture winners: CRASH, PARASITE, SPOTlIGHT, THE STING, WINGS = 1, 9, 21, 23, 43
9. NFL teams: BeARS, BeNGALS, RaMS, SAInTS, STEELERs = 3, 22, 21, 9, 0
10. Greek letters: BeTA, ETa, GAMMA, PHI, PSI = 12, 15, 20, 10, 30
11. Birds: AvOCET, KESTrEL, OWL, SWAN, WARBLER = 3, 15, 21, 16, 33
12. Books of the Bible: ACtS, DANIEl, NaHUM, RoMANS, RUTH = 1, 28, 21, 12, 37
13. American TV shows: ER, FRIENdS, lOST, MASH, THE sOPRANOS = 1, 27, 21, 15, 3
14. NATO alphabet: ECHO, GOLF, KILO, OSCAR, TANGO = 12, 19, 20, 14, 18
15. European capital cities: ATHENS, MINsK, OSlO, pARIS, ROME = 10, 9, 20, 17, 37
16. UK prime ministers: BLAIr, cAMERON, EDEN, MAy, PEEL = 3, 11, 21, 10, 52

What do we do about the numbers? Well, according to all the hints so far,

there is one more hidden message that can be found within the introductory poem. The last line provides the instructions for finding this message: we "follow me" by taking the letter found after each occurrence of the string "me," possibly with extra spacing. It turns out there's exactly one occurrence of "me" in each line; taking the letters after those occurrences gives TOTHESPHINXSLAIR.

The big "aha" at this point:

The Sphinx's Lair is the main chatroom for Puzzling SE, so the next step will involve it in some way, though it may not be clear why it would be relevant. If we take a look at the numbers from the sorted categories, though, we can notice that they look like timestamps in the format Month/Day/Year, Hour:Minute (in 24-hour format). For instance, the "Elements in the periodic table" category gives us the timestamp 3/15/21, 20:48.

It turns out that there exists a message sent by the OP in The Sphinx's Lair at that exact time - in fact, every single timestamp indicated by the groups is the timestamp of a message sent by the OP in that chatroom! Furthermore, every message is a clue for the Cryptic Clue Chat Chain (CCCC for short), which is a chatroom game where users set cryptic clues for others to solve, and the solver of a clue has to set the next one.

So, following off of that lead, we

sort the categories by the timestamp and find the solution to each CCCC clue:

