Earthquakes occur as the result of long-term strain accumulation on active faults and complex transient triggering mechanisms. Although laboratory experiments show accelerating deformation patterns before failure conditions are met, imaging similar preparatory phases in nature remains difficult because it requires dense monitoring in advance. The 2016 Amatrice-Visso-Norcia (central Italy) earthquake cascade, captured by an unprecedented seismic network, provided a unique testing ground to image the preparatory phase of a large event. The crustal volume of the Norcia incipient fault was densely illuminated by seismic rays from more than 13,000 earthquakes that occurred within the 3 mo before the main shock nucleation. We performed seismic tomography in distinct time windows that revealed the precursory changes of elastic wave speed, signaling (1) the final locked state of the fault, and (2) the rapid fault-stiffness alterations near the hypocenter just a few weeks before the event. The results are the first instance where short-lived, hard-to-catch crustal properties shed light on evolving earthquake cascades.