+----------------------------------------+-----------------+---------------------------------------------------------------------+------------+-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+------------------+| Category                               | Timestamp       | Chat message                                                        | Message ID | CCCC clue                                                                                                 | CCCC solution    |+----------------------------------------+-----------------+---------------------------------------------------------------------+------------+-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+------------------+| European capital cities                | 10/9/20, 17:37  | https://chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/14524?m=55779283#55779283 | 55779283   | CCCC: Messy lions eating start of the digestive tract (16)                                                | GASTROINTESTINAL |+----------------------------------------+-----------------+---------------------------------------------------------------------+------------+-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+------------------+| Greek letters                          | 12/15/20, 10:30 | https://chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/14524?m=56436767#56436767 | 56436767   | CCCC: 'Dish best served cold', perhaps, in Disney's Aladdin (5)                                           | SALAD            |+----------------------------------------+-----------------+---------------------------------------------------------------------+------------+-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+------------------+| NATO alphabet                          | 12/19/20, 14:18 | https://chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/14524?m=56485557#56485557 | 56485557   | CCCC: Policing Norway holds back crime (5)                                                                | WRONG            |+----------------------------------------+-----------------+---------------------------------------------------------------------+------------+-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+------------------+| Chinese zodiac animals                 | 12/19/20, 23:33 | https://chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/14524?m=56489318#56489318 | 56489318   | CCCC: In Los Angeles, for example, Middle English is allowed (5)                                          | LEGAL            |+----------------------------------------+-----------------+---------------------------------------------------------------------+------------+-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+------------------+| Academy Award for Best Picture winners | 1/9/21, 23:43   | https://chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/14524?m=56698134#56698134 | 56698134   | CCCC: Tip from Big Bird: Move quickly! (4)                                                                | BOWL             |+----------------------------------------+-----------------+---------------------------------------------------------------------+------------+-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+------------------+| American TV shows                      | 1/27/21, 15:03  | https://chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/14524?m=56881365#56881365 | 56881365   | CCCC: Round-the-clock sore head; taking drink at beginning and end of day (6)                             | STEADY           |+----------------------------------------+-----------------+---------------------------------------------------------------------+------------+-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+------------------+| Books of the Bible                     | 1/28/21, 12:37  | https://chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/14524?m=56890622#56890622 | 56890622   | CCCC: Frame of mind at tonight's opening: I mustn't close up without first pocketing dinnertime tips (8)  | ATTITUDE         |+----------------------------------------+-----------------+---------------------------------------------------------------------+------------+-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+------------------+| US presidents                          | 1/29/21, 8:20   | https://chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/14524?m=56899620#56899620 | 56899620   | CCCC: I am climbing around Switzerland with nearly-new apparatus (7)                                      | MACHINE          |+----------------------------------------+-----------------+---------------------------------------------------------------------+------------+-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+------------------+| Countries in Africa                    | 2/8/21, 11:30   | https://chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/14524?m=56995290#56995290 | 56995290   | CCCC: Throws up terribly (rotten starters), eating English shellfish (7)                                  | LOBSTER          |+----------------------------------------+-----------------+---------------------------------------------------------------------+------------+-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+------------------+| UK prime ministers                     | 3/11/21, 10:52  | https://chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/14524?m=57306387#57306387 | 57306387   | CCCC: Recoil from pickled heart with cry of disgust (4)                                                   | KICK             |+----------------------------------------+-----------------+---------------------------------------------------------------------+------------+-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+------------------+| Cities in the UK                       | 3/15/21, 14:23  | https://chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/14524?m=57344865#57344865 | 57344865   | CCCC: Detective gone astray becomes scapegoat (6)                                                         | PIGEON           |+----------------------------------------+-----------------+---------------------------------------------------------------------+------------+-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+------------------+| Birds                                  | 3/15/21, 16:33  | https://chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/14524?m=57346320#57346320 | 57346320   | CCCC: A fight nearby in the neighbourhood - almost concerning! (5)                                        | ABOUT            |+----------------------------------------+-----------------+---------------------------------------------------------------------+------------+-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+------------------+| Elements in the periodic table         | 3/15/21, 20:48  | https://chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/14524?m=57349198#57349198 | 57349198   | CCCC: Song lacking obvious finale features wretched pirate performing in theatre? (9)                     | OPERATING        |+----------------------------------------+-----------------+---------------------------------------------------------------------+------------+-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+------------------+| Fruits                                 | 3/17/21, 14:07  | https://chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/14524?m=57367959#57367959 | 57367959   | CCCCC: (Corrected CCCC!) Sports team accepts loss, leading to sharp drop down table (5)                   | SLIDE            |+----------------------------------------+-----------------+---------------------------------------------------------------------+------------+-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+------------------+| Colors                                 | 3/19/21, 17:00  | https://chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/14524?m=57389291#57389291 | 57389291   | CCCC: Rainstorm beginning after dry mid-January - it may eventually ease (8)                              | SECURITY         |+----------------------------------------+-----------------+---------------------------------------------------------------------+------------+-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+------------------+| NFL teams                              | 3/22/21, 9:00   | https://chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/14524?m=57409024#57409024 | 57409024   | CCCC: Container ship heading into Cook Strait at last (6)                                                 | BASKET           |+----------------------------------------+-----------------+---------------------------------------------------------------------+------------+-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------+------------------+

We can further verify that we are on the right track by noticing that

the names of the people in the image - specifically the parts that we extracted the letters from - can also fit in these categories, and the ordering of the categories match the ordering found using the chat messages:

• SOFÍA Vergara -> European capital cities
• XI Jinping -> Greek letters
• VICTOR Hugo -> NATO alphabet
• TIGER Woods -> Chinese zodiac animals
• John OLIVER -> Academy Award for Best Picture winners
• Jerry SEINFELD -> American TV shows
• Billy JOEL -> Books of the Bible
• Hugh GRANT -> US presidents
• CHAD Kroeger -> Countries in Africa
• HEATH Ledger -> UK prime ministers
• BRISTOL Palin -> Cities in the UK
• MARTIN Luther -> Birds
• Freddie MERCURY -> Elements in the periodic table
• Darryl STRAWBERRY -> Fruits
• Betty WHITE -> Colors
• Teen TITANS -> NFL teams

Thus, we are left with this:

presumably, a connect wall of 16 words given by the solutions to the CCCC clues:

The groups in this are:
____ system: GASTROINTESTINAL, LEGAL, OPERATING, SECURITY
Rock ____: STEADY, LOBSTER, PIGEON, SLIDE
____ turn: WRONG, ATTITUDE, KICK, ABOUT

The final answer, a word which connects these four linking words, is STAR (STAR SYSTEM, ROCK STAR, STARFRUIT, STAR TURN).

• @samm82 Fixed, thanks for pointing it out!
– HTM
Apr 4 at 3:15
• The one you haven't identified is rot13(Uhtu Tenag) Apr 4 at 8:39
• The next step seems to be rot13(Gnxvat gur ybjrepnfr yrggref sbe rnpu pbyhza tvirf nantenzf sbe gur jbeqf "bapr erfbyirq fbeg frgf nycunorgvpnyyl") Apr 4 at 9:08
• I can't figure out the group that connects (NGGVGHQR) and (XVPX) but I do notice (SEHVG___: ONFXRG, OBJY, ZNPUVAR, FNYNQ) May 9 at 16:07
• BX, fb vs jr unir SEHVG__ (FNYNQ OBJY ONFXRG ZNPUVAR), EBPX__ (YBOFGRE CVTRBA FYVQR FGRNQL), naq __ FLFGRZ (TNFGEBVAGRFGVANY YRTNY BCRENGVAT FRPHEVGL) gura gur sbhegu tebhc vf ??? (JEBAT NGGVGHQR XVPX NOBHG). V fgvyy pna'g trg gur ??? pbaarpgvba. Gur bayl guvat gung V pna frr gung tbrf jvgu SEHVG__, EBPX__ naq __FLFGRZ jbhyq or FGNE. Jun 21 at 11:59

Wrap-up: The Making Of A Puzzling Easter Egg Hunt

This is not a solution to the puzzle, but provides notes from its poser. This type of answer has been approved by the community.

Caution: This post may contain spoilers.

Inspiration

Cryptic crosswords are not everybody's friend... Around ten years ago they were the kind of puzzle I would skip over in a newspaper or puzzle book, in favour of the regular crosswords and logic puzzles. But then one year I made a New Year's resolution to learn how to solve them and soon became a cryptic crossword convert...

In November 2019 I decided to try and take this a step further and create my own cryptic crossword (this ended up being instalment #09 in my 'Twelve Labours' series of puzzles). For a first attempt I don't think it was all that terrible, although it generated plenty of helpful feedback from the regular cryptic solvers on the site (for which I was very grateful)! It was only after this that I learned about the Cryptic Clue Chat Chain (CCCC) - a game that takes place in The Sphinx's Lair, the main chatroom on this site, which I found immediately appealing.

In the CCCC, PSE users take turns to set cryptic crossword style clues, with the first person to crack the clue becoming the next person to set one. There is only ever one clue active at a time, and people with a few minutes spare often tend to drop by just to take a look at the current CCCC clue to see if they can crack it - it's a very casual, laid-back approach to playing with (and learning about) cryptic clues (even though the conventions behind cryptic clue-making are neither casual nor laid-back!). On 9 October 2020 I took part in the game for the first time, playing a long word for kicks - at which point a thought struck me: Could I conceal a puzzle as an 'Easter Egg' within the CCCC?

I looked around to see if this had been done before and stumbled upon a post on Puzzling Meta which showed that, indeed, another user (Sp3000) had already done something like this (impressively, too), albeit way back in 2017. While many users had embarked on runs of themed clues in the meantime I couldn't spot any further hidden puzzles, so I figured the time was right to create my own...!

Creative/Logistical steps

The cryptic clues:

So what kind of puzzle could I hide in the CCCC? One thing that sprang immediately to mind was a - one of my favourite puzzle types. This meant I needed to create 16 cryptic clues whose answers could be divided into 4 groups of 4 based on a shared characteristic, with each of those 4 groups themselves sharing one final connection, in order to generate a single-word answer to the whole puzzle. Having already clued GASTROINTESTINAL with my first CCCC contribution I had already limited my options somewhat (four words connected to REFLUX, anyone?!) but SYSTEM fitted quite nicely.

With that in mind, I decided that the final hidden word should be STAR, which had additional relevance to the CCCC game, since all clues are 'starred' by a room owner so that they appear on the board of pinned messages to the side of the chat, ensuring the latest clue is always displayed for interested players. I then drew up a list of the 16 words (including 'GASTROINTESTINAL') to be hidden within the game and looked for opportunities to solve others' clues in order to lay the next one of my own.

All of my clues were written ad-hoc, only once I had solved the active cryptic clue, just in case I could make use of any trends currently circulating in the thread. As time went on I began to participate more actively in the CCCC, and it dawned on me that I might just be able to get this done in time for Easter, in which case an 'Easter Egg' themed puzzle would be very appropriate!

The end puzzle:

I initially debated just reproducing the 16 clues in a post and mentioning that I'd been hiding these in the chatroom for a few months as a point of novelty. But I really didn't want this to come across as an "Aren't I smart that I hoodwinked you all?" type of post - that wasn't the vibe I was going for, as it wasn't the reason I'd done it in the first place (really, I just love hiding Easter Eggs in puzzles - almost all of my others on this site contain at least one!), plus how likely was it that somebody would notice the words that I specifically had been cluing when so many others were taking part as well?? Instead - and to tie in with the Easter timing - how about making this an 'Easter Egg hunt', setting a puzzle which once fully solved would lead people to these concealed clues, thereby adding an extra dimension to the experience and hopefully adding to the payoff once finally fully solved?

So how would I lead people to the clues? Timestamps seemed the obvious possibility, since all messages in chat have one. However, I would also need a way to indicate where these timestamps should be looked up - after all, a bunch of timestamps with no further guidance helping to narrow down the vast search space that is THE INTERNET doesn't tend to make for an interesting puzzle experience. Equally, I didn't want people to realise immediately that they were timestamps - I wanted that fact to be hidden, in turn.

It was becoming more and more obvious to me that I needed to create a bigger puzzle with multiple interrelated sections, all of which would result in piecing together the various parts of a timestamp to create the date/times that would uniquely pinpoint my messages in the chatroom. This suggested to my mind another connecting wall, where words sharing a connection could be paired with a number and arranged alphabetically in order to reconstruct a timestamp. However, I didn't want people to realise immediately that this was a connecting wall - I wanted that fact to be hidden as well!

In other words, I wanted a hidden connecting wall to help find hidden timestamps to help find hidden cryptic clues! So what did I do next? I decided to hide the words to the hidden connecting wall!

The creative process then went something like this:

1. Needing 16 groups of 5 connected items to pair with the 5 component parts of a timestamp (month, day, year, hour, minute) I considered common groups of items that could be linked together easily (e.g. countries, capitals, Periodic Table elements, UK Prime Ministers, US Presidents, etc.).

2. I scoured these groups for potential members whose names could be anagrammed to other real words to further disguise them. Selecting 5 for each group, I arranged these alphabetically in a 16x5 table, hoping that (as it turned out to be so) a user might spot these as words having other anagrams before going on to spot that many of them were inter-connected.

3. Wanting to preserve the chronological order of the timestamps in the next step of the solution, I then sought a way to hint at a suggested order. I proceeded to seek out celebrities whose first or second names could belong to one of these categories (e.g. CHAD Kroeger for African countries, Freddie MERCURY for Periodic Table elements...). I made sure to choose 8 of each (first vs last name) for a pleasant symmetry, and constructed a 4x4 grid of their images (as a hint to the typical format of a connecting wall), in alternating lines of first/last name keys, adding a '1' or '2' to the side as a hint for how to proceed. With my categories now ordered, I assigned the relevant timestamp fragments to the anagram-words within each group.

4. I did not want the puzzle to be too obscure to break into or for users to be entirely stumped by my many layers of obfuscation (I did want this puzzle solved, after all!), so I hid further 'Easter Egg' type messages within both the grid of images and the table of anagrams, using letter indices and lower-case letters respectively. Decrypting these as "FIVE OF EACH STRAIN" and "ONCE RESOLVED, SORT SETS ALPHABETICALLY" provided instructions to the user.

5. Still needing a way to indicate The Sphinx's Lair chatroom as the place to look up the timestamps, I wrote a short poem containing a hidden message that revealed this intention. For additional Easter Eggs (i) I wrote the whole poem as describing the process of playing the CCCC, crafting its surface to read much more generally, while (ii) the poem explains quite literally what I had been up to ("It's taken time to plan for you | A scheme of sorts, a trail of clues. | Something hidden in plain 'sight'..."); (iii) 'sight' appeared in inverted commas to suggest a homophone of 'site', implying the answer was hidden within PSE itself, (iv) the next line ("Come: Hear my tale, and see the light") was a shrouded reference to the ultimate answer itself, a STAR being a source of light, (v) and all while concealing the hidden message in the letters following each line's single occurrence of the two-letter sequence 'ME' ('TO THE SPHINXS LAIR'). Never have I written a poem so short with so many constraints, I can tell you!

Resources

The key resource to this puzzle was, of course, The Sphinx's Lair chatroom, in which I planted my cryptic clues whenever it was my turn to write the next CCCC clue.

That aside, the post itself was quite straightforward to create, from a technical point of view. All celebrity images were sourced from Wikipedia and stitched together into a single image in Microsoft Excel, using text boxes for the overlaid numbers.

Takeaway

I tend to make puzzles because I enjoy making them and watching them get solved. This one was extra enjoyable to make, thanks to the thrill of hiding these clues in my CCCC contributions undetected!

So much so, in fact, that I did it again! So here's the takeaway for you...

Between 3 June and 29 August 2021 I contributed 26 clues to the CCCC (some better than others). Nobody noticed (or at least nobody said that they'd noticed) that there was a pattern to them:

Timestamp Clue Solution Intended wordplay
Jun 3 9:53 AM CCCC: Top Russian team has head start (6) ZENITH ZENIT + H(-ead)
Jun 3 12:37 PM CCCC: You antiquated, second-class, disreputable chicken(!) (6) YELLOW YE + _L_ + LOW
Jun 10 10:09 PM CCCC: Gift given by revolutionary Greek character during short flight from Egypt? (6) XENIUM (MU + IN + EX)<
Jun 20 5:39 PM CCCC: Disney character from Greece trapped within wood (6) WALNUT WAL(NU)T
Jun 22 12:23 PM CCCC: Eddy Merckx's last victory: looked triumphant at ten seconds ahead (6) VORTEX V + _O_ _R_ _T _E_ + (-merck)X
Jun 22 1:40 PM CCCC: Paradise found in uncut opiates (6) UTIOPIA _UT OPIA_
Jun 28 10:38 AM CCCC: Condiment in Thai cooking (6) TAHINI INTHAI*
Jun 28 11:16 AM CCCC: Conflict in South Asia to end with onset of Jaipur independence? (6) SWARAJ S(WAR)A + J(-aipur) &lit!
Jul 8 12:06 PM CCCC: Antelope alright after downing alcoholic beverage (6) REEBOK BEER< + OK
Jul 8 1:36 PM CCCC: Mineral water lacking a registered trademark won't fizz when caps are removed (6) QUARTZ (a)QUA + RT + (-fiz)Z
Jul 9 6:55 AM CCCC: Interpret Celsius as unit of length? (6) PARSEC PARSE + C
Jul 9 11:58 AM CCCC: Renowned university turns down doctor of unknown origin (6) OXFORD (DR + OF + X + O)<
Jul 20 9:46 PM CCCC: New UK supermarket added to every stock exchange (6) NASDAQ N + ASDA + Q
Jul 31 6:05 PM CCCC: Repulsive railway man conceals girl's head and two fingers (6) MAGLEV MA(G(-irl))LE + V
Aug 1 8:23 PM CCCC: Sordid expression of pain embraced by the French (6) LOUCHE L(OUCH)E
Aug 1 10:15 PM CCCC: Herd surrounds last member of band seen with Yoko's mouth organ (6) KIDNEY KI((-ban)D)NE + Y(-oko)
Aug 4 7:24 AM CCCC: Raise a large, wild dog (6) JACKAL JACK + A + L
Aug 5 8:49 AM CCCC: Onset of ache in one leg for mythological figure (6) ICARUS I + C(A(-che))RUS
Aug 6 9:45 AM CCCC: Drive south and drink a little something from the grapevine? (6) GOSSIP GO + S + SIP
Aug 15 10:37 PM CCCC: Nothing vulgar entertains me prior to premiere of Shakespeare company farce (6) FIASCO F(I)A + S(-hakespeare) + CO
Aug 25 2:07 PM CCCC: Flood exposed by surprise ending (finale of Jonathan Creek) (6) ENGULF (-surpris)E + (-jonatha)N + GULF
Aug 27 8:14 AM CCCC: A quartz floor discovered in archaeological excavation of old, European city (6) DANZIG D(AN + (-quart)Z)IG
Aug 27 11:22 AM CCCC: European city (southern Eire) beside river - one of great beauty (6) CORKER CORK + (-eir)E + R
Aug 28 8:11 AM CCCC: African city named twice over, like in America (6) BISSAU BI + U(AS)S<
Aug 29 1:09 PM CCCC: Suck in stomach muscles and go about showing it off! (6) ABSORB ABS + ORB(-it)

This was a personal challenge to myself to try and create a series of cryptic clues under 3 specific constraints. One of these is immediately obvious just from looking at the enumeration of each clue:

1. All answers are 6 letters long.

Another governed the order in which I posted the clues:

2. The 26 answers each begin with a different letter of the alphabet, ordered in reverse, from Z to A.

My homework question for you is: Can you identify the third constraint? Answers in comments below